Archive | Water

NOAA says California drought NOT due to climate change

Those hysterical climate-changer deniers at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say the California drought is primarily caused by natural variability not global warming. This didn’t stop other scientists from saying the natural variability is due to climate change. Maybe not. California experienced a 240 year drought starting in the year 850, and that was long before climate change was an issue. So clearly, there has always been huge variability in California weather. Which is all the more reason for California to implement toilet-to-tap everywhere and to conserve and reuse water whenever possible.

A new report, based on seven models that ran 160 “reenactments” of the last three years, concludes that “perhaps about two-thirds of the precipitation deficits” of the last three years have been the product of various convergent factors, including “a randomness of the atmosphere,” says Marty Hoerling, a climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration‘s Earth System Research Laboratory and one of the study’s co-authors.

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Frias Park in Las Vegas is also a flood detention area


Frias Park at Decatur and Tropicana is designed to hold flash flood waters as well as being a park. Water comes in from the south side, flows through a flood channel, then out the east side in a controlled manner. The water is then cleaned and pumped into Lake Mead for use by residents. The multi-use facility area is about 30 feet lower than street level with south and west facing sides covered with rocks to prevent erosion. The flood channel is 15 feet lower than the grassed area, which has no equipment except for lights. So, if the entire area does flood, little if any damage will be done. This is a well-planned recreation / flood control area.

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California drought way worse than you think

The closer to the middle, the worse the drought.

The closer to the middle, the worse the drought.

Research on tree rings shows the current California decade is beyond severe.

The current event is the most severe drought in the last 1200 years, with single year (2014) and accumulated moisture deficits worse than any previous continuous span of dry years.

The current California drought is exceptionally severe in the context of at least the last millennium and is driven by reduced though not unprecedented precipitation and record high temperatures.

Groundwater pumping in California has increased, with many new wells being drilled. This creates problems like subsidence, as well as draining the aquifers.

Mary Scruggs [ Supervising Engineering Geologist, Department of Water Resources] began by summarizing the importance of groundwater. “Groundwater is critical to California,” she said. “It provides up to 40% during normal years; during dry years, it can provide a lot more. There’s been a lot of pressure on groundwater over the last few years. With the dry years and the extreme drought, some areas are using a lot more groundwater then they have. The drought, and pumping of the groundwater also can create problems in some of the areas, including subsidence, saline intrusion, movement of contamination, and there’s also impacts on some of the agricultural areas because some of the areas have been fallowed.”

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California drought forecast remains uncertain, even with recent rain


Except for far northern areas, California is still much drier than normal as it goes into the rainy season. The weather remains hot and dry. The vast bulk of California water from inside the state comes from the Sierra Nevadas. Snowfall amounts there are crucial for the entire state. (California, especially the southern Imperial Valley also gets water from the Colorado River.)  This drought is now the most severe in decades. Previous droughts happened when far fewer people were there.

After a 3-year period of exceptional dryness in California–which now exceeds the intensity of any other such period in living memory–prospects for meaningful rainfall and snowfall have been tantalizingly ephemeral as early-season storms have repeatedly failed to live up to their initial expectations.

However, this might change, even as weather models have maddeningly contradictory predictions.

As hard as it may be to believe after years of largely nonexistent and (at best) anemic rain events (some localized intense downpours notwithstanding), it finally does appear that a substantial precipitation event may be in the cards for a large portion of drought-stricken California.

At various points, most of these models have suggested the potential for an atmospheric river of some strength to affect some part of the California coast–though there is currently near zero agreement on its actual location, strength, timing, and (indeed) even its existence.

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San Diego, San Francisco Bay planning toilet-to-tap water reuse


In urban areas where water is scarce, it just makes sense to clean wastewater and make it drinkable again. Las Vegas has done this out of necessity for years. All household water including what is flushed down toilets is cleaned up, pumped back into Lake Mead and reused over and over. There is no yuck factor. I live in Vegas and the water is quite drinkable.

In areas where there isn’t a nearby huge lake to pump water into then reservoirs or aquifers can be used for storage. Orange County CA already reclaims 70 million gallons a day and is expanding that to 100 million. The San Diego City Council just approved a $2.5 billion plan, starting with 15 gallons a day by 2023. The San Jose CA area is building a similar facility. Toilet-to-tap is idea whose time has come.

San Diego, a city of 1.4 million people that imports 85 percent of its water from the Colorado River and Northern California, has slowly warmed to the idea. A 2012 survey by the San Diego County Water Authority showed that nearly three of four residents favored turning wastewater into drinking water, a major shift from one of four in a 2005 survey.

