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San Joaquin Valley subsidence. Irreversible damage from depleting aquifers

subsidence

Once land subsides, it can never rise back up to where it had been. Worse, constant pumping of water from aquifers alters their structure, making them less able to hold water. The San Joaquin Valley in California is ground zero for unregulated groundwater pumping. Yes, California finally passed a law regulating groundwater pumping. However, it will be years before it is implemented and it’s mostly toothless. Meanwhile, crucial aquifers are overpumped, the earth is subsidizing, and aquifers canna take any more of this, captain.

Mavens Notebook has a comprehensive article on subsidence in the Central Valley. It is required reading for water wonks! Subsidence is some areas is now a foot a year and isimpacting the ability of crucial canals to carry water southward.

It’s been called the largest alteration of the earth’s surface. In the San Joaquin Valley, since the 1920s, farmers have relied on groundwater to varying degrees, and over time, overpumping of groundwater basin has caused the land to subside – over 30 feet in some locations.

We care about land subsidence for two reasons: Infrastructure damage and flood protection and damages to our natural resources, she said. “Water conveyance systems and other water infrastructure get damaged by subsidence because it’s happening at different rates at different locations. If the whole San Joaquin Valley was subsiding at the same rate and in the same way, then nobody would really care, but it’s this differential subsidence, the different amounts of subsidence in different places that really damages canals, roads, railways, pipelines, bridges – anything that crosses these areas of differential subsidence can get damaged.”

Canals are particularly sensitive because gravity is oftentimes used to move water, and this means that every point downstream needs to be at a lower elevation than every point upstream or pumps are needed.

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“Coming tsunami” of dry wells in California’s Central Valley

well

It’s not just the drought. California’s refusal to be proactive about pumping water from wells is a major reason for shallow wells running dry. Wells that have been reliable for years are running dry in the San Joaquin Valley. Worse, water levels are dropping faster than normal. Thousands of residents have scheduled new wells to be drilled. The waiting list is months long. Some wells have already run dry. The extreme drought coupled with big ag drilling ever-deeper wells is dropping aquifer levels. California recently passed a toothless law regulating groundwater pumping however it will take years to implement. Other western states have regulated wells for decades.

The winter precipitation ended up about half of normal. Last week, Clark’s well went dry.

Clark is filling up water bottles at another neighbor’s house. She’s using it to cook, drink and flush the toilet. The shower is unusable. She’s eating off paper plates so she won’t have to wash dishes.

To bathe, she’s going to a relative’s house in Lemoore.

270 families in East Porterville, population 7,000, say their wells have run dry, a number which will certainly grow larger.

England said counting the number of dry wells is difficult because people don’t come forward fearing their children will be taken away if their home lacks a safe water source, or they believe that their home would be condemned, making them homeless.

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Slightly optimistic Colorado River Basin water forecast. No change for Cali

off02_prcp

The lower Colorado River Basin may get a bit more rain than normal for the next three months, which is certainly good. However it still looks dire for California and its all-important Sierras and Sacramento Delta.

The good news is that odds favor wet for the southerly part of the basin, especially Arizona and New Mexico. The “meh” part is that the low country doesn’t contribute much of the river’s overall supply. Most of that falls in the Rockies to the north, where the current forecast could be worse – slight tilt in the odds toward wet for a portion of the basin. But only slight.

However, Lake Mead and Lake Powell are at their combined lowest total since 1967.

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California depleting groundwater reserves rapidly to grow almonds

Almond_trees

“The people of the state of California are more or less destroying themselves in order to give cheap almonds to the world.” – David Zetland.

California grows 80% of the world’s almonds. Over one million acres on the Central Valley is now almond trees. The extreme drought and complete lack of laws regulating groundwater pumping means aquifer levels are dropping fast. Yes, California (finally) passed a weak law regulating groundwater. However it’s toothless and will take years to implement.

