wake up call on the Colorado River

I try to keep up with the latest news, but by no means could I use this blog to break news.  That said, developments in the past couple of days are must-reads for anyone interested in water resources.  The water in the southwest is just not there this year, folks, and it’s starting to dawn on people how precarious our water supplies can be.  The simple case is San Luis Reservoir, which supplies much of the South Bay – wealthy homes in Los Altos, Saratoga, and Cupertino, as well as industries in Silicon Valley.  The reservoir is at historic lows — 17% of full pool — because of one of the driest rainy seasons on record, combined with cutbacks in flows out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have cut off much of the typical inflows, while outflows, in the form of residential, industrial, and agricultural demand, continue unabated.  This year isn’t the year that water will have to be rationed within the San Jose area, according to officials, due to extra storage on-hand in groundwater and smaller reservoirs, but the Santa Clara Valley Water District should be pushing for conservation among its customers and a resolution to the long-term plans for the Bay-Delta, such as the tunnels, perhaps, to shore up their water reliability…

The reliability of the Colorado River’s flow has been debated since the first compact over-allocated the water rights based on wetter than average years.  We’re in a 14-year drought on the Colorado, and now 40 million people’s drinking water and some 15% of the nation’s produce depend on it.  Remarkable numbers, but that’s what happens when there’s only one “major” water source in a 7-state region, and it’s not even one of the top 25 rivers in the US in terms of discharge (at 1400 cubic ft per second on average, the Colorado is #28 of America’s 38 rivers over 500 miles long).  Lakes Powell and Mead, the largest two reservoirs in the US, help bridge the gap between high and low flows on the Colorado, but both are struggling to keep pace with the drawdown of the past 14 years.  Again, inflows are limited, and outflows just keep coming.

The Bureau of Reclamation, which operates both reservoirs, announced on Friday that less than 10% of the normal allocation would be available from Lake Powell this water year (starting October 1st), the lowest amount since the reservoirs were first filling in the 1960s.  This sets the stage for a legal “shortage” (also known as a “call”) to be declared in the next couple of years, which kicks in provisions to cut off water to Arizona, California, Nevada, and Mexico.  Arizona, last in line for water rights, loses supplies first, followed by Nevada and California.  Arizona will rely on its banked groundwater, stored in the “good years” of high runoff.  Las Vegas, which pulls supply from Lake Mead and discharges its treated wastewater into a tributary of the lake, will kick into gear a controversial plan to build a $7 billion pipeline to a groundwater resource in rural eastern Nevada, along the border with Utah.  And California’s farmers in the Imperial Valley, the largest consumers of Colorado River water, will have to be careful about taking only as much water as they’ve been allocated.

This can’t be a surprise to those who’ve been paying attention, from the Bureau of Reclamation’s farfetched feasibility study released last winter to the paper out of Scripps in 2008 that predicted a 50% chance that Lake Mead would be dry by 2021.  Savvy water managers across the southwest have been preparing policies and working out deals for what to do when the inevitable water shortage hits.  Thankfully this means resolution in a meeting room rather than in a court room.  But let’s hope that the public’s eye doesn’t forget this wake-up call if we have a particularly wet winter and seemingly resolve our troubles with plenty of water to go around.  We had a very wet year in 2011, which increased Lake Mead around 40-50 ft, and Lake Powell around 50 ft.  The problems did not go away; the “shortage” risk was merely delayed.

Las Vegas takes charge

The Colorado River is over-allocated, such that in any given year, states only receive a fraction of the quantity of water they were originally promised in 1922 (they also promised nothing to Mexico, but have subsequently revised that part).  I’ve been pretty skeptical that any major treaty would be able to modify that treaty, since so many people are fighting over the water.  But a new pact is set to avoid any international standoffs in the Colorado River basin, between the US and Mexico, and my favorite water manager, Pat Mulroy of SNWA is behind things again.

