CVIndependent