David Zetland, economics professor at Leiden University College in the Netherlands, says farmers are pumping water at a rate four to five times greater than can be replenished.

“The problem is that California, because of its failed institutions for managing water, is allowing these almonds to come on market at $3-$4 a pound wholesale, when the price would be tripled if California was managing its water sustainably and farmers faced the real cost of water.”

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Las Vegas flood channel basins aim at preventing 100-year flood damage

Flood basin intake. South Point casino in background

Flood basin intake. South Point casino in background

Flood basin intakes from basin side

Flood basin intakes from basin side. Stratosphere way in background

When it rains in Las Vegas, it can easily flood, hence the city has an elaborate system of flood channels. Water empties into this large basin, located in a residential area near South Point casino, where excess water can be stored befor releasing it downstream. This basin is about half a mile long and a quarter mile wide. The Clark County Regional Flood Control District wants to eliminate the possibility of damage from a 100-year flood. So far, 90 detention basins have been built along with 581 miles of channels and underground storm drains.

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California could reclaim huge amounts of water using smart management

water-what-could-be-reused

California could gain over 10 million acre feet of water a year by implementing urban and agricultural water use efficiency, water reuse, and stormwater capture, says a recent report titled The untapped potential of California’s water supply. The entire Southwest could benefit greatly from supply and demand reduction too.

“The blue bars show our estimate of what efficient use would be if we were comprehensively using the technologies and practices we know work, that in fact we’ve been developing and applying in California for several decades, but not completely,” he said. “The green bar is the really optimistic, if we were really efficient, if we were maximizing technology and the policies and practices that we might do – Some of the things that Australia did after eight or nine years of drought when they were really up against the wall and they really had to push beyond the kinds of things that they had been doing day to day.”

The experience of Australia shows that huge reductions in water usage can be accomplished. This is good news, even if the Southwest might be headed for a mega-drought.

He noted that with really aggressive savings, we could cut residential water use substantially, as much as up to 50%. “We know that from experience in Australia that these are achievable; this is what really efficient residences could look like. There’s a conversation to be had here about what kind of gardens we want and what kind of lawns we want, if we want lawns and gardens. But these are achievable. Whether your savings occur inland or whether your savings occur at the coast make a difference as well.”

If the Southwest drought continues, lawns may simply have to be banned. Golf courses too. Groundwater pumping will need to be strictly regulated and water will need to be metered, with pricing that encourages conservation. It can be done. And probably will have to be.

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California reservoirs very low. No short-term improvement

CA-reservoirs-drought

The only reservoir in California above the historical average is Pyramid Lake near Los Angeles. The Metropolitan Water District has been stockpiling water there for years. As for the rest of the reservoirs, it’s dire. The red line is the historic average. The Blue bar is the amount of water in the reservoir now. The red percentage is the percentage of the historic average.

Reservoir levels will continue to drop in California for 2-3 more months. Then the rainy season begins. But will there be rain? Maybe. A weak to moderate El Niño is developing. It is unlikely to bring above average rains. However, even near-normal precipitation would be welcome.

What’s the overall message here? Right now, there aren’t any clear precipitation signals for the upcoming winter. However, it does appear that near or below-average precipitation is the most likely outcome for the fall months, while there are nearly equal chances of above or below normal precipitation later this winter. Because there is no obvious drought relief on the horizon, it would be wise to prepare for another dry year. Stay tuned.

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California passes toothless law regulating groundwater pumping

Fissure caused by groundwater pumping, Antelope Valley CA

Fissure caused by groundwater pumping, Antelope Valley CA

California is in denial about water. Other Western states have long had rules regulating water pumped from wells. California has finally passed such a measure. However the law is vague and will do little to alleviate problems in the current drought. Groundwater pumping accounts for up to 60% of water used during droughts in California. In some areas, roads, canals, and aqueducts are buckling because so much water is being pumped from aquifers. You might think this would cause a sense of urgency in normally comatose California legislators. You would be wrong.

The new law allows local water boards two years to create groundwater agencies which then have up to five years to implement a plan. Thus, there could be no action for up to seven years. Unbelievably, the new agency can mandate water meters be installed and impose fines but does not have to, which is absurd. Water use should be metered everywhere. Piggish users should be fined. Any other plan is simply evasion and kicking the can down the road, something the California legislature is well known for doing.

In another example of how California really doesn’t get it about water, San Jose has declared a water shortage, imposing new rules on watering lawns – yet says it won’t enforce the rules, relying instead on a local water board to do it. We just moved from San Jose to Las Vegas. The San Luis Reservoir which supplies water to San Jose, is perilously low, yet San Jose apparently has little sense of urgency about conserving water. By contrast, here in Las Vegas, there are strict rules about watering lawns, which are enforced, with substantial fines for noncompliance.

California needs to get serious about water. Right now, it’s living in denial.

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Wealthy Montecito abuses water rules, highlights California drought problems

Lawn_water_hose

Goodness, you wouldn’t want to think Montecito mansion owners would follow water rules like other Californians. And too many of these arrogant rich don’t. Some are utter water pigs. They continue to use as much water as they want and pay fines instead. Plus they pump from wells and truck water in. Where is the trucked-in water coming from? No one is saying. However it’s no doubt from nearby, also drought-stricken, locations.

The top three users for Montecito in 2012/13 guzzled close to 30 million gallons alone. “That’s enough water to provide the needs of a small town.”

But conserving water is so for the little people. (Oprah is an exception, she has cut way back on water use, however she probably uses private wells and trucks water in too.) For the most part, wealthy scofflaws just pay the fines. Instead, How about continued abusers simply have their water shut off instead?

While the wealthy and arrogant are indeed a problem, there are deeper issues. California water law is a convoluted mess. The state has 440 water agencies, 12 in Santa Barbara County alone. The State Water Project sends water southward from the Sacramento Delta. Every water agency gets and must pay for their allocated share, even if they don’t get an allocation. Let me repeat that. They must pay for water even if none is delivered.

In January, the Department of Water Resources announced that there would be zero water from the state water project for the entire state. Never mind that Santa Barbara had already paid its $60 million for its 2014 annual share.

This is a broken water system.

This is probably unexpected news for Montecitoans, just now realizing what Central Valley farmers have known all along, that you have to pay into the state system the full price regardless of how much you get. Even if it’s zero. This is also true of other water districts including the giant Metropolitan Water District of SoCal which is a cooperative of 26 cities and water agencies serving 19 million people in six counties.

We wonder if the people of SoCal will ever realize they pay for water they don’t get.

 

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California can learn from Las Vegas about water reclamation

Clark-county-water-reclamation

Southern Nevada cleans 100 million gallons of sewage a day then pumps 90 million gallons a day back into Lake Mead for future use. The rest is used for irrigation and other gray water needs. Yes, what is flushed down the toilet in Las Vegas is turned back into drinking water, over and over again. You may go yuck. However the water is indeed clean, so really, what’s the problem?

This massive cleaning of water means Las Vegas can take way more than its allocated share of Lake Mead water, since it can reuse whatever it pumps in. There are no California cities to my knowledge that reclaim water on this scale. There should be. Water reclamation projects like these in Vegas should be common across the Southwest and California. There is no reason to waste increasing scarce water.

The bulk of the effort starts at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and the appropriately named Sludgemore Avenue. It’s the site of the Flamingo Water Resource Center, a Disneyland-sized facility on the eastern edge of the valley and Nevada’s largest wastewater treatment plant.

There, in a six-hour process involving biology and technology, sewage is purified of pollutants and made ready to be put back into Lake Mead, where it will be stored and pumped back out for final treatment before entering our faucets.

The Clark County Water Reclamation District has an informative narrated tour of the Flamingo Water Resource Center, the biggest in Vegas.

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