Las Vegas is in a tight spot, in that it gets its water supply from pipes in Lake Mead, and the lake levels have been declining to levels that threaten to go below the intake pipes (their straws would be sucking air, rather than water, at that point).  Uh-oh for Las Vegas.  So the city is motivated for all downstream Colorado River compact states (Nevada, Arizona, and California), and now Mexico, too, to store as much water as possible in Lake Mead.  (Note to Cadiz, Inc: You’re fighting an uphill battle — Nevada will practically pay California to store water behind Lake Mead…)

Under the agreement, negotiated by UN-style earpieces for translated dialogue, Lake Mead will store Mexico’s excess water in wet years, and allow withdrawals of that “bank” in dry years.  Mexico will also be able to store much of its water supply there temporarily for the next 5 years, while improvements are made to irrigation canals that were damaged in a 2010 earthquake.  Las Vegas and other municipalities will also pay for improvements to Mexican canals to decrease losses, and then use the quantity of water that was formerly “lost” from the system.

Some people don’t just wait for disaster to make opportunities — they plan for worst-case scenarios.  Las Vegas has a plan on the books to build another pipeline into Lake Mead, once the lake hits a certain low level.  By signing practical, clever deals like this one — which, by the way, are a win-win all around — they forestall that expensive construction item, and enhance the reliability of the system for everyone.  Mexico has also avoided the cost of building its own reservoir south of the border, which is significant.

Apparently water managers from Australia, Asia, and Africa are already interested in borrowing language and ideas from this pact.  Props to SNWA for taking the lead and seeing this important deal through.

canary in the coal mine

[*Note: Sorry I didn’t get this post up on Monday.  Things got away from me, being out of town this weekend for fun and then all day Monday for work.  We should be back on track for the rest of the week.*]

People like to talk about water issues in the West like they’re a special case. And by and large, they’re right — water scarcity in the Southwestern US brings up issues of water rights and alternate supplies well before they hit the rest of the country. But the rest of the country is not immune to water scarcity, despite the relative abundance of rainfall (San Diego: 10 inches per year; Boston: 42.5 inches per year; Atlanta: 50.2 inches per year). Really provocative thinkers propose grand schemes to save the West like piping water from the Great Lakes to the Colorado River. Well, besides a large number of Michiganders, Chicagoans, Wisconsinites and others who would insist that the West can’t have their water, things aren’t perfectly rosy in the Great Lakes.

In fact, Lake Michigan recently hit its record low. What happened? Lake levels vary quite a bit (a few feet) annually, but Lakes Michigan and Superior have been below the long-term average since the late 1990s.  Their main outflow, the St. Clair River, has been heavily dredged, which increases the rate water exits the lake basins.  Add in a touch of climate change (you may have heard of the spectacular drought across the US this year), and there’s just not as much water in the system.

I don’t know what the answer is here, but it is worth pointing out that water mismanagement–or perhaps, lack of management–is a nationwide issue.  The impacts may hit the Southwest first, but the story of water scarcity across this country is not going away any time soon.

please put this lady in charge of everything

Las Vegas is known as a water-intensive place in the middle of the desert — the fountains in the Bellagio, the canals at the Venetian, the pirate ship at Treasure Island.  But you might be surprised to know that its per-capita water use is tiny.  The city uses 3% of the state’s water and produces some 70% of its revenue.  How does that happen?  Well, there was a multi-year drought about 20 years ago that brought this to the forefront of developers’ minds (they were required to attach proof of water supply to their development plans and SEC filings).  Also, the regional water agencies merged to form the Southern Nevada Water Authority, and they put this woman in charge: Pat Mulroy.

Pat Mulroy, in my opinion, is one of the savviest water politicians in this country.  Because of its location, Las Vegas has had to adopt cutting edge water recycling technology (water comes out of a pipe in Lake Mead, gets used in Vegas, and discharged to Las Vegas Wash, which runs back into Lake Mead) as well as cutting edge policies to convince locals to dig up grass lawns in favor of desert landscaping.  SNWA has a very high-level analytical lab to make sure that trace organic compounds aren’t reaching the drinking water supply.  And Mrs. Mulroy has worked with regional water agencies as well as the other 6 states in the Colorado River Compact to come to an agreement about what to do when a major drought hits the southwest.

