Western Water has provided
in-depth coverage of critical water issues facing California and
the West since 1977, first as a printed magazine and now as an
online newsroom. Articles explore the science, policy and
debates centered around drought, groundwater,
sustainability, water access and affordability, climate change
and endangered species involving key sources of supply such as
the Colorado River, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and more.
Western Water news is produced by a team of veteran
journalists and others at the Water Education Foundation:
Momentum is building for a unique
interstate deal that aims to transform wastewater from Southern
California homes and business into relief for the stressed
Colorado River. The collaborative effort to add resiliency to a
river suffering from overuse, drought and climate change is being
shaped across state lines by some of the West’s largest water
Martha Guzman recalls those awful
days working on water and other issues as a deputy legislative
secretary for then-Gov. Jerry Brown. California was mired in a
recession and the state’s finances were deep in the red. Parks
were cut, schools were cut, programs were cut to try to balance a
troubled state budget in what she remembers as “that terrible
She now finds herself in a strikingly different position: As
administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s
Region 9, she has a mandate to address water challenges across
California, Nevada, Arizona and Hawaii and $1 billion to help pay
for it. It is the kind of funding, she said, that is usually
spread out over a decade. Guzman called it the “absolutely
In the vast labyrinth of the West
Coast’s largest freshwater tidal estuary, one native fish species
has never been so rare. Once uncountably numerous, the Delta
smelt was placed on state and federal endangered species lists in
1993, stopped appearing in most annual sampling surveys in 2016,
and is now, for all practical purposes, extinct in the wild. At
least, it was.
Climate scientist Brad Udall calls
himself the skunk in the room when it comes to the Colorado
River. Armed with a deck of PowerPoint slides and charts that
highlight the Colorado River’s worsening math, the Colorado State
University scientist offers a grim assessment of the river’s
future: Runoff from the river’s headwaters is declining, less
water is flowing into Lake Powell – the key reservoir near the
Arizona-Utah border – and at the same time, more water is being
released from the reservoir than it can sustainably provide.
For more than 20 years, Tanya
Trujillo has been immersed in the many challenges of the Colorado
River, the drought-stressed lifeline for 40 million people from
Denver to Los Angeles and the source of irrigation water for more
than 5 million acres of winter lettuce, supermarket melons and
Trujillo has experience working in both the Upper and Lower
Basins of the Colorado River, basins that split the river’s water
evenly but are sometimes at odds with each other. She was a
lawyer for the state of New Mexico, one of four states in the
Upper Colorado River Basin, when key operating guidelines for
sharing shortages on the river were negotiated in 2007. She later
worked as executive director for the Colorado River Board of
California, exposing her to the different perspectives and
challenges facing California and the other states in the river’s
Land and waterway managers labored
hard over the course of a century to control California’s unruly
rivers by building dams and levees to slow and contain their
water. Now, farmers, environmentalists and agencies are undoing
some of that work as part of an accelerating campaign to restore
the state’s major floodplains.
Water is flowing once again
to the Colorado River’s delta in Mexico, a vast region that
was once a natural splendor before the iconic Western river was
dammed and diverted at the turn of the last century, essentially
turning the delta into a desert.
In 2012, the idea emerged that water could be intentionally sent
down the river to inundate the delta floodplain and regenerate
native cottonwood and willow trees, even in an overallocated
river system. Ultimately, dedicated flows of river water were
brokered under cooperative
efforts by the U.S. and Mexican governments.
State work to improve wildlife habitat and tamp down dust at California’s ailing Salton Sea is finally moving forward. Now the sea may be on the verge of getting the vital ingredient needed to supercharge those restoration efforts – money.
The shrinking desert lake has long been a trouble spot beset by rising salinity and unhealthy, lung-irritating dust blowing from its increasingly exposed bed. It shadows discussions of how to address the Colorado River’s two-decade-long drought because of its connection to the system. The lake is a festering health hazard to nearby residents, many of them impoverished, who struggle with elevated asthma risk as dust rises from the sea’s receding shoreline.
Las Vegas, known for its searing summertime heat and glitzy casino fountains, is projected to get even hotter in the coming years as climate change intensifies. As temperatures rise, possibly as much as 10 degrees by end of the century, according to some models, water demand for the desert community is expected to spike. That is not good news in a fast-growing region that depends largely on a limited supply of water from an already drought-stressed Colorado River.
