Virgin River Gorge. Spectacular scenery, low water


The Virgin River Gorge is on I-15 on a sliver of Arizona in between Utah and Nevada. It is spectacular. The river is quite low. In a normal year, where my brother-in-law is standing would be under water in April and fording it would be difficult if not impossible.


The cliffs are quite amazing, especially the layers of sediment.


Cholla flower


Datura, a hallucinogen


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San Diego desalination plant opening in November


The Carlsbad Desalination Project will be the biggest desal plant in the western hemisphere when it open in November in San Diego. While the price of desalination is dropping, it is still quite expensive and is problematic in two ways. 1) The salt is dumped back into the ocean, adversely affecting marine life. 2) Desal requires large amounts of electricity, which mostly comes from non-renewable sources now, increasing carbon emissions. Also electricity generation often requires substantial amounts of water for cooling. Thus, water is used to generated energy which is used to desalinate water. Hmm.

Renewable energy from wind and PV solar uses practically no water and could be a long-term solution to the interconnected problem of the relationship between water and electricity creation.

The project will generate 50 million gallons of water a day, enough for 7% of San Diego and will cost about $1 billion.

Desalinated water will be more expensive than imported water when it comes online,” Jones said. “But soon, imported water rates will continue to rise and imported water will be more expensive than desalinated water. And what we need to look at as consumers is what is the cost of not having water at all.”

Paying to offset emissions elsewhere for damage the plant will do is not sustainable or a solution.

The company developing the plant here, Poseidon Water, has promised to counter the environmental damage. For instance, it will pay into a California program that finances projects to offset emissions of greenhouse gases.

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Jerry Brown to Sacramento Delta. Drop dead

Sacramento Delta farming

Jerry Brown wants his two big tunnels from the Sacramento Delta so badly he now proposes build them with no guarantee the Delta will be restored or protected. I guess he figures the Delta can’t be saved if his big tunnels divert water, sending it south to big ag and southern California. Thus, Emperor Jerry proclaims Delta fishing and agriculture can just go suck air (literally, since they won’t have much water to pump) so big labor, Wall Street banks, and Californians south of the Delta will benefit. What that, you, ask, what does Wall Street have to do with this? Investment banks will underwrite the billions in bonds. Big labor will build the tunnels. Big ag and all those donors and voters in southern California get more water.

Brown administration is proposing a major and politically risky change: dropping a 50-year guarantee to restore the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta’s environment. A centerpiece of the project, the environmental plan included $8 billion to preserve 100,000 acres of wetlands and dozens of other restoration efforts.

The dramatic course correction, whose details have not yet been made public, comes after biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal agencies told the state they won’t issue permits for the environmental plan. The reasons, the biologists say, is that the state cannot prove it will restore salmon, smelt, sturgeon and other wildlife struggling for survival in the Delta.

The tunnels apparently can’t happen if the State of California has to at least pretend to care for the Delta, so Brown chooses to just ignore the Delta instead. Good luck with that, governor. Northern California will fight this with heat seeking missiles plus the presumed beneficiaries of the tunnels would be no protection against lawsuits and decisions by the feds. And Brown needs them to help finance the water grab.

Meanwhile, water is mysteriously disappearing from the Delta, which has some of the most fertile farmland anywhere.. Well, it’s probably not so mysterious at all. Delta farmers are grabbing it claiming their senior water rights allow it. It certainly doesn’t help that California water laws is so lame that farmers can self-report on what they use or that water law is a convoluted, archaic mess.

A state investigation was launched after complaints from two large agencies that supply water to arid farmland in the Central Valley and to millions of residents as far south as San Diego.

Delta farmers don’t deny using as much water as they need. But they say they’re not stealing it because their history of living at the water’s edge gives them that right. Still, they have been asked to report how much water they’re pumping and to prove their legal rights to it.

I would suspect wholesale theft / diversion of water is happening everywhere in California now, as water is in short supply and the state is comatose about enforcing existing laws. If the drought continues, this trend will increase.

