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:
A new but little-known change in
California law designating aquifers as “natural infrastructure”
promises to unleash a flood of public funding for projects that
increase the state’s supply of groundwater.
The change is buried in a sweeping state budget-related law,
enacted in July, that also makes it easier for property owners
and water managers to divert floodwater for storage underground.
The Klamath River Basin was once one
of the world’s most ecologically magnificent regions, a watershed
teeming with salmon, migratory birds and wildlife that thrived
alongside Native American communities. The river flowed rapidly
from its headwaters in southern Oregon’s high deserts into Upper
Klamath Lake, collected snowmelt along a narrow gorge through the
Cascades, then raced downhill to the California coast in a misty,
A new underground mapping technology
that reveals the best spots for storing surplus water in
California’s Central Valley is providing a big boost to the
state’s most groundwater-dependent communities.
The maps provided by the California Department of Water Resources
for the first time pinpoint paleo valleys and similar prime
underground storage zones traditionally found with some guesswork
by drilling exploratory wells and other more time-consuming
manual methods. The new maps are drawn from data on the
composition of underlying rock and soil gathered by low-flying
helicopters towing giant magnets.
The unique peeks below ground are saving water agencies’
resources and allowing them to accurately devise ways to capture
water from extreme storms and soak or inject the surplus
underground for use during the next drought.
“Understanding where you’re putting and taking water from really
helps, versus trying to make multimillion-dollar decisions based
on a thumb and which way the wind is blowing,” said Aaron Fukuda,
general manager of the Tulare Irrigation District, an early
adopter of the airborne electromagnetic or
AEM technology in California.
The states of the Lower Colorado
River Basin have traditionally played an oversized role in
tapping the lifeline that supplies 40 million people in the West.
California, Nevada and Arizona were quicker to build major canals
and dams and negotiated a landmark deal that requires the Upper
Basin to send predictable flows through the Grand Canyon, even
during dry years.
But with the federal government threatening unprecedented water
cuts amid decades of drought and declining reservoirs, the Upper
Basin states of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico are
muscling up to protect their shares of an overallocated river
whose average flows in the Upper Basin have already dropped
20 percent over the last century.
They have formed new agencies to better monitor their interests,
moved influential Colorado River veterans into top negotiating
posts and improved their relationships with Native American
tribes that also hold substantial claims to the river.
Tiny pieces of plastic waste shed
from food wrappers, grocery bags, clothing, cigarette butts,
tires and paint are invading the environment and every facet of
daily life. Researchers know the plastic particles have even made
it into municipal water supplies, but very little data exists
about the scope of microplastic contamination in drinking
After years of planning, California this year is embarking on a
first-of-its-kind data-gathering mission to illuminate how
prevalent microplastics are in the state’s largest drinking water
sources and help regulators determine whether they are a public
It was exactly the sort of deluge
California groundwater agencies have been counting on to
replenish their overworked aquifers.
The start of 2023 brought a parade of torrential Pacific storms
to bone dry California. Snow piled up across the Sierra Nevada at
a near-record pace while runoff from the foothills gushed into
the Central Valley, swelling rivers over their banks and filling
seasonal creeks for the first time in half a decade.
Suddenly, water managers and farmers toiling in one of the
state’s most groundwater-depleted regions had an opportunity to
capture stormwater and bank it underground. Enterprising agencies
diverted water from rushing rivers and creeks into manmade
recharge basins or intentionally flooded orchards and farmland.
Others snagged temporary permits from the state to pull from
streams they ordinarily couldn’t touch.
Growing up in the shadow of the
Rocky Mountains, Andrew Schwartz never missed an opportunity to
play in – or study – a Colorado snowstorm. During major
blizzards, he would traipse out into the icy wind and heavy
drifts of snow pretending to be a scientist researching in
Decades later, still armed with an obsession for extreme weather,
Schwartz has landed in one of the snowiest places in the West,
leading a research lab whose mission is to give California water
managers instant information on the depth and quality of snow
draping the slopes of the Sierra Nevada.
When the Colorado River Compact was
signed 100 years ago, the negotiators for seven Western states
bet that the river they were dividing would have ample water to
meet everyone’s needs – even those not seated around the table.
A century later, it’s clear the water they bet on is not there.
More than two decades of drought, lake evaporation and overuse of
water have nearly drained the river’s two anchor reservoirs, Lake
Powell on the Arizona-Utah border and Lake Mead near Las Vegas.
Climate change is rendering the basin drier, shrinking spring
runoff that’s vital for river flows, farms, tribes and cities
across the basin – and essential for refilling reservoirs.
The states that endorsed the Colorado River Compact in 1922 – and
the tribes and nation of Mexico that were excluded from the table
– are now straining to find, and perhaps more importantly accept,
solutions on a river that may offer just half of the water that
the Compact assumed would be available. And not only are
solutions not coming easily, the relationships essential for
compromise are getting more frayed.
The foundation of California’s water
supply and the catalyst for the state’s 20th century
population and economic growth is cracking. More exactly, it’s
Climate change is eroding the mountain snowpack that has
traditionally melted in the spring and summer to fill rivers and
reservoirs across the West. Now, less precipitation is falling as
snow in parts of major mountain ranges like California’s Sierra
Nevada and the Rockies in the West, and the snow that does land
is melting faster and earlier due to warming temperatures.
