California Releases Its Own Plan for Colorado River Cuts

California released a plan Tuesday detailing how Western states reliant on the Colorado River should save more water. It came a day after the six other states in the river basin made a competing proposal.

In a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, California described how states could conserve between 1 million and nearly 2 million acre feet of water through new cuts based on the elevation of Lake Mead, a key reservoir.

Its plan did not account for water lost to evaporation and during transportation — a move sought by the other states that would mean big cuts for California.

The 1,450-mile river (2,334-kilometer) serves 40 million people across the West and Mexico, generating hydroelectric power for regional markets and irrigating nearly 6 million acres (2,428 hectares) of farmland.

A multi-decade drought in the West worsened by climate change, rising demand and overuse has sent water levels at key reservoirs along the river to unprecedented lows. That has forced federal and state officials to take additional steps to protect the system.

California’s plan and the separate methods outlined by states Monday came in response to Reclamation asking them last year to detail how they would use between 15% and 30% less water. The federal agency operates the major dams in the river system.

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All seven states missed that deadline last August. Six of them regrouped and came to an agreement by the end of January. California was the the lone holdout to that agreement, and responded Tuesday with its own plan.

Unlike the other states’ plan, California’s does not factor the roughly 1.5 million acre feet of Colorado River water lost to evaporation and transportation.

Instead, it proposes reducing water taken out of Lake Mead by 1 million acre feet, with 400,000 acre feet coming from its own users. The state previously outlined that level of cuts in October. Arizona would bear the brunt of bigger cuts — 560,000 acre feet — while Nevada would make up the rest. Those numbers are based on discussions from prior negotiations, California’s letter said.

An acre foot is enough water to supply two to three U.S. households for a year.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources said it was still reviewing California’s proposal and didn’t have an immediate comment.

But Tom Buschatzke, the department’s director, said earlier Tuesday that water managers across the basin couldn’t reach agreement with California on cuts, even at the broader state level.

“The big issues are what does the priority system mean, what does the junior priority mean and how does that attach to that outcome of who takes what cut?” he said. “That was the issue over the summer, that was the issue over the fall, that’s still the issue.”

California has the largest allocation of water among the seven U.S. states that tap the Colorado River. It is also among the last to face water cuts in times of shortage because of its senior water rights.

That has given the state an advantage over others in talks that spanned months over how to cut water use.

California water officials have often repeated that any additional water cuts must be legally defensible and in line with western water law that honors its water rights.

JB Hamby, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California and a board member of the Imperial Irrigation District, indicated California may file a lawsuit if the federal government attempts to count for evaporative losses.

“The best way to avoid conflict and ensure that we can put water in the river right away is through a voluntary approach, not putting proposals that sidestep the Law of the River and ignore California’s senior right and give no respect to that,” he said.

Existing agreements only spell cuts when Lake Mead’s elevation is between 1,090 feet (332 meters) and 1,025 feet (312 meters). If it drops any lower than 1,025 feet, California’s plan proposes even further cuts based on the so-called Law of the River — likely meaning Arizona and Nevada would bear the brunt of them. Those cuts are designed to keep Lake Mead from reaching “dead pool,” when it could no longer pump out water to farms and cities including Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix.

The reservoir’s current elevation is around 1,045 feet.

In total, California’s plan could save between 1 million and 2 million acre-feet of water based on the elevation levels at Lake Mead, from which Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico draw their share of the river.

Adel Hagekhalil, general manager for the Metropolitan Water District of California, the nation’s largest water supplier, said it was important to protect key reservoirs “without getting mired in lengthy legal battles.”

Hagekhalil and other water managers pointed to numerous efforts the state has made to drastically reduce its water usage by making agricultural and urban water use more efficient.

“California knows how to permanently reduce use of the river — we have done it over the past 20 years, through billions of dollars in investments and hard-earned partnerships,” he said in a statement. “We can help the entire Southwest do it again as we move forward.”

The new proposals do not change states’ water allocations immediately — or disrupt their existing water rights. Instead, they will be folded into a larger proposal Reclamation is working on to revise how it operates Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams — behemoth power producers on the Colorado River.

Despite California’s inability to reach agreement with the other six states so far, the parties said they hope to keep talking.

Click here to read the full article in AP News

Emails Reveal Tensions in Colorado River Talks

Competing priorities, outsized demands and the federal government’s retreat from a threatened deadline stymied a deal last summer on how to drastically reduce water use from the parched Colorado River, emails obtained by The Associated Press show.

The documents span the June-to-August window the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation gave states to reach consensus on water cuts for a system that supplies 40 million people annually — or have the federal government force them. They largely include communication among water officials in Arizona and California, the major users in the river’s Lower Basin.

Reclamation wanted the seven U.S. states that rely on the river to decide how to cut 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water — or up to roughly one-third — on top of already anticipated reductions. The emails, obtained through a public records request, depict a desire to reach a consensus but persistent disagreement over how much each state could or should give.

As the deadline approached without meaningful progress, one water manager warned: “We’re all headed to a very dark place.”

“The challenges we had this summer were significant challenges, they truly were,” Chris Harris, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California, said in an interview about the early negotiations. “I don’t know that anybody was to blame, I genuinely don’t. There were an awful lot of different interpretations of what was being asked and what we were trying to do.”