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Sorry disaster porn fans, California droughtpocalyse unlikely

Even if California has a mega-drought lasting decades, chances are it will continue to thrive and prosper, albeit in different form, say NASA scientists. Southern California forests will morph into grasslands and shrubs, helped along by the ever-hungry pine bark beetle, something which could happen disastrously quickly. Big agriculture will be forced by cities to cut acreage substantially. California almonds may well become unobtainable, as will winter fruits and veggies. However, with planning and foresight, California will do fine, even if droughts continue and climate change effects increase.

Despite the drier conditions and the apocalyptic headlines, California is unlikely to become a parched, uninhabitable hellscape, experts say. Southern California’s forest may transform into scrub and grassland. And a drier climate may force a transformation or reduction of the state’s agricultural economy. But with some forethought and planning, the state should have enough water to support the millions of people who live there, experts say.

Mandating drip irrigation and drought-tolerant crops will happen. It matters not how much big ag squeals. In a serious war for water between cities and farming, cities will win. And really, planting water-whore crops in deserts where water comes from hundreds of miles away or via wells is both unsustainable and will, soon enough, be seen as criminally irresponsible.

Desalination plants will help. However desal can’t possibly supply enough water for all of California. San Diego will have a desal plant soon, and it will supply just 6% of that area’s needs. Desalination is also expensive, and getting permits and past NIMBYs can take years. Permitting for the San Diego plant took fifteen years…

Lawns with grass will probably have to go away. New reservoirs will be built. The entire convoluted system of California water delivery, which relies mostly on Sierra snowpack, needs to be reinvented.

California has built complex systems for managing water policy and infrastructure, but those systems need to be rethought.

“Those were all built in an old climate, and the reality is, we’re in a new climate,” Diffenbaugh said.

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California drought due to food it produces for the US

California almond orchard photo

Almond orchard. Photo by USDAgov

80% of California’s water goes to big agriculture. This food feeds the nation. Eliminate big ag in California and there will be plenty of water for people. This would also mean few winter vegetables and fruits. Food prices would rise. The economy of California would take a hit if agriculture stopped, but it would not crippled. Hundreds of thousands of acres have already been fallowed, so in a way the process has already begun.

California has indeed made numerous mistakes in managing its water. However, if you live in the East Coast and like almonds, then maybe you shouldn’t get too snarky about how California is getting its comeuppance.

If this drought is a sign of climates to come, California has plenty of water to support its lifestyle. It just won’t have enough to support its crops, without significant changes to make those farms more water-efficient. It seems bizarre that a region like the Central Valley with just six million people—barely more than 10% of the state’s population—should use 80% of the water. But then you realize that the vast majority of people benefiting from that water don’t live in California at all. The Central Valley takes up only 1% of the landmass of the United States, but it produces 25% of the food we eat, and almost half of the fruits or nuts we consume.

California is running through its water supply because, for complicated historical and climatological reasons, it has taken on the burden of feeding the rest of the country.

California also has mostly non-existent laws governing groundwater pumping. This needs to change and change quickly. Strict groundwater pumping rules will inevitably mean less agriculture production so East Coasters might want to stock up on almonds now.

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Lake Isabella boat ramp with dam in background

Kern River and Lake Isabella getting clobbered by drought

Lake Isabella boat ramp with dam in background

Lake Isabella boat ramp with dam in background

We took the scenic route driving back from Bakersfield yesterday, up CA-178. The Kern River is little more than a stream now, at a time when it should be filled with spring snowmelt. The town of Lake Isabella has many boarded-up motels and restaurants. It relies hugely on tourism from the lake and whitewater rafting. Right now, the lake, which is a primary water source for Bakersfield, is at 12% of its reduced full capacity of 60% and is lower than when built. (Capacity was reduced to 60% in 2006 when potential problems were found in the earth dam.)

As you can see from the photo, the boat ramp is way above where water is now. It took me a few seconds to realize the dam in the background is meant to hold in water on this side of the dam. However, as is obvious, there is no water to hold back. We passed a lodge restaurant with a stunning view of the lake. It was deserted, clearly not open, because there is no lake to look at, just fields. On a beautiful Spring day, there were no boats in the lake. Clearly, the little town of Lake Isabella is hurting.

