Western Water News

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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 and others at the Water Education Foundation:

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California to uncloak water rights as it moves records online
WESTERN WATER SPOTLIGHT: State also aims to make water use data readily available to public

For a state that prides itself on technological innovation, California is surprisingly antiquated when it comes to accessing fundamental facts about its most critical natural resource – water.

Most anywhere else in the West, basic water rights information such as who is using how much water, for what purpose, when, and where can be pulled up on a laptop or smartphone.

Colorado River Shortages Drive Major Advances in Recycled Sewage Water Use
WESTERN WATER NOTEBOOK: Phoenix, Southern California betting on purified sewage to fill drinking water needs

After more than two decades of drought, water utilities serving the largest urban regions in the arid Southwest are embracing a drought-proof source of drinking water long considered a supply of last resort: purified sewage.

Water supplies have tightened to the point that Phoenix and the water supplier for 19 million Southern California residents are racing to adopt an expensive technology called “direct potable reuse” or “advanced purification” to reduce their reliance on imported water from the dwindling Colorado River.

Tribes Gain Clout as Colorado River Shrinks
WESTERN WATER IN-DEPTH: Tribes hold key state-appointed posts for first time as their water rises in value

A CAP canal in North PhoenixThe climate-driven shrinking of the Colorado River is expanding the influence of Native American tribes over how the river’s flows are divided among cities, farms and reservations across the Southwest.

The tribes are seeing the value of their largely unused river water entitlements rise as the Colorado dwindles, and they are gaining seats they’ve never had at the water bargaining table as government agencies try to redress a legacy of exclusion.

Western Water Nick Cahill California Groundwater Map Layperson's Guide to Groundwater By Nick Cahill

New California Law Bolsters Groundwater Recharge as Strategic Defense Against Climate Change
WESTERN WATER NOTEBOOK: State Designates Aquifers 'Natural Infrastructure' to Boost Funding for Water Supply, Flood Control, Wildlife Habitat

Groundwater recharge in Madera CountyA new but little-known change in California law designating aquifers as “natural infrastructure” promises to unleash a flood of public funding for projects that increase the state’s supply of groundwater.

The change is buried in a sweeping state budget-related law, enacted in July, that also makes it easier for property owners and water managers to divert floodwater for storage underground.

‘If You Unbuild It, They Will Come’
Scientists Chart Transformation of Klamath River and Its Salmon Amid Nation’s Largest Dam Removal Project

The Copco No. 1 dam on the Klamath RiverThe Klamath River Basin was once one of the world’s most ecologically magnificent regions, a watershed teeming with salmon, migratory birds and wildlife that thrived alongside Native American communities. The river flowed rapidly from its headwaters in southern Oregon’s high deserts into Upper Klamath Lake, collected snowmelt along a narrow gorge through the Cascades, then raced downhill to the California coast in a misty, redwood-lined finish.

High-Tech Mapping of Central Valley’s Underground Blazes Path to Drought Resilience
Aerial Surveillance Reveals Best Spots to Store Floodwater for Dry Times but Delivering the Surplus Remains Thorny

Helicopter towing an AEM loopA new underground mapping technology that reveals the best spots for storing surplus water in California’s Central Valley is providing a big boost to the state’s most groundwater-dependent communities.

The maps provided by the California Department of Water Resources for the first time pinpoint paleo valleys and similar prime underground storage zones traditionally found with some guesswork by drilling exploratory wells and other more time-consuming manual methods. The new maps are drawn from data on the composition of underlying rock and soil gathered by low-flying helicopters towing giant magnets.

The unique peeks below ground are saving water agencies’ resources and allowing them to accurately devise ways to capture water from extreme storms and soak or inject the surplus underground for use during the next drought.

“Understanding where you’re putting and taking water from really helps, versus trying to make multimillion-dollar decisions based on a thumb and which way the wind is blowing,” said Aaron Fukuda, general manager of the Tulare Irrigation District, an early adopter of the airborne electromagnetic or AEM technology in California.

Upper Colorado River States Add Muscle as Decisions Loom on the Shrinking River’s Future
WESTERN WATER NOTEBOOK: Upper Basin States Seek Added Leverage to Protect Their River Shares Amid Difficult Talks with California and the Lower Basin

The White River winds and meanders through a valley.The states of the Lower Colorado River Basin have traditionally played an oversized role in tapping the lifeline that supplies 40 million people in the West. California, Nevada and Arizona were quicker to build major canals and dams and negotiated a landmark deal that requires the Upper Basin to send predictable flows through the Grand Canyon, even during dry years.

But with the federal government threatening unprecedented water cuts amid decades of drought and declining reservoirs, the Upper Basin states of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico are muscling up to protect their shares of an overallocated river whose average flows in the Upper Basin have already dropped 20 percent over the last century.

