Colorado’s western slope water managers have doubled down on their position that they will oppose federal legislation creating a new regulated pool of water to boost the falling level of Lake Powell unless Colorado adopts a policy that the pool should be filled only on a voluntary basis. At a well-attended water meeting last week, Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, said that without a new state policy putting limits on how water can be stored in the big reservoir, “You will find that our district, the Southwest District and hopefully others will be, frankly, opposing the federal legislation.”
The spring and summer of 2018 saw frenzied activity around California WaterFix, the latest iteration of a decades-long, on-again-off-again effort to convey fresh water from the Sacramento River to the South Delta export pumps while bypassing the Delta itself. Governor Jerry Brown has made WaterFix a top priority, but as his administration heads into its final months, the project – one of the largest infrastructure projects in state history – still faces a raft of uncertainties.
On November 6, California voters will decide the fate of Proposition 3 (the Water Supply and Water Quality Act of 2018), which authorizes the sale of $8.9 billion in new general obligation bonds for water-related infrastructure and environmental projects. This includes funds – most of which would be distributed through grants – for various projects related to water supply, watershed health, flood management, groundwater, facility upgrades and fish and wildlife habitat. Many are confused about the bond, and numerous organizations have taken positions supporting or opposing it. We at the Pacific Institute, a California-based think-tank focused on water, are taking no formal position on Proposition 3, opting instead to offer the voting public some insights into its complexities.
People in California and the Southwest are getting stingier with water, a story that’s told by the acre-foot. For years, water use has generally been described in terms of acre-foot per a certain number of households, keying off the image of an acre-foot as a football field a foot deep in water. The longtime rule of thumb: One acre-foot of water would supply the indoor and outdoor needs of two typical urban households for a year.
Oregon is known by many as a wet place, with persistent rain and forests enveloped in fog. This year is different. In a matter of just six weeks over the summer, one-third of Oregon was instead enveloped by extreme drought. That figure comes from the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), a branch of NOAA. The results also rank 86 percent of Oregon in severe drought territory, a slightly less severe category.
If it hadn’t been for the salt in the soils beneath his farm near Hotchkiss, Colorado, Tom Kay likely would not have been able to fully irrigate his corn field this past summer. Because he has salty soils, Kay was able to get government assistance to replace an old flood irrigation system with a center-pivot sprinkler system several years ago. Sprinklers place water more precisely where the crop needs it, so less water soaks below the root zone or runs off the fields. That means less salt from the soil gets carried into the Gunnison River and, subsequently, the Colorado River. Salty irrigation water causes crop losses downstream, which is why government money is available to do things like help Kay buy sprinklers.
Not long ago, the United Nations warned that water scarcity could be experienced by 40 percent of the world’s population by 2030. Last week, top U.N. scientists reported that problems associated with a warming climate, including drought, water scarcity and pollution, are likely to be worse than previously thought unless we work to hold the average global temperature rise to no more than 3.6F(1.5C). These warnings may seem daunting, but some of the world’s most influential companies are making strides that could significantly help alleviate worsening global water challenges.
Researchers at the University of California recently highlighted a flaw in state law that may prohibit diverting streamflow to recharge groundwater. The problem is that groundwater recharge by itself is not considered a “beneficial use” under state law, and meeting that definition is a requirement to obtain a permit to divert water. Officials at the State Water Resources Control Board, which oversees water rights, say the reality is not so clear-cut. In fact, existing rules allow most groundwater recharge projects to obtain a water right.
Much was written during California’s recent five-year drought about the amount of water used by almonds. The nuts have become California’s most lucrative agricultural commodity, and a major export product. Long before concerns about water use by almond growers emerged, the industry initiated measures to conserve water by embracing microirrigation systems. It has also become a leader in efforts such as recharging groundwater by flooding almond orchards during winter storms.
In 2012, the California Legislature passed a law stating that it is a human right to have safe drinking water. But it provided only meager funds for that purpose. Proposition 3, a water bond on the November ballot, includes $750 million for safe drinking water and safe wastewater disposal in disadvantaged communities, and to eliminate lead from water fountains in schools.