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:
Many of California’s watersheds are
notoriously flashy – swerving from below-average flows to jarring
flood conditions in quick order. The state needs all the water it
can get from storms, but current flood management guidelines are
strict and unyielding, requiring reservoirs to dump water each
winter to make space for flood flows that may not come.
However, new tools and operating methods are emerging that could
lead the way to a redefined system that improves both water
supply and flood protection capabilities.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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,
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Californians have been doing an
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.