When you oversee the largest
supplier of treated water in the United States, you tend to think
Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water
District of Southern California for the last 15 years, has
focused on diversifying his agency’s water supply and building
security through investment. That means looking beyond MWD’s
borders to ensure the reliable delivery of water to two-thirds of
As California slowly emerges from
the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, one remnant left behind by
the statewide lockdown offers a sobering reminder of the economic
challenges still ahead for millions of the state’s residents and
the water agencies that serve them – a mountain of water debt.
Water affordability concerns, long an issue in a state where
millions of people struggle to make ends meet, jumped into
overdrive last year as the pandemic wrenched the economy. Jobs
were lost and household finances were upended. Even with federal
stimulus aid and unemployment checks, bills fell by the wayside.
As California’s seasons become
warmer and drier, state officials are pondering whether the water
rights permitting system needs revising to better reflect the
reality of climate change’s effect on the timing and volume of
the state’s water supply.
A report by the State Water Resources Control Board recommends
that new water rights permits be tailored to California’s
increasingly volatile hydrology and be adaptable enough to ensure
water exists to meet an applicant’s demand. And it warns
that the increasingly whiplash nature of California’s changing
climate could require existing rights holders to curtail
diversions more often and in more watersheds — or open
opportunities to grab more water in climate-induced floods.
It’s perhaps no surprise new Delta
Lead Scientist Laurel Larsen finds herself in the thick of
untangling the many mysteries surrounding the Sacramento-San
Joaquin Delta ecosystem.
After all, Larsen grew up in Florida, where deep, marshy
backwaters of the Everglades are reminiscent of the large tidal
estuary that is California’s most crucial water and ecological
resource. Larsen’s background stirred her interest early.
Across a sprawling corner of southern Tulare County snug against the Sierra Nevada, a bounty of navel oranges, grapes, pistachios, hay and other crops sprout from the loam and clay of the San Joaquin Valley. Groundwater helps keep these orchards, vineyards and fields vibrant and supports a multibillion-dollar agricultural economy across the valley. But that bounty has come at a price. Overpumping of groundwater has depleted aquifers, dried up household wells and degraded ecosystems.
The ability of science to improve
water management decisions and keep up with the accelerating pace
of climate change. The impact to precious water resources
from persistent drought in the Colorado River Basin.
Building resilience and sustainability across California. And
finding hope at the Salton Sea.
These were among the issues Western Water explored in
2020. In case you missed them, they are still worth taking a look
Twenty years ago, the Colorado River
Basin’s hydrology began tumbling into a historically bad stretch.
The weather turned persistently dry. Water levels in the system’s
anchor reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead plummeted. A river
system relied upon by nearly 40 million people, farms and
ecosystems across the West was in trouble. And there was no guide
on how to respond.
Managing water resources in the Colorado River Basin is not for the timid or those unaccustomed to big challenges. Careers are devoted to responding to all the demands put upon the river: water supply, hydropower, recreation and environmental protection.
All of this while the Basin endures a seemingly endless drought and forecasts of increasing dryness in the future.
Radically transformed from its ancient origin as a vast tidal-influenced freshwater marsh, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem is in constant flux, influenced by factors within the estuary itself and the massive watersheds that drain though it into the Pacific Ocean.
Lately, however, scientists say the rate of change has kicked into overdrive, fueled in part by climate change, and is limiting the ability of science and Delta water managers to keep up. The rapid pace of upheaval demands a new way of conducting science and managing water in the troubled estuary.
Practically every drop of water that flows through the meadows, canyons and plains of the Colorado River Basin has reams of science attached to it. Snowpack, streamflow and tree ring data all influence the crucial decisions that guide water management of the iconic Western river every day.
Dizzying in its scope, detail and complexity, the scientific information on the Basin’s climate and hydrology has been largely scattered in hundreds of studies and reports. Some studies may conflict with others, or at least appear to. That’s problematic for a river that’s a lifeline for 40 million people and more than 4 million acres of irrigated farmland.
Out of sight and out of mind to most
people, the Salton Sea in California’s far southeast corner has
challenged policymakers and local agencies alike to save the
desert lake from becoming a fetid, hyper-saline water body
inhospitable to wildlife and surrounded by clouds of choking
The sea’s problems stretch beyond its boundaries in Imperial and
Riverside counties and threaten to undermine multistate
management of the Colorado River. A 2019 Drought Contingency Plan for the
Lower Colorado River Basin was briefly stalled when the Imperial
Irrigation District, holding the river’s largest water
allocation, balked at participating in the plan because, the
district said, it ignored the problems of the Salton Sea.