Written by NWNL Project Manager, Sarah Kearns
with Research by Jenna Petrone
“An unspoiled river is a very rare thing in this Nation today. Their flow and vitality have been harnessed by dams and too often they have been turned into open sewers by communities and by industries. It makes us all very fearful that all rivers will go this way unless somebody acts now to try to balance our river development.” — Lyndon B. Johnson, on signing the US Wild & Scenic Rivers Act in 1968.1
McKenzie River, Oregon, Columbia River Basin
On October 2 this year, the US will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act established to preserve rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values in their free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.2
At the time of enactment in 1968, eight rivers were given the designation of Wild & Scenic Rivers: Clearwater, Eleven Point, Feather, Rio Grande, Rogue, St. Croix, Salmon, and Wolf. As of December 2014, this National System, under the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, protects 12,734 miles of 208 rivers in 40 states and Puerto Rico. The total mileage of this system represents about .35% of US rivers, compared to the 17% of US rivers totaling 600,000 miles, that are currently dammed or modified by 75,000 large dams.3
While .35% is a shockingly small percentage, the official anniversary website reminds us to celebrate the Act’s accomplishments over the past fifty years. The growth from protecting only 8 rivers to protecting 208 rivers spanning 12,000 miles is a huge accomplishment. We encourage all to celebrate in order to look positively to the future when another 12,000 miles could be designated!
Missouri River, Nebraska, Mississippi River Basin
What exactly is a “Wild & Scenic River?”
Under this Act, Congress can designate a river under one of three classifications: wild, scenic, or recreational. A designated river can be a segment or stretch of a river, not only its entire length, and can also include tributaries.
How does a river get classified?
“Wild” River Classification: Rivers (or sections of rivers) that are “free of impoundments and generally inaccessible except by trail, with watersheds or shorelines essentially primitive and waters unpolluted.”
“Scenic” River Classification: Rivers (or sections of rivers) that are “free of impoundments, with shorelines or watersheds still largely primitive and shorelines largely undeveloped, but accessible in places by roads.”
“Recreational” River Classification: Rivers (or sections of rivers) that are “readily accessible by road or railroad, that may have some development along their shorelines, and that may have undergone some impoundment or diversion in the past.”4
Snake River, Washington, Columbia River Basin
It is important to note that the type of classification doesn’t change the type of protection each river or segment receives! All rivers/segments designated under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act are administered with the goal of protecting and enhancing the values that caused it to be designated to begin with. This protection is administered by federal or state agencies, which is provided through voluntary stewardship.5
Of the 208 rivers & river segments, 23 are located in NWNL’s US Case-Study Watersheds and Spotlights: Columbia River Basin, Mississippi River Basin and California. Between now and the official October 2 anniversary, we will post several more blogs with photographs of many of these designated rivers.
Merced River, California
How can you celebrate? NWNL encourages everyone to support all of our rivers and freshwater waterways, particularly the ones protected under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Acts. Swim in your local recreational river; go boating; organize a “Bioblitz;” join your local river stewardship organization; and most importantly, talk to your friends and families about why our river are so vital to our country! This interactive story map shows whether you live near a designated river or river segment! For more information about 50th Anniversary events, view the official National Wild and Scenic Rivers System toolkit.
St Croix River, Wisconsin, Mississippi River Basin
Development on edge of Columbia Wetlands, British Columbia
Worldwide, wetlands regulate floods, filter water, recharge aquifers, provide habitat, store carbon, and inspire photographers & artists.
Cyprus trees in Atchafalaya River Basin Wetlands, Louisiana
Wetlands control rain, snowmelt, and floodwater releases: mitigation that is more effective and less costly than man-made dams. Nearly 2 billion people live with high flood risk – This will increase as wetlands are lost or degraded.
Fishing boats among invasive water hyacinth in Lake Victoria, Tanzania
Wetlands absorb nitrogen and phosphorous which provides cleaner water downstream for drink water supplies, aquifers and reservoirs.
Woman collecting water in Maseru Swamp, Tanzania
Wetlands absorb heat by day and release is at night, moderating local climates.
Red-earred turtles in Bluebonnet Swamp, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
We all need the clean air, water, and protection from flooding that wetland forests provide. But up to 80% of wetland forests in the US South have disappeared. What are our standing wetland forests worth? Let’s be sure we invest in our wetland forests. (From dogwoodalliance.org) Worldwide, we must protect our wetlands.
Southern tip of Lake Havasu and incoming Williams River and its wetlands, Arizona
Essay and Photos by NWNL Director Alison M. Jones.
