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California’s broken water system. San Luis Reservoir

Exposed upper intake structure at San Luis Reservoir. Aug. 9, 2016.

Exposed upper intake at San Luis Reservoir. Aug. 9, 2016.

Despite reasonable amounts of rain in California this year, too little water was pumped to reservoirs where it is needed and too much used to protect Sacramento Delta smelt. Yes, I know, if the smelt die off, that would be a sign the Delta is in precarious condition. Yet, because of this, the San Luis reservoir is so low it is delivering practically no water to Silicon Valley.

Water was also pumped to save salmon, another laudable goal, to be sure. Also, if not enough fresh water flows into the Delta, salinity will increase, and that can not be allowed. So, at least some of the water Central Valley farmers and cities in southern California want must be pumped into the Delta to keep it alive and not saline.

But still, maybe fish are over protected and humans and agriculture needing water, not so much? That’s what some think.

If you need a sign that the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is broken, look no further than San Luis Reservoir. Despite near-average precipitation this year and healthy storage in other north state reservoirs, San Luis is so precipitously low that deliveries were nearly shutoff in early August.

Meanwhile Shasta Lake, the state’s largest reservoir, sits at 109% of its historic average for the date.

What’s wrong with this picture? In a nutshell, we have a water system that is broken from a physical and policy standpoint.

The water community strongly supports the California policy of coequal goals. Sadly, actions by regulatory agencies continue to undermine that policy. Any one driving past San Luis Reservoir this summer can see the result.

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Reduced consumption means no mandatory Lake Mead water reductions

Lake Mead bathtub ring 2010. (Credit: commons.wikimedia.org)

Good news. California, Arizona, and Nevada have reduced water consumption so dramatically that mandatory Lake Mead water reductions will not be needed. In total, the three states will use less than seven million acre feet of water this year, for the first time since 1992, despite having seven million more people. Wow.

There’s still more water going out of Lake Mead than coming in. However 2016 Colorado River water flow is expected to be 92% of normal, which helps. Southern Nevada, including Las Vegas, gets a tiny allotment of that water compared to Nevada and California. Vegas recycles all indoor water, including toilet water. That water is pumped back into Lake Mead and does not count against their allotment.

“We’ve reached a turning point where population is going up and water use is going down,” said Fleck, who was just named director of the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. “It’s still not enough, but we’re headed in the right direction at least.”

By the end of the year, officials in Nevada, Arizona and California hope to finalize a landmark deal outlining a series of voluntary water reductions designed to prop up Lake Mead and stave off deeper, mandatory cuts for Arizona and Nevada.

Arizona would shoulder most of the voluntary reductions, but the tentative deal marks the first time California has agreed to share the pain if the drought worsens.

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Sacramento Delta twin tunnels plan invalidated by judge

Sacrameto Delta

Sacramento Delta

California Governor Jerry Brown’s mad scheme to build twin tunnels to siphon Sacramento Delta water southward to the Central Valley and southern California just got poleaxed by a Superior Court judge who ruled the Delta Plan was invalid. The judge says the plan does not provide quantifiable targets for reducing use of Delta water, and instead only had vague “recommendations.” This is a huge victory for anti-tunnel organizations, but not yet the end of the war.

It is either barking mad or deliberately evasive to glibly say that shunting water around the Delta will not hurt the Delta. Yet that is precisely what tunnel advocates say. The tunnel will be extremely expensive and probably won’t send SoCal much extra water. Who benefits? Big labor and big construction, primarily.

The court noted that there can be no plan unless it is consistent with the law,” Krieger said, “and the law clearly states that the plan must have clear, quantified, and enforceable targets. The fact that it doesn’t means there is no longer an extant plan. This is a major blow to Governor Brown’s wasteful and destructive plan to drain the Delta via the Twin Tunnels, and a huge victory for the ratepayers and environment of California.”

The ruling greatly complicates State plans to expedite approval and construction of the tunnels, a water conveyance megaproject that would disrupt the ecological stability of the Delta, displace the region’s family farmers, cost taxpayers up to $70 billion or more, and provide no additional water to Southern California.

Still, warns Krieger, the battle is by no means over, given that the Brown Administration will attempt to revise the plan to conform to the judge’s order.

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Las Vegas attempted grab of Great Basin water

Great-Basin-SNWA

The Great Basin (about 1/15 of the total land mass of the US, mostly in Nevada) has plentiful amounts of water just waiting in its aquifers for thirsty minions in Southern Nevada to slurp down, via hundreds of miles of proposed pipelines into Lake Mead. The geography of the Great Basin is unique. Water flows down from 351 mountain ranges and never flows out. Instead, it just sits there, eventually seeping in to aquifers. There are vast open and empty valleys, few people, and Southern Nevada thinks, dang it, they should certainly be allowed to share in that water. But tragically, ranchers, American Indians and residents of the Great Basin disagree, saying pumping out huge amounts of water will damage their land, vegetation, wild life, crops, and lifestyle, so like David, they’ve fought Goliath, and at least for now appear to be winning.

Hey, I live in Vegas and agree with the Great Basin. It’s their water. The photo was taken Saturday in the tiny town of Baker, at the entrance to Great Basin National Park. It should be mentioned that Vegas is a world leader in reclaiming and reusing water. However, like the Metropolitan Water District in southern California, it always wants access to more.

Southern Nevada Water Authority’s (SNWA) plans to convey millions of gallons of groundwater from central and eastern Nevada to Las Vegas have generated a deluge of legal challenges at the state and federal level. At the state level, the Nevada Supreme Court recently ruled on appeals of Judge Estes’ district court decision sought by SNWA and the State Water Engineer; the appeals were pursued to overturn Estes’s decision issued on December 10, 2013. As it now stands, SNWA and the State Engineer must comply with the Judge Estes’s order and the requirement to demonstrate that SNWA’s proposed groundwater mining and export operation will be sustainable and will not cause impermissible impacts on the environment and existing water rights holders, such as ranchers, farmers and local business.

Great Basin Water Network

Southern Nevada Water Authority

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Desalination is not a cure-all for water woes

Carlsbad CA desalination plant

Carlsbad CA desalination plant

Some countries, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, rely heavily on desalination for water. However, for California, it isn’t a panacea. It’s expensive, uses copious amounts of electricity (and many forms of creating electricity require using large amounts of water, hmm) and while it might be good for coastal cities, there’s is no existing way to get the water from the desal plant on the ocean to inland communities where it is needed. Plus, of course, NIMBYs howl and squeal whenever a desal plant is proposed. Getting past the lawsuits and permitting process took the new San Diego desal plant fifteen years.

But as with so many things involving water, desalination is not that simple. Converting seawater into drinking water is very expensive, it consumes a lot of electricity and it comes with a host of potentially unsavory environmental impacts.

First of all, it’s very expensive. Second, it takes a lot of energy, and it’s hard to find places where you can site desal facilities that are acceptable to the local community and people who are concerned about marine resources.

The other point is that a lot of the places that really need desal don’t have access to the State Water Project. Because of where it’s going to happen – places like Monterey and Carmel or Moss Landing – it’s not going to reduce demand on the State Water Project or Central Valley Project appreciably, if at all.

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