Posts Tagged ‘Central Valley’

Dealing with California’s 4-year drought

May 19, 2015

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.

California 4-year drought map

California 4-year drought map, 2011–2015.
Source: National Drought Mitigation Center.

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.

Environmental effects

Last September, CNN columnist John D. Sutter wrote about his 417-mile trip down the San Joaquin River, designated by American Rivers as the United States’ “most endangered” river in 2014. As Sutter says, “Depending on what happens soon, it could become a river reborn, or a drainage ditch.”

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.

Dry wells

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.

Water resources & water rights

Further complicating the situation is the complex set of appropriations that determine California’s century-old water rights laws. Competing interests are vying for an increasingly dwindling resource.

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.

Solutions

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.

—RW

April 16, 2014
California, Sacramento River Basin, Central Valley, sunrise over the Buttes-the smallest mountain range in the world

USA: California, Sacramento River Basin, Central Valley, sunrise over the Buttes-the smallest mountain range in the world

Last month’s NWNL SPOTLIGHT on the California Drought documented the state’s inland Central Valley. Usually, the Sierra Nevadas’ runoff supplies water to the Sacramento River Basin’s rice fields, walnut orchards and migratory waterfowl havens around
the Buttes. However California’s 3-year drought has drastically
reduced this water supply, so critical for agricultural and
ecosystem needs throughout the Central Valley and in the
Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Photo by Barbara Folger, NWNL Project Coordinator

A Desert Runs Through It – A Photographer’s View

April 10, 2014

By Alison M. Jones, Director of No Water No Life ® and Photographer
As published by American Rivers in “The River Blog” – April 9, 2014

On the seventh day of exploring impacts of drought in California’s Central Valley, I slipped down some loose scree into a San Joaquin riverbed.  Shadows of Mendota’s bridge on San Mateo Road were lengthening.  That early-evening hush of the desert was overtaking the power of the sun’s heat.  There was just enough light to photograph a snake-like bed of sand swallowing
the San Joaquin River.

Jones_140317_CA_0946Sierra Nevada Mountain glaciers no longer melt into the basin of California’s long-lost Corcoran Lake of 750,000 years ago. That vast inland sea spilled into the Pacific half a million years ago, but it left a rich legacy. Over the last 10,000 years glacial melt, winter rains, Sierra snow carved the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers and added further nutrients to one of the world’s most plentiful breadbaskets.

California, San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge

California, San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge

Those rivers flowed freely until 1919 when human engineers began redesigning California into a sprawling network of levees, aqueducts, canals, pumps, dams and reservoirs. Today, the Central Valley Project (1930) and State Water Project (1957) supplies water to 22 million Californians, irrigates 4 million acres, and provides hydro-electricity, flood control and recreation.  Built in 1941, Fresno’s Friant Dam irrigates over a million acres of farmland, but it leaves 60 miles of the San Joaquin River dry.

San Joaquin River Valley, ripples from striped bass in this remnant of San Joaquin River

San Joaquin River Valley, ripples from striped bass in this remnant of San Joaquin River

“Picture a river running through a desert.  Now picture a desert running through a river.”  I read that concept two days earlier at the Delta Visitor Center. It was now in my camera’s viewfinder.  Amidst a whine of mosquitos, I considered this crippled river, nature’s persistence versus man’s ingenuity, and how one balances nature’s productivity with human productivity.

Sudden splashes from behind were an alert that I’d hiked out alone from a dirt road.  But then I saw telltale stripes flashing and fish thrashing, framed by willow roots in shallow water.

USA: San Mateo Road crossing of San Joaquin River

USA: San Mateo Road crossing of San Joaquin River

There were four or five – maybe even seven – each at least 18 inches long. Flipping over each other, they fled my shadow into the far end of their stagnant puddle, leaving me with only ripples to photograph.  Striped bass, introduced to the California Delta in the 1800’s, are a saltwater species that seek freshwater for spawning.

Can they survive this three-year drought?  It’s unlikely there’ll be further significant rain this year, so human intervention would be needed. That’s not likely, given today’s unprecedented clamoring for water by municipalities and farmers.

There are, however, signs of hope.  In 2009, Friant Dam began  “restoration flows,” released by water users’ negotiated agreements.  In December 2013, National Marine Fisheries Service announced it might re-introduce spring Chinook salmon to the San Joaquin.  Salmon thrive in big, broad rivers, but struggle in drought and heat. However, restored flows and recognition of common interests, suggest that Chinook salmon may again reach the Sierra Nevadas.

CA, Central Valley, Delta Mendota Canal, part of State Water Project

CA, Central Valley, Delta Mendota Canal, part of State Water Project

American Rivers’ 2014 focus is on the San Joaquin River.  With their efforts, coordinated with other stakeholders, the San Joaquin River between Mendota and Fresno will hopefully become more than a fish trap in desert sand.

>>> TAKE ACTION! Tell Congress to protect water flows
in the San Joaquin.

NWNL Expedition Spotlights California Drought! 

March 14, 2014

 Chasing California’s Thirst
  March 14-26, 2014 Expedition

No Water No Life will visit the Sacramento Delta from San Francisco Bay to Antioch, the Sacramento River from the Delta north to the Butte Sink region, and the San Joaquin River from the Delta south to Bakersfield to document causes, impacts and solutions of California’s drought with photography, video and stakeholder interviews.

PROBLEMS:
– Increased Population and Growing Irrigation Demands with Finite Water Supplies
– Neither Consumers nor Regulators have sufficiently addressed The Value of Water

JUSTIFICATIONS:
– It affects us all!  CA supplies 50% of US veggies, fruits and nuts.
– No Water – No Irrigation – No Farms – No Food – No Jobs = Economic hit for all of the US!
– CA’s Drought Solutions can help solve the global problem of  “More people – Less available clean water.”

PURPOSE:
NWNL will document causes, impacts and solutions to CA’s Drought.
How will CA move from Water Scarcity to Water Sustainability?

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