Growing Returns

3 strategies to create a resilient water supply for Texas

The world is a different place now than it was when I grew up in Houston in the 1980s. I have vivid memories of steamy summer thunderstorms consistently interrupting my afternoons at the neighborhood pool. My sister and I would head home and swap our swimsuits for raincoats, then stomp around muddy ditches and dig up crawdads while thick warm raindrops drenched our faces.

My sons will have very different memories growing up in Texas. Their memories will be marked by extremes — football games either played in dust bowls or canceled because the field had become a lake.

As my children grow up in this era defined by persistent drought, periodic floods, and now the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m concerned about their future as nature will continue to test the state’s best-laid plans.

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Arizona leaders must finish what was started on groundwater 40 years ago

Forty years ago, then Democratic Gov. Bruce Babbitt signed Arizona’s landmark Groundwater Management Act, which created a system to manage groundwater in five regions of the state where overpumping was most severe and aquifer levels were declining rapidly.

“I called the leaders of the water establishment together on the day after Thanksgiving in 1979,” Babbitt recalled in an oral history. “I personally sat them down and met with them once or twice a week for nine months and just kind of shut the door and said, ‘We’re going to reform our way out of this problem, and we’re going to draft a meaningful water management system for the state of Arizona.’” Read More »

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Why I’m visiting the California Capitol to testify on groundwater

Update: This bill passed out of the Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife in a 14-0 vote. It is expected to go before the Appropriations Committee in early June.

California lawmakers returned to work last week after taking measures to minimize the spread of COVID-19 in the state Capitol, acknowledging they must continue to tackle many other challenges still facing the state. Water is one of those perennial challenges.

That’s why I will be testifying Thursday on a bill, AB 2642, that will help farmers transition to more sustainable groundwater use.

(Photo Credit: Andre M.)

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A low snowpack makes it imperative to better manage groundwater supplies. Here’s how.

Despite the much-needed April showers we saw this week, our normally wet January and February were bone dry in most of California. So it came as little surprise when the annual April 1 snowpack measurement in the Sierras came in low, at about 53% of average statewide. It’s another important reminder of how California’s weather, and consequently our water supplies, are swinging to greater extremes.

The low snowpack and extreme weather it signals make it more imperative than ever to carefully manage another part of our water system: underground water supplies.

We need to measure groundwater as actively as we measure snowpack and double down on efforts to successfully implement the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). Here are three ways to help ensure more sustainable groundwater supplies for generations to come. Read More »

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How water managers can build recharge basins to boost resilience for farmers and birds alike

I wasn’t expecting to see egrets, herons and pelicans on my first trip to the San Joaquin Valley — a region in the southern part of California’s Central Valley known for its impressive agricultural production and scorching summer heat. I didn’t find these birds at one of the valley’s few wildlife refuges, but at a groundwater recharge facility designed to spread and infiltrate surface water into the ground below.

Recharge basins are becoming increasingly popular in overdrafted regions in California, where water managers are seeking solutions to balance groundwater supply and demand to comply with the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). Read More »

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One area in California will tap regional planning to respond to the state’s groundwater law. Here’s how it could help farmers.

Now that critically overdrafted groundwater basins in the Central Valley have submitted their sustainability plans, the hard work begins for them to balance groundwater supply and demand in ways that minimize economic disruption.

A state program called Regional Conservation Investment Strategies (RCIS) can help.

RCIS wasn’t created to help groundwater basins comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). Rather, it was established in 2016 as a framework for regions to prioritize and develop measurable habitat conservation outcomes including those needed to  adapt to climate change.

This week, however, the Kaweah Subbasin was awarded $515,000 from the state’s Wildlife Conservation Board to develop an RCIS plan, becoming the first region in the Central Valley to leverage the process in response to SGMA. We at EDF think it could serve as a model for other communities for two reasons: Read More »

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This bill will protect scarce water supplies for rural Arizona, if the Legislature can pass it

Breakthrough reporting by the Arizona Republic widely exposed what is perhaps one of the state’s darkest water secrets: Groundwater pumping is essentially unregulated in nearly 80% of the state, putting the livelihoods and water supplies of up to 1.5 million residents at risk.

Groundwater is essential for life in the Southwest. It makes up about 40% of the water that Arizonans use each year. In many of the state’s rural areas, groundwater is the only available water supply.

Although Arizona regulates groundwater in and around Phoenix and Tucson, there are no limits on groundwater pumping in most of the state. As a result, more than a third of Arizona’s perennial rivers have been lost or altered; the city of Kingman’s main aquifer is projected to run out of water in 60 years or less; and residents in rural Arizona are already seeing their wells run dry.

Lack of oversight and transparency on groundwater pumping has left communities and rural citizens powerless to secure their water supplies.

Without action by the Arizona Legislature to address this crisis, rural communities will face ever-mounting groundwater challenges as populations grow, out-of-state mega farms move in and persistent drought continues. Fortunately, state leaders – both Republicans and Democrats – are now coming forward with legislation to tackle rural groundwater challenges. Read More »

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Groundwater plans are due in California, but the hard work is just getting started

January 31 is a big day for California water. It’s the day when 19 critically overdrafted groundwater basins must submit plans to the state for how they will bring their groundwater demand in line with available supplies over the next 20 years.

This deadline was set by the state’s most sweeping water law change in a century – the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). SGMA, passed during the last major drought, was designed to put an end to groundwater overpumping and ensure there’s enough water for people, the economy and wildlife in California for generations to come.

SGMA is taking water managers and users into uncharted territory. Since its passage, California water managers have made important progress, creating new groundwater agencies and learning more about their local groundwater supplies and demands. These are important first steps toward sustainability, but SGMA requires a deeper paradigm shift to succeed.

Here are four actions that will help drive this massive shift and move California closer to truly balancing groundwater supply and demand.

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Newsom’s Water Resilience Portfolio puts California on course to climate resilience

It is encouraging that one of California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s first actions in 2020 was the Jan. 3 release of the much-anticipated Water Resilience Portfolio.

While Newsom has been forced to address climate change on many fronts during the past year – think wildfires, blackouts and automobile standards – the state’s myriad water challenges must remain a priority. Our state’s water system is decades old and needs to be re-envisioned for a new era. Read More »

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What 2,000 years of traditional Hopi farming in the arid Southwest can teach about resilience

When Michael Kotutwa Johnson was 8 years old, he began spending much of his time on the Hopi reservation in Arizona with his grandfather, who taught him how to farm.

For more than 2,000 years, the Hopi have been farming without irrigation in an area of Arizona that receives less than 10 inches of rain a year.

“Hopi is a testament to doing a lot with a little,” Mike says. “A raindrop can raise a whole plant.”

Mike went on to study science and public policy in college and recently earned a Ph.D. in natural resource management at the University of Arizona. He is now living back on the Hopi reservation, farming and working as a research associate at the Native American Agricultural Fund. The fund’s mission is to promote the sustainability and viability of Indian agriculture in America, and Mike’s personal mission is to bring more Hopi back to farming.

I had the opportunity to talk to Mike about the Hopi’s unique way of farming and how it can inspire other farmers seeking to become more resilient to climate change and increasingly finite water supplies. Here’s what he shared with me. Read More »

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