Scientists say the megadrought gripping the southwestern U.S. is the worst in 1,200 years, putting a deep strain on the Colorado River as key reservoirs dip to historically low levels. If states don’t begin taking less out of the river, the major reservoirs threaten to fall so low they can’t produce hydropower or supply any water at all to farms that grow crops for the rest of the nation and cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

The future of the river seemed so precarious last summer that some water managers felt attempting to reach a voluntary deal was futile — only mandated cuts would stave off crisis.

“We are out of time and out of any cushion to allow for a voluntary plan,” Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, told a Bureau of Reclamation official in a July 18 email.

As 2023 begins, fresh incentives make the states more likely to give up water. The federal government has put up $4 billion for drought relief, and Colorado River users have submitted proposals to get some of that money through actions like leaving fields unplanted. Some cities are ripping up thirsty decorative grass, and tribes and major water agencies have left some water in key reservoirs — either voluntarily or by mandate.

Reclamation also has agreed to spend $250 million mitigating hazards at a drying California lake bed, a condition of the state’s water users agreeing to cut their use by 400,000 acre feet in a proposal released in October.

The Interior Department is still evaluating proposals for a slice of the $4 billion and can’t say how much savings it will generate, Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau said in an interview.

The states are again trying to reach a grand bargain — with a deadline of Tuesday — so that Reclamation can factor it into a larger plan to modify operations at Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam, behemoth power producers on the Colorado River. Failure to do so would set up the possibility of the federal government imposing cuts — a move that could invite litigation.

Figuring out who absorbs additional water cuts has been contentious, with allegations of drought profiteering, reneging on commitments, too many negotiators in the room and an unsteady hand from the federal government, the emails and follow-up interviews showed.

California says it’s a partner willing to sacrifice, but other states see it as a reluctant participant clinging to a water priority system where it ranks near the top. Arizona and Nevada have long felt they’re unfairly forced to bear the brunt of cuts because of a water rights system developed long ago, a simmering frustration that reared its head during talks.

Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton’s call for a massive water cut in testimony to Congress on June 14 was a public bombshell of sorts. A week earlier, with a heads-up from the federal government, the Lower Basin states talked about collectively, with Mexico, cutting up to 2 million acre-feet during a meeting in Salt Lake City, the emails and interviews showed.

But as the weeks passed and proposals were exchanged, the Lower Basin states barely reached half that amount, and the commitment was nowhere near firm, the emails showed. Adding to the difficulty was not knowing what Mexico, which also has a share of the river, might contribute.

In a series of exchanges through July, Arizona and California each proposed multiple ways to achieve cuts, building on existing agreements tied to the levels of Lake Mead, factoring in the water lost to evaporation or inefficient infrastructure, and fiercely protecting a priority system, though it was clear negotiators were becoming weary.

The states shared disdain for a proposal from farmers near Yuma and southern California to be paid $1,500 an acre foot for water they conserved. Former Central Arizona Project general manager Ted Cooke responded by suggesting the farmers make it work at one-third of the price, which still was higher but closer to going rates.

In late July, Harris, of California, emailed a proposal to the Bureau of Reclamation outlining scenarios in the range of 1 million acre feet in cuts, saying it was imperative negotiators be able to “declare some level of victory.”

“Otherwise,” he wrote, “I genuinely believe that we are at an impasse, and we’re all headed to a very dark place.”

But ultimately, Arizona and Nevada never felt that California was willing to give enough.

“It was futile, it wasn’t enough. We did not trust that California was going to come through on their piece of it,” Cooke said in an interview.

By then, Reclamation privately told the states — but didn’t acknowledge publicly — that it backed away from the supposed mid-August deadline, officials involved in the talks said. Beaudreau, the deputy Interior secretary, said in an interview the deadline was never meant to create an ultimatum between reaching a deal and forced cuts.

But state officials said when it became clear the federal government wouldn’t act unilaterally, it created a “chilling effect” that removed the urgency from the talks because water users with higher-priority water rights were no longer at risk of harsh cuts, Arizona’s Buschatzke said in an interview.

“Without that hammer, there was a different tone of negotiations,” he said.

Today, the Interior Department’s priority remains ensuring Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam have enough water in them to maintain hydropower, and the department will do whatever is necessary to ensure that, Beaudreau said.

The Upper Basin states of New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado — which historically haven’t used their full supplies — are looking toward the Lower Basin states to do much of the work.

Reclamation is now focused on weighing the latest round of comments from states on how to save the river. Nevada wants to count water lost to evaporation and transportation in water allocations — a move that could mean the biggest volume of cuts for California — and some Arizona water managers agree, comment letters obtained by the AP show.

But disputes remain over how to determine what level of cuts are fair and legal. California’s goal remains protecting its status while other states and tribes want more than old water rights taken into account — such as whether users have access to other water sources, and the effects of cuts on disadvantaged communities and food security.

Click here to read the full article at AP News

Could the Pacific Ocean be California’s Savior?

From the earliest exploration by European explorers of what became California, its position on the western coast of the North American continent has been its most important attribute.