FIVE NWNL EXPEDITIONS have focused on CA’s recent multi-year drought, ended by winter 2017’s heavy snows and rains. I returned last week to report on any impacts from that drought – only to find drought is back already! Flying into Central California, I was stunned to see how arid this region is – again! It doesn’t take California long to dry out, especially with Climate Change consequences! This year, the state’s 2nd wettest winter was followed by its hottest summer. That combination on top of a 5-year accumulation of dead, droughty vegetation created this horrid tinderbox that is taking lives and destroying whole towns this week.
Sign warning of wildfire, in Kaweah River Valley, California, 2016
SINCE NWNL BEGAN IN 2007, our project has noted that wildfires degrade our rivers, streams, lakes and reservoirs. Losing forests means losing their storage and filtering of water in tree roots for later release. Forests also shade streams, creating cool habitats for fish, especially needed for spawning salmon and trout.
BUT, WE MISSED A 2007 ARTICLE noting high CO2 emissions from wildfires. Today, on a California hilltop above the Pacific Ocean, I’m monitoring the upcoming weekend’s Santa Ana winds and heat in the dry canyons behind me. Listening to local weather, I learned that 2 days of these CA fires emitted more CO2 than CA cars do in a year. Sadly, this worsens the global warming that intensifies hurricanes, sea level rise, droughts, high temperatures, local storms and yes, wildfires. Global warming is a vicious cycle we’ve created.
Forest fire smoke in the Kootenay Rockies, British Columbia, 2008
CALIFORNIA’S FIRE TSUNAMI rages on as I write, destroying lives and livelihoods. Its explosive blanket of kindling was created by 5 years of drought, as well as high temperatures and increased building on fire-prone hills. Now, the sweep of damaging urban wildfires has been lowered from treetops to rooftops. A NOAA analysis has connected these Oct 2017 CA fires to climate change, predicting that the state’s fire risks could quadruple by mid-century if CO2 emissions stay at current levels.
SINCE ARRIVING LAST WEEK, I’ve read much here in CA on how climate change and water-related consequences relate to wildfires. This year’s Whittier Fire above Lake Cachuma left its drainage slopes bare and vulnerable to massive erosion by future rains. Soil sliding into this reservoir will degrade water quality and decrease storage capacity for Santa Barbara’s main source of water. (Santa Barbara Independent, Sept 28-Oct 5, 2017, p 12). Also at peril from ravages of fire and landslides are municipal water infrastructure and distribution systems.
Lake Cachuma reservoir at 39% capacity from 3-year drought, 2014
A MORE GLOBAL FOCUS on this topic by Mongobay expands the impacts of wildfires beyond CA. Its weekly newsletter states that “forest degradation has turned the Amazon from carbon sink to carbon source; while globally, humanity’s carbon emissions are worsening drought and fires. Brazil’s rapid Amazon development deepens the problem. Researchers warn of mega-fires that could be coming, unless trends are reversed.”
TODAY, INDIVIDUALLY WE CAN ONLY HOPE for the best for Californians and their dramatically beautiful state. NWNL will keep raising awareness of the nexus of water-related issues, climate change and wildfires. Meanwhile, it’s time to reduce our individual CO2 footprints. We can offset our role in CO2 emissions by supporting climate-change research groups like TerraPass. For the record, all NWNL expedition travel and in-office energy consumption have been offset since we began in 2007.
Dry stream bed of the Santa Ynez River, California, 2014
TOMORROW, IT’S TIME TO DEMAND a much deeper commitment from our government to use every effort possible to stop wildfires, sea level rise, deadly heat waves, Category 5 hurricanes…. It’s simple, if we’ll look ahead, rather than gaze at today’s profit margins. Let’s not find ourselves mourning that we’ve stolen our youth’s future. Promoting ignorance with a myopic focus on today’s profits for a few will curse the future of all of us, even more than it has this month in Houston, Florida’’s Keys, The U. S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and now California.
Santa Ynez River, low stream bed due to 3-year drought, 2015
Mention of water usage in Las Vegas prompts most people to roll their eyes in exasperation. I saw this last week during a lecture on mega-droughts presented to an audience of environmentalists. Few realized that, rather than being the “ugly sister” of wise water consumption, Las Vegas – even with all casinos, glitz and fountains galore – is Cinderella’s fairy godmother waving a wand of solutions for arid communities.
This still-growing Nevada city is coping better than California with drought conditions, despite differences in the sources of their water supplies. Las Vegas draws from Lake Mead, the Colorado River reservoir dammed by Hoover Dam and known for the recreation it affords. California’s water users depend on aqueduct delivery of surface water (including the Colorado River) and groundwater reserves. But, nevertheless, their droughts elicit the same fears of the economic consequences of not having enough water.
