Western Water News

Overview Jennifer Bowles

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 at the Water Education Foundation:

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Can Carbon Credits Save Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Islands and Protect California’s Vital Water Hub?
An ambitious plan would use carbon credits as incentives to convert Delta islands to wetlands or rice to halt subsidence and potentially raise island elevations

Equipment on this tower measures fluctuations in greenhouse gas emissions for managed wetlands on Sherman Island in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.The islands of the western Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are sinking as the rich peat soil that attracted generations of farmers dries out and decays. As the peat decomposes, it releases tons of carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas – into the atmosphere. As the islands sink, the levees that protect them are at increasing risk of failure, which could imperil California’s vital water conveyance system.

An ambitious plan now in the works could halt the decay, sequester the carbon and potentially reverse the sinking.

Western Water Gary Pitzer California Water Map Gary Pitzer

Meet the Veteran Insider Who’s Shepherding Gov. Newsom’s Plan to Bring Climate Resilience to California Water
WESTERN WATER Q&A: Former journalist Nancy Vogel explains how the draft California Water Resilience Portfolio came together and why it’s expected to guide future state decisions

Nancy Vogel, director of the Governor’s Water Portfolio Program, highlights key points in the draft Water Resilience Portfolio last month for the Water Education Foundation's 2020 Water Leaders class. Shortly after taking office in 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom called on state agencies to deliver a Water Resilience Portfolio to meet California’s urgent challenges — unsafe drinking water, flood and drought risks from a changing climate, severely depleted groundwater aquifers and native fish populations threatened with extinction.

Within days, he appointed Nancy Vogel, a former journalist and veteran water communicator, as director of the Governor’s Water Portfolio Program to help shepherd the monumental task of compiling all the information necessary for the portfolio. The three state agencies tasked with preparing the document delivered the draft Water Resilience Portfolio Jan. 3. The document, which Vogel said will help guide policy and investment decisions related to water resilience, is nearing the end of its comment period, which goes through Friday, Feb. 7.

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ON THE ROAD: Cosumnes River Preserve Offers Visitors a Peek at What the Central Valley Once Looked Like
Preserve at the edge of Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta includes valley oak forests and wintering grounds for cranes

Sandhill cranes gather at the Cosumnes River Preserve south of Sacramento.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.

Western Water Douglas E. Beeman Layperson's Guide to Groundwater Douglas E. Beeman

Water Resource Innovation, Hard-Earned Lessons and Colorado River Challenges — Western Water Year in Review
WESTERN WATER NOTEBOOK-Our 2019 articles spanned the gamut from groundwater sustainability and drought resiliency to collaboration and innovation

Smoke from the 2018 Camp Fire as viewed from Lake Oroville in Northern California. Innovative efforts to accelerate restoration of headwater forests and to improve a river for the benefit of both farmers and fish. Hard-earned lessons for water agencies from a string of devastating California wildfires. Efforts to drought-proof a chronically water-short region of California. And a broad debate surrounding how best to address persistent challenges facing the Colorado River. 

These were among the issues Western Water explored in 2019, and are still worth taking a look at in case you missed them.

Western Water Gary Pitzer Colorado River Basin Map Gary Pitzer

Can a Grand Vision Solve the Colorado River’s Challenges? Or Will Incremental Change Offer Best Hope for Success?
WESTERN WATER IN-DEPTH: With talks looming on a new operating agreement for the river, a debate has emerged over the best approach to address its challenges

Photo of Lake Mead and Hoover DamThe Colorado River is arguably one of the hardest working rivers on the planet, supplying water to 40 million people and a large agricultural economy in the West. But it’s under duress from two decades of drought and decisions made about its management will have exceptional ramifications for the future, especially as impacts from climate change are felt.

Western Water Jennifer Bowles Jennifer Bowles

Exploring Different Approaches for Solving the Colorado River’s Myriad Challenges
EDITOR’S NOTE: We examine a debate that emerged from our Colorado River Symposium over whether incrementalism or grand vision is the best path forward

Jenn Bowles, Water Education Foundation Executive DirectorEvery other year we hold an invitation-only Colorado River Symposium attended by various stakeholders from across the seven Western states and Mexico that rely on the iconic river. We host this three-day event in Santa Fe, N.M., where the 1922 Colorado River Compact was signed, as part of our mission to catalyze critical conversations to build bridges and inform collaborative decision-making.

Western Water Gary Pitzer California Water Map Gary Pitzer

Can a New Approach to Managing California Reservoirs Save Water and Still Protect Against Floods?
WESTERN WATER NOTEBOOK: Pilot Projects Testing Viability of Using Improved Forecasting to Guide Reservoir Operations

Bullards Bar Dam spills water during 2017 atmospheric river storms.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.

Western Water Gary Pitzer Douglas E. Beeman Layperson's Guide to Climate Change and Water Resources Gary PitzerDouglas E. Beeman

As Wildfires Grow More Intense, California Water Managers Are Learning To Rewrite Their Emergency Playbook
WESTERN WATER IN-DEPTH: Agencies share lessons learned as they recover from fires that destroyed facilities, contaminated supplies and devastated their customers

Debris from the Camp Fire that swept through the Sierra foothills town of Paradise  in November 2018.