Its coastline allowed that exploration and the development of outposts while most of the continent was still a mysterious wilderness. It fostered the 1849 gold rush that hastened California statehood. Its beaches drew millions of visitors. It made California the arsenal and staging point for World War II’s Pacific Theater and, finally, it became a focal point of global oceanic trade.

Could California’s coastal waters now become its savior, ending ever-increasing shortages of water and electrical energy that threaten the state’s economic and societal future?

Yes it could, but only if California’s political and civic leaders overcome their tendency to muff big public works — as symbolized by the bullet train’s history of over-spending and under-performing, decades of foot-dragging on much-needed water storage projects, and crippling bottlenecks at the state’s ports.

Finally, after decades of dithering, California’s Byzantine bureauracy is finally warming up to desalination of seawater as a vital piece of the state’s water supply, although it still resists big projects that could have real impact on shortages as it does in other water-short nations.

Meanwhile, California is just beginning to grasp the potential of offshore windmills to generate huge amounts of renewable electrical energy that would help close the state’s current supply gap, fill enormous new demands, and meet the state’s ambitious goals for ending its dependence on fossil fuels.

Last week, the federal government conducted auctions for windpower development rights on two oceanic sites, one 20 miles west of Morro Bay and the other off Humboldt County.

Advocates believe the sites could generate up to 8 gigawatts of electrical power, about one-sixth of the state’s current peak power demand on hot summer days and about a third of the state’s goal of 25 gigawatts of offshore windpower by 2045.

“Offshore wind is a critical component to achieving our world-leading clean energy goals and this sale is an historic step on California’s march toward a future free of fossil fuels,” Newsom said in a statement.

However, given the state’s sorry record on big-impact projects, will it really happen? Will we, as state plans now suggest, really see offshore power begin to flow into the grid within 10 years?

Don’t count on it.

The floating platforms to support the immense windmills, anchored in more than 2,000 feet of water, face critical attention from environmental groups and a phalanx of federal and state regulatory hurdles. They also would require onshore support facilities in coastal communities where resistance to development is culturally ingrained, plus cables to bring the power to shore and extensive expansions of transmission facilities to tie into the grid.

The time frame to make all of this happen, as the state assumes in its overall plan to shift California to renewable electric power, is very short. We’re now 22 years into the 21st century and supposedly all of this would occur in just 23 more years — simultaneously with many other elements of decarbonization, such as shifting to battery- or hydrogen-powered cars and trucks and eliminating natural gas in homes, business and industry.

It would take an immense cultural change in the state’s governing apparatus to make it all happen by the designated deadline, a sense of urgency, a unity of purpose, and much more managerial competence than California has mustered in the last half-century.

Click here to read the full article in CalMatters

California Wells Run Dry as Drought Depletes Groundwater

As California’s drought deepens, Elaine Moore’s family is running out of an increasingly precious resource: water.

The Central Valley almond growers had two wells go dry this summer. Two of her adult children are now getting water from a new well the family drilled after the old one went dry last year. She’s even supplying water to a neighbor whose well dried up.

“It’s been so dry this last year. We didn’t get much rain. We didn’t get much snowpack,” Moore said, standing next to a dry well on her property in Chowchilla, California. “Everybody’s very careful with what water they’re using. In fact, my granddaughter is emptying the kids’ little pool to flush the toilets.”

Amid a megadrought plaguing the American West, more rural communities are losing access to groundwater as heavy pumping depletes underground aquifers that aren’t being replenished by rain and snow.

More than 1,200 wells have run dry this year statewide, a nearly 50% increase over the same period last year, according to the California Department of Water Resources. By contrast, fewer than 100 dry wells were reported annually in 2018, 2019 and 2020.

The groundwater crisis is most severe in the San Joaquin Valley, California’s agricultural heartland, which exports fruits, vegetables and nuts around the world.

Shrinking groundwater supplies reflect the severity of California’s drought, which is now entering its fourth year. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, more than 94% of the state is in severe, extreme or exceptional drought.

California just experienced its three driest years on record, and state water officials said Monday they’re preparing for another dry year because the weather phenomenon known as La Nina is expected to occur for the third consecutive year.

Farmers are getting little surface water from the state’s depleted reservoirs, so they’re pumping more groundwater to irrigate their crops. That’s causing water tables to drop across California. State data shows that 64% of wells are at below-normal water levels.

Water shortages are already reducing the region’s agricultural production as farmers are forced to fallow fields and let orchards wither. An estimated 531,00 acres (215,000 hectares) of farmland went unplanted this year because of a lack of irrigation water, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As climate change brings hotter temperatures and more severe droughts, cities and states around the world are facing water shortages as lakes and rivers dry up. Many communities are pumping more groundwater and depleting aquifers at an alarming pace.

“This is a key challenge not just for California, but for communities across the West moving forward in adapting to climate change,” said Andrew Ayres, a water researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California.

In Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, supervisors on Tuesday approved a six-month moratorium on drilling of new groundwater wells. It follows a lawsuit alleging the county wasn’t appropriately managing groundwater.

Madera County, north of Fresno, has been hit particularly hard because it relies heavily on groundwater. The county has reported about 430 dry wells so far this year.

