Western Water News

Overview Jennifer Bowles

Western Water News

Western Water: Your Trusted News Source Since 1977

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 at the Water Education Foundation:

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Western Water Gary Pitzer Douglas E. Beeman Layperson's Guide to Climate Change and Water Resources Gary PitzerDouglas E. Beeman Doug Beeman

As Wildfires Grow More Intense, California Water Managers Are Learning To Rewrite Their Emergency Playbook
WESTERN WATER IN-DEPTH: Agencies share lessons learned as they recover from fires that destroyed facilities, contaminated supplies and devastated their customers

Debris from the Camp Fire that swept through the Sierra foothills town of Paradise  in November 2018.

By Gary Pitzer and Douglas E. Beeman

It’s been a year since two devastating wildfires on opposite ends of California underscored the harsh new realities facing water districts and cities serving communities in or adjacent to the state’s fire-prone wildlands. Fire doesn’t just level homes, it can contaminate water, scorch watersheds, damage delivery systems and upend an agency’s finances.

Western Water Gary Pitzer Gary Pitzer Doug Beeman

Lessons From the Flames: Advice From Water Managers Who Have Lived Through Disaster

California water managers who have lived through a devastating wildfire and its aftermath have shared key lessons from their experiences.

Western Water Gary Pitzer California Water Map Gary Pitzer

Understanding Streamflow Is Vital to Water Management in California, But Gaps In Data Exist
WESTERN WATER NOTEBOOK: A new law aims to reactivate dormant stream gauges to aid in flood protection, water forecasting

Stream gauges gather important metrics such as  depth, flow (described as cubic feet per second) and temperature.  This gauge near downtown Sacramento measures water depth.California is chock full of rivers and creeks, yet the state’s network of stream gauges has significant gaps that limit real-time tracking of how much water is flowing downstream, information that is vital for flood protection, forecasting water supplies and knowing what the future might bring.

That network of stream gauges got a big boost Sept. 30 with the signing of SB 19. Authored by Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa), the law requires the state to develop a stream gauge deployment plan, focusing on reactivating existing gauges that have been offline for lack of funding and other reasons. Nearly half of California’s stream gauges are dormant.

Western Water Gary Pitzer California Groundwater Map Gary Pitzer Doug Beeman

Recharging Depleted Aquifers No Easy Task, But It’s Key To California’s Water Supply Future
WESTERN WATER NOTEBOOK: A UC Berkeley symposium explores approaches and challenges to managed aquifer recharge around the West

A water recharge basin in Southern California's Coachella Valley. To survive the next drought and meet the looming demands of the state’s groundwater sustainability law, California is going to have to put more water back in the ground. But as other Western states have found, recharging overpumped aquifers is no easy task.

Successfully recharging aquifers could bring multiple benefits for farms and wildlife and help restore the vital interconnection between groundwater and rivers or streams. As local areas around California draft their groundwater sustainability plans, though, landowners in the hardest hit regions of the state know they will have to reduce pumping to address the chronic overdraft in which millions of acre-feet more are withdrawn than are naturally recharged.

Western Water Gary Pitzer California Water Map Gary Pitzer

Often Short of Water, California’s Southern Central Coast Builds Toward A Drought-Proof Supply
WESTERN WATER NOTEBOOK: Water agencies in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo counties look to seawater, recycled water to protect against water shortages

The spillway at Lake Cachuma in central Santa Barbara County. Drought in 2016 plunged its storage to about 8 percent of capacity.The southern part of California’s Central Coast from San Luis Obispo County to Ventura County, home to about 1.5 million people, is blessed with a pleasing Mediterranean climate and a picturesque terrain. Yet while its unique geography abounds in beauty, the area perpetually struggles with drought.

Indeed, while the rest of California breathed a sigh of relief with the return of wet weather after the severe drought of 2012–2016, places such as Santa Barbara still grappled with dry conditions.