I had the pleasure of meeting Pat Mulroy, back at Eawag in Switzerland, where she kept an international audience rapt with her stories of getting things done and water policy-making in the “wild west”.  But you can see her give a talk at the recent WaterSmart Innovations Conference or just read the transcript of an interview she gave.  Either will give you a sense for her shrewd, yet no-nonsense manner.  I’m hoping that some bigger-name politician will recognize her for her work and make her Secretary of the Interior, so the country could have a truly sensible and effective federal water policy.  Heck, I’d elect her President based on what she’s been able to accomplish…

water v. ecosystems

Election season is gaining steam here in California (as a non-swing state, things have been a little later coming than in other parts of the country, I know).  So this means that the press is finally producing some in-depth coverage of ballot initiatives like Measure F in San Francisco, which would approve an $8-million study to remove and drain the Hetch Hetchy reservoir.  The San Jose Mercury looked into how long it would actually take for the Hetch Hetchy valley ecosystem to recover.  A lot of recovery would occur in the first 20 years after the dam removal, only with extensive help from volunteers to ensure that invasive species don’t take over the valley.  Ultimately, though, it would probably take 100-150 years before a visitor to the valley would have no visual evidence of the former reservoir.  Worth noting, sure.

But what about removing the dam itself?  “Removing it would involve constant blasting and thousands of truck trips. A rail line might have to be built to carry away the debris.”  Sounds very pristine.  That blasting could even temporarily disturb parts of Yosemite, depending on how loud it is…

The real kicker is that no one understands the impact of the loss of water supply reliability.  Would anyone today suggest that the proximity of Lakes Powell and Mead on the Colorado River makes at least one of those reservoirs unnecessary?  Well, if not for the combined capacity of both, the Colorado River would not have been able to supply Arizona, Las Vegas, and Southern California for so long.  Lake Powell has been able to mitigate the effects of long-term drought,  with its storage varying from 22.5 million acre-feet in the mid-1980s to 9.9 million acre-feet in 2005.  Lake Mead has similarly ranged from 25 million acre-feet in 1983 down to 10.8 million acre-feet in 2010.  Yes, both are located in beautiful canyon country in the desert southwest, but these two dams have been able to sustain a loss of roughly 26.8 million acre-feet from the regional water supply between the 1980s and the mid- to late-2000s, without people having to forego drinking water.  The capacity of Lake Powell alone is 24 million acre-feet…think the system doesn’t need that extra buffer?

I won’t get into the issues around power generation from water supply dams, but suffice it to say, you should be skeptical of anyone promising complete ecosystem recovery with no impact on the water supply.  The other cities in the Bay Area that get their water from the Hetch Hetchy also have reason to be concerned — why should San Francisco get to determine the fate of the reservoir without any voter input from the other affected cities?

credit: San Jose Mercury News

Canadians are so practical

I’m contemplating a series of posts about quantity vs. reliability of water supplies, with a focus on California’s Bay-Delta/California Aqueduct project.  But that will have to wait a few more days.  So I’ll take a very brief hiatus from contentious water supply issues to discuss amicable water supply management.  In what may not surprise you, this story of reasonableness and amicable negotiations comes to us from Canada, our friends to the north.

The Columbia River Treaty, prepared in 1964, agreed to install lots of electricity generation on the Columbia River and its tributaries, as well as store spring runoff in 4 major dams, alleviating previous risks of destructive flooding.  The treaty is novel to this day because it doesn’t have an expiration date, and either the US or Canada could cancel most of its provisions after September 2024, with a 10-year minimum notice.  American regulators at the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration are reviewing the treaty, in consultation with 15 Northwest tribes, the four northwestern states, and other federal agencies.  Notably, in 1964, few environmental regulations existed, so the treaty does not address endangered salmon runs or climate change.  (You can also tell that it preceded our spiral into lawyer-dom: the entire treaty is a mere 20 pages.)

So the treaty is being re-evaluated, ahead of time, for the benefit of the environment, and perhaps the US government.  How tame.  Go figure.

In contrast, the far more stressed Colorado River system is managed more on-the-fly, relying upon a document written in 1922 based upon flow data that is now known to be greater than the long-term average — in essence, 7 American states overallocated the entire river flow, such that no flow was intended to reach Mexico.  Subsequent negotiation has carved out an allotment for Mexico (a pittance), but the basic problem remains: too many people in the southwest rely upon the Colorado River to survive an extreme drought.  Maybe we should be trying to renegotiate that treaty, too…

if you build it, the water will come

I’ve mentioned before that Cadiz, Inc. is trying to get approval to extract groundwater from the Mojave desert near Cadiz to sell it to water agencies in southern California.  The big part of their plan that left me confused was their plan to overextract the groundwater for 50 years, then allow the water table to recover for 50 years.  Why not pump at the recharge rate, rather than at a rate at least 1.5 times the recharge rate?  One obvious reason is to make money: 50,000 acre feet/year (AF/y) makes you a player in SoCal water resources; 5,000 AF/y does not.

