Growing Returns

Developing rural water leaders as drought and water scarcity intensify

An immigrant who left Mexico when he was young to make a new life in California. The owner of a small family farm who grew up in the Central Valley. A water utility operator who served in the Navy.

These are among the diverse participants who graduated at the end of July from our fourth cohort of the Water Leadership Institute, a program developed to help rural communities more effectively participate in water decision-making and policy.

EDF partnered with the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) and Self Help Enterprises six years ago, after passage of California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), to develop the Water Leadership Institute. The West Turlock Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) joined forces with EDF and RCAC to bring the institute to Stanislaus County for this fourth installment, which was hosted online due to COVID-19.

Over 15 weeks, I had the wonderful opportunity to get to know these leaders better as they developed skills and understanding that will help them become stronger advocates for their water resources and their communities.

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Climate change is destabilizing the Colorado River Basin. Where do we go from here?

In June, a portion of my neighborhood in Flagstaff, Arizona, was put on pre-evacuation notice due to a nearby wildfire. A few weeks later, storms dumped heavy rains over a burn scar from a 2019 fire that caused destructive floods through parts of town. So far, this summer has been our third-wettest monsoon season on record, a complete contrast from our two driest monsoon seasons on record in 2019 and 2020.

These extremes are just a few local examples of the havoc that climate change is causing around the world. Here in the West, we are now in uncharted territory with the first-ever shortage declaration on the Colorado River.

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5 principles for resilient groundwater management in Texas

Although Texas has a solid foundation for managing groundwater, this foundation is cracking under the combined pressures of increasing demand and decreasing supply.

These pressures are pitting rural areas against urban areas and landowners against each other, with groundwater conservation districts caught in the middle.

To overcome these challenges and ensure resilient water supplies, Texas leaders must improve the state’s framework for managing groundwater. That means finding common ground among diverse stakeholders on how to best sustain supplies.

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As drought intensifies, this California water manager is testing new tools to help farmers, communities and wildlife

Aaron Fukuda

Aaron Fukuda is general manager of the Tulare Irrigation District, general manager of the Mid-Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency and a participant in the Kaweah Regional Conservation Investment Strategy steering committee process.

Growing up in Hanford, California, Aaron Fukuda learned about the connections between water, animals and plants at an early age. His mother, a biologist, taught him how to study owl pellets and how rain changed the landscape when he was a kid.

As an adult, Fukuda is more focused on what’s happening both on the ground and underground with the region’s increasingly scarce water supplies.

Fukuda wears three hats that give him a unique perspective on the region’s water and land issues as general manager of the Tulare Irrigation District, general manager of the Mid-Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency and a participant in the Kaweah Regional Conservation Investment Strategy (RCIS) steering committee process. Read More »

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10 ways policymakers can support climate resilience in the West

It seems every day I come across a heartbreaking headline about how extreme heat, wildfires and ongoing drought are plaguing the West.

Indeed, the climate crisis has hit home in the Colorado River Basin and is threatening everything from agriculture to water supplies. The basin’s two main reservoirs­ — Lakes Powell and Mead — are at record low water levels, threatening the water security essential to communities, wildlife, recreation and agricultural production across the Southwest.

To help policymakers address these pressing climate challenges, EDF contributed to a recent report, Ten Strategies for Climate Resilience in the Colorado River Basin, authored by Martin & McCoy and Culp & Kelly, LLP, that analyzed multiple approaches to building climate resilience and identified the top 10 priorities. Read More »

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This landmark water conservation agreement is good news for Arizona. We need more like it.

Water scarcity in the Colorado River is becoming more urgent by the day. As temperatures soar to record levels — 122 degrees in Phoenix last month — Lake Mead has plummeted to 37% of its capacity, the lowest level since the nation’s largest reservoir was filled in 1935.

Amid this dire picture comes one significant piece of good news: In the largest ever multisector response to drought, final funding has been committed to enable the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) to conserve nearly 49 billion gallons of water (or 150,000 acre-feet) in Lake Mead over three years.

This project is the largest single conservation effort to date, both in dollars and volume of water, in the Colorado River Basin. It is a harbinger of the unprecedented collaboration that will be required going forward to build resilience to climate change and water scarcity in the West.

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Texas leaders made a big mistake ignoring water this session. But not all hope is lost.

Last weekend I paddled on the Blanco River with my family. We swam in spring-fed swimming holes, fly fished and lounged in shallow sections of the river, which was flowing nicely thanks to recent rains that ended drought conditions across Texas.

But it’s hard to ignore that Texas is sitting in the shadow of one of the worst droughts in history — one that’s crippling the rest of the West.

As temperatures rise and groundwater levels remain low with little rain in the forecast, it is imperative that we develop solutions to manage our water supplies more sustainably.

Unfortunately, state leaders put water on the back burner this legislative session, failing to take action on several water bills — even a benign bill to study groundwater and surface water interactions. But just because state leaders haven’t taken action doesn’t mean we can’t.

Here are three steps that all Texans can take now to build momentum behind protecting our rivers, streams and groundwater. Read More »

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As drought persists, Colorado water funding comes just in time

Update: Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill June 24 to provide $20 million to water projects.

Despite some recent rains, nearly half of Colorado remains in a drought and about one-third of the state in severe, extreme or exceptional drought. Urgent action is still needed.

Colorado Drought Map

Fortunately, higher-than-expected sports betting dollars are just the first in a hat trick of three new funding streams that can deliver critical water projects in the state. Here are the three big plays: Read More »

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Pristine streams in Texas need protection. It’s up to the state Senate to act.

The first time I paddled the Nueces River I was blown away by the water — crystal clear, aqua colored, almost tropical. I could easily see the bottom of the river many feet below me and fish as they darted under my kayak.

Fed by springs that percolate up from groundwater beneath the Edwards Plateau, the Nueces is among the last remaining uniquely pure waterways in Texas.

More development is leading to an increase in discharge permit applications in Texas, putting pristine waterways like the Nueces at risk.

House Bill 4146 by Rep. Tracy King (D-Laredo) and Senate Bill 1747 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) in the state Legislature will protect these unspoiled streams and rivers by prohibiting wastewater discharges in them. HB 4146 has passed the House and now awaits a hearing in the Senate Water, Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee.

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3 ways this accounting platform will help California groundwater agencies transition to sustainable supplies

This blog is co-authored by Tara Moran, president and CEO of the California Water Data Consortium.

As California grapples with another drought, farmers and water agencies will again lean on groundwater to offset declines in surface water supplies stemming from paltry snowmelt and corresponding low reservoirs and river flows.

However, there is at least one major difference from the last drought: Since then, more than 250 groundwater agencies have been created and have spent the last several years compiling data on their region’s groundwater supply and demand. To comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) many groundwater agencies are now considering new tools to use this data to support groundwater management decisions.

Today, Environmental Defense Fund, the California Department of Water Resources, the State Water Resources Control Board and the California Water Data Consortium announced a partnership to scale one of these tools: an open-source water accounting platform. Here are three reasons why this announcement is so important. Read More »

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