In recent years, the county has seen the rapid expansion of thirsty almond and pistachio orchards that are typically irrigated by agricultural wells that run deeper than domestic wells.

“The bigger straw is going to suck the water from right beneath the little straw,” said Madeline Harris, a policy manager with the advocacy group Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability. She stood next to a municipal well that’s run dry in Fairmead, a town of 1,200 surrounded by nut orchards.

“Municipal wells like this one are being put at risk and are going dry because of the groundwater overdraft problems from agriculture,” Harris said. “There are families who don’t have access to running water right now because they have dry domestic wells.”

Residents with dry wells can get help from a state program that provides bottled water as well as storage tanks regularly filled by water delivery trucks. The state also provides money to replace dry wells, but there’s a long wait to get a new one.

Not everyone is getting assistance.

Thomas Chairez said his Fairmead property, which he rents to a family of eight, used to get water from his neighbor’s well. But when it went dry two years ago, his tenants lost access to running water.

Chairez is trying to get the county to provide a storage tank and water delivery service. For now, his tenants have to fill up 5-gallon (19-liter) buckets at a friend’s home and transport water by car each day. They use the water to cook and take showers. They have portable toilets in the backyard.

“They’re surviving,” Chairez said. “In Mexico, I used to do that. I used to carry two buckets myself from far away. So we got to survive somehow. This is an emergency.”

Well drillers are in high demand as water pumps stop working across the San Joaquin Valley.

Ethan Bowles and his colleagues were recently drilling a new well at a ranch house in the Madera Ranchos neighborhood, where many wells have gone dry this year.

“It’s been almost nonstop phone calls just due to the water table dropping constantly,” said Bowles, who works for Chowchilla-based Drew and Hefner Well Drilling. “Most residents have had their wells for many years and all of a sudden the water stops flowing.”

His company must now drill down 500 and 600 feet (152 to 183 meters) to get clients a steady supply of groundwater. That’s a couple hundred feet deeper than older wells.

“The wells just have to go deeper,” Bowles said. “You have to hit a different aquifer and get them a different part of that water table so they can actually have fresh water for their house.”

In March, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order to slow a frenzy of well-drilling over the past few years. The temporary measure prohibits local agencies from issuing permits for new wells that could harm nearby wells or structures.

California’s groundwater troubles come as local agencies seek to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed in 2014 to prevent groundwater overpumping during the last drought. The law requires regional agencies to manage their aquifers sustainably by 2042.

Water experts believe the law will lead to more sustainable groundwater supplies over the next two decades, but the road will be bumpy. The Public Policy Institute of California estimates that about 500,000 acres (202,000 hectares) of agricultural land, about 10% of the current total, will have to come out of production over the next two decades.

Click here to read the full article in AP News

Tidal Marsh or ‘Fake Habitat’? California Environmental Project Draws Criticism

Southwest of Sacramento, the branching arms of waterways reach into a patchwork of farm fields and pastures. Canals and wetlands fringed with reeds meet a sunbaked expanse of dry meadows.

These lands on the northwestern edge of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Deltahave now been targeted for restoration following the widespread destruction of estuary marsh habitats that began over a century ago. 

But one habitat restoration project funded by a large agricultural water district is drawing criticism from environmental advocates. They say that while the project is based on claims of ecologically important marsh habitat, a large portion of the land is a high-and-dry former cattle pasture that does little to benefit endangered fish.

The dispute over the roughly 2,100-acre property centers on questions about which lands should be counted as tidal marsh habitat in the delta, one of California’s primary water sources. State and federal agencies that operate the two major water projects pumping from the delta have been supporting a series of habitat restoration projects as they work toward a requirement to restore at least 8,000 acres of tidal marshes to mitigate the ecological harm caused by water diversions.

A large portion of that requirement could be satisfied by the property southwest of Sacramento — called the Lower Yolo Ranch Tidal Habitat Restoration Project — if federal wildlife officials agree with claims by state and federal water agencies that much of the property should receive credit as tidal marsh that benefits endangered delta smelt.https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/2MFYt

The Westlands Water District bought the property in 2007 and has done restoration work at the site by grading the land, removing concrete infrastructure and digging new tidal channels and swales. Thomas Birmingham, general manager of Westlands, has said the district bought the property because it was “an ideal location for restoration of tidal marsh habitat.”

The state Department of Water Resources has claimed that more than 1,700 acres, or about 80% of the property, benefits delta smelt. If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirms this and grants full credit for the acreage as tidal marsh habitat, Westlands is set to receive nearly $41 million from the state.

But environmental advocates argue that only about one-fourth of the property should receive credit as tidal marsh habitat, while the rest of the land is too high above sea level to get wet during high tides. They have pointed to documents indicating that much of the property lies 6.5 feet or more above sea level.

“They’re paying Westlands for fake habitat,” said Patricia Schifferle, director of Pacific Advocates, an environmental consulting firm. “Much of the area is upland habitat and will not support fish. … They’re selling cow pasture as if it was tidal habitat.”

The property is in the southern portion of the Yolo Bypass, a floodplain on the north side of the delta.

The delta smelt, a finger-length fish, has been spiraling toward extinction despite decades of rescue efforts.