I read through the Cadiz project’s draft EIR (the whole document is nearly 3000 pages! that’s crazy!), and their rationale is that they need to get the existing groundwater out of the way, so that they will have space for all the surface water that they’re going to store in the aquifer.  If you store water in the aquifer in its current state, it will just induce faster flow towards the dry lake basins, and much of the stored water will be lost to evaporation.  But if you make the space for it, you can store as much water as you need, for an indefinite period.  This phase of their project is “Phase II”.  Phase I was when they got about 10 smaller water agencies in southern California to sign on to buy the Cadiz water, if it’s ever produced.  So, who will store their water in the Cadiz aquifer?  So far, no one.

There are a couple of reasons why no one has signed up.  First of all, no one has extra water.  It has been pretty darn dry of late, and climatologists suggest this is the trend for the future.  Second, if Metropolitan Water District of SoCal (MWD) gets extra water from the Colorado River, they store it in Lake Mead, which has plenty of space right now (51% full at the moment).  The Colorado Aqueduct already operates at full capacity, so they can’t immediately deliver extra water even if they get it.  Third, the State Water Project’s supply from the Bay-Delta region is up in the air, due to endangered species issues for the delta smelt, and even if a peripheral canal of some sort is built, don’t expect the other stakeholders in the California Aqueduct to go along with sending all the “excess” water towards water-hungry L.A.  A fourth and final point is that in the first generation of this Cadiz project, geologists recognized naturally occurring arsenic and chromium in the Cadiz valley groundwater.  Arsenic and chromium geochemistry is such that adding oxygenated surface water to the groundwater could, in fact, enhance mobilization of arsenic and chromium into the stored groundwater, making it toxic during storage, so that it would need expensive treatment before it could be delivered to customers.  I certainly wouldn’t want to bank my future water supply in that aquifer without a lot more study!

I’m a big proponent of water recycling and innovative water storage solutions, such as managed underground storage, but this project is not about sustainable water management — it’s about money.  And Cadiz, Inc. plans to make a lot of it by withdrawing a bunch of groundwater from a remote desert valley, regardless of whether phantom water deposits ever show up.

Who deserves the water?

Something that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is water.  Typical.  Specifically, where major American cities get their water.  European cities were historically built on rivers or lakes, where an obvious clean water source could be found.  They developed common sense procedures like withdrawing drinking water upstream of discharging wastewater.  In the US, major cities also developed on rivers, but city planners looked further afield to remote unpopulated water basins to deliver higher quality and sometimes greater quantities of water.  In fact, even today, the highest rated tap water, according to its consumers, comes from New York City, which tapped watersheds up to 163 miles away in the Catskills, and San Francisco, which tapped the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in what would later become Yosemite, 167 miles away.  The east side of the San Francisco Bay, which includes Berkeley, where I currently live, and Oakland, where I currently work, gets its water from one watershed north of the Hetch-Hetchy basin.

In light of this reality, maybe the diversion of the Owens and Colorado Rivers into the Los Angeles Aqueduct and Colorado River Aqueduct, respectively, isn’t so bad – it’s just a longer distance (419 miles and 242 miles) than the aqueducts used by the “environmentally conscious” San Francisco Bay Area.  And Atlanta, my hometown, can’t really be blamed for taking as much water as possible from the Chattahoochee River just to the north.  The city is located in a relatively resource-poor area when it comes to surface water, and the Supreme Court recently affirmed its right to the waters of Lake Lanier (though the exact quantity is still TBA).

Las Vegas is located essentially on Lake Mead, and gets its drinking water from the lake as well as discharges its treated wastewater to the lake.  Is this more sustainable than Phoenix, whose recent growth relies on the availability of the Colorado River, 336 miles away?  I’m having a hard time judging cities in their pursuit of water resources from remote, pristine areas, because very few American cities are located adjacent to sufficient water supplies.  Environmentalists in San Francisco bemoan the fate of the salmon in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta, whose habitat is shrinking due to water grabs from southern California and the Central Valley, but their water comes from an area that was literally made into a National Park!  Water supply inevitably involves some big tradeoffs, so “Let he who is without blame cast the first stone”…