Could “Black Swan” Events Spawned by Climate Change Wreak Havoc in the Colorado River Basin?
WESTERN WATER NOTEBOOK: Scientists say a warming planet increases odds of extreme drought and flood; officials say they’re trying to include those possibilities in their plans

Runoff from what some describe as an "epic flood" in 1983 strained the capacity of Glen Canyon Dam to convey water fast enough.  The Colorado River Basin’s 20 years of drought and the dramatic decline in water levels at the river’s key reservoirs have pressed water managers to adapt to challenging conditions. But even more extreme — albeit rare — droughts or floods that could overwhelm water managers may lie ahead in the Basin as the effects of climate change take hold, say a group of scientists. They argue that stakeholders who are preparing to rewrite the operating rules of the river should plan now for how to handle these so-called “black swan” events so they’re not blindsided.

Western Water Gary Pitzer California Water Map Gary Pitzer

How Private Capital is Speeding up Forest Restoration in the Sierra Nevada that Benefits Water
WESTERN WATER SPOTLIGHT: A bond fund that fronts the money is expediting a headwaters restoration project to improve forest health, water quality and supply

District Ranger Lon Henderson with Tahoe National Forest points toward an overgrown section of forest within the Blue Forest project area. The majestic beauty of the Sierra Nevada forest is awe-inspiring, but beneath the dazzling blue sky, there is a problem: A century of fire suppression and logging practices have left trees too close together. Millions of trees have died, stricken by drought and beetle infestation. Combined with a forest floor cluttered with dry brush and debris, it’s a wildfire waiting to happen.

Fires devastate the Sierra watersheds upon which millions of Californians depend — scorching the ground, unleashing a battering ram of debris and turning hillsides into gelatinous, stream-choking mudflows. 

Western Water Gary Pitzer Colorado River Basin Map Gary Pitzer

A Rancher-Led Group Is Boosting the Health of the Colorado River Near Its Headwaters
WESTERN WATER SPOTLIGHT: A Colorado partnership is engaged in a river restoration effort to aid farms and fish habitat that could serve as a model across the West

Strategic placement of rocks promotes a more natural streamflow that benefits ranchers and fish. High in the headwaters of the Colorado River, around the hamlet of Kremmling, Colorado, generations of families have made ranching and farming a way of life, their hay fields and cattle sustained by the river’s flow. But as more water was pulled from the river and sent over the Continental Divide to meet the needs of Denver and other cities on the Front Range, less was left behind to meet the needs of ranchers and fish.

“What used to be a very large river that inundated the land has really become a trickle,” said Mely Whiting, Colorado counsel for Trout Unlimited. “We estimate that 70 percent of the flow on an annual average goes across the Continental Divide and never comes back.”

Western Water Gary Pitzer California Water Map Gary Pitzer

A Study of Microplastics in San Francisco Bay Could Help Cleanup Strategies Elsewhere
Debris from plastics and tires is showing up in Bay waters; state drafting microplastics plan for drinking water

Plastic trash and microplastics can get washed into stormwater systems that eventually empty into waterways. Blasted by sun and beaten by waves, plastic bottles and bags shed fibers and tiny flecks of microplastic debris that litter the San Francisco Bay where they can choke the marine life that inadvertently consumes it.

A collaborative effort of the San Francisco Estuary Institute, The 5 Gyre InstituteSan Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board and the regulated discharger community that aims to better understand the problem and assess how to manage it in the San Francisco Bay is nearing the end of a three-year study.

Western Water California Water Map

Your Don’t-Miss Roundup of Summer Reading From Western Water

Dear Western Water reader, 

Clockwise, from top: Lake Powell, on a drought-stressed Colorado River; Subsidence-affected bridge over the Friant-Kern Canal in the San Joaquin Valley;  A homeless camp along the Sacramento River near Old Town Sacramento; Water from a desalination plant in Southern California.Summer is a good time to take a break, relax and enjoy some of the great beaches, waterways and watersheds around California and the West. We hope you’re getting a chance to do plenty of that this July.