Californians – and all those never thought of Las Vegas as being an environmental trendsetter – would do well to take heed of what’s happening in Las Vegas. The Economist Magazine (August 8, 2015, p 23-24) neatly summarized the ways southern Nevada has preemptively and quite successfully addressed water availability issues.
Las Vegas has banned front lawns. Now xeri-scaping with cactus, yucca plants and interesting desert rocks has become fashionable.
Las Vegas golf courses are now watered sparingly by “brown water.” New dramatic views of desert scenery offer intriguing contrasts beyond the greens.
Facing the reality of desert resources, Las Vegas now treats and recycles water used in homes, pools and fountains back to Lake Mead. Furthermore, if homeowners use more than their allotted amounts of water (per a tiered scale), they are charged at higher rates. Yet California’s arcane regulations discourage and in some places dis-allows scaled water-pricing incentives so as to reduce water consumption.
Perhaps Las Vegas is ahead of California because the Colorado River Basin is entering its 16th year of drought and California is only in its 5th year of record-breaking drought. Things aren’t always what we think. Solutions can come from surprising sources.
El Nino, despite its attendant floods and mudslides, may replenish California’s surface water resources; but geology teaches us it will be many years or decades before its groundwater resources will be restored. Additionally, history teaches us that El Nino is often followed by that drought-maker, La Nina. So – as fairy tales teach us – the frog may become a prince and the casino’s scullery maid may become stewardship’s “Belle of the Ball.” California, look towards Las Vegas!
For another comparison of states’ differing management of groundwater and Colorado River water, read this blog post by Meg Wilcox (of Ceres) for National Geographic (Sept 25, 2015)on Arizona’s tight water management of large-scale vegetable farms versus that of California. Wilcox quotes one Arizona farmer as saying: “We track water like we do financial statements.”
Blog Post by Alison M. Jones, Director of No Water No Life.
Almost 5 years of drought, now combined with recent rainfall-induced flooding, has weakened California’s levees. Culprits are soil cracking that allows water seepage, soil-strength reduction, land subsidence and erosion, all of which NWNL observed on its California Spotlight expeditions in 2014 and 2015. Fifty-five percent of California’s levee systems are now in danger of failing in the event of a flood or an earthquake. If the levees fail, water quality could be compromised for over 23 million people.
Levees are sand and clay earthen embankments which regulate water levels and protect dry land from floods. More research, risk science, community education and stakeholder collaboration are crucial to improving levee resilience.
“The End of California?” is the headline of Timothy Egan’s New York Times op ed piece for May 3. “California,” he says, “from this drought onward, will be a state transformed.… The Golden State may recover, but it won’t be the same place.”
As dire as that sounds, an aggressive statewide effort – to use water more efficiently, reuse wastewater and capture lost stormwater – could save enough water to serve 20 cities the size of Los Angeles every year, according to a new analysis released by the Pacific Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Now in its fourth year of drought, the state’s reservoirs are running low, lakes are turning into mud puddles, some rivers will go completely dry. The drought led to the death of 12.5 million trees in California forests last year, greatly increasing the danger of wildfires. The Sierra snowpack was only 5 percent of normal in April, following the driest winter on record.
Governor Jerry Brown ordered the first mandatory statewide water rationing for cities in early April.
Finding solutions to California’s water problems is no simple matter – but we must keep trying to find innovative and technological answers to better usage practices. Eighty-two percent of this large and varied state was in extreme or exceptional drought last November, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Value of CA water & farming
Eighty percent of the water used in California goes to farms, and nearly a fifth of the state’s energy use goes toward moving the water around, including pumping it over the mountains to Los Angeles.
Low-value crops have become uneconomical to farm in areas where water has become scarce and expensive. California’s Central Valley, through which the San Joaquin flows, grows 40% of U.S. fruits and 80% of the world’s almonds. These are high-value cash crops, but they need a lot of water. Ten percent of California’s water supply is used for almonds alone – many of which are exported overseas. Only the richest corporate farmers can survive in this drought.
The San Joaquin has federal protection, yet it is a river that is broken. Within living memory it was packed with an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 spring-run salmon. But now it is so over-drawn that a 40-mile stretch in its midsection is always dry. The migration route has been destroyed.
The Central Valley has increasingly high levels of groundwater pollution, some so bad that some people can’t drink from the tap. The extremely high rates of poverty in the Central Valley are also increasing since the lack of water for farms means fewer agricultural jobs are available. Access to the river is largely forbidden because it’s lined by private property; some people don’t even know it dries up not far from there.
Subsidence during this drought has been documented at nearly one foot per year near Los Banos due to excessive withdrawals of the groundwater. Still-expanding orchards of profitable almonds and fruit trees need water year round, not just during fruiting season – thus creating higher demands for irrigation and negating the former ability of Central Valley farmers of tomatoes and other seasonal vegetables to fallow their lands during droughts such as this.
