Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): groundwater management

What can Nebraska teach the American West about managing water? A lot.

Nebraska is one of the top producers of corn, soybeans and hogs in the country. With 91 percent of the state's total land area dedicated to agricultural production, a lot of water is needed to support all of Nebraska's farms and ranches.

Fortunately, the state sits atop one of the largest underground aquifers in the world. The High Plains Aquifer, commonly referred to as the Ogallala Aquifer, underlies parts of eight states from Texas to South Dakota, and is a vital resource to Nebraskan farmers.

But as farms have expanded and demand for agricultural products has grown, pressure on the aquifer has increased and groundwater levels have been in steady decline for decades.

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California’s rural water systems needs leaders. Who will step up next?

Water leaders from 13 communities throughout California's San Joaquin Valley attended the Leadership Institute to build engagement capacity and share lessons about small water system management. (Credit: Kike Arnal)

There I was again, in the car on Highway 99, on my way from San Francisco to Visalia, in the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley. I had made the trip a dozen times over the past year. But this trip was different. This time I was headed to a reunion.

Back in December 2016, I wrote about a cohort of 30 community water advocates who had just graduated from the Rural Water Boards Leadership Institute – a joint effort sponsored by the Rural Community Assistance Corporation, Self Help Enterprises and Environmental Defense Fund to train residents in the San Joaquin Valley on how to engage on state water policy. Participants spent six months attending workshops and learning about California’s landmark law to end groundwater over pumping and how the law – known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA – might affect their small community water systems. They discussed methods for engaging state policy makers and learned advocacy and communication skills.

Now, almost a year after their graduation, these water leaders were meeting again to catch up, share stories and explore new opportunities to learn from one another. Read More »

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Sunshine, beaches and…saltwater intrusion? Solving for groundwater decline on California’s coast

Many groundwater basins in California remain significantly overdrawn.

For much of its history, California was the Wild West when it came to groundwater. Thirsty cities and farms could freely pump from underground aquifers with little to no oversight. If you could build a well you could take the water.

Recognizing the negative impacts of unchecked pumping, the state stepped in and, in 2014, passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). SGMA makes local agencies responsible for bringing priority groundwater basins into sustainability – meaning many water managers now need to find new ways to meet their water needs.

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It’s time for stream policy to catch up with the science

Will Harman at the Smith-Austin site explaining the restoration efforts that took place in this particular creek, such as re-meandering the channel and planting riparian vegetation.

Streams are one of the most important sources of drinking water across the country. That’s why it is especially alarming that scientists have concerns about North Carolina’s streams and rivers, where I get much of my drinking water.

But streams aren’t just for drinking. These waterways provide countless other benefits to local communities, including recreational opportunities, flood control, improved fish and wildlife habitat, and irrigation for agriculture, to name a few. That’s why it’s vitally important that impacts to streams are offset with effective restoration.

Earlier this month, I visited the site of a successfully restored stream not far from my home with Will Harman, stream mitigation expert at Stream Mechanics and partner to our stream work at EDF.

Will has been working with streams for over 25 years – first launching the stream restoration program at North Carolina State University, and then starting his own private company for stream restoration and mitigation. His three-pronged approach involves conducting applied research, teaching and completing projects.

During our site visit, I had the opportunity to ask Will several questions about the site, the tools he uses to design stream restoration projects, and next steps for protecting streams in North Carolina and beyond.

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The hidden opportunity for water storage in California

Aerial photo released by the California Department of Water Resources, showing the damaged spillway with eroded hillside in Oroville

California’s historic winter ended the drought in many parts of the state and piled up record levels of snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. With so much precipitation, surface water infrastructure – our network of dams, reservoirs and levees – has been called into action like never before, and in some cases has struggled to handle the influx of flows.

With spring temperatures on the rise, snowmelt and runoff have accelerated, adding another wave of stress to the system. And with snowpack still at 192% of average, there is even more runoff on the way.

So where will all this water go?

With many reservoirs near capacity already, water managers have had to allow spring snowmelt to flow out through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and into the ocean. This is inevitable given the sheer amount of water in the system this year, and in fact, these occasional high flows provide multiple benefits to ecosystems and coastal communities.