They have formed new agencies to better monitor their interests, moved influential Colorado River veterans into top negotiating posts and improved their relationships with Native American tribes that also hold substantial claims to the river.

Testing at the Source: California Readies a Groundbreaking Hunt to Check for Microplastics in Drinking Water
WESTERN WATER NOTEBOOK: Regulators and water systems are finalizing a first-of-its-kind pilot that will determine whether microplastics are contaminating water destined for the tap

Image shows a test jar filled with microplastic debrisTiny pieces of plastic waste shed from food wrappers, grocery bags, clothing, cigarette butts, tires and paint are invading the environment and every facet of daily life. Researchers know the plastic particles have even made it into municipal water supplies, but very little data exists about the scope of microplastic contamination in drinking water. 

After years of planning, California this year is embarking on a first-of-its-kind data-gathering mission to illuminate how prevalent microplastics are in the state’s largest drinking water sources and help regulators determine whether they are a public health threat.

California Water Agencies Hoped A Deluge Would Recharge Their Aquifers. But When It Came, Some Couldn’t Use It
WESTERN WATER IN-DEPTH: January storms jump-started recharge projects in badly overdrafted San Joaquin Valley, but hurdles with state permits and infrastructure hindered some efforts

An intentionally flooded almond orchard in Tulare CountyIt was exactly the sort of deluge California groundwater agencies have been counting on to replenish their overworked aquifers.

The start of 2023 brought a parade of torrential Pacific storms to bone dry California. Snow piled up across the Sierra Nevada at a near-record pace while runoff from the foothills gushed into the Central Valley, swelling rivers over their banks and filling seasonal creeks for the first time in half a decade.    

Suddenly, water managers and farmers toiling in one of the state’s most groundwater-depleted regions had an opportunity to capture stormwater and bank it underground. Enterprising agencies diverted water from rushing rivers and creeks into manmade recharge basins or intentionally flooded orchards and farmland. Others snagged temporary permits from the state to pull from streams they ordinarily couldn’t touch.

In One of the Snowiest Places in the West, A Scientist Hunts for Clues to the Sierra Snowpack’s Future
WESTERN WATER Q&A: Central Sierra Snow Lab Manager Andrew Schwartz Aims to Help Water Managers Improve Tracking of Snowpack Crucial to California's Drought-Stressed Water Supply

Photo of Andrew Schwartz, manager and lead scientist at the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory.Growing up in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, Andrew Schwartz never missed an opportunity to play in – or study – a Colorado snowstorm. During major blizzards, he would traipse out into the icy wind and heavy drifts of snow pretending to be a scientist researching in Antarctica.  

Decades later, still armed with an obsession for extreme weather, Schwartz has landed in one of the snowiest places in the West, leading a research lab whose mission is to give California water managers instant information on the depth and quality of snow draping the slopes of the Sierra Nevada.

As Colorado River Flows Drop and Tensions Rise, Water Interests Struggle to Find Solutions That All Can Accept
WESTERN WATER IN-DEPTH: Chorus of experts warn climate change has rendered old assumptions outdated about what the Colorado River can provide, leaving painful water cuts as the only way forward

Photo shows Hoover Dam’s intake towers protruding from the surface of Lake Mead near Las Vegas, where water levels have dropped to record lows amid a 22-year drought. When the Colorado River Compact was signed 100 years ago, the negotiators for seven Western states bet that the river they were dividing would have ample water to meet everyone’s needs – even those not seated around the table.

A century later, it’s clear the water they bet on is not there. More than two decades of drought, lake evaporation and overuse of water have nearly drained the river’s two anchor reservoirs, Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border and Lake Mead near Las Vegas. Climate change is rendering the basin drier, shrinking spring runoff that’s vital for river flows, farms, tribes and cities across the basin – and essential for refilling reservoirs.

The states that endorsed the Colorado River Compact in 1922 – and the tribes and nation of Mexico that were excluded from the table – are now straining to find, and perhaps more importantly accept, solutions on a river that may offer just half of the water that the Compact assumed would be available. And not only are solutions not coming easily, the relationships essential for compromise are getting more frayed.

Western Water Nick Cahill California Water Map By Nick Cahill

As Climate Change Erodes Western Snowpacks, One Watershed Tries A ‘Supershed Approach’ To Shield Its Water Supply
WESTERN WATER SPOTLIGHT: Groundwater banks, a high-elevation reservoir and improved weather forecasting are how American River water managers hope to replace the disappearing Sierra Nevada snowpack

Aerial view of French Meadows reservoir, near the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the American River. The foundation of California’s water supply and the catalyst for the state’s 20th century population and economic growth is cracking. More exactly, it’s disappearing.

Climate change is eroding the mountain snowpack that has traditionally melted in the spring and summer to fill rivers and reservoirs across the West. Now, less precipitation is falling as snow in parts of major mountain ranges like California’s Sierra Nevada and the Rockies in the West, and the snow that does land is melting faster and earlier due to warming temperatures.