Schifferle pointed out that the Department of Water Resources’ request to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to certify credit for 1,713 acres of tidal marsh habitat, includes lands as much as 7.7 feet above sea level. Schifferle said that is too high to benefit fish.

“Delta smelt better grow legs, because there’s no way that’s tidal habitat for delta smelt,” Schifferle said. At $23,815 per acre, she said, “that’s a lot of money for cow pasture.”

A coalition of environmental groups raised concerns about the deal in a letter to state agencies in July. The groups, which included the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, said documents show “that there generally is no tidal influence on lands at elevations above 6.5 feet above sea level in this part of the delta, and therefore these lands are not ‘tidal’ marsh, ‘tidal wetland,’ or ‘intertidal’ habitat” and should not be credited toward meeting environmental mitigation requirements for the State Water Project.

Click here to read the full article in the LA Times

Dirty Water, Drying Wells: Central Californians Shoulder Drought’s Inequities

On a hot morning in August, the pressure gauge on Jesús Benítez’s well read about 10 pounds per square inch — barely enough for a trickle. 

The 74-year-old has been living just outside of Visalia, in the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley, for about 14 years, ever since he decamped from Downey in search of bigger skies and more space. But the once-green three-acre property that was meant to be his retirement haven is now dry, brittle and brown. 

Like a growing number of Central Californians, Benítez is bearing the brunt of the state’s punishing drought, which is evaporating the state’s surface water even as a frenzy of well drilling saps precious reserves underground. As a result, the number of dry wells in California has increased 70% since last year, while the number of Californians living with contaminated drinking water is at nearly 1 million. 

The majority of those people live in low-income communities and communities of color, state data show — and experts say heat, drought and climate change are only making those inequities worse.

“We’re fighting an uphill battle due to climate change,” said Gregory Pierce, director of the Human Right to Water Solutions Lab at UCLA. “Even with the progress we’re making, there are other losses that few people anticipated when it comes to heat impacts on water quality … and the pace at which people, and even larger systems, are at risk of running out of water entirely.”

Benítez is one of the unlucky people dealing with both. His sputtering well — the only source of water on his property — is polluted with nitrates, uranium and hexavalent chromium, which are becoming more concentrated as the water draws down. He and about 60 other residents in the area are trying to get connected to the water system that services the city of Visalia, but officials have told them the work may not be complete until 2024.

“I hope I don’t die without water by then,” Benítez said. The nearest municipal pipeline ends just about 100 feet from his property.

His story is becoming increasingly common in California, where an audit last month found that the State Water Resources Control Board “lacks the urgency necessary to ensure that failing water systems receive needed assistance in a timely manner.” The audit also noted that more than two-thirds of the water systems that have fallen below basic quality standards are in disadvantaged communities of significant financial need. 

“California is one of the largest economies in the world, and yet this is happening here,” said Pedro Calderón Michel, a spokesman with the nonprofit group the Community Water Center. All too often, he said, “the browner your skin, the browner your water will be.”

The problem is multifaceted. On the surface, climate change-fueled heat and drynessare contributing to a thirstier atmosphere that is sapping the state’s water, while a persistent lack of rain and snowpack means mounting deficits are not getting replenished. More than 97% of the the state is under severe, extreme or exceptional drought, and officials have said the first half of the year was the driest it’s ever been.

But much of the problem is happening underground, where California’s aquifers have long served as a reliable source of water, especially during dry times. In 2014, the state passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, a historic law intended to address the overpumping of those supplies. But the act laid out a timeline that spans more than two decades, and set off a rash of well drilling among those trying to beat the deadline, particularly in agricultural areas where wells are the lifeblood of the industry. 

Residents who rely on domestic wells are increasingly paying the price. Benítez’s well, for example, dried up after a neighbor installed a new, deeper well to help water 25 acres of silage corn, or corn used to feed dairy cows and other livestock. 

That neighbor, Frank Ferreira, said he spent $160,000 on the well, and he may need to dole out even more to dig deeper when it dries up. When asked whether the state has placed any limits on how deep he can go, Ferreira said, “not yet.”

While agriculture is a leading factor in groundwater depletion and contamination, the added layer of drought is exacerbating the problem, according to Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board.

Click here to read the full article at the LA Times

California Should Build Infrastructure, Not Shame Water Users

 After returning from a recent trip to the rainy Pacific Northwest, I opened the faucet and instead of hearing rushing water I heard only the dreadful coughing sound one gets from empty pipes. Fortunately, my well hadn’t gone dry, but some mechanical part in the pump had given out.

Still, few things are as frightening as running out of water. Our well was running in 24 hours, but that was a long day of using bottled water and rationing the use of toilets. It reminded me of the disaster that awaits if California can’t fix its shortages before it rains again. By the way, it was creepy driving past Mt. Shasta and noticing its non-existent snowpack.

The state always has been plagued by alternating droughts and floods. “California summers were characterized by the coughing in the pipes that meant the well was dry, and California winters by all-night watches on rivers about to crest,” wrote Joan Didion in her 1977 essay, “Holy Water.” Living near California’s last undammed river, I’ve spent long nights watching the Cosumnes overcome the aging levees.