In August, the Tulare County Office of Emergency Services had 12-gallon-per person rations of bottled water delivered, where at least 182 of the 1,400 households in East Porterville reported having no or not enough water. Because dry wells on private property are rarely reported, the real number is likely far greater, according to the state.
The problem was partly due to the shallowness of some residential wells that are replenished by groundwater from the Tule River. The drought has greatly lowered river flows. The state Department of Water Resources reported in November that more than 1,480 domestic well failures in 36 counties had been reported, more than half in Tulare County.
The State Water Resources Control Board has warned water rights holders to expect restrictions on their right to divert water from rivers and streams. On April 27, 2015, the Board announced it had approved a petition to allow transfers of water south of the Delta to needy water districts, including the Kern Tulare Water District and the The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD).
Several water districts south of the Delta, including MWD, which serves the coastal and most heavily populated portions of Southern California from Ventura County to San Diego County, are offering $700 an acre-foot to water agencies in the Sacramento Valley.
Problems with oil field wastewater
Last summer, state officials abruptly shut down 11 waste-injection wells in Kern County after the federal EPA found that the state had allowed companies to drill more than 170 waste-disposal wells into aquifers suitable for drinking or irrigation. Hundreds more wells inject wastewater into lower-quality aquifers that could have been used with more intense treatment. Most of the waste-injection wells are in the Central Valley. One farmer near Bakersfield blames oil companies for tainting the aquifer that used to feed his cherry trees. 3500 dying trees had to be removed, damaged by high levels of salt and boron in the water.
In Kern County, Chevron recycles 21 million gallons a day of waste water from oil fields, using various filtering methods to remove oil and chemicals. Chevron sells the treated water for about $30 an acre-foot, about half the open-market rate, to farmers who use it on about 10 percent of Kern County’s farmland. Though the program is two decades old, there are new concerns about crops raised with oil field water. Acetone and methylene chloride have been found in water moving through the irrigation canals from Chevron’s plant to farmers’ fields. Farmers can smell the petrochemicals in the irrigation water and trust that microorganisms in the soil are removing the toxins, but it’s unclear how much is removed and how much makes its way into the food chain.
In April, the Central Valley water authority notified all oil producers of broader testing requirements under California’s new fracking disclosure regulations requiring oil companies to tell the state which chemicals they use in oil-extraction processes so that testing agencies will know what to test for. Oil producers must submit their reports by June 15.
As mentioned, the Pacific Institute and NRDC reported that California could save up to 14 million acre-feet of water a year. Their June 2014 report (PDF) summarizes the problem: California’s water supply strategy has been based on reservoirs for surface waters and on wells to tap the aquifers. Even in wet years, the rivers are over-allocated. Overdrafting of groundwater is so severe the subsidance of the land has damaged public roads and even water-delivery canals.
Green Infrastructure (GI): The good news is that there are opportunities to save 11 to 14 million acre-feet of water through cost-effective strategies that are technically feasible and more resistant to drought than the current system, and are compatible with healthy river basins and groundwater management. A series of issue briefs by Pacific Institute summarize the trends and the potential for improvements in agricultural and urban water conservation and efficiency, water reuse and stormwater capture.
A study of green infrastructure (PDF) by experts from The Dow Chemical Company, Shell, Swiss Re, and Unilever, working with The Nature Conservancy, finds that constructed and natural resources can be successfully used to replace gray infrastructure treatment plants. The study used two constructed wetlands for treating industrial wastewater, and found that initial capital expenses were significantly lower than for conventional gray infrastructure; operating expenses were minimal; energy requirements were significantly lower, carbon footprint and energy costs were reduced; and operational performance was satisfactory, being 100% compliant upon startup and for over 15 years in one case. These constructed wetlands also provide habitat for deer, bobcats, fish and birds, and educational opportunities for local schools.
Desalination: For coastal communities desalination is another source of fresh water. But because this process is energy intensive and the concentrated brine must be carefully disposed of, it comes at a high price. Researchers are now working on three new desalination technologies that require less energy.
Market Pricing: What is water’s economic value? Should the price of water be set by the free market? Water from a desalination plant opening soon near San Diego will cost about $2,000 per acre-foot, about what some almond farmers are paying to keep their trees alive. For the average California household using 360 gallons of water a day, that would come to $67 a month. Would that be too much to pay?
Market pricing would encourage conservation and investment in water-saving technologies, and make development of new infrastructure more cost-effective.
But water is an essential resource. In a water market, how can the needs of poor public districts be met when they could be outbid by rich and politically powerful communities?
Whatever the winning solutions turn out to be, California will be a state transformed.