Growing Returns

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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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New guide to help landowners restore monarch habitat after western population plummets

Last summer, unlike some of my graduate student peers, I traded in palm trees for almond orchards, with soil instead of sand beneath my toes. I spent the summer counting milkweed stems and sifting through literature from Xerces Society and university scientists, seeking to understand the challenges and opportunities associated with establishing monarch butterfly habitat in California.

As part of my research role with EDF, I’ve been working to address the declining western monarch population by making habitat restoration and creation more accessible and, ultimately, more effective.

The culmination of my research, conducted with ecological consultant Jaymee Marty, is summarized in a new resource now available to working land managers in California, Monarch Butterfly Habitat Creation in California: A Technical Field Guide. Read More »

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Extreme wet weather in Louisiana and California highlights urgent need for newer, smarter strategies

Coauthored by Ann Hayden and Steve Cochran

It’s not often that communities in California and Louisiana face similar water challenges. California is better known for having too little water and Louisiana too much – both challenges exacerbated by climate change.

But record-setting wet winter weather led both states last week to release significant amounts of water from reservoirs and rivers to prevent flooding, underscoring the need for new approaches to build climate-resilient communities across the country. 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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How Driscoll’s, the world’s largest berry company, is becoming a leader in water conservation

Even in the depths of winter it’s easy to bite into a plump blackberry or a delicate red raspberry, thanks to Driscoll’s, the world’s largest berry company.

In late 2018, I traveled to the Pajaro Valley, west of Santa Cruz, for a tour of a Driscoll’s research facility, which provided an eye-opening view into how this family-owned company has become an agriculture leader selling berries every month of the year, and why they are so committed to water conservation.

Our tour was part of the Rosenberg International Forum on Water Policy, a conference limited to 50 water scholars and senior water managers from around the world. We saw how Driscoll’s sustainability priorities translate into on-the-ground action for the company and its hundreds of independent growers.

Inspired by a presentation by James duBois, Driscoll’s senior manager of global environmental impact, I followed up with him to ask a few questions and dig a bit deeper into the company’s water management efforts. Here is what James shared with me. Read More »

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Latest population count could spell doom for the monarch. Unless we act now.

The Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count began in 1997, when scientists first noticed declines and started to track the population.

In the years since, the western monarch butterfly population (the smaller of the two North American populations, which overwinters on the California coast) has dropped dramatically, and this year’s preliminary data is especially alarming.

Early reports on this year’s count suggest that populations have dropped 86 percent since last year, with the population at less than 0.5 percent of historic levels. Approximately 20,000 monarchs were counted at the monarch’s overwintering sites this Thanksgiving, compared to 148,000 counted last year. The Xerces Society estimates that the overall population will be around 30,000.

So far, 97 of the monarch’s overwintering sites along the California coast have been counted, representing approximately 75 percent of the total western population. (Photo Credit: Amy Marbach)

This is a grim number, especially when you consider studies showing that 30,000 butterflies is the average population needed to avoid a complete collapse of the western migration, and extinction of the entire western population.

It’s clear that western monarchs cannot survive even one more year of decline like this one. Read More »

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We need a new financial model to address California’s most pressing environmental problems

This post was co-authored by Ann Hayden of Environmental Defense Fund, Katie Riley of Environmental Incentives, and John Cain of American Rivers

Over the coming decade, the state of California will spend billions of dollars to restore habitat to protect endangered species and mitigate infrastructure improvements. But many existing institutions have been stuck in a project-by-project funding model that limits their ability to leverage private capital, integrate different funding sources or even ensure their desired outcomes are achieved.

Without private capital or partnerships, good conservation projects risk getting stuck in the development and permitting stages for decades, or even stalling out indefinitely. This is particularly true for conservation of large landscapes.

Fortunately, a new approach to conserving habitat is building momentum in California that includes proponents beyond just environmentalists. The private sector is taking on more restoration projects, and state agency staff are showing a greater willingness than ever to leverage private sector partnerships and deliver results more quickly. Read More »

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California water leaders offer recommendations for Governor-elect Gavin Newsom

A friend complaining about her skyrocketing water bill. Parents worried about bathing their children in water known to be carcinogenic. Witnessing young salmon once again flourish on seasonal rice fields.

These are just a few of the water stories that colleagues and I, representing a range of sectors within the Central Valley and coastal region of California, shared in a new report that provides recommendations for incoming Gov. Gavin Newsom to create a healthier and more resilient water future for the state.

We believe that sharing our own first-person narratives is a powerful way to highlight the critical importance of engaging neglected constituencies, fostering creative partnerships and developing innovative funding mechanisms for water management in California. Read More »

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Busting Trump mythology on wildfires as more rage in California

Firefighters in California are counting the days until the end of the fire season, hoping for a much needed respite from an almost constant barrage of catastrophic fires over the last two years.

Smoke from the summer 2018 California wildfires. The Camp Fire, another dangerous and extremely fast-moving fire, is currently burning near Chico amidst record-dry vegetation conditions. The Hill and Woolsey fires are also gaining strength as residents continue to evacuate areas in Ventura and Los Angeles.

During that time, we’ve witnessed some of the largest and most costly fire seasons in history. Eight firefighters and 49 civilians lost their lives during the 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons. The Carr fire alone cost more than $1.6 billion in insured losses and suppression costs.

The federal government has long played a productive role in partnering with Cal Fire, California’s state forestry and fire fighting agency, and local fire departments to combat fires and finance fire suppression and forest restoration. But President Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have actively undermined this partnership over the last several months, pointing fingers and spreading misinformation.

Climate change will continue to increase fire risks in California and beyond in the coming years. Building resilient ecosystems and protecting lives and properties will require collaborative solutions that are grounded in reality.

Here are three wildfire myths sparked by Trump and Zinke that, just like fires, must be stopped before they spread. Read More »

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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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