Counterintuitive as it sounds, policy makers spend too much time worrying about how much water Californians use to run their households – and too little time figuring out how to bring more water into our system. The state hasn’t built significant water infrastructure since Didion penned that essay – when the state had 17.6-million fewer residents.

Five years ago, Jerry Brown announced the official end of a grueling six-year drought. Other than passing resolutions to “make conservation a way of life,” the former governor didn’t do much to improve the situation. After rains resumed, interest waned in fixing our water supply issues.

These days, the Newsom administration and Legislature have done little more than engage in water shaming. They want to badger us into using less water, as the state imposes tougher water-use standards on water districts and some districts (especially in the Bay Area) embrace water rationing.

Conservation is, of course, a good idea – and local districts that manage depleted reservoirs perhaps have no choice but to issue water-use edicts. But there’s a better way forward than encouraging people to report their water-wasting neighbors to the authorities.

“Since the drought emergency was declared in July 2021, Californians have reduced water usage by 2 percent, far below (Newsom’s) goal of 15 percent,” the Los Angeles Times reported this month. “You’re not saving enough water, Southern California,” blared a July Orange County Register article noting that, “draconian measures may be coming to stop folks from watering all those begonias.”

Begonias aren’t the problem. Californians and other residents of the parched Western states have indeed been conserving water. It is a way of life and has been for years. In the 1990s, Californians used around 200 gallons per capita per day (down from 220 in the 1980s), but now use around 48 gallons per capita per day – below the statewide standard of 55.

My favorite statistic comes from far drier Arizona, where Arizonans use less total water than they did in 1957 – when that state had one-seventh its current population. There’s no need to shame Westerners for their water usage, but there is reason to shame our officials for not doing their part to upgrade and build new water infrastructure.

Newsom was elected in 2018, and only this week did he reveal his plan for the Delta tunnel. “After three years with little to no public activity, the state released an environmental blueprint for … a 45-mile tunnel that would divert water from the Sacramento River and route it under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta so that it can be shipped to farms and cities,” the Sacramento Bee reported.

The now-single tunnel proposal will not provide more water, but will assure more reliable deliveries. The Sacramento River flows into the Delta, where it gets mired in hundreds of miles of waterways before the water is pumped southward. Administrators frequently shutter the pumps when a Delta smelt is found in the fish screens.

Environmentalists are aghast at the plan. They predict an environmental catastrophe, yet currently – thanks to saltwater intrusion from the Pacific Ocean and subsidence (sinking land) – that beautiful region is suffering from a slow-motion environmental mess. The plan will also fund habitat restoration.

Where are the plans to bolster our water-storage capacities? Why can’t California prepare for the future? Recently, the California Coastal Commission rejected a desalination plant that would have met 12 percent of Orange County’s water needs. Newsom supported it, but didn’t expend much political capital to assure its approval.

Click here to read the full article in the OC Register

California Outlines Plan for Scaled Back Giant Water Tunnel

A new plan to reroute how water moves from wetter Northern California to drier Southern California would ferry some of it through a single, 45-mile (72-kilometer) underground tunnel, wrapping around the state’s existing water delivery system and dumping it into the main aqueduct that flows south to vast swaths of farmland and millions of people.

The proposal released Wednesday would build one tunnel to take water from the Sacramento River, the state’s largest, to the California Aqueduct for delivery further south. It’s scaled back from the two-tunnel plan championed by former Gov. Jerry Brown and the latest iteration of a project that has been talked about and planned in some form, but never constructed, for about half a century.

When Gov. Gavin Newsom took office in 2019, he ordered water officials to scrap the existing plan and start over. With one tunnel, the new proposal moves less water and aims to reduce harms to the environment. But most critics say the new route will still harm endangered species like salmon and people who rely on the water in the north.

The two sides have become so entrenched that the project’s fate will ultimately depend on whether Newsom or a future governor can muster the political will to push it through, said Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow with the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California.

“This project is unlikely to be decided on its technical merits,” he said.

State water officials say a tunnel is badly needed to modernize the state’s water infrastructure in the face of climate change, which scientists say is likely to cause both prolonged droughts and major deluges of rain and snow. It would also better shield the state’s water supply from the risk of an earthquake that could cause levees to crumble and ocean salt water to flood into the system.

Though California is in the third year of a punishing drought, it saw record rainfall last October and another major dump of rain and snow in December, some of which the state was unable to capture.

“Our water infrastructure was not built for that,” said Wade Crowfoot, secretary of California’s Natural Resources Agency.

The Department of Water Resources plan analyzes the effects of the project on the environment, residents, fish and farmland. Critics say it will harm communities in the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which rely on water that could instead be diverted to the tunnel.

Officials did not release a price tag. A prior estimate for a different single-tunnel route put it at about $16 billion. It would be paid for by water agencies that contract with the state to use it.

Still, even if the political support to build it is there, construction likely wouldn’t break ground until at least 2028 and would take more than a decade, said Carrie Buckman, environmental program manager for the project.

The preferred route would build two stations to pull water from the Sacramento River just south of the capital city, then carry that water south alongside Interstate 5 before breaking off toward Bethany Reservoir at the top of the California Aqueduct, the state’s main channel for moving water south, built in the 1960s.