Driving through the Lake Isabella area we saw Joshua Trees and yuccas interspersed with pinions and evergreens. It’s a weird mix of desert and Sierras. I don’t know if the Joshua Trees have always been there or if they are moving in.

Lake Isabella water line is way below normal.

Lake Isabella water line is way below normal. It should be a bit below where this photo was taken.

The Kern River on CA-178 is perilously low

The Kern River on CA-178 is perilously low

Lake Isabella. Those are trees sticking out of the lake which have been flooded for decades.

Lake Isabella. Those are trees sticking out of the lake, which have been flooded for decades.

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Mitigating CA drought. Raise prices, buy or seize ag water


To mitigate the drought, California should 1) raise the price of water for everyone on a sliding scale that increases the cost as more is used 2) Buy water from Central and Imperial Valley farms. Oh, they may squawk a bit yet will probably end up doing quite well financially for no work at all. 3) If they refuse to sell the water, seize it.

Agriculture in California uses 80% of the water, cities use 20%. However, in a serious battle between the two, the cities will win, and everyone knows this. And it may come down to that. However Governor Moonbeam isn’t helping much.

Aguanomics slams Gov. Jerry Brown saying “put down the bong and listen

Sadly, his orders appear to mix up agricultural (80%) with urban (20%) use, i.e., he talks about lawns and urban prices (two worthy targets!) while “missing” the role of agriculture.

Let me help: farmers use 80 percent of “developed” water… and more if you consider groundwater. Therefore, I suggest that Brown shut down irrigation and pay off farmers [for surface water], so there’s more water for cities people.

Given that almond crops produce a profit of $1,500/acre with the consumption of 4 acre feet of water,* it seems reasonable to pay $375/af of water, but let’s be generous and say $1,000/af. I’m pretty sure that that offer would probably get so many volunteers that the Gov wouldn’t even need to condemn the water.

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Sierras snowpack one-third less than smallest on record


The bulk of California’s water comes from Sierras snowpack. This year, the snowpack numbers are dreadful. The worst ever previous snowpack was 25% of normal in 1997. This season, which ends April 1, it is a mind-numbing 8%. However, this does not yet herald  The End Of The World As California Knows It. Read on!

Snowmelt from the Sierras flows down to the Sacramento Delta, and then southward via aqueducts to the Central Valley and southern California. In a good rain year, there are too many interests competing for too little water in the Sacramento Delta. This year there will be much less water than normal.

The Colorado River basin had a good year, 90% of normal. However Imperial Valley CA agriculture and southern California lay a big claim to that water, as least 20%, much of which goes for agriculture in a baking desert. They use Lake Mead water for that, as does Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Tucson. If the California drought continues, the big cities of the southwest will almost certainly act to prevent the Imperial Valley from taking its 20% share of all Colorado River water.

However, it may not need to get that. Some wise and calming words from California Water Blog.

Statistically, last year’s drought is about a one in 15-30 year event. With a changing climate and growing water demands, we should prepare for such droughts occurring more than once a generation.

California will not run out of water this year, or next, if we are careful. We will respond mostly as we did last year, with some modest changes.

In rough order of importance, California will make up most of this year’s water shortage by:

  • Additional groundwater withdrawals of perhaps 5 million or more acre-feet
  • Reductions in urban and environmental water uses and agricultural fallowing — totaling perhaps 4 million acre-feet
  • Shifting perhaps 1 millon acre-feet of water use from lower to higher economic values through water markets
  • Depleting reservoir storage by perhaps 1-2 million acre-feet
  • Increasing wastewater reuse and other conservation efforts

Another problem for California is less water means less hydropower, which results in  reduced supplies of electricity.

