Growing Returns

New Lake Mead forecast spares Arizona – for now. Here are four critical steps to water security.

Arizona just got another temporary reprieve from water cuts in Lake Mead, for the second year in a row. However, sustainable water management — of both the Colorado River and groundwater — remains crucial for communities in the Southwest to become resilient to increasingly arid conditions.

A new, closely watched 24-month study of water levels on Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, means Arizona has managed to avoid substantial water cuts next year. On Thursday, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation predicted Lake Mead’s elevation will be 1,089.4 feet on Jan. 1, thanks to an unusually wet winter and seven states reaching a historic agreement on how to conserve Colorado River water. Read More »

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California leaders finally stepped up on clean, affordable water. One small water district explains this challenge.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed long-overdue legislation to dedicate up to $130 million a year to provide clean, affordable drinking water to more than 1 million Californians who still lack access to this vital resource. The legislation creates the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund to help cash-strapped, smaller water systems, which primarily serve rural, low-income communities.

The Seeley County Water District, located in Imperial County approximately 20 miles from Mexican border, is one of these communities.

Miriam Rosales and Aaron Garcia call Seeley home and have made it their mission to provide better water service to the town’s 2,000 residents. Miriam, a 46-year resident of Seeley, began at the district as the board’s secretary and became administrative general manager in 2017. Aaron began working in the water sector after being laid off as a music teacher and worked his way up to become Seeley’s chief operator in 2018.

Both participated in the Leadership Institute, a program originally developed by the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC), Self Help Enterprises and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to help disadvantaged communities more effectively engage on water-related decision-making and policy. RCAC, EDF, and Imperial County’s Community and Economic Development Office customized the program to address the issues of Imperial County.

Understanding Miriam and Aaron’s challenges is helpful to understanding how a state as prosperous and innovative as California can struggle to provide safe drinking water to all its residents. Here are some excerpts from a recent conversation I had with them about their work.

Miriam Rosales, administrative general manager, and Aaron Garcia, chief operator, had made it their mission to provide better water to their community while leading the Seeley County Water District.

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The Groundwater Game: A new hands-on way to learn about groundwater management

One evening, at a community center in the Sacramento Valley, a teacher, a civil engineer, a tomato farmer and a local foundation board member found themselves standing above a table, feverishly competing to scoop the most glass beads from a large, communal bowl.

But there was a catch. Read More »

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What’s next for California’s Central Valley? Even with water cutbacks, the region can still thrive. Here’s how.

California’s Central Valley has reached a fork in the road.

By January 2020, areas where groundwater demand far outstrips supply must submit plans to bring their groundwater basins back into balance within 20 years. These plans are required by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA, which was signed into law in 2014 during the state’s latest multiyear drought.

SGMA inevitably means less water for irrigating farms. Worst-case estimates forecast as much as 780,000 acres of farmland — out of more than 5 million acres of total irrigated land — will have to be taken out of production. How local decision makers and community members navigate this transition to sustainable groundwater management will significantly shape the future of the region, known as the country’s fruit and nut capital.

On one path, the valley could become a patchwork of dusty barren fields, serving a huge blow to the agriculture sector and rural communities and further impairing already poor air quality. Active farms could become surrounded by fields of invasive weeds and pests, threatening productivity.

On another path, the valley could transform into a pioneering agricultural region that not only puts food on our nation’s plates but also supports thriving wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation, soil health, groundwater recharge and flood control.

EDF is working to help communities achieve this second vision through our Central Valley Resilience Initiative, which features three key strategies: conversion of farmland into wildlife corridors, water trading and community engagement. Of course, all three strategies will require additional funding at the state, regional and local levels. Read More »

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This Arizona bill supports local planning for resilient groundwater supplies in two rural counties

Editor’s note: This post was updated on May 23, 2019.

While Colorado River surface water supplies have dominated news headlines recently, Arizona communities face another important water challenge: rapidly declining groundwater levels.

Arizona relies on groundwater for about 40% of its water supply, yet groundwater resources outside of the state’s biggest urban areas are largely unprotected and unregulated, posing a risk to long-term economic growth, community resilience and healthy flowing rivers.

HB 2467, a bill that was signed by Gov. Doug Ducey on May 22, takes an important step forward to address groundwater challenges in Mohave and La Paz counties.

Mohave County is in northwest Arizona and includes western portions of the Grand Canyon and the city of Kingman on historic Route 66. La Paz County is just south of Mohave and includes the Interstate 10 corridor, part of the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge and important perennial streams. In recent years, residential and other small wells have increasingly seen water levels dropping as more large-capacity wells are drilled for commercial agricultural operations moving into the region, often from outside Arizona.