A Colorado River Veteran Moves Upstream and Plunges into The Drought-Stressed River’s Mounting Woes
WESTERN WATER Q&A: Chuck Cullom, a longtime Arizona water manager, brings a dual-basin perspective as top staffer at the Upper Colorado River Commission

Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission. With 25 years of experience working on the Colorado River, Chuck Cullom is used to responding to myriad challenges that arise on the vital lifeline that seven states, more than two dozen tribes and the country of Mexico depend on for water. But this summer problems on the drought-stressed river are piling up at a dizzying pace: Reservoirs plummeting to record low levels, whether Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam can continue to release water and produce hydropower, unprecedented water cuts and predatory smallmouth bass threatening native fish species in the Grand Canyon. 

“Holy buckets, Batman!,” said Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission. “I mean, it’s just on and on and on.”

Could Virtual Networks Solve Drinking Water Woes for California’s Isolated, Disadvantaged Communities?
WESTERN WATER SPOTLIGHT: UCLA pilot project uses high-tech gear in LA to remotely run clean-water systems for small communities in Central California's Salinas Valley

UCLA’s remote water treatment systems are providing safe tap water to three disadvantaged communities in the Salinas Valley. A pilot program in the Salinas Valley run remotely out of Los Angeles is offering a test case for how California could provide clean drinking water for isolated rural communities plagued by contaminated groundwater that lack the financial means or expertise to connect to a larger water system.

A Colorado River Tribal Leader Seeks A Voice In the River’s Future–And Freedom to Profit From Its Water
WESTERN WATER Q&A: CRIT Chair Amelia Flores Says Allowing Tribe to Lease Or Store Water Off Reservation Could Aid Broader Colorado River Drought Response and Fund Irrigation Repairs

Amelia Flores, chairwoman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes.As water interests in the Colorado River Basin prepare to negotiate a new set of operating guidelines for the drought-stressed river, Amelia Flores wants her Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) to be involved in the discussion. And she wants CRIT seated at the negotiating table with something invaluable to offer on a river facing steep cuts in use: its surplus water.

CRIT, whose reservation lands in California and Arizona are bisected by the Colorado River, has some of the most senior water rights on the river. But a federal law enacted in the late 1700s, decades before any southwestern state was established, prevents most tribes from sending any of its water off its reservation. The restrictions mean CRIT, which holds the rights to nearly a quarter of the entire state of Arizona’s yearly allotment of river water, is missing out on financial gain and the chance to help its river partners.

As New Deadline Looms, Groundwater Managers Rework ‘Incomplete’ Plans to Meet California’s Sustainability Goals
WESTERN WATER IN-DEPTH: More than half of the most critically overdrawn basins, mainly in the San Joaquin Valley, are racing against a July deadline to retool their plans and avoid state intervention

A field in Kern County is irrigated by sprinkler.Managers of California’s most overdrawn aquifers were given a monumental task under the state’s landmark Sustainable Groundwater Management Act: Craft viable, detailed plans on a 20-year timeline to bring their beleaguered basins into balance. It was a task that required more than 250 newly formed local groundwater agencies – many of them in the drought-stressed San Joaquin Valley – to set up shop, gather data, hear from the public and collaborate with neighbors on multiple complex plans, often covering just portions of a groundwater basin.

As Drought Shrinks the Colorado River, A SoCal Giant Seeks Help from River Partners to Fortify its Local Supply
WESTERN WATER NOTEBOOK: Metropolitan Water District's wastewater recycling project draws support from Arizona and Nevada, which hope to gain a share of Metropolitan's river supply

Metropolitan Water District's advanced water treatment demonstration plant in Carson. 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 agencies.  

New EPA Regional Administrator Tackles Water Needs with a Wealth of Experience and $1 Billion in Federal Funding
WESTERN WATER Q&A: Martha Guzman says surge of federal dollars offers 'greatest opportunity' to address longstanding water needs, including for tribes & disadvantaged communities in EPA Region 9

EPA Region 9 Administrator Martha Guzman.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 time.”

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 greatest opportunity.”

With Delta Smelt All But Gone in the Wild, A First-Ever “Hatch-and-Release” Effort Aims to Save Them From Extinction
WESTERN WATER NOTEBOOK: Experimental releases of finger-size fish into Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta inspires hope, but also skepticism, about the smelt's future

Crew releases hatchery-raised Delta smelt into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. 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.

Western Water Colorado River Basin Map By Douglas E. Beeman

As the Colorado River Shrinks, Can the Basin Find an Equitable Solution in Sharing the River’s Waters?
WESTERN WATER IN-DEPTH: Drought and climate change are raising concerns that a century-old Compact that divided the river’s waters could force unwelcome cuts in use for the upper watershed

Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, a key Colorado River reservoir that has seen its water level plummet after two decades of drought. 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.