Two in three Californians, or about 27 million people, rely on water that comes from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a vital estuary where the two rivers mingle with tidal flows from the Pacific Ocean before it is conveyed south through the State Water Project.

At the southern end of the Delta, state and federally run pumping plants suck up the water and send it south. The proposed tunnel project would take the water from the Sacramento River before it reaches the Delta.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is the state’s largest water contractor, using water from the Delta to supply 19 million people, including the city of Los Angeles. The district is working to expand its supply from other sources, but the tunnel project is critical to provide flexibility and ensure the state is capturing all of the water that it can, said Adel Hagekhalil, the district’s general manager.

The Delta region is home to millions of people, more than 625 square miles (1,619 square kilometers) of farmland and critical species like endangered salmon and Delta smelt. Advocates worry the tunnel will divert that fresh water before it reaches them.

The state already lacks enough water to keep the Delta flourishing and to fulfill its existing water delivery contracts.

State officials say the tunnel would only be used when there is a lot of water flowing through the river, like after a major rainstorm. Environmental restrictions already limit how much water the Delta pumps can move at certain times of year, regardless of supply, to avoid harming fish.

Water officials say the chosen path would have the least negative consequences of the various options. Still, the 10-year construction would require removing 71 buildings, including 15 homes, as well as overtaking 2,340 acres of farmland and running through cultural resources and sites significant to tribal communities, the report said.

As for fish, the project could hurt both the Delta smelt and the endangered winter-run Chinook salmon. The report says fewer juvenile salmon would survive and less food would be available for Delta smelt, which state officials say would be mitigated by habitat restoration. The project could harm water quality by increasing the amount of bromide and chloride and increasing the salt content.

Doug Obegi, senior attorney in the water program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the report “deeply disappointing” and said it fails to consider alternatives that would truly protect salmon and other wildlife.

“The science is clear that we’re going to have to reduce diversions from the Delta to protect salmon and other species,” he said.

Click here to read the full article in the AP News

“Water cops” Likely This Summer as Santa Clara County Misses Drought Goal by Large Margin

If you waste water in Santa Clara County, water cops could soon be on the way.

Since last summer, Santa Clara County residents have been asked to cut water use by 15% from 2019 levels to conserve as the state’s drought worsens. But they continue to miss that target — and by a growing amount.

In March, the county’s 2 million residents not only failed to conserve any water, but they increased use by 30% compared to March 2019, according to newly released data.

Now, faced with the alarming prospect of water shortages, the Santa Clara Valley Water District — a government agency and the county’s largest water provider — is proposing to hire water enforcement officials to issue fines of up to $500 for residents watering so much that it runs into the street or watering lawns too many times a week or wasting water in other ways.

Not all details have been worked out. The water district’s board is expected to discuss the enforcement plan Tuesday and vote on a detailed ordinance on May 24 at its meeting in San Jose. If the crackdown goes forward as expected, it will be the first time in the agency’s history it has taken such a step.

“These trends are alarming. We are in a serious drought emergency,” said Aaron Baker, a chief operating officer of the water district, on Monday. “We are looking to take additional actions to help us meet the goals.”

California has had three years in a row of below-normal rainfall. Overall, 95% of the state is now in a severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly federal report. That level is similar to 2014 when the state was in the depths of its last drought, an emergency that began in 2012 and finally ended in 2017 with heavy winter rains.

But this time, Santa Clara County is in a more severe predicament than many other parts of Northern California and the Bay Area. Federal dam regulators in 2020 ordered the district’s largest reservoir, Anderson, near Morgan Hill, drained for earthquake repairs. The $1.2 billion job, which involves constructing a huge new outlet tunnel and essentially tearing down and rebuilding the 235-foot high earthen dam, has been plagued by delays and cost overruns and is not scheduled to be finished until 2030.

On Monday, all 10 of the district’s reservoirs were just 24% full. The agency has also been told it will receive little water from state and federal suppliers. It has been spending millions to buy water from Central Valley farmers with senior water rights and also has been pumping groundwater to make up the difference.

But this year, water sales are more scarce. And district projections show that without more conservation, groundwater could drop to dangerously low levels next year in Santa Clara County if the drought continues into 2023. That could cause subsidence, a condition where the ground sinks in some places, potentially breaking roads, building foundations, water lines and gas lines.

“We are looking to end the year at adequate groundwater levels,” Baker said. “But if we are unable to meet the call for conservation, groundwater levels will be below our subsidence levels, and wells will go dry in South County.”

Since last June, when the district declared a drought emergency and asked residents to cut water use 15% from 2019 levels, through March, the total cumulative savings has been only 3%.

Water use in Santa Clara County increased 30% in March 2022 from March 2019 levels -- missing a goal of 15% water conservation by a large amount. Cumulative water savings from June 2021 to March 2022 was just 3% compared with 2019 levels. (Source: Santa Clara Valley Water District)
Water use in Santa Clara County increased 30% in March 2022 from March 2019 levels — missing a goal of 15% water conservation by a large amount. Cumulative water savings from June 2021 to March 2022 was just 3% compared with 2019 levels. (Source: Santa Clara Valley Water District) 

The water district has asked the public to water landscaping no more than 2 days a week. Most of the cities in Santa Clara County have passed local ordinances requiring that. But some, such as Milpitas and Sunnyvale, still allow 3 days a week. Several others — Palo Alto, Mountain View and Stanford University — have put no limits in place on weekly watering.

