Growing Returns

Taking a big leap to solve California water problems: How uncommon partners are finding common ground on the water

This blog is co-authored by Joshua Viers, Professor and Program Director, Secure Water Future, University of California, Merced

There we were, 19 of us on the stony shore of the Tuolumne River, feeling a bit stranded like the crew of Gilligan’s Island.

Our “Finding Common Water” rafting excursion was planned around “no water Wednesday,” when river releases are held back for water conservation and infrastructure maintenance. The trip’s goal: Get off our desk chairs and onto rafts, out of the ordinary and into an extraordinary setting — a hot, highly regulated, wild and scenic river —  to push us out of our comfort zone and get to work on addressing real water problems.

Working with All-Outdoors whitewater expeditions, EDF and UC Merced teamed up to create the trip. Our premise was that paddling a raft together — and yanking each other back into the boats by our life vests — can build camaraderie and help find areas of agreement in ways that Zoom meetings just can’t.

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A conservation win and groundwater loss: Arizona ends 2022 session with mixed water record

The Verde River, one of the last free-flowing rivers in the Southwest, remains unprotected after another year of in action to address rural groundwater pumping in Arizona.

After months of negotiations, the Arizona Legislature passed a major water spending plan last month with funding for new conservation efforts to address deteriorating water supplies. However, for the fourth year in a row, state leaders failed to pass legislation to address unlimited groundwater pumping, missing an opportunity to enable a water secure future for 1.5 million rural residents and the state as a whole.

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California’s new Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program is already oversubscribed. Here are 3 features of successful applications.

Last month, the state of California reached an important milestone in its effort to proactively address water scarcity and the changing agricultural landscape: The Department of Conservation awarded over $40 million to regional organizations to strategically repurpose previously irrigated farmland in ways that create new public benefits while reducing groundwater use.

The highly competitive Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program (MLRP) received 12 applications requesting over $110 million  — more than twice the funding available during the program’s inaugural year. The four successful proposals, which received $10 million each, came from critically overdrafted groundwater subbasins in the San Joaquin and Salinas valleys. Here are three common features that gave the successful applications a competitive edge.

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Colorado scores two more #WaterWins to help address worsening drought and capture federal funds

As Colorado’s drought worsens with the snowpack melting at a ridiculous rate,  the state Legislature has stepped up by sending two key bills to the governor’s desk to increase funding for water conservation, river health and ecosystem restoration.

The new funding will help Colorado take advantage of even more federal infrastructure dollars approved last year in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which dedicates $8.3 billion to western water projects.

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This Leadership Institute graduate sees a path to water security through an often overlooked strategy: innovation.

Joseph Gallegos’ interest in water and climate change began as a hobby after he retired as a telecom executive during the 2015 drought. Tired of watching his lawn go brown, Joseph decided to build a system to take water use by his washing machine and deliver it to his lawn, since no such product existed at the time.

His solution took off and is now available at Lowe’s under the brand Grey4Green, a company Joseph founded that aims to promote water and climate resilience through innovation and community outreach. In 2019, Joseph started working on another system to substantially reduce water use on farms, which is called the aquifer pipe.

I first learned about Joseph’s innovative and entrepreneurial drive when planning for the next cohort of the Leadership Institute, a program he participated in last year facilitated by the Environmental Defense Fund and Rural Community Assistance Corporation. The institute builds capacity and leadership skills so members of disadvantaged and underrepresented communities can more effectively engage in water decision-making and help develop equitable, long-lasting water solutions.

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The Colorado River is getting closer to tanking. Can we free ourselves from the long arc of depletion?

My mom on a houseboat and my dad reveling in the “glory days” of Lake Powell, May 1981.