“The drought puts a finer point on why this is so necessary,” Mayor Kevin Faulconer said. “Droughts are unfortunately a way of life in California, so we have to be prepared. This helps us to control our own destiny.”

Southern Nevada is allocated a mere 2% of water from Lake Mead. However, any water that it reuses doesn’t count against the allotment.

Every day, about 100 million gallons of raw sewage is treated by the Clark County Water Reclamation District, which cleans sewage water for unincorporated Southern Nevada. This district has seven facilities and serves rural communities as well as a vast swath of the valley, including the Strip.

Roughly 90 million gallons of reclaimed water is released daily into the Las Vegas Wash, replenishing Lake Mead with billions of gallons every year. In exchange, we are allowed to take that much more water out of the lake, over and above our preset allotment.

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Water use in US dropped substantially from 2005 to 2010


As a nation we are using less water, even as our population grows, says a USGS report. This is definitely good news. We are using less water than in 1970.

Water use in the United States in 2010 was estimated to be about 355 billion gallons per day, which was 13 percent less than in 2005. The 2010 estimates put total withdrawals at the lowest level since before 1970.

Thermoelectric power and irrigation remained the two largest uses of water in 2010, and total withdrawals for both were notably less than in 2005. Withdrawals in 2010 for thermoelectric power were 20 percent less and withdrawals for irrigation were 9 percent less than in 2005.

Thermoelectric power is water used to generate electricity from steam turbines, and includes nuclear, coal, natural gas, and concentrated solar power plants. It is the largest single use of water, if a bit deceptive, as the water is often pumped back into rivers where it can be used for other purposes. Agriculture is the second-biggest use of water and again, some of that water seeps back into the the ground and aquifers.

There are lots of caveats. This analysis uses “withdrawals” rather than “consumptive use”. So if a power plant sucks up river water for cooling, that counts as “use” even if most of it is returned to the river. Farmers withdraw a lot, and return some via groundwater seepage and drains. The withdrawal-consumption distinction is really important for water policy, as I tried to explain here.

This big drop also spans the Economic Shitstorm of 2008. Part of the drop could be related to that.

I think a lot of work needs to be done by people smarter than I to sort out the implications of the above two caveats. But those notwithstanding, I think the new data supports the hypothesis (“slogan”?) I’ve been pushing recently: When one has less water, one uses less water. We’re pretty adaptable, we humans.

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U.S. water infrastructure woefully inadequate, leaking.

UCLA water main break on Sunset, one of the busiest surface streets in L.A. Credit: KTLA

UCLA water main break on Sunset, one of the busiest surface streets in L.A. Credit: KTLA

Nationwide, water utilities are losing large amounts of water due to ancient pipes and leaky systems. The California drought would not be nearly  as severe if leaks were fixed and infrastructures upgraded. The water main that broke near UCLA in July, flooding buildings, was 93 years old. Los Angeles no doubt has many more such pipes waiting to rupture. Other cities do too. The cost nationwide to fix everything is estimated at one trillion. How much are we spending on wars? I guess that our priorities.

Nationwide, the amount of water that is lost each year is estimated to top 2 trillion gallons, according to the American Water Works Association. That’s about 14 to 18 percent (or one-sixth) of the water the nation treats.

And it’s not just water that’s going down the drain, but billions of dollars in revenue too because utilities can’t charge customers for water that is lost before it gets to them.

Insanely, many water utilities do not audit their systems and their customers do not have water meters. That needs to change immediately. You can’t go to where you want to go if you don’t know where you are now. Right now, many water utilities don’t even no exactly how much water they are losing.

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Decades of mismanagement by California are making the drought worse


California has been living in dream world for decades about water, allowing groundwater to be pumped without regulation, doing comparatively little to reuse and recycle water, and, in general, has seemed lackadaisical about water issues. Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Tucson use substantially less water per capita now compared to twenty years ago, storing water and reusing as much as possible. By contrast, California is the only western state that, until just recently, had no laws regulating water pumped from wells. (California’s newly enacted laws on groundwater pumping won’t help short-term. They will take years to implement and seem designed to be ineffective.)

The predictable result of such a greedy, shortsighted approach is that residential wells are going dry primarily because Big Ag can spend hundreds of thousands to drill deep wells and can then use much water as they want. This causes subsidence in the Central Valley as well as shallow wells going dry. And if too much water is pumped from aquifers, they lose the ability to hold water. What then, Mr. Pistachio Farmer?

