Archive | Water

Las vegas water use and population

Las Vegas decouping. More people, less water used

Las vegas water use and population

Las Vegas recycles all indoor water, purifying it, then sending it back to Lake Mead to be used again. Although its population is now 2 million, Vegas uses less Colorado River water than it did 15 years ago when the population was less than 1.5 million. (Phoenix and Tucson are doing the same; more people, less per capita use.)  Southern Nevada is allowed just 1.8% of Colorado River water and isn’t using its full allotment now, even though it is the primary source of water.

Water journalist John Fleck comments:

I’ve shared this before, some of the data I’ve been accumulating during my book research, but it bears repeating – a really remarkable decoupling of water use from Las Vegas’s economic and population growth:

Roth makes a point that I’ve heard a lot in my conversations about the Las Vegas conservation success story – that the visceral experience of watching nearby Lake Mead drop has helped Las Vegas-area residents grasp their water risk:

A Coachella Valley newspaper looks at how Vegas saves water and is impressed.

Las Vegas can credit its water frugality to a combination of fines, rigorous enforcement, generous grass-removal incentives and aggressive education campaigns. Developers aren’t allowed to build homes with grass in the front yards, and golf courses pay huge penalties when they exceed their water budgets. Conservation ads have featured a man getting kicked in the groin for spraying too much water on his lawn.

When we moved to Vegas last year, the first thing we did was rip out the lawn, replacing it with small rocks and xeriscaping. We have a pool with a floating pool cover. Our water bill last month was a mere $32. Conservation is indeed possible, and Las Vegas encourages it. The pool cover came with a discount from the water agency and a new pool pump had a similar subsidy from the power company. (many forms of electricity generation require water, and variable speed pumps use less power.)

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Oct-DEc US precipitation outlook

Precipitation outlook improves for most western states, not California

Oct-DEc US precipitation outlook

The 3-month precipitation outlook shows above-average probability for much of the American West, including Colorado, source of crucial Colorado River water. Southern California will get more rain, however the rest of the state, where most of the water storage is, will get normal or less. This is a three-month outlook for Oct-Dec, and does not appear to factor in the building and powerful El Nino. Or maybe it does and assumes it will not hit central and northern California. Hmm.

Maven’s Notebook, a key source for California water news, has a plethora of state and national maps about water, including reservoir and general water conditions for California.

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Shower of the Future, changing filter

Shower recycles and heats water

Shower of the Future, changing filter

Shower of the Future, changing filter

An innovative new shower purifies and reuses water, reheating it in the process. Potential water and electricity savings potentially can be large, especially in big households. The technology is the same as used on spacecraft. Downside is it is expensive and requires a bathroom remodel if not installed as part of new home construction. Hopefully the price will drop, as this seems a good idea.

The Shower of the Future is based on the technology that is used on spacecraft, and works on a closed-loop water system. Because of this it only needs 1.3 gallons (5 liters) of water to function, which is about one tenth less than classic showers need. After the first use, the water is collected from the drain, filtered and purified, and fed back into the in-flow tank to be reused. Apart from the water savings, the shower is also capable of saving more than 80% in energy consumption

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Credit: Amy Quinton, Capital Public Radio

Groundwater pumping causing California Central Valley to sink

Credit: Amy Quinton, Capital Public Radio

Credit: Amy Quinton, Capital Public Radio

California has mostly nonexistent rules regulating groundwater pumping. Other western states regulate the amount of water that can be pumped up from wells. California’s negligence here (and it is negligence) combined with the ongoing nasty drought is causing land to sink at unprecedented rates in some areas of the agricultural Central Valley. Oh, California did pass a bill last year regulating groundwater pumping. However local water agencies have 5-7 years to work out details and reporting on usage is voluntary. Right, that’ll work just fine.

Not only is way too much water being sucked out of aquifers, the resulting subsidence can and is causing serious problems, as roads, bridges, pipelines, and canals sink in places. Houses and buildings can sink too. And, oh yeah, maybe the proposed high-speed rail line too.

The data shows the ground is sinking nearly two inches each month in some places, putting roads, bridges and vital canals that deliver water throughout the state at growing risk of damage.

The NASA data shows land near the city of Corcoran sank 13 inches in eight months, and part of the California Aqueduct dropped eight inches in four months last year. The aqueduct spans hundreds of miles and provides water to millions of people and vast areas of farmland.

Long-term subsidence has already destroyed thousands of public and private groundwater well casings in the San Joaquin Valley. Over time, subsidence can permanently reduce the underground aquifer’s water storage capacity.

After a certain point of depletion, aquifers lose the ability to hold water.

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Sylmar Reservoir black rubber balls

Los Angeles water balls are expensive, not meant to reduce evaporation

Sylmar Reservoir black rubber balls

Those water balls that Los Angles sent into Sylmar Reservoir got misinterpreted wildly, with much gushing about how the water balls slow evaporation. That’s not their primary purpose. The balls prevent treated water from “biodegrading into undrinkable water” due to UV rays from the sun. Evaporation is very much a secondary benefit.

The balls last upwards of 25 years (Hmm, how do they plan on rounding up 96 million spent black water balls 25 years from now?) are expensive, about $1,500 an acre foot. This is considering less than the other alternative, a huge floating black mat that is $3,700 per acre foot, but still hardly cheap.

Aguanomics, which is about the economics of water, says LADWP and other water agencies need to focus on reducing demand, stop making it cheap for homeowners to water lawns, and in general, raise prices in a smart way so usage drops. Astonishingly, tiered pricing is illegal in California. Here in Las Vegas, tiered pricing is very much in use, and if you have a grass lawn, may get a whopping water bill in he summer. We recently moved to Vegas, replaced the grass with drip irrigation xeriscaping, put a floating cover on the pool – and our water bill for last month, when it was definitely hot, was a mere $32. Conservation is possible.

Indeed, if you think the balls are ONLY about evaporation, then you will see them on non-treated water reservoirs, but… no sign of that.

Bottom Line: Water managers need to be clearer about why and when they are spending ratepayer money. Even better, they should implement both demand reducing and supply augmenting policies in times of water scarcity (or all the time).

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smart water meter

Smart water meters cause people to use more not less water

smart water meter

From the Department of Unexpected Results: Contrary to the cherished assumption that real-time water metering  will help people use less water, Aurora CO discovered the exact opposite happened. Residents with shiny new smart water meters used more water not less. Say what?

Here’s what happened:

Aurora is one of many U.S. cities that has implemented “increasing block rates” – low rates for basic water use, then rising rates per unit water used if you’re more profligate. What they found the smart meters do is help users realize when they’re over or under the block. If they’re a bit over, the smart meter helps them conserve to drop down to the lower priced block. This saves water. But for users who aren’t close to the level where their use would bump them into the higher block, the additional information seems to make them comfortable using more water: “Hey, the longer shower isn’t a big deal, because it’s not enough to bump me up into the higher block.”

Maybe the pricing tiers need to be closer together?

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El Nino vs The Blobs

El Nino vs. The Blobs

El Nino vs The Blobs

Along with the fast-developing, powerful El Nino, several persistent warm water blobs (and their little buddy The Ridge) have appeared in the Pacific. No one really know if they will work together to produce even more rain, cancel each other out, or something else. These are highly unusual weather conditions with lots of moving variables. We will know the answer within a few months

And an emerging question is how El Nino and the blobs might interact to influence the coming winter with the western drought, now in its fourth year, heightening the stakes.

“What would the blobs do with no El Nino and what would El Nino do with no blobs and what happens when we have the blobs and an El Nino,” Redmond asks. “We’ve had very few cases in the past when we had both of these things going on at the same time.

“They could accentuate each other or subtract from each other. They could multiply each other or they might cancel each other. The jury is out.”


Researchers say there’s no precedent for something like the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge and the Blob interacting with an El Niño.

It’s not clear which one will win out, but here are some scenarios.

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Flooding alfalfa fields to recharge aquifers

When the rains return to California and the Southwest, and they will, a promising way to recharge aquifers is by deliberately flooding alfalfa fields, as well as fallow fields.

Deliberately recharging groundwater allows aquifers to be managed more like surface reservoirs, and has the potential to increase the state’s water storage capacity by millions of acre-feet. During periods like the current drought, there’s little or no extra water available for groundwater recharge. But in wet years, it may be possible to devote substantial volumes to replenishing aquifers.

Over a six-week period in February, March and April, Dahlke oversaw a test in Siskiyou County in which 140 acre-feet of water were applied to 10 acres of alfalfa. That’s well over twice the amount of irrigation water the field typically gets in an entire year.

“It was just pouring into the ground,” Dahlke said.

The water percolated readily into the earth and the groundwater table in the vicinity of the farm rose quickly

John Fleck adds:

The premise: recharge is good if you have the chance, but land set aside exclusively for the purpose is at a premium. But there’s plenty of alfalfa land where you could try this.

One more example of the adaptive capacity offered by the queen of forages.

My hunch is that this works best in places where there’s already alfalfa being grown in a basin shared with municipal pumpers. I’m thinking especially Central Arizona, where you’ve got 160,00 acres of alfalfa in Maricopa County alone.

Let’s hope the coming El Nino dumps enough water so farmland can be flooded and aquifers recharged. Given the complexity of water law, any water used for this shouldn’t count against someone’s allocation.

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"Godzilla" is out of control. A Warner Bros. film

‘Godzilla El Niño’ coming to California

"Godzilla" is out of control. A Warner Bros. film

We lived in southern California during the last two big El Niños and they are indeed doozies. Torrential storms slam into the state one after another. Roads flood. Houses slide down hills. And reservoirs fill up. The crucial question is, will the storms hit far enough north to replenish parched lakes and reservoirs? The answer is probably yes. The Sierras are already experiencing unusual wet weather. A storm just dumped four inches of hail in Donner Pass. The Colorado Rockies had an unusually wet June. The New Mexico drought is over. Clearly, the weather is changing.


You know how that climate guy was calling the coming El Niño, now taking shape in the Pacific, a “Godzilla El Niño” a couple weeks ago? Well now more experts are weighing in saying it’s most definitely going to get the official categorization of a “strong” event by the end of this month.

Southern California rain is helpful. Rain in northern California is what matters. That water flows to the Sacramento Delta then is sent south to Central Valley agriculture and the gaping maw of southern California.

The El Niño hitting the mountains of the north is critical because California’s vast waterworks rely on rain and snow from the Sierra to supply farms and cities. By contrast, much of the rain that falls in Southern California ends up in the ocean.

The area north of San Francisco, where California’s largest reservoirs — Shasta Lake and Lake Oroville — sit, has an equal chance of a dry or wet winter.

That could change if El Niño continues to muscle up, enabling storms to elbow into the north. That’s what happened during the two biggest El Niños on record, in 1982-83 and 1997-98.

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California Sacramento Delta islands are sinking


As if California didn’t already have enough water worries. Water flows down from the Sierras to the Sacramento Delta, and then much of it goes to southern California. The delta is the most crucial water supply in California. Delta islands and surrounding areas contain immensely fertile farmland as well as cities. The problem is, they are generally lower than the water level in the Delta, protected by levees. The levees are old and the islands are sinking. If levees fail, it would be a catastrophe for residents and imperil southern California water supplies.

Delta farmers say, ‘We take good care of our levees.’ I understand their point. They have made heroic efforts. The simple fact is there have been 144 levee failures. There have not been many lately. We have not had high inflows, high winds and high tides. But it’s almost akin to saying it’s been a long time since an earthquake.” According to Mount, risks in the Delta are high because “there are multiple potential causes.” Then he reels them off: overtopping, seepage, under-seepage, quakes. Ah, and rodents.

Every island that fails will subtract huge amounts of Sierra stream flow that might otherwise go into reservoir storage.

Trust of Southern Californians, however, is as rare as hens’ teeth in these parts. Having identified me as a reporter from Los Angeles, Miller says accusingly, “What bothers me is they [scientists and policy-makers] worry about if the Delta is flooded then you won’t have clean drinking water. If the Delta is flooded, we’ll drown!”

There are no easy answers here. Upgrading levees is expensive and may not even completely solve the problem.

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