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Relationships and incentives: My secret ingredients for better resource management

Author Ann Hayden next to her family farm's water source

Stewardship of our land and water resources has always played a central role in my life.

I grew up “out in the country,” as we call it, on a-five acre “farm” in Yolo County, California – large enough for raising pigs and sheep, which my older brothers and I would show at the annual 4-H Fair in nearby Woodland.

Living in the Central Valley, we could always count on very hot, dry summers and occasional consecutive dry years, which inevitably were followed by years of heavy rains and even flooding. From a very young age, I understood how important it was to be smart about how we managed our water supply and the surrounding landscape for people, wildlife and the environment.

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New film shows that clean water isn’t a guarantee for many in California

California’s drought and the San Joaquin Valley’s groundwater crisis

Farms in Kern County along the California Aqueduct, in southern San Joaquin Valley.

National Geographic’s new film, “Water & Power: A California Heist,” explores the impacts of California’s drought and the San Joaquin Valley’s groundwater crisis, and highlights issues surrounding the state’s water rights and the powerful interests that sometimes control them.

The film, which uses beautiful cinematography and testimonials from lawyers, water managers and residents, offers a stark contrast between those who have continued to profit during California’s drought and those who have struggled to meet even their most basic water needs.

The film places an emphasis on the “Monterey Amendments,” a back-room deal struck in 1994 that included the creation of the Kern Water Bank, and opened the door to the bank’s eventual privatization. At the time, well-endowed businesses with large land holdings were given control of these groundwater reserves, which they used to shore up highly profitable agricultural businesses. Since then, groundwater levels have plummeted and become contaminated, impacting safe drinking water supplies for small communities.

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What the Oroville Dam crisis tells us about natural infrastructure

Oroville Dam

Oroville Dam is located in the Sierra Nevada foothills about 80 miles north of Sacramento. At 770 feet, it's the tallest dam in the U.S.

The crisis at Oroville Dam in Northern California has abated, but problems could return with more rain in the forecast for later this week.

If you haven’t heard, the reservoir behind the dam reached capacity last weekend, sending water over an emergency spillway for the first time since its construction in 1968. Authorities ordered more than 180,000 people downstream to evacuate their homes over concerns that the spillway could fail, sending an enormous uncontrolled rush of water down the Feather and Sacramento Rivers.

While the evacuation order has since been lifted, our thoughts still go out to those affected. We continue to monitor and try to make sense of the situation, and while many lessons will eventually be pulled from this experience, there is much to reflect on today.

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Water heroes emerge in California’s Central Valley

Water board leaders from 13 communities throughout California's Central Valley attended the Leadership Academy to build engagement capacity and share lessons about small water system management.

Water board leaders from 13 communities throughout California's Central Valley attended the Leadership Academy to build engagement capacity and share lessons about small water system management. (Credit: Kike Arnal)

California’s Central Valley, which stretches 450 miles from Redding in the north to Bakersfield in the south, is the nation’s richest agricultural region, producing 40 percent of our fruit, vegetables and nuts on nearly 9 million acres of irrigated farmland. The Valley is also ground zero for California’s water problems.

As California endures its fifth year of drought, cities, farms, and communities across the state are experiencing severe water stress. Rivers, lakes and reservoirs are drying up, so residents are turning to groundwater pumping to quench their thirst. As a result, many of the state’s groundwater aquifers are being depleted, causing wells to run dry or become contaminated.

The most critically overdrawn aquifers are in and around small, rural communities in the Central Valley. Here, thousands of people—many of them low-income farm workers—live without safe drinking water.

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Despite drought, California agriculture is doing well. But there are hidden costs.

Water scarcity has affected California vineyards

Photo credit: Henrik Johansson

According to a new World Bank report, regions around the world could gain or lose up to 6 percent of their GDP by 2050 depending on how they manage for climate-driven water scarcity.

I was curious about how the report’s findings might apply to California, where I live.

Here in the Golden State, water scarcity is a familiar threat. And while the World Bank found that climate-water costs to North American GDP should be minimal, many Californians have suffered acutely from sustained drought.

In some cases, however, it isn’t entirely clear what the impacts of water scarcity have been. Read More »

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