The image from TakePart displayed here delineates the California’s problem. It’s a triple whammy of changing climate combined with an aging water infrastructure and archaic water law. Something does indeed have to change. And it is starting to. Pajaro Valley has a cutting edge “showers to flowers” recycling system. San Diego is building a ginormous desal plant. Big cities are beginning to mandate water usage cuts. San Jose just built a “toilet-to-tap” treatment facility. The cleaned-up water is drinkable, yet the city is hesitating about using the water for that for fear the public might be needlessly squeamish. (Vegas has had such facilities for years and the water is used for drinking.) These are all important moves in the right direction. Recycle water. Do more with less.

Naturally, the poor and disadvantaged suffer the most from water shortages.

500 wells in East Porterville have gone dry. The town has no water. Water is being trucked in to fire stations where residents collect it to use for washing, bathing, and drinking. Imagine having to do this on a daily basis. There are plans for a new pipeline, however it will take years. In the meantime, this little town may simply cease to exist.

Stratford still has water, but just barely.

Going into the fourth year of drought, farmers have pumped so much water that the water table below Stratford fell 100 feet in two years. Land in some spots in the Central Valley has dropped a foot a year.

In July, the town well cracked in three places. Household pipes spit black mud, then pale yellow water. After that, taps were dry for two weeks while the water district patched the steel well casing.

Drought is drying up wells everywhere in California, not just in the Central Valley

Landers, a onetime school secretary, does not live in the parched heart of the state: the San Joaquin Valley, where some people get sand when they turn on the faucet.

She has an acre in the Sierra foothills, in a sparsely populated town an hour northeast of Sacramento with a seemingly abundant water supply despite the drought. Except for one thing: Her water comes from a well. And her well, which is shallow, has gone dry.

And the drought will intensify for most of California for the next three months.

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Tragedy of the Anticommons. Phoenix wants to store water, can’t

Central Arizona Project canal

Central Arizona Project canal

Phoenix admirably uses less water than it did decades ago, even as its population has grown hugely. The city wants to store its unused Colorado River allocation in Lake Mead for future use, but due to archaic, convoluted water laws, is not allowed to do so. This is the Tragedy of the Anticommons, where poor management leads to sub-optimal use of resources. As Butters once said on South Park, “Ouch, that makes my brain hurt.”

Inkstain unravels the tangled skein that allows such absurdities to happen. It should be noted that Phoenix storing water in Lake Mead would help southern Nevada, as it would mean less chance of water levels dropping below crucial Las Vegas intake pipes.

Prior to 2007, water use on the Lower Colorado River among Nevada, California, and Arizona was pretty much use-it-or-lose-it. The 2007 shortage sharing guidelines, an agreement among the states and the federal government, created a new management widget that changed that, called “Intentionally Created Surplus.” Lower Basin water users holding contracts with the Bureau of Reclamation could conserve water, jump through some bureaucratic hoops, and leave the water in Lake Mead for later. By the end of 2013, there was 1.1 million acre feet of ICS water in Lake Mead. In other words, this new institutional widget encouraged Lower Basin water users to conserve enough water to raise Mead’s elevation by something like 10 feet.

But Phoenix can’t use the ICS mechanism, because it is not a direct contractor. It gets its water instead through the Central Arizona Project, which as holder of the contract is the only one eligible for ICS. So CAP can store water in Mead, but Phoenix can’t.

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Drought will persist or intensify in crucial California areas


The Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers converge in the crucial Sacramento Delta. Water is pumped southward from there to the Central Valley and southern California and is fed by precipitation in the Sierra Nevadas. Unfortunately, the drought will persist in the Sierras, which is bad news for California. It doesn’t really matter if conditions improve in southern California as the vast bulk of its water comes from the Delta.

Some reservoirs in northern California are considerably lower than last year, with some being perilously low. Camp Far West is at a mere 4% of capacity.

In all, the state of reservoirs statewide means that the winter will need about 150 percent of its average precipitation, both rain and snow, to recover, said Ted Thomas, spokesman for the Department of Water Resources.

“If we get another dry winter, our reservoir storage will become even more critically low, and we would expect mandatory conservation to spread across the state,” Thomas said.

Los Angeles is beginning to offer incentives for drought-resistant lawns and water-saving appliances. This is a good start. However, it should have been done long ago. Further, if the drought worsens, then watering lawns should simply be banned.

However, the real solution is to raise the price of water, along with sharply-tiered pricing.

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Bob Morris


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