“They would come to the river to see a reflection of their own liberated minds, running free and easy…In the midst of what had once been regarded as the bleakest scarcity they would find abundance.” —Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire

Lake Powell, our nation’s second-largest reservoir, dropped 40 feet in just the last year to a new record low, triggering an unprecedented set of emergency actions. The changes underway at Powell provide a striking illustration of how a new era of aridification in the West is pushing a river management culture steeped in assumptions of the past to the brink. It’s been a few years since I’ve visited Lake Powell, so two weeks ago I went back to see how it’s changed with my own eyes.

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Removing the mystery of groundwater to protect Texas’ beloved Hill Country

Stateof the Hill Country ReportWhat makes the Texas Hill Country unique? In my mind, it comes down to one thing: groundwater. It is impossible to overstate the importance of groundwater to this region, because without it, the Hill Country would not be the region we know and love.

It is the beauty and abundance of the Hill Country’s water resources that have attracted people here for thousands of years.

As the recently published State of the Hill Country Report reveals, the region is on the verge of becoming a victim of its own success as people are moving to the Hill Country in droves for its beauty and high quality of life. The report introduces eight key metrics to help track the region’s health and guide decisions that will determine whether the region will continue to thrive or live beyond its means.

Unfortunately, current levels of groundwater pumping threaten to dry up rivers and springs as the Hill Country heads down the second path of living beyond its means.

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Drought in California is intensifying. It’s time to rise to the challenge.

Record-setting high temperatures in the 90s — in April. The driest first three months of the year in California history. Another drought executive order from the governor calling for more water conservation and requiring protection of existing groundwater wells. These are all signs that the drought is continuing to rear its ugly head in our Golden State and indeed much of the West.

On top of that, the recently released climate report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that if we don’t get serious about making “immediate and deep” cuts in emissions everywhere, the impacts — including droughts — will become even more severe.

But that report also offered hope, noting we still have the tools and sufficient capital and liquidity to limit warming and its impacts. Similarly, in California, we are fortunate to have a mammoth $29 billion budget surplus this year. If deployed effectively, this windfall gives the Newsom administration and state leaders the unique opportunity to help the nation’s most productive agricultural region successfully transition to limited but more resilient water supplies in an equitable way.

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As local movements for groundwater protection rise, will state leaders finally respond?

Across Arizona, the consequences of unlimited groundwater pumping are becoming untenable for many communities. In response, Arizona state Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, has introduced legislation, for the third year in a row, to enable rural communities to manage their groundwater through a new opt-in program called Rural Management Areas (RMAs).

Although the bill again did not receive a committee hearing, this year is very different from the past. Over the last several months, more residents and local stakeholders are becoming engaged and organized around water security and water self-determination, getting mobilized in local settings like town halls, community meetings, and even residents’ living rooms and porches. It has become clear that the people of rural Arizona no longer accept being ignored on water issues at the state level. Here are a few recent examples:

  • Residents in Cochise County, fed up with state inaction to address unfettered groundwater pumping, have submitted signatures for a ballot measure to ask voters to approve a new Active Management Area (AMA) in the Willcox Basin in a local election in November. They are now gathering signatures for a second AMA in the Douglas Basin.
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This farmland repurposing project is delivering 3 benefits. A park may be next.

Sarah Woolf, a member of a Fresno County farm family, is standing on the edge of a field that most recently grew hemp; garlic, tomatoes and onions before that; and cotton years ago. On one side is the dry Arroyo Pasajero Creek, bushes, and a wild, scraggly tree that looks like something from a Dr. Seuss book. On the other side in the far distance is the small farming town of Huron.

This former hemp field has been regraded to recharge groundwater from the creek during the next big storm in order to provide both water supply and flood control benefits. It’s an example of the kind of project that could be funded by the state’s new Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program, which launched this year with an initial $50 million. The program was created to help ease the transition for farmers to sustainable groundwater management while creating new benefits on previously irrigated land.

My colleagues and I recently visited the Arroyo Pasajero Creek and talked with Woolf and later Huron Mayor Rey León about the project and current drought. In addition to conserving water, here are three additional benefits of this land repurposing project — and one envisioned for the future — that they highlighted.

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