But in the weekly sprint through work, it’s easy to miss some interesting nuggets you might want to read. So while we’re taking a publishing break to work on other water articles planned for later this year, we want to help you catch up on Western Water stories from the first half of this year that you might have missed. 

Western Water Gary Pitzer California Water Map Gary Pitzer

Can Providing Bathrooms to Homeless Protect California’s Water Quality?
WESTERN WATER IN-DEPTH: The connection between homelessness and water is gaining attention under California human right to water law and water quality concerns

A homeless camp set up along the Sacramento River near downtown Sacramento. Each day, people living on the streets and camping along waterways across California face the same struggle – finding clean drinking water and a place to wash and go to the bathroom.

Some find friendly businesses willing to help, or public restrooms and drinking water fountains. Yet for many homeless people, accessing the water and sanitation that most people take for granted remains a daily struggle.

Western Water Gary Pitzer Layperson's Guide to California Wastewater Gary Pitzer

As Californians Save More Water, Their Sewers Get Less and That’s a Problem
WESTERN WATER NOTEBOOK: Lower flows damage equipment, concentrate waste and stink up neighborhoods; should water conservation focus shift outdoors?

Corrosion is evident in this wastewater pipe from Los Angeles County.Californians have been doing an exceptional job reducing their indoor water use, helping the state survive the most recent drought when water districts were required to meet conservation targets. With more droughts inevitable, Californians are likely to face even greater calls to save water in the future.

Western Water Gary Pitzer Colorado River Bundle Gary Pitzer

150 Years After John Wesley Powell Ventured Down the Colorado River, How Should We Assess His Legacy in the West?
WESTERN WATER Q&A: University of Colorado’s Charles Wilkinson on Powell, Water and the American West

We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls ride over the river, we know not. Ah, well! We may conjecture many things.

~John Wesley Powell

Explorer John Wesley Powell and Paiute Chief Tau-Gu looking over the Virgin River in 1873.Powell scrawled those words in his journal as he and his expedition paddled their way into the deep walls of the Grand Canyon on a stretch of the Colorado River in August 1869. Three months earlier, the 10-man group had set out on their exploration of the iconic Southwest river by hauling their wooden boats into a major tributary of the Colorado, the Green River in Wyoming, for their trip into the “great unknown,” as Powell described it.

Western Water

John Wesley Powell
Explorer, scientist, geographer, ethnologist

John Wesley PowellJohn Wesley Powell (1834-1902) was historic and heroic for being first to lead a daring expedition down the Colorado River in 1869. Ninety nine days later, he emerged from the Grand Canyon to acclaim.

With Drought Plan in Place, Colorado River Stakeholders Face Even Tougher Talks Ahead On The River’s Future
WESTERN WATER IN-DEPTH: Talks are about to begin on a potentially sweeping agreement that could reimagine how the Colorado River is managed

Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam, shows the effects of nearly two decades of drought. Even as stakeholders in the Colorado River Basin celebrate the recent completion of an unprecedented drought plan intended to stave off a crashing Lake Mead, there is little time to rest. An even larger hurdle lies ahead as they prepare to hammer out the next set of rules that could vastly reshape the river’s future.

Set to expire in 2026, the current guidelines for water deliveries and shortage sharing, launched in 2007 amid a multiyear drought, were designed to prevent disputes that could provoke conflict.

California’s New Natural Resources Secretary Takes on Challenge of Implementing Gov. Newsom’s Ambitious Water Agenda
WESTERN WATER Q&A: Wade Crowfoot addresses Delta tunnel shift, Salton Sea plan and managing water amid a legacy of conflict

Wade Crowfoot, California Natural Resources Secretary.One of California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s first actions after taking office was to appoint Wade Crowfoot as Natural Resources Agency secretary. Then, within weeks, the governor laid out an ambitious water agenda that Crowfoot, 45, is now charged with executing.

That agenda includes the governor’s desire for a “fresh approach” on water, scaling back the conveyance plan in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and calling for more water recycling, expanded floodplains in the Central Valley and more groundwater recharge.

Western Water Gary Pitzer Delta Sustainability Map Gary Pitzer

Bruce Babbitt Urges Creation of Bay-Delta Compact as Way to End ‘Culture of Conflict’ in California’s Key Water Hub
WESTERN WATER NOTEBOOK: Former Interior secretary says Colorado River Compact is a model for achieving peace and addressing environmental and water needs in the Delta

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt gives the Anne J. Schneider Lecture April 3 at Sacramento's Crocker Art Museum.  Bruce Babbitt, the former Arizona governor and secretary of the Interior, has been a thoughtful, provocative and sometimes forceful voice in some of the most high-profile water conflicts over the last 40 years, including groundwater management in Arizona and the reduction of California’s take of the Colorado River. In 2016, former California Gov. Jerry Brown named Babbitt as a special adviser to work on matters relating to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the Delta tunnels plan.

Western Water Gary Pitzer California Groundwater Map Layperson's Guide to Groundwater Gary Pitzer Doug Beeman

As Deadline Looms for California’s Badly Overdrafted Groundwater Basins, Kern County Seeks a Balance to Keep Farms Thriving
WESTERN WATER SPOTLIGHT: Sustainability plans required by the state’s groundwater law could cap Kern County pumping, alter what's grown and how land is used

Water sprinklers irrigate a field in the southern region of the San Joaquin Valley in Kern County.Groundwater helped make Kern County the king of California agricultural production, with a $7 billion annual array of crops that help feed the nation. That success has come at a price, however. Decades of unchecked groundwater pumping in the county and elsewhere across the state have left some aquifers severely depleted. Now, the county’s water managers have less than a year left to devise a plan that manages and protects groundwater for the long term, yet ensures that Kern County’s economy can continue to thrive, even with less water.

Western Water Gary Pitzer Colorado River Basin Map Gary Pitzer

‘Mission-Oriented’ Colorado River Veteran Takes the Helm as the US Commissioner of IBWC
WESTERN WATER Q&A: Jayne Harkins’ duties include collaboration with Mexico on Colorado River supply, water quality issues

Jayne Harkins, the U.S. Commissioner of the International Boundary and Water Commission.For the bulk of her career, Jayne Harkins has devoted her energy to issues associated with the management of the Colorado River, both with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and with the Colorado River Commission of Nevada.

Now her career is taking a different direction. Harkins, 58, was appointed by President Trump last August to take the helm of the United States section of the U.S.-Mexico agency that oversees myriad water matters between the two countries as they seek to sustainably manage the supply and water quality of the Colorado River, including its once-thriving Delta in Mexico, and other rivers the two countries share. She is the first woman to be named the U.S. Commissioner of the International Boundary and Water Commission for either the United States or Mexico in the commission’s 129-year history.

Western Water Gary Pitzer Groundwater Education Bundle Gary Pitzer

Imported Water Built Southern California; Now Santa Monica Aims To Wean Itself Off That Supply
WESTERN WATER SPOTLIGHT: Santa Monica is tapping groundwater, rainwater and tighter consumption rules to bring local supply and demand into balance

The Santa Monica Urban Runoff Recycling Facility (SMURRF) treats dry weather urban runoff to remove pollutants such as sediment, oil, grease, and pathogens for nonpotable use.Imported water from the Sierra Nevada and the Colorado River built Southern California. Yet as drought, climate change and environmental concerns render those supplies increasingly at risk, the Southland’s cities have ramped up their efforts to rely more on local sources and less on imported water.

Far and away the most ambitious goal has been set by the city of Santa Monica, which in 2014 embarked on a course to be virtually water independent through local sources by 2023. In the 1990s, Santa Monica was completely dependent on imported water. Now, it derives more than 70 percent of its water locally.

Commands