With 25 years of experience working
on the Colorado River, Chuck Cullom is used to responding to
myriad challenges that arise on the vital lifeline that seven
states, more than two dozen tribes and the country of Mexico
depend on for water. But this summer problems on the
drought-stressed river are piling up at a dizzying pace:
Reservoirs plummeting to record low levels, whether Hoover Dam
and Glen Canyon Dam can continue to release water and produce
hydropower, unprecedented water cuts and predatory smallmouth
bass threatening native fish species in the Grand Canyon.
“Holy buckets, Batman!,” said Cullom, executive director of the
Upper Colorado River Commission. “I mean, it’s just on and on and
A pilot program in the Salinas Valley run remotely out of Los Angeles is offering a test case for how California could provide clean drinking water for isolated rural communities plagued by contaminated groundwater that lack the financial means or expertise to connect to a larger water system.
As water interests in the Colorado
River Basin prepare to negotiate a new set of operating
guidelines for the drought-stressed river, Amelia Flores wants
her Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) to be involved in the
discussion. And she wants CRIT seated at the negotiating table
with something invaluable to offer on a river facing steep cuts
in use: its surplus water.
CRIT, whose reservation lands in California and Arizona are
bisected by the Colorado River, has some of the most senior water
rights on the river. But a federal law enacted in the late 1700s,
decades before any southwestern state was established, prevents
most tribes from sending any of its water off its reservation.
The restrictions mean CRIT, which holds the rights to nearly a
quarter of the entire state of Arizona’s yearly allotment of
river water, is missing out on financial gain and the chance to
help its river partners.
Managers of California’s most
overdrawn aquifers were given a monumental task under the state’s
landmark Sustainable Groundwater Management Act: Craft viable,
detailed plans on a 20-year timeline to bring their beleaguered
basins into balance. It was a task that required more than 250
newly formed local groundwater agencies – many of them in the
drought-stressed San Joaquin Valley – to set up shop, gather
data, hear from the public and collaborate with neighbors on
multiple complex plans, often covering just portions of a
Momentum is building for a unique
interstate deal that aims to transform wastewater from Southern
California homes and business into relief for the stressed
Colorado River. The collaborative effort to add resiliency to a
river suffering from overuse, drought and climate change is being
shaped across state lines by some of the West’s largest water
Martha Guzman recalls those awful
days working on water and other issues as a deputy legislative
secretary for then-Gov. Jerry Brown. California was mired in a
recession and the state’s finances were deep in the red. Parks
were cut, schools were cut, programs were cut to try to balance a
troubled state budget in what she remembers as “that terrible
She now finds herself in a strikingly different position: As
administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s
Region 9, she has a mandate to address water challenges across
California, Nevada, Arizona and Hawaii and $1 billion to help pay
for it. It is the kind of funding, she said, that is usually
spread out over a decade. Guzman called it the “absolutely
In the vast labyrinth of the West
Coast’s largest freshwater tidal estuary, one native fish species
has never been so rare. Once uncountably numerous, the Delta
smelt was placed on state and federal endangered species lists in
1993, stopped appearing in most annual sampling surveys in 2016,
and is now, for all practical purposes, extinct in the wild. At
least, it was.
Climate scientist Brad Udall calls
himself the skunk in the room when it comes to the Colorado
River. Armed with a deck of PowerPoint slides and charts that
highlight the Colorado River’s worsening math, the Colorado State
University scientist offers a grim assessment of the river’s
future: Runoff from the river’s headwaters is declining, less
water is flowing into Lake Powell – the key reservoir near the
Arizona-Utah border – and at the same time, more water is being
released from the reservoir than it can sustainably provide.
For more than 20 years, Tanya
Trujillo has been immersed in the many challenges of the Colorado
River, the drought-stressed lifeline for 40 million people from
Denver to Los Angeles and the source of irrigation water for more
than 5 million acres of winter lettuce, supermarket melons and
Trujillo has experience working in both the Upper and Lower
Basins of the Colorado River, basins that split the river’s water
evenly but are sometimes at odds with each other. She was a
lawyer for the state of New Mexico, one of four states in the
Upper Colorado River Basin, when key operating guidelines for
sharing shortages on the river were negotiated in 2007. She later
worked as executive director for the Colorado River Board of
California, exposing her to the different perspectives and
challenges facing California and the other states in the river’s
Land and waterway managers labored
hard over the course of a century to control California’s unruly
rivers by building dams and levees to slow and contain their
water. Now, farmers, environmentalists and agencies are undoing
some of that work as part of an accelerating campaign to restore
the state’s major floodplains.
Water is flowing once again
to the Colorado River’s delta in Mexico, a vast region that
was once a natural splendor before the iconic Western river was
dammed and diverted at the turn of the last century, essentially
turning the delta into a desert.
In 2012, the idea emerged that water could be intentionally sent
down the river to inundate the delta floodplain and regenerate
native cottonwood and willow trees, even in an overallocated
river system. Ultimately, dedicated flows of river water were
brokered under cooperative
efforts by the U.S. and Mexican governments.