Growing Returns

The groundwater manager’s dilemma: How to comply with new California law without changing water rights

by Christina Babbitt and Daniel M. Dooley, New Current Water and Land

Over the next two years, more than 100 groundwater sustainability agencies in California will have to hammer out a plan to make their groundwater basins sustainable.

But as mangers in many areas work to combat decades of over-pumping, they face a major dilemma: In dividing the groundwater pie to avoid overuse, they can’t change Byzantine groundwater rights that date as far back as 1903.

In a new working paper, “Groundwater Pumping Allocations under California's Sustainable Groundwater Management Act,” Environmental Defense Fund and New Current Water and Land – a California-based consulting firm – provide water managers with a recommended approach to navigate this challenge and develop plans that are more durable, and thus likely to succeed, under the new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).

Groundwater pumps in California's Pajaro Valley. Photo credit: USDA

Choosing which approach is best is a critical step for cutting back groundwater use, which many basins will have to do, and for creating water trading systems, which many basins are considering to better manage increasingly limited groundwater. Before you create a market, you have to define who has how much – in this case, groundwater pumping rights – in order to trade. Read More »

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Critically low Lake Mead levels highlight need for Arizona action

Lake Mead water users this week learned we once again narrowly avoided water cutbacks by the skin of our teeth.

A 24-month projection released Wednesday by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation shows we skirted federal mandatory water cuts for now, but prospects for 2020 do not look good. The forecast found Lake Mead water levels will end this month at 1,079 feet – a mere four feet away from the 1,075-feet threshold that would trigger a federal shortage declaration and mandatory cuts.

The report predicted Lake Mead will dip just below the threshold to 1,075 feet as early as May 2019 – in nine months. At the beginning of 2020, Lake Mead levels are predicted to be at approximately 1,070 feet and then predicted to fall to as low as 1,053 feet in the summer of 2020.

An official shortage declaration has been staved off until at least August 2019. That’s when the next key projection comes out, for January 1, 2020.

Water elevation of Lake Mead has been declining in recent years. (Data: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

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How water managers can address surface water depletions – California's "sixth deadly sin"

The Cosumnes River is one of the last undammed rivers west of the Sierra Nevada. While not a large river, it flows year-round out of the Sierras, east of Elk Grove, south of Sacramento, and across the floor of the Central Valley before adding its modest flow to the Mokelumne River.

Every year, however, around the Fourth of July, the lower part of the Cosumnes River goes dry, even while the flow from the Sierras continues. The lower river stays dry until the first big rains come, sometimes as late as December or January, and resumes its high flow throughout the winter months.

When the Cosumnes River flows onto the valley floor, it leaks surface water into groundwater because the groundwater levels are low. In the summer, the river goes completely dry because the flows are especially low compared to the high leakage rates.

How can a river be flowing and then disappear downstream? The explanation lies in the inevitable interaction between groundwater and surface water, which have been managed separately – until now.

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4 ways drones are helping people and nature prepare for climate change

Drones have taken off in popularity, as updates in technology have made them more affordable and maneuverable. These advancements are allowing researchers to capture high-resolution data with accuracy, precision and ease, making drones a valuable tool for understanding how the world around us is changing, and how we can manage this change.

My Environmental Defense Fund colleagues are exploring ways drones can help us build ecosystem resilience, from corn fields in the heartland to wetlands along our coasts.

Here are four inspiring examples. Read More »

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California’s budget is not about resistance. It’s about resilience.

The California legislature has passed a budget bill that gives me great hope for the state and for the nation. That’s because the budget was not only passed with bipartisan support – it also proves that conservation has broad political appeal.

California has rebuked the Trump administration on a number of issues including healthcare, immigration and the environment, leading many Americans to see California as the ultimate resistance state. But when I take a closer look at this budget, I think it has less to do with resistance, and everything to do with resilience.

Resilient people, communities, institutions and, yes, environment. Read More »

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Less talk, more action: It’s time to get serious about floodplain management

I was recently cleaning out old files and came across notes from a presentation I made after the Great Midwest Flood of 1993. It was on the state of the nation’s floodplain management, a topic even more relevant today.

Many no longer recall the Great Midwest Flood despite its record-breaking precipitation, flooding and $13 billion price tag. Sure, 1993 seems like a long time ago, but I believe the reason the flood has left most people’s memory is because, over the last 25 years, the nation has experienced one devastating, record-breaking flood after another. Our memories are diluted by the frequency of such events.

Sadly, many of the lessons I shared in my presentation back then remain true today.

It’s time we stop talking and get serious about improving our nation’s floodplain management by putting these lessons into action.

Photo credit: Association of State Floodplain Managers via FloodStorageEricJohnson (license)

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What can Nebraska teach the American West about managing water? A lot.

Nebraska is one of the top producers of corn, soybeans and hogs in the country. With 91 percent of the state's total land area dedicated to agricultural production, a lot of water is needed to support all of Nebraska's farms and ranches.

Fortunately, the state sits atop one of the largest underground aquifers in the world. The High Plains Aquifer, commonly referred to as the Ogallala Aquifer, underlies parts of eight states from Texas to South Dakota, and is a vital resource to Nebraskan farmers.

But as farms have expanded and demand for agricultural products has grown, pressure on the aquifer has increased and groundwater levels have been in steady decline for decades.

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For California water managers, establishing new traditions takes time

The California Water Commission sent ripples through the water world recently when it gave tepid “public benefit” scores to 11 water storage projects vying for taxpayer funding.

Project proponents were understandably frustrated, and many were openly critical of the Water Commission’s process for determining public benefits. After all, they’re vying for a big pot of public money – $2.7 billion that was set aside in 2014 with the passage of Proposition 1 – and their public benefit scores are a key factor in determining whether or not they get funded.

But let’s not be so critical. The Water Commission has been handed a difficult task, and is doing the right thing by carefully considering and scrutinizing each project. Here’s why.

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Where’s the snow!? What a dry winter might mean for Colorado

We finally got a little dusting of snow last weekend. But snowpack in Colorado and throughout the West remains exceptionally low.

La Niña has wreaked havoc on weather systems around the country, sending storms to Baton Rouge, San Antonio and Boston, while Colorado, California and pretty much the entire Southwest United States stay dry. Colorado is at 68% of normal snowpack with the southwest Rockies in even worse shape. The Sierra Nevada snowpack – a key source of California’s water supply – is at 30% of average. Many parts of New Mexico have received less than a half inch of rain, making it one of the driest starts to a water year on record in the state.

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7 lessons from a California water leader on managing for the future

David Guy is president of the Northern California Water Association (NCWA), an organization committed to ensuring that water supplies are available for the Sacramento Valley — both for today’s users and for future generations.

“The Sacramento Valley is a rich mosaic of farmlands, cities, rural communities, refuges, managed wetlands and meandering rivers,” David said. “Every drought we experience reveals numerous pressures on the water supplies that support this vibrant region. We have to be motivated and forward-thinking to advance the economic, social and environmental sustainability of the Sacramento Valley by enhancing and preserving its water rights, supplies and water quality.”

I recently had the opportunity to speak with David about his role at NCWA, some of the challenges that he and the region face, and how to prepare for the future. Here's what David had to say. Read More »

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