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.

mandate for water

California had a few interesting outcomes from the elections a couple of weeks ago, when it comes to water.  Most of these were local ballot initiatives, like the “Restore Hetch Hetchy” proposition I’ve talked about before.  But one that’s a little more subtle is that the state legislature will have a Democratic supermajority to accompany Democratic governor Jerry Brown’s agenda for the next 2 years.  Brown is a moderate Democrat, so he won’t necessarily appeal to all Democrats, but he has set five near-term priorities:

  1. Calibrating state rules and regulations so they don’t discourage job creation and economic development
  2. Continuing work on the state’s high-speed rail project
  3. Evaluating the state’s education framework
  4. Delivering a budget to the Legislature in January
  5. Securing water reliability for the state

That last one is pretty interesting, considering that Gov. Brown has already issued the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, to build two massive tunnels to make deliveries to the Central Valley and Southern California more reliable.  Plus, remember that huge ballot initiative to spend $11 billion on improving water resources across the state, the one that was shelved so Gov. Brown’s education proposition would have more likelihood of success?  Well, the Democrats could pass it now, to the chagrin of small-government Republicans across the state (but on that note, if you’re a small-government Republican — let’s be honest — you live in the wrong state).

The state legislative analyst recently projected lower budget deficits and future budget surpluses for the state,  a first in a long time.  You know what legislators, especially big spenders, will want to do with budget surpluses?  Spend them!  Let’s hope that Gov. Brown’s priorities lead to wise spending on projects that the state needs (and you can guess which issues I’m biased towards…).

sausage making in Sacramento

California has water issues.  Let’s start with the fact that most of the population lives in the south and most of the rain falls in the north.  Add in the nation’s richest agricultural region in the middle, and you’ve got a recipe for water battles.  Most recently, the state government has been trying to pass water bond legislation for new dams and restoration of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta (the Delta), the source of the controversial State Water Project which delivers water from NorCal to SoCal.  The price tag of the bond is some $11 billion, making it larger than all previous water bonds, even the one that established the State Water Project 50 years ago.

Although the water bond has bipartisan support, it is actually opposed by groups on both ends of the political spectrum.  It’s a huge bill, which required tons of earmarks to acquire that bipartisan support.  For example, it attempts to compromise between building large dams and employing groundwater storage, though in my technical opinion, the era for building large dams has passed.  If the bill funds both types of projects, I would call that compromise by throwing more money at the problem…

Notably, the bill took a 2/3rds majority to pass in 2009, so that it could be put to a voter referendum in 2010.  But it was postponed to 2012, in its original form, while the problems it was meant to address continued evolving and the politicians that wrote the bill and required its earmarks left office.  The legislature just postponed the bond another 2 years so that the Governor’s own tax and bond ballot initiative can take priority this fall (who would vote for two giant bonds for an already bankrupt state??).

At this point, I have to wonder if California has any hope of passing serious water legislation.  If the legislators had 2/3rds on board to send the bond to the ballot, why couldn’t they just vote on it themselves back in 2009?  I’m betting 2/3rds did not want to stick their necks out on this controversial issue.  Who thought voter initiatives were a good idea?  They give the legislature the ability to punt issues to the less-well-informed public…and in the case of water, we need people who can get things done.  This is where democracy isn’t pretty.

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.