Growing Returns

Broken pipes. Complex funding applications. The water challenges facing California’s disadvantaged communities.

This blog post was written by Adriana Fernandez, EDF’s 2019 Tom Graff Diversity Fellow.

California might have the fifth largest economy in the world, but many people in the state’s disadvantaged communities feel like they are living in a third world country because they don’t have safe, clean and affordable drinking water.

Throughout the past year as a Tom Graff Diversity Fellow at EDF, I had the privilege to gain a deeper understanding of these critical water challenges facing low-income, underrepresented communities in California and amplify the voices of community members left out of the decision-making process.

After conducting a series of interviews with community members, local nonprofit leaders, university professors and consultants, I identified three crucial challenges facing some of these communities. One water operator who I interviewed shared the story of a small water system in a rural community in the eastern part of Southern California that struggles with all three of these challenges. Read More »

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Proposition DD marks a major water win in the West

Water in Colorado — one of the state’s most important natural resources — scored a major win today when voters approved Proposition DD. Prop. DD will provide up to $29 million a year for water projects from revenue raised by legalizing and taxing sports betting.

This funding will support critical projects to implement Colorado’s Water Plan and keep Colorado the state we know and love, with healthy rivers, clean drinking water, productive agriculture and abundant recreation.

EDF and EDF Action were key advocates for Prop. DD. We are thrilled voters approved the measure because it shows Coloradans across the political spectrum care deeply about building a more resilient future for our state. Read More »

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State plans to jump-start Salton Sea work, but locals remain frustrated

This post was co-authored by Pablo Garza and Ronna Kelly. 

The Salton Sea is California’s largest lake, but it’s hard to grasp its immense size – and beauty – until you see it with you own eyes. Last week, roughly 200 people gathered in this unique area – both residents and leaders from around the Salton Sea and from outside the region – for the Salton Sea Summit, a conference that explored the many challenges and solutions facing the Salton Sea region.

The summit was important because, as California Secretary for Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot noted during his keynote on the first day, the Salton Sea has “major problems.”

Chief among these: The Salton Sea is receding.

The shrinking of the Salton Sea is a longer-term trend that was exacerbated by the largest rural-urban water transfer in the U.S., finalized in 2003. Under the transfer, the Imperial Irrigation District agreed to send up to 300,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water per year to Los Angeles and San Diego. Since 2003, the Sea has receded more rapidly, exposing some 40 acres of new shoreline and toxic dust. This dust, in turn, is contributing to already poor air quality and high rates of respiratory illnesses in the region.

As part of the transfer agreement, the state committed to thousands of acres of dust suppression and habitat restoration projects, and state lawmakers and voters have approved $365 million in funding for such projects.  But action has long been stalled, and local residents and leaders are fed up.

This frustration was evident at the summit and reached a boiling point on Tuesday when the Imperial County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to declare a local emergency for air pollution at the Salton Sea. The vote came just days after state leaders stressed efforts to jump-start long-delayed projects at the summit.

The Salton Sea is California’s largest lake, covering 330 square miles, and a major drop along the Pacific Flyway for migratory birds. But it is receding, threatening to create a public health and ecological crisis. (Photo Credit: Kevin Dooley)

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Colorado River Basin story map highlights importance of managing water below the ground

The Colorado River is a water workhorse for seven western states, supplying drinking water to 40 million people. But it’s not the region’s only important source of water.

Groundwater — the water underground that we can’t see — is also hugely important in the Colorado River Basin. Groundwater provides base flow to rivers and streams, supports groundwater-dependent ecosystems, serves as the primary source of drinking water for many rural communities and plays a key role in water supply balance.

Unlike the Colorado River, which is governed by multi-state agreements, groundwater management is generally most appropriately carried out at the state and local level because groundwater availability is highly localized and variable throughout the basin.

However, gaining a strong understanding of groundwater availability and use across the Colorado River Basin is more critical than ever to managing the system-wide supply and demand balance and long-term planning, especially as the climate becomes increasingly arid. New Colorado River story map highlights importance of groundwater sustainability in the West Click To Tweet

EDF created an online story map at www.edf.org/colorivgw. The story map aims to provide a more holistic view of groundwater supplies and challenges in the seven-state Colorado River Basin (Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming), drawing from recent research.

Here are four key highlights from the story map that demonstrate the importance of groundwater and the challenges of groundwater management in the arid West: Read More »

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Five years into SGMA, here are five important considerations for balancing groundwater quality and quantity

This blog post was written by Sarah Fakhreddine, a former Lokey fellow in EDF’s Western Water program.

California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), signed into law five years ago, requires local leaders to balance groundwater demand and supplies for the first time. Groundwater is an important foundation of California’s water system, and SGMA is a crucial way of strengthening that foundation and creating a more resilient future for the state.

However, balancing groundwater budgets will not be easy. And this major challenge is further complicated by the fact that activities designed to increase groundwater supplies can unintentionally cause new groundwater quality problems or worsen existing contamination.

A new working paper that Environmental Defense Fund co-authored with Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences; Green Science Policy Institute; and the Energy and Environmental Sciences Area of Berkeley Lab outlines how groundwater management activities can affect not only the quantity but also the quality of groundwater.

Our paper aims to help groundwater sustainability agencies and local communities avoid inadvertently contaminating supplies as they change management practices to comply with SGMA. In fact, it’s even possible for some SGMA projects aimed at increasing groundwater quantity to actually improve groundwater quality, too, the paper notes.

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Resilience on the river: How an Arizona farmer combines tribal traditions with modern practices

Velvet Button’s parents, Ramona and Terry, started farming on a 10-acre allotment on the Gila River Indian Community Reservation south of Phoenix more than four decades ago. Today, the family farms 4,000 acres of alfalfa, Bermuda hay and four types of traditional beans. Ramona and Terry were inducted into the Arizona Farming and Ranching Hall of Fame in 2017, and at least 100 chefs from coast to coast are cooking or baking with their products.

“We’re bringing our traditional food crops to the modern table,” Velvet told us recently on a tour of Ramona Farms. Here are some highlights from our interview and tour with Velvet. Read More »

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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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