Archive | Water

Salton Sea imperiled by smart water usage. Say what?

Salton Sea fish kill

Salton Sea fish kill

The Salton Sea, a huge salt water lake in southern California has been fed in modern times primarily by polluted agricultural run off. This causes fish kills. The Sea is also a major migratory stop for birds. Decreased water usage by surrounding farms means less water flows into the Salton Sea. This could lead to an environmental catastrophe as it dries up, nasty toxins are released, and dust storms carry them for miles.

If more water is released into the Salton Sea, then less Colorado River water is available for California, which puts more pressure on the Sacramento Delta, which doesn’t need more stress, thanks for asking.

There are no easy, painless answers here. The State of California or maybe the feds will have to intervene and it will be expensive. There really is no other option.

The problems of the Salton Sea, an inland water body fed by agricultural drainage from the Imperial Valley, are an integral part of the Colorado River story. As we pursue efficiency, agricultural drainage shrinks. And so, therefore, does the Sea.

The most significant problem caused by a dwindling Salton Sea may be a public health issue. As the Sea shrinks, exposed shoreline flats are dust storms waiting to happen, creating filthy air and a public health risk. Importantly, the most vulnerable population here is poor.

The current scheme for reducing water use in Imperial includes a trigger point that would lead to significant reduction in ag runoff and a shrinking sea beginning Dec. 31, 2017. That’s not far away. The water use piece is crucial to balancing California’s water books. Without those Imperial reductions, less Colorado River water would be available to municipal Southern California. A loss of water supply reliability there would increase pressure on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the other source of Southern California’s water.

So this is a statewide problem, but the poor folk of Imperial are being asked to bear a disproportionate burden in its solution.

Without planning, Lake Powell could dry up in another drought

Lake Powell bathtub ring. By Peter Fitzgerald, CC BY-SA 2.5

Lake Powell bathtub ring. By Peter Fitzgerald, CC BY-SA 2.5

Lake Powell provides water and electricity for multiple states. It was full when the drought of 2000-2005 hit. Today it is half full. A new study says another multi-year drought could dry it up to the point it could not generate power or provide needed water to states like Arizona, if nothing is done. Happily, the seven states who share Colorado River water are planning for the worst, and are confident they can survive most any drought.

Australia had a monster drought a while back and learned to use less water, and created contingency plans. The Southwest and California are doing the same, planning ahead. Lake Powell stores water from the Upper Basin states, releasing it as needed for the Lower Basin states (Nevada, Arizona, and California.) Every drop of water is allocated, often under insanely convoluted and archaic agreements.

The Upper Basin is legally obligated to provide specific amounts of water to the Lower Basin. Lower Basin states are now negotiating agreements whereby they would get less water. Upper Basin states are working on cutting water use too.

The four Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — are devising a “three-legged stool plan” to protect Lake Powell.

One leg would involve reducing water demand by farmers and cities in the Upper Basin. The second would step up cloud-seeding programs to try to boost snowfall in the region. The third would transfer some water stored in the smaller Upper Basin reservoirs to Lake Powell.

Officials managing the effort say computer models show that taking these steps would reduce the risk of catastrophically low levels to near zero.

John Fleck

3,525 [above sea level] is the critical point below which we start to lose the ability to generate power and, more importantly, risk busting the Upper Basin’s compact delivery obligations to the Lower Basin

The point of the study is to help develop contingency plans ahead of time, so we have the tools in place to manage Powell’s decline before it turns into a mud puddle.

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.

Reduced consumption means no mandatory Lake Mead water reductions

Lake Mead bathtub ring 2010. (Credit:

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.

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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