By Gary Pitzer and Douglas E. Beeman

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.

Western Water Gary Pitzer Gary Pitzer

Lessons From the Flames: Advice From Water Managers Who Have Lived Through Disaster

California water managers who have lived through a devastating wildfire and its aftermath have shared key lessons from their experiences.

Western Water Gary Pitzer California Water Map Gary Pitzer

Understanding Streamflow Is Vital to Water Management in California, But Gaps In Data Exist
WESTERN WATER NOTEBOOK: A new law aims to reactivate dormant stream gauges to aid in flood protection, water forecasting

Stream gauges gather important metrics such as  depth, flow (described as cubic feet per second) and temperature.  This gauge near downtown Sacramento measures water depth.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.

Western Water Gary Pitzer California Groundwater Map Gary Pitzer

Recharging Depleted Aquifers No Easy Task, But It’s Key To California’s Water Supply Future
WESTERN WATER NOTEBOOK: A UC Berkeley symposium explores approaches and challenges to managed aquifer recharge around the West

A water recharge basin in Southern California's Coachella Valley. 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 recharged.

Western Water Gary Pitzer California Water Map Gary Pitzer

Often Short of Water, California’s Southern Central Coast Builds Toward A Drought-Proof Supply
WESTERN WATER NOTEBOOK: Water agencies in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo counties look to seawater, recycled water to protect against water shortages

The spillway at Lake Cachuma in central Santa Barbara County. Drought in 2016 plunged its storage to about 8 percent of capacity.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.

Could “Black Swan” Events Spawned by Climate Change Wreak Havoc in the Colorado River Basin?
WESTERN WATER NOTEBOOK: Scientists say a warming planet increases odds of extreme drought and flood; officials say they’re trying to include those possibilities in their plans

Runoff from what some describe as an "epic flood" in 1983 strained the capacity of Glen Canyon Dam to convey water fast enough.  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.

Western Water Gary Pitzer California Water Map Gary Pitzer

How Private Capital is Speeding up Forest Restoration in the Sierra Nevada that Benefits Water
WESTERN WATER SPOTLIGHT: A bond fund that fronts the money is expediting a headwaters restoration project to improve forest health, water quality and supply

District Ranger Lon Henderson with Tahoe National Forest points toward an overgrown section of forest within the Blue Forest project area. 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, stream-choking mudflows. 

Western Water Gary Pitzer Colorado River Basin Map Gary Pitzer

A Rancher-Led Group Is Boosting the Health of the Colorado River Near Its Headwaters
WESTERN WATER SPOTLIGHT: A Colorado partnership is engaged in a river restoration effort to aid farms and fish habitat that could serve as a model across the West

Strategic placement of rocks promotes a more natural streamflow that benefits ranchers and fish. 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.”

Western Water Gary Pitzer California Water Map Gary Pitzer

A Study of Microplastics in San Francisco Bay Could Help Cleanup Strategies Elsewhere
WESTERN WATER NOTEBOOK: Debris from plastics and tires is showing up in Bay waters; state drafting microplastics plan for drinking water

Plastic trash and microplastics can get washed into stormwater systems that eventually empty into waterways. 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.

A collaborative effort of the San Francisco Estuary Institute, The 5 Gyre InstituteSan Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board and the regulated discharger community that aims to better understand the problem and assess how to manage it in the San Francisco Bay is nearing the end of a three-year study.

Western Water California Water Map

Your Don’t-Miss Roundup of Summer Reading From Western Water

Dear Western Water reader, 

Clockwise, from top: Lake Powell, on a drought-stressed Colorado River; Subsidence-affected bridge over the Friant-Kern Canal in the San Joaquin Valley;  A homeless camp along the Sacramento River near Old Town Sacramento; Water from a desalination plant in Southern California.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. 

Western Water Gary Pitzer California Water Map Gary Pitzer

Can Providing Bathrooms to Homeless Protect California’s Water Quality?
WESTERN WATER IN-DEPTH: The connection between homelessness and water is gaining attention under California human right to water law and water quality concerns

A homeless camp set up along the Sacramento River near downtown Sacramento. 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.

Western Water Gary Pitzer Layperson's Guide to California Wastewater Gary Pitzer

As Californians Save More Water, Their Sewers Get Less and That’s a Problem
WESTERN WATER NOTEBOOK: Lower flows damage equipment, concentrate waste and stink up neighborhoods; should water conservation focus shift outdoors?

Corrosion is evident in this wastewater pipe from Los Angeles County.Californians have been doing an exceptional job 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.

Western Water Gary Pitzer Colorado River Bundle Gary Pitzer

150 Years After John Wesley Powell Ventured Down the Colorado River, How Should We Assess His Legacy in the West?
WESTERN WATER Q&A: University of Colorado’s Charles Wilkinson on Powell, Water and the American West

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

Explorer John Wesley Powell and Paiute Chief Tau-Gu looking over the Virgin River in 1873.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.

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