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Las Vegas Wash

Las Vegas Wash. 85% of this water is already reclaimed

Las Vegas Wash

Las Vegas Wash

Las Vegas has complete toilet-to-tap water. Indoor water is reclaimed, cleaned up, then filtered through various wetlands. 150 millions gallons of water a day come through the Las Vegas Wash, next to the Clark County Wetlands Park, on its way to Lake Las Vegas and then Lake Mead, where it will be reused over and over. 85% of water coming down this wash has already been reclaimed at least once. Wetlands help clean the water further, as does Lake Las Vegas.

During a flash flood in 1999, 4.5 billion gallons came down the wash in 24 hours. That’s why the wash is so wide. It’s meant to handle massive, not-infrequent desert floods.

Casino rubble is used to line channel in Las Vegas Wash

Casino rubble is used to line channel in Las Vegas Wash

Rubble from torn-down casinos has been used to line the channel in Wetlands Park.

Clark County Wetlands Park pond

Clark County Wetlands Park pond

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Hoover Dam, March 2015.  Photo: John Fleck

Western states to California. Fix the Sacramento Delta now

Hoover Dam, March 2015.  Photo: John Fleck

Hoover Dam, March 2015. Photo: John Fleck

Pat Mulroy, former head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, says California must fix Sacramento Delta water problems now, because the western states are in this together, what happens in the Delta affects Colorado River water usage, and vice versa. However, so far, the Colorado River community has been way more proactive, dare I say “awake”, than California has been.

The regional water situation is bad and getting worse. Yes, things are better in the Colorado River basin this year, but are much worse in California. Southern California uses 20% of Colorado water (mostly for agriculture, but also for Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego.) At some point circumstances may force that to change. And at some point Californians will need to take conservation seriously. This will probably be very soon.

Last year was bad. The Sierras were hit, the Colorado was hit, and Lake Mead plummeted. Metropolitan had to draw significant amounts out of Lake Mead, despite the fact that the reservoir was already going to plummet. The Colorado River community understood.

This year, it’s going to be worse. Whatever storage was in Southern California has been exhausted or at least severely diminished and Lake Mead’s going down again. Yes, we have snow. Right now it sits at around 90% of normal in the Colorado River basin; but 90% is not 100% and normal is getting redefined every single day. So it is within our reach now to achieve that magic goal of breaking the shortage elevation in Lake Mead.

California to often thinks it exists in a little bubble and its comatose state legislature simply compounds the problems. I lived there for many years, as well as in Utah, and now Nevada. Other western state legislatures are capable of taking much faster action on pressing issues than California, which too often dithers over issues for years.

Many here in California still don’t see the connection. I’ve been up and down the Colorado River last year, speaking several times in Colorado, in New Mexico, in Arizona, and I have one message. In order to fix the larger problem facing the entire region, California has to resolve the Bay Delta issue. The two are interconnected. Everyone up and down the Colorado is watching what California’s doing in the Bay Delta, because what happens in the Delta matters in Denver.

It’s all one big system.

I have to reiterate the connections again for those of you who have not heard me say it, because it doesn’t seem to want to sink in. From Denver, down all the way up to San Francisco, it’s one huge interconnected plumbing system. It’s inseverable. And everyone’s actions matter.

But the Colorado River community is getting very nervous about what’s going on in California, and you are an integral part of the Colorado River community. Yet you don’t see it, unless you go boating at Lake Havasu or unless you come to Southern Nevada, or go to one of the other facilities on the Colorado River where you actually live in the area that is bordered by the Colorado River. You don’t see it.

But if you’re sitting in Southern California, you’re drinking that water. And it is distant and it is far, but it is a watershed that is just as much in stress as the Bay Delta is.

The message from the Colorado River community to the Bay Delta community is you’ve got to find a solution. You have got to find an answer

Among other immediate issues, California needs to strictly regulate groundwater pumping now. Not five years from now. Now.

Nevada has the strictest groundwater law in the United States. Groundwater and surface water are connected. The groundwater basins provide an opportunity. They are great storage reservoirs; we need to use them as such. Not everybody has the geology to be able to do it, and that’s where the strategic partnerships become invaluable. Just like we are paying Arizona to store their unused water in their groundwater basins for our future use.

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