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:
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.
For decades, cannabis has been grown
in California – hidden away in forested groves or surreptitiously
harvested under the glare of high-intensity indoor lamps in
suburban tract homes.
In the past 20 years, however, cannabis — known more widely as
marijuana – has been moving from being a criminal activity to
gaining legitimacy as one of the hundreds of cash crops in the
state’s $46 billion-dollar agriculture industry, first legalized
for medicinal purposes and this year for recreational use.
As we continue forging ahead in 2018
with our online version of Western Water after 40 years
as a print magazine, we turned our attention to a topic that also
got its start this year: recreational marijuana as a legal use.
State regulators, in the last few years, already had been beefing
up their workforce to tackle the glut in marijuana crops and
combat their impacts to water quality and supply for people, fish
and farming downstream. Thus, even if these impacts were perhaps
unbeknownst to the majority of Californians who approved
Proposition 64 in 2016, we thought it important to see if
anything new had evolved from a water perspective now that
marijuana was legal.
California voters may experience a sense of déjà vu this year when they are asked twice in the same year to consider water bonds — one in June, the other headed to the November ballot.
Both tackle a variety of water issues, from helping disadvantaged communities get clean drinking water to making flood management improvements. But they avoid more controversial proposals, such as new surface storage, and they propose to do some very different things to appeal to different constituencies.
Joaquin Esquivel learned that life is
what happens when you make plans. Esquivel, who holds the public
member slot at the State Water Resources Control Board in
Sacramento, had just closed purchase on a house in Washington
D.C. with his partner when he was tapped by Gov. Jerry Brown a
year ago to fill the Board vacancy.
Esquivel, 35, had spent a decade in Washington, first in several
capacities with then Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and then as
assistant secretary for federal water policy at the California
Natural Resources Agency. As a member of the State Water Board,
he shares with four other members the difficult task of
ensuring balance to all the uses of California’s water.
Along the banks of the
Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in Oakley, about 50 miles southwest
of Sacramento, is a park that harkens back to the days when the
Delta lured Native Americans, Spanish explorers, French fur
trappers, and later farmers to its abundant wildlife and rich
That historical Delta was an enormous marsh linked to the two
freshwater rivers entering from the north and south, and tidal
flows coming from the San Francisco Bay. After the Gold Rush,
settlers began building levees and farms, changing the landscape
and altering the habitat.
A new study could help water
agencies find solutions to the vexing challenges the homeless
face in gaining access to clean water for drinking and
The Santa Ana Watershed Project
Authority (SAWPA) in Southern California has embarked on a
comprehensive and collaborative effort aimed at assessing
strengths and needs as it relates to water services for people
(including the homeless) within its 2,840 square-mile area that
extends from the San Bernardino Mountains to the Orange County
Most people see the Grand Canyon from the rim, thousands of feet above where the Colorado River winds through it for almost 300 miles.
But to travel it afloat a raft is to experience the wondrous majesty of the canyon and the river itself while gaining perspective about geology, natural beauty and the passage of time.
Beginning at Lees Ferry, some 30,000 people each year launch downriver on commercial or private trips. Before leaving, they are dutifully briefed by a National Park Service ranger who explains to them about the unique environment that awaits them, how to keep it protected and, most importantly, how to protect themselves.
They also are told about the pair of ravens that will inevitably follow them through the canyon, seizing every opportunity to scrounge food.