A final draft plan for the San Joaquin River system has been released by state water regulators. It was met with howls of outrage over reductions in the amount of water that could be sucked out of the river. The plan was labeled a “water grab” and the “the first shot in a new water war.” But Friday the State Water Board also released a “framework” for a similar plan being prepared for the Sacramento River watershed, which would see even larger reductions of diversions in the north valley.
The creation of California’s water supply and delivery system generations ago was a feat of innovation and engineering that allowed the state to become one of the most desired places in the country to live today. For decades, these traditional supplies supported the competing demands of our diverse population, but over time they have become stretched by drought, population growth and climate change. Today, many communities are struggling to determine how they will meet future water needs; some are already unable to provide for present ones. Our changing water needs are serious and no laughing matter.
Arizona is the odd state out in agreeing to dramatically curtail water use from the Colorado River, raising tensions in the Southwest as extreme drought conditions return. At issue are falling water levels at the West’s biggest reservoir, Lake Mead. Having already dropped by more than 150 feet over the past two decades to 1,077 feet, the Nevada reservoir is two feet shy of falling below a federal threshold that can trigger mandatory cutbacks by U.S. officials.
For the first time in well over a year, a clear path exists for completion of Arizona’s share of a three-state drought plan for the Colorado River. The plan would step up already-approved requirements for cuts in water deliveries to Arizona, Nevada and eventually California as Lake Mead drops below certain key levels. While many hurdles and potential disputes remain, water officials said last week they’re ready to work together and hold public meetings to solicit comments on the plan from various water users and other interest groups. The first such meeting will be held July 26 in the Phoenix area.
Why is water is such a contentious issue? Water is a scarce resource, especially in California where rainfall is so inconsistent. Compounding capricious hydrological cycles, the southern part of the state gets very little precipitation. This means that nearly all water must be pumped in from Northern California or the Colorado River. Controlling that water is big business. There seems to be an endless stream of litigation concerning water rights and the cost of transporting supplies. It’s important to remember that water is not only crucial for taking showers and doing dishes.
If the most powerful water officials in San Diego get their way, the county will ratchet down to a trickle one of its cheapest sources of water in the next two decades. Local officials say ongoing efforts to secure alternatives to the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California — known as the Met — have safeguarded businesses and residents against crippling cuts triggered during prolonged drought. However, the strategy of the San Diego County Water Authority to move away from Southern California’s largest wholesaler has come with a cost.
After a detailed – and dire – technical presentation from one of her experts, the commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on Thursday told an audience of water stakeholders that officials weren’t trying to scare people, only make plain the risks of historically low levels on Lake Mead. Commissioner Brenda Burman and other federal officials urged, cajoled and pushed Arizona to finalize a so-called Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan. The plan identifies earlier, steeper cuts to water users than those mandated by a 2007 agreement to decrease the risk of a rapid decline in lake level.
Arizona water officials committed Thursday to reach a multi-state plan by the end of the year to stave off Colorado River water shortages, or at least lessen the impact. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has been prodding Western states to wrap up drought contingency plans, one each in the lower and upper basins. Little snowpack, rising temperatures and ongoing drought have led to steady declines in the river that serves 40 million people in seven U.S. states.
The citizens of Cape Town, South Africa are breathing a sigh of relief. “Day Zero,” when water taps for citizens and businesses shut off, had been projected to arrive in April. Restrictions on personal and agricultural water use have bought the city a reprieve. Yet a delay is not a solution. The city’s 4 million people, already constrained to 90-second showers and a meager 13 gallons of water a day, will eventually face a day of reckoning when the taps run dry.
The House on Wednesday night approved a nearly $3 billion bill to improve the nation’s ports, dams and harbors, protect against floods, restore shorelines and support other water-related projects. The Water Resources Development Act would authorize a host of projects nationwide, including nearly $1 billion for a massive project to stem coastal erosion in Galveston, Texas, and restore wetlands and marshes damaged by Hurricane Harvey.