More significant, cities and private water companies that have limited watering to 2 days a week have not enforced the rules.

“Fines aren’t the only thing we need to be doing, but they are an important component of a drought strategy,” said Heather Cooley, director of research at the Pacific Institute, an Oakland non-profit that studies water issues.

“There are individuals who may not respond to conservation requests,” she said. “And if people are allowed to waste water, that makes other people feel like ‘I’m not going to save because that person isn’t.’ It creates a culture of ignoring the requests.”

The Santa Clara Valley Water District already asks people to report if residents are watering lawns so much that water runs into the street or watering more than twice a week. They can call the district at 408-630-2000 or email waterwise@valleywater.org and the district sends a letter or puts out a door hanger asking the water waster to conserve. But until now, the district has not taken the additional step of issuing fines for repeat violators.

Data from the water district shows that many of the wealthiest areas are using the most water — much of it to water lawns during January, February and March, which were the driest three months to start any year in Northern California since 1849.

Click here to read the full article at the Mercury News

6 Million Southern Californians Face Unprecedented Order to Conserve Water

Unprecedented water restrictions are in store for about 6 million Southern Californians, a sign of deepening drought in counties that depend on water piped from the state’s parched reservoirs. 

The Metropolitan Water District’s board voted unanimously today to require six major water providers and the dozens of cities and local districts they supply to impose one of two options: limit residents to outdoor watering once a week or reduce total water use below a certain target.

The water providers must have plans to police their customers, and if they fail to impose the restrictions, they could face fines of $2,000 for every extra acre-foot of water that exceeds their monthly allocation limits, starting in June, according to Metropolitan.

The restrictions target parts of Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties that rely heavily on water from drought-stricken Northern California rivers transported south via the State Water Project.

“At this time, a third of our region, 6 million Southern Californians in parts of Los Angeles, Ventura, San Bernardino counties, face a very real and immediate water stress challenge,” said Metropolitan Water District General Manager Adel Hagekhalil. “Today these areas rely on extremely limited supplies from Northern California. And there is not enough supply available to meet the normal demands in these areas.”

Cutting back outdoor watering to one day a week would be a big change for the arid, densely populated areas, where many people irrigate their lawns and gardens. 

Southern Californians have heard for decades about the dangers of drought, but per-person residential water use has increased in the past two years, despite the severe drought. Experts say conservation wavers in the region because restrictions are largely voluntary — and their water never seems to run out

“This is insane but not unexpected,” Peter Kraut, a council member from the San Fernando Valley city of Calabasas told the Metropolitan board, which is composed of 38 city and local district officials. “I’m appalled that a change this drastic is happening in such a short period of time.”

“This plan will result not just in brown grass but in killing countless trees. The damage to our environment will take decades to repair,” Kraut added.

Today’s mandate is the first outdoor watering restriction imposed by the giant water-import agency, which supplies 19 million people in California. More stringent restrictions may come later, Metropolitan officials warned: The water providers must also prepare to ban all outdoor watering as early as September, if necessary, as California suffers one of its driest periods on record.

The six affected water suppliers are Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District and Three Valleys Municipal Water District — all in Los Angeles County — and the Calleguas Municipal Water District in Ventura County and the Inland Empire Utilities Agency in San Bernardino County.

About 13 million other Southern Californians are unaffected by the order because they aren’t as dependent on water imported via the State Water Project. They receive imports from the Colorado River, which largely are sent to Orange, San Diego and Imperial counties.

Metropolitan has been working to increase the number of customers who can receive Colorado River water to reduce reliance on the hard-pressed state aqueduct. The Colorado River, however, also is facing extreme drought, and deliveries to California, Nevada and Arizona are being cut back under an agreement signed by the states in December.

How much each agency must curtail customers’ water use under Metropolitan’s order depends on how much each relies on the state aqueduct compared to other sources, such as  groundwater or recycled sewage.

Water agencies are still figuring out the details. Some local water providers urged the board at today’s meeting to let them continue watering sports fields and parks more frequently so the turf doesn’t dry out.

Two of the six depend almost entirely on state aqueduct supplies — the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, which serves 75,000 residents west of Los Angeles, and the Calleguas Municipal Water District, which supplies 19 agencies and cities in southeast Ventura County. 

Some communities served by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Inland Empire Utilities Agency and the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District have other sources that may buffer the blow of the new mandate. Los Angeles DWP spokesperson Ellen Cheng did not respond to multiple inquiries about which parts of the city will be affected. 

Some of the affected agencies, such as Las Virgenes in Calabasas and nearby western Los Angeles County cities, already have cracked down on residents by imposing new escalating rates and penalties, with mixed success. Others, including Los Angeles DWP, which has limited outdoor watering to three days a week since 2009, have not added any new restrictions during the current drought.

Click here to read the full article at CalMatters