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:
In the universe of California water, Tim Quinn is a professor emeritus. Quinn has seen — and been a key player in — a lot of major California water issues since he began his water career 40 years ago as a young economist with the Rand Corporation, then later as deputy general manager with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and finally as executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies. In December, the 66-year-old will retire from ACWA.
As the Colorado River Basin becomes
drier and shortage conditions loom, one great variable remains:
How much of the river’s water belongs to Native American tribes?
Native Americans already use water from the Colorado River and
its tributaries for a variety of purposes, including leasing it
to non-Indian users. But some tribes aren’t using their full
federal Indian reserved water right and others have water rights
claims that have yet to be resolved. Combined, tribes have rights
to more water than some states in the Colorado River Basin.
In 1983, a landmark California Supreme Court ruling extended the public trust doctrine to tributary creeks that feed Mono Lake, which is a navigable water body even though the creeks themselves were not. The ruling marked a dramatic shift in water law and forced Los Angeles to cut back its take of water from those creeks in the Eastern Sierra to preserve the lake.
Now, a state appellate court has for the first time extended that same public trust doctrine to groundwater that feeds a navigable river, in this case the Scott River flowing through a picturesque valley of farms and alfalfa in Siskiyou County in the northern reaches of California.
People in California and the
Southwest are getting stingier with water, a story that’s told by
For years, water use has generally been described in terms of
acre-foot per a certain number of households, keying off the
image of an acre-foot as a football field a foot deep in water.
The long-time rule of thumb: One acre-foot of water would supply
the indoor and outdoor needs of two typical urban households for
The Colorado River Basin is more
than likely headed to unprecedented shortage in 2020 that could
force supply cuts to some states, but work is “furiously”
underway to reduce the risk and avert a crisis, Bureau of
Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman told an audience of
California water industry people.
During a keynote address at the Water Education Foundation’s
Sept. 20 Water Summit in Sacramento, Burman said there is
opportunity for Colorado River Basin states to control their
destiny, but acknowledged that in water, there are no guarantees
that agreement can be reached.
Water means life for all the Grand Canyon’s inhabitants, including the many varieties of insects that are a foundation of the ecosystem’s food web. But hydropower operations upstream on the Colorado River at Glen Canyon Dam, in Northern Arizona near the Utah border, disrupt the natural pace of insect reproduction as the river rises and falls, sometimes dramatically. Eggs deposited at the river’s edge are often left high and dry and their loss directly affects available food for endangered fish such as the humpback chub.
An hour’s drive north of Sacramento sits a picture-perfect valley hugging the eastern foothills of Northern California’s Coast Range, with golden hills framing grasslands mostly used for cattle grazing.
Back in the late 1800s, pioneer John Sites built his ranch there and a small township, now gone, bore his name. Today, the community of a handful of families and ranchers still maintains a proud heritage.
Farmers in the Central Valley are broiling about California’s plan to increase flows in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems to help struggling salmon runs avoid extinction. But in one corner of the fertile breadbasket, River Garden Farms is taking part in some extraordinary efforts to provide the embattled fish with refuge from predators and enough food to eat.
And while there is no direct benefit to one farm’s voluntary actions, the belief is what’s good for the fish is good for the farmers.
Amy Haas recently became the first non-engineer and the first woman to serve as executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission in its 70-year history, putting her smack in the center of a host of daunting challenges facing the Upper Colorado River Basin.
Yet those challenges will be quite familiar to Haas, an attorney who for the past year has served as deputy director and general counsel of the commission. (She replaced longtime Executive Director Don Ostler). She has a long history of working within interstate Colorado River governance, including representing New Mexico as its Upper Colorado River commissioner and playing a central role in the negotiation of the recently signed U.S.-Mexico agreement known as Minute 323.
We hope you are finding time to take a break this summer to enjoy water — a lake or river or a beautiful water vista — somewhere in California and the Southwest. Western Water is taking a break, as well, while we catch up on other water projects we’ll be publishing later this year.
In the meantime, we wanted to reprise some of our Western Water articles from the past six months — and ask for your feedback.
More than a decade in the making, an
ambitious plan to deal with the vexing problem of salt and
nitrates in the soils that seep into key groundwater basins of
the Central Valley is moving toward implementation. But its
authors are not who you might expect.
An unusual collaboration of agricultural interests, cities, water
agencies and environmental justice advocates collaborated for
years to find common ground to address a set of problems that
have rendered family wells undrinkable and some soil virtually
unusable for farming.
New water storage is the holy grail
primarily for agricultural interests in California, and in 2014
the door to achieving long-held ambitions opened with the passage
1, which included $2.7 billion for the public benefits
portion of new reservoirs and groundwater storage projects. The
statute stipulated that the money is specifically for the
benefits that a new storage project would offer to the ecosystem,
water quality, flood control, emergency response and recreation.
It’s high-stakes time in Arizona. The state that depends on the
Colorado River to help supply its cities and farms — and is
first in line to absorb a shortage — is seeking a unified plan
for water supply management to join its Lower Basin neighbors,
California and Nevada, in a coordinated plan to preserve water
levels in Lake Mead before
they run too low.
If the lake’s elevation falls below 1,075 feet above sea level,
the secretary of the Interior would declare a shortage and
Arizona’s deliveries of Colorado River water would be reduced by
320,000 acre-feet. Arizona says that’s enough to serve about 1
million households in one year.
Nowhere is the domino effect in
Western water policy played out more than on the Colorado River,
and specifically when it involves the Lower Basin states of
California, Nevada and Arizona. We are seeing that play out now
as the three states strive to forge a Drought Contingency Plan.
Yet that plan can’t be finalized until Arizona finds a unifying
voice between its major water players, an effort you can read
more about in the latest in-depth article of Western Water.
Even then, there are some issues to resolve just within
For more than 100 years, invasive
species have made the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta their home,
disrupting the ecosystem and costing millions of dollars annually
The latest invader is the nutria, a large rodent native to South
America that causes concern because of its propensity to devour
every bit of vegetation in sight and destabilize levees by
burrowing into them. Wildlife officials are trapping the animal
and trying to learn the extent of its infestation.
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.
As California embarks on its unprecedented mission to harness groundwater pumping, the Arizona desert may provide one guide that local managers can look to as they seek to arrest years of overdraft.
Groundwater is stressed by a demand that often outpaces natural and artificial recharge. In California, awareness of groundwater’s importance resulted in the landmark Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014 that aims to have the most severely depleted basins in a state of balance in about 20 years.
Spurred by drought and a major
policy shift, groundwater management has assumed an unprecedented
mantle of importance in California. Local agencies in the
hardest-hit areas of groundwater depletion are drawing plans to
halt overdraft and bring stressed aquifers to the road of
Tahoe, the iconic high Sierra water body that straddles
California and Nevada, has sat for more than 10,000 years at the
heart of the Washoe tribe’s territory. In fact, the name Tahoe
came from the tribal word dá’aw, meaning lake.
The lake’s English name was the source of debate for about 100
years after it was first “discovered” in 1844 by people of
European descent when Gen. John C. Fremont’s expedition made its
way into the region. Not long after, a man who carried mail on
snowshoes from Placerville to Nevada City named it Lake Bigler in
honor of John Bigler, who served as California’s third governor.
But because Bigler was an ardent secessionist, the federal
Interior Department during the Civil War introduced the name
Tahoe in 1862. Meanwhile, California kept it as Lake Bigler and
didn’t officially recognize the name as Lake Tahoe until 1945.