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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


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


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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Water crisis in the West. Central Arizona Project as model for what not to do

Arizona CAP

The Central Arizona Project flows from the Colorado River. Water is pumped uphill, then downhill to Phoenix and Tucson. The CAP transfers water from one basin to another. This basically screws everything up, creating artificial watersheds and increased battles over water, just like similar water projects in California.

Navajo Nation was left out out of CAP negotiations so they opted for coal plants on their land, resulting in environmental and cultural destruction. Large numbers of Navajo and Hopi were forced from where they were living, homes were bulldozed. Those coal plants still supply power for the city of Los Angeles.

Southwest society is based on a false promise of water. The builders of CAP probably knew there wouldn’t be enough water. Lake Mead is now approaching its lowest level ever since it was built. There is now a “structural deficit” of water in the seven states that rely on the Colorado.

The good news is, over and over again when communities approach the water cliff they discover they’ve been wasting water and quickly devise ways to use less. Very few if any communities disappear. Instead, they simply learn to adapt. Fighting is a zero sum game. Instead, collaboration is key and everyone uses less. Yes, gold courses and lawns in desert areas will probably eventually be banned.

Water scarcity is here to say. However, it is manageable.

This week on New Mexico in Focus, we conclude our series on the Water Crisis in the West: Thinking Like a Watershed with a discussion on water law and some potential innovative solutions to the water scarcity issues in the region. NMiF Producer Megan Kamerick speaks with John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal, author and historian Sonia Dickey and Mike Hamman, area manager with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation about the fallout from the Central Arizona Project, new collaborations among unlikely groups to deal with water scarcity and the meaning of watershed after decades of water basin transfers and massive engineering projects.

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Living with Water Scarcity. David Zetland


Water economist and Aguanomics blogger David Zetland discusses water scarcity, the politics of water, human rights to water, and of course, the economics of water in his new book Living With Water Scarcity. Zetland is well-known in the world of water geeks and blogs prolifically, over 5,000 posts so far about water.

Do you worry that there is not enough water for people, the economy and environment? Do you wonder if the water in our taps and rivers is safe or polluted? Do you want to know if farmers waste water, utilities charge too much, or bottled water destroys ecosystems? You’re not alone in asking questions. The headlines say “drought, pollution, conflict and insecurity,” but the stories offer few solutions.

Living with Water Scarcity clarifies the connections among personal and social water flows in an accessible style. It describes the origins and costs of water scarcity and explains how to address it with fair and pragmatic policies. You and your community can live with water scarcity — just manage water as the precious resource it is.

The paperback is $9, the Kindle version is $5, and you can download a PDF for free because he wants to get the word out.

That’s why I’m happy to say that at least 900 people have downloaded the book in the past few days. That’s triple the number who bought copies in the past four months. It seems that many people want to understand water scarcity, but few people have an idea of the value of that knowledge. Perhaps reading will help them get a better idea.
Bottom Line: My book is free, but your time is not. Check it out, then tell me if it helps you understand water issues and help your community.

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California may finally regulate groundwater pumping by Big Ag, cities


California is the only state in the West that does not fully regulate groundwater pumping. This may finally be about to change. It’s long overdue. Aquifers are being drained, ground is sinking in affected areas, yet some farmers and cities aren’t required to have water meters or regulate the water they use from wells. Decades of foolish water policy are finally catching up with California due to the drought.

In what would be the most significant water law passed in California in nearly 50 years, lawmakers in Sacramento are working with Gov. Jerry Brown on a landmark measure to regulate groundwater pumping for the first time.

Although landowners who want to divert water from reservoirs and rivers have been required to get a permit from the state since 1914, farmers and cities who tap underground aquifers — California’s largest water source — can pump as much as they want, when they want and with almost no oversight or limits.

Unregulated groundwater pumping hurts everyone in California, while making a few wealthy. It needs to be stopped now. Plus, the cost of water to Big Ag and cities needs to rise, something which will also cut usage. This means everyone pays more for water and food. That’s just how it’s going to be.

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Water-well drillers backlogged in sinking California Central Valley

Credit: Credit: Amy Quinton, Capital Public Radio

Credit: Credit: Amy Quinton, Capital Public Radio

The agricultural heartland that is the California Central Valley is slowing sinking as groundwater is pumped out at a furious rate due to the drought. Subsidence, the sinking of land due to pumping water out of aquifers, causes major problems for canals, water pipes, roads, and more.. In some areas the land is sinking a foot a year.

Since it is impossible reinforce underground aquifers, when the land sinks it takes whatever is on top along for the ride. Sneed warns that because most infrastructure isn’t very flexible, like roads, railways and pipelines, they end up being broken or impacted because of subsidence.

California is the only state in the western United States that does not regulate groundwater pumping. There are currently bills in both the Assembly and state Senate that would change that.

Once land sinks, it never comes back to the previous levels.

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Prioritizing water for people over agriculture in Arizona

Central Arizona Project

Central Arizona Project

As the Southwest drought continues, water increasingly will be diverted from agriculture to cities, reducing the amount of land used for crops. This will lead to increases in the price of food and competition between cities and agriculture for water, as is starting to happen in Arizona now.

We are not suggesting farmers should use as much water as they wish; they must be given incentives to adopt water-saving strategies. Philanthropist Howard Buffett, who farms in Cochise County, recently said, “I don’t believe there should be a single acre of flood irrigation (for row crops) in Arizona. If we fully adopt drip and center pivot systems, it is realistic for Arizona farmers to cut their water use in half.”

59 percent of Arizonans surveyed strongly support reserving Arizona’s water for local food production, while 33 percent felt it somewhat important to consider local food production in the future allocations of Arizona’s water supplies.

Further complicating this is the thicket of arcane water law governing who gets what and when. Arizona cities have junior water rights to California Imperial Valley farmers. However it is inconceivable water would be shut off to Arizona cities while CA Big Ag got its full allotment. If things really got dire, water law would simply be ignored.

‘Tucson and other Arizona cities have made huge advancement in water management. Tucson has made a 90% reduction in groundwater pumping since 1994 even as its population has increased.

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San Luis Reservoir in Pacheco Pass CA is very low


The San Luis Reservoir stores water for San Jose and other cities and also provides hydropower. As you can see, it is very low. In a normal year, the water would probably be 50 feet higher.  A farmer’s pond on the way to it was mostly full two months ago. Today it was dry. The San Luis Reservoir is on  CA-152 between I-5 and CA-101 at Gilroy.

Yeah, yeah, I know, it should be in landscape mode but hey, it was 110 and I hiked up a steep hill in sandals to take it!

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Potential water shortages made worse by electricity production

Wind farm and solar panel

The biggest use of water in the US, 41%, is for power generation. Coal, natural gas, and nuclear power require large amounts of water for cooling. The same is true in other countries, many of whom are also facing water shortages. A new study says this should be a primary reason to move to wind and solar PV, because they require practically no water. In addition, another major use of electricity is to move water, especially in arid areas. In California, 19% of power was used to pump water in 2011. Thus, 60% of total California water usage is for creating energy and pumping water. Running faster and faster to stay in the same place?

During the summer of 2011, Texas experienced the worst drought in state history.

One of the main reasons residents did not experience blackouts that summer was Texas’ wind energy production, the researchers said. At least 10 percent of the state’s energy needs were provided by wind that summer, up to 18 percent on some days — making it an important alternative to nuclear, coal and natural gas.

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Bob Morris


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