There is a timelessness to the Colorado River as it makes its
ancient run from the headwaters in the Upper Basin through the
arid Lower Basin states and to the farm fields, wildlife habitat
and urban environment that make up the Southwest.
There also is a sense of urgency regarding how an overallocated
river is managed for its many competing uses in the face of
looming shortages and a grim climate change forecast that
predicts much less river flow in the years to come.
After more than two years of intense activity, there is a new
layer of local groundwater management agencies in California;
agencies that are beginning the task of bringing their basins to
a level of sustainability.
The impetus is the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA),
the landmark 2014 law that aims to repair the effects of decades
of unmanaged groundwater pumping, which have left some parts of
the state in what the California Department of Water Resources
(DWR) calls “critical” overdraft. Fifteen of the 21 critically
overdrafted basins are in the south-central San Joaquin Valley.
One of the wettest years in California history that ended a
record five-year drought has rejuvenated the call for new storage
to be built above and below ground.
In a state that depends on large surface water reservoirs to help
store water before moving it hundreds of miles to where it is
used, a wet year after a long drought has some people yearning
for a place to sock away some of those flood flows for when they
Protecting and restoring California’s populations of threatened
and endangered Chinook salmon and steelhead trout have been a big
part of the state’s water management picture for more than 20
years. Significant resources have been dedicated to helping the
various runs of the iconic fish, with successes and setbacks. In
a landscape dramatically altered from its natural setting,
finding a balance between the competing demands for water is
As vital as the Colorado River is to the United States and
Mexico, so is the ongoing process by which the two countries
develop unique agreements to better manage the river and balance
future competing needs.
The prospect is challenging. The river is over allocated as urban
areas and farmers seek to stretch every drop of their respective
supplies. Since a historic treaty between the two countries was
signed in 1944, the United States and Mexico have periodically
added a series of arrangements to the treaty called minutes that
aim to strengthen the binational ties while addressing important
water supply, water quality and environmental concerns.
Mired in drought, expectations are high that new storage funded
by Prop. 1 will be constructed to help California weather the
adverse conditions and keep water flowing to homes and farms.
At the same time, there are some dams in the state eyed for
removal because they are obsolete – choked by accumulated
sediment, seismically vulnerable and out of compliance with
federal regulations that require environmental balance.
Many Californians are not aware of the Sacramento-San Joaquin
Delta but its significance to the state’s water supply picture
has never been more magnified. A transformed region of sunken
islands and crisscrossed sloughs and channels protected by
earthen levees that perform more like dams, the Delta is the hub
of the state’s water system.
Nestled along the picturesque Southern California
coastline at Carlsbad, the complex of buildings that abut the
Encina Power Station next to the Agua Hedionda Lagoon belies the
significance of the annals of water supply in California.
The dramatic decline in water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell
is perhaps the most visible sign of the historic drought that has
gripped the Colorado River Basin for the past 16 years. In 2000,
the reservoirs stood at nearly 100 percent capacity; today, Lake
Powell is at 49 percent capacity while Lake Mead has dropped to
38 percent. Before the late season runoff of Miracle May, it
looked as if Mead might drop low enough to trigger the first-ever
Lower Basin shortage determination in 2016.
Read the excerpt below from the Sept./Oct. 2015 issue along
with the editor’s note. Click here to subscribe to Western
Water and get full access.
Drought doesn’t instantly ravage the way flooding
does. It advances at a steady, determined pace, building and
spreading during several years. Fields wither, reservoirs drop to
dangerously low levels and the memory of what constitutes a
normal water supply becomes more distant.
Read the excerpt below from the Sept./Oct. 2015 issue along
with the editor’s note. Click here to subscribe to Western Water and
get full access.
The shallow, briny inland lake at the southeastern edge of
California is slowly evaporating and becoming more saline –
threatening the habitat for fish and birds and worsening air
quality as dust from the dry lakebed is whipped by the constant
(Read this excerpt from the May/June 2015 issue along with
the editor’s note. Click here to
subscribe to Western Water and get full access.)
Every day, hundreds of miles above the Earth, satellites spin
through their orbits and send images of a variety of physical
features back to the planet.
Mountains, forests, cities, farm fields and bodies of water are
among the images captured and applied to computer-generated maps.
What was once unthinkable has emerged in a detailed analysis that
is reimagining the understanding of the complex relationship
between land and water.
California’s most recent drought has reinforced the
volatility that surrounds its water supply outlook from year to
year. It also highlights what sustainability and resiliency mean
to a state with a growing population and water needs that stretch
from bustling cities in the north and south to the rich
agricultural fields of the Central, Imperial and Coachella
valleys and Central Coast.
After much time, study and investment, the task of identifying
solutions to ensure the long-term sustainability of the Colorado
River is underway. People from the Upper and Lower basins
representing all interest groups are preparing to put their
signatures to documents aimed at ensuring the river’s vitality
for the next 50 years and beyond.
In wet years, dry years and every type of water year in between,
the daily intrusion and retreat of salinity in the Sacramento-San
Joaquin Delta is a constant pattern.
The cycle of ebb and flood is the defining nature of an estuary
and prior to its transformation into an agricultural tract in
the mid-19th century, the Delta was a freshwater marsh with
plants, birds, fish and wildlife that thrived on the edge of the
Before attorneys wrangled in courtrooms over questions of water
rights, people typically took matters into their own hands. If
your neighbor up river was damming water that affected your
supply, it wasn’t unheard of that you would simply sneak up in
the middle of the night and blow up the dam.
The water people use every day is free. It falls from the sky as
rain or snow, free of charge.
It is the capture, storage, moving, and treatment of the water
that incurs substantial costs. In the middle of a historic
drought, California and its water suppliers must seek funding for
water storage projects with greater urgency. The demand for
action echoes from Washington, D.C. to Sacramento. Paying for it
is a bit more complicated.
Living in the semi-arid, Mediterranean climate of California,
drought always lingers on the horizon. People believe they are
ready to face the next dry period, then conditions arrive testing
whether that is the case.
There are areas in California where groundwater is pumped faster
than it can be naturally replenished. This isn’t news to anyone
familiar with the problem but after many years, the time may be
coming when an effort is made to seriously reverse course on what
many call an unsustainable practice.