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Enough with the delays. Here’s why California’s rural communities need safe drinking water now.

Jim Maciel knows about the challenges of providing safe and affordable drinking in California all too well.

His experience serving as director of a small water district highlights why state legislators’ approval of $140 million in new annual funding to provide safe, affordable water to all Californians is long overdue.

Jim is one of about 37 water leaders who I have had the privilege of meeting through the Leadership Institute, a training program created by Rural Community Assistance Corporation and expanded by Environmental Defense Fund and Self Help Enterprises. Many of these leaders are stewards of small community water systems, which serve 10,000 or fewer customers. Their small size is a big part of their challenge.

Jim Maciel, a board member of the Armona Community Services District, and EDF’s Ana Lucia García Briones take a tour of the district’s arsenic treatment plant in the Central Valley. Photo Credit: Kike Arnal Read More »

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This creative tax is a good bet for Colorado’s water future. Here’s why.

Here’s a pop quiz: What are two finite resources in the West?

If you answered money and water, you win. This is especially true when it comes to money for water in the state of Colorado, where hurdles for raising new funds are particularly high.

It’s a rare opportunity when new money bubbles up for water projects in the Centennial State. But that is exactly what is happening as a result of a bill approved this week with strong bipartisan support in the Legislature.

The bill, HB 1327, proposes to raise new money to protect and conserve water in Colorado by legalizing sports betting and imposing a 10% tax on its revenue. But legislative approval isn’t the final play. State legislators are handing off the measure to voters for a final decision at the ballot box this fall. Read More »

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Three building blocks to water resilience for the Colorado River and beyond

One of the nation’s most important water agreements in recent history – the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan – just crossed its last major milestone: winning bipartisan approval in Congress.

The driving force behind the water conservation plan is a nearly two-decade drought that has caused Lake Mead, a reservoir outside of Las Vegas, to fall to its lowest level ever. The drought plan outlines how Arizona, California and Nevada – the three states that rely on Lake Mead – will share cuts to avoid a crisis. The Upper Basin states of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah also agreed to operate reservoirs differently and begin exploring demand management to bolster Lake Powell.

Under the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, Arizona will need to reduce its share of Lake Mead water by 512,000 acre feet and Nevada will have to reduce its share by 21,000 acre feet when the lake’s elevation falls to 1,075 feet. California will have to reduce its share by 200,000 acre feet when the lake’s elevation falls to 1,045 feet. (Photo Credit).

The president’s signature is the final step of a multiyear, seven-state effort. But the Colorado River plan also marks a new beginning: the start of a highly productive period for water policy to build greater resilience to climate change across the country.

While recently attending the 10 Across Water Summit, I was struck by three common building blocks of successful water policy that apply across the Interstate 10 corridor and the nation: bottom-up visioning, collaboration and bridging the urban-rural divide. Read More »

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Averting a looming crisis on the Colorado River

It’s finally time to celebrate that federal and state agencies as well as local water districts have agreed on the terms of Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) agreements in both the Upper and Lower Colorado River basins to manage water more sustainably.

The DCP is intended to incentivize water conservation while protecting existing water rights, recognizing the values of the basin’s agricultural communities and respecting the need to protect the basin’s environmental resources.

Representatives from the seven Colorado River Basin states gathered in Phoenix today to mark the historic milestone and publish a joint letter to Congress. In the letter, the states urge Congress to pass federal legislation by April 22 to authorize the Department of Interior to implement the DCP to address “a looming crisis.” Environmental Defense Fund signed a letter with our conservation partners expressing strong support for the DCP and urging Congress to support its enabling legislation. Read More »

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The clock is ticking for groundwater managers in California’s most over-drafted basins

By this time next year, 21 critically over-drafted groundwater basins in California must submit plans to the state’s Department of Water Resources for how to bring their basins back into balance.

With this major deadline looming, it’s crunch time for water managers and their consultants – some of whom will begin releasing draft plans in the next six to eight months seeking required public comments.

The Jan. 31, 2020, deadline was set by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which the California Legislature approved in 2014.

Successful implementation of SGMA would protect water quality and supplies for agricultural, municipal and wildlife usage. It would also maintain and improve the health and long-term viability of the ecosystems that sustain these various uses.

San Joaquin Valley groundwater pump (Photo Credit: Chris Austin)

Achieving these sometimes competing goals will not be easy. That’s why implementing SGMA will be a major balancing act. Read More »

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