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:
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.
Colorado is home to the headwaters
of the Colorado River and the water policy decisions made in the
Centennial State reverberate throughout the river’s sprawling
basin that stretches south to Mexico. The stakes are huge in a
basin that serves 40 million people, and responding to the water
needs of the economy, productive agriculture, a robust
recreational industry and environmental protection takes
expertise, leadership and a steady hand.
Sprawled across a desert expanse
along the Utah-Arizona border, Lake Powell’s nearly 100-foot high
bathtub ring etched on its sandstone walls belie the challenges
of a major Colorado River reservoir at less than half-full. How
those challenges play out as demand grows for the river’s water
amid a changing climate is fueling simmering questions about
Voluntary agreements in California
have been touted as an innovative and flexible way to improve
environmental conditions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta
and the rivers that feed it. The goal is to provide river flows
and habitat for fish while still allowing enough water to be
diverted for farms and cities in a way that satisfies state
William R. Gianelli, the Water
Education Foundation’s second president and a leading figure in
California water during construction of the State Water Project,
died March 30, 2020, in Monterey County. He was 101.
Mr. Gianelli was president of the Foundation from 1985-1989 and
made a major financial donation that helped the Foundation create
an educational program for young professionals from diverse
backgrounds, which was named the William
R. “Bill” Gianelli Water Leaders Class in his honor. The
year-long program began in 1997 and now includes more than 400
The islands of the western
Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are sinking as the rich peat soil
that attracted generations of farmers dries out and decays. As
the peat decomposes, it releases tons of carbon dioxide – a
greenhouse gas – into the atmosphere. As the islands sink, the
levees that protect them are at increasing risk of failure, which
could imperil California’s vital water conveyance system.
An ambitious plan now in the works could halt the decay,
sequester the carbon and potentially reverse the sinking.
Shortly after taking office in 2019,
Gov. Gavin Newsom called on state agencies to deliver a Water
Resilience Portfolio to meet California’s urgent challenges —
unsafe drinking water, flood and drought risks from a changing
climate, severely depleted groundwater aquifers and native fish
populations threatened with extinction.
Within days, he appointed Nancy Vogel, a former journalist and
veteran water communicator, as director of the Governor’s Water
Portfolio Program to help shepherd the monumental task of
compiling all the information necessary for the portfolio. The
three state agencies tasked with preparing the document delivered
the draft Water Resilience Portfolio Jan. 3. The document, which
Vogel said will help guide policy and investment decisions
related to water resilience, is nearing the end of its comment
period, which goes through Friday, Feb. 7.
Deep, throaty cadenced calls —
sounding like an off-key bassoon — echo over the grasslands,
farmers’ fields and wetlands starting in late September of each
year. They mark the annual return of sandhill cranes to the
Cosumnes River Preserve,
46,000 acres located 20 miles south of Sacramento on the edge of
the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Innovative efforts to accelerate
restoration of headwater forests and to improve a river for the
benefit of both farmers and fish. Hard-earned lessons for water
agencies from a string of devastating California wildfires.
Efforts to drought-proof a chronically water-short region of
California. And a broad debate surrounding how best to address
persistent challenges facing the Colorado River.
These were among the issues Western Water explored in
2019, and are still worth taking a look at in case you missed
The Colorado River is arguably one
of the hardest working rivers on the planet, supplying water to
40 million people and a large agricultural economy in the West.
But it’s under duress from two decades of drought and decisions
made about its management will have exceptional ramifications for
the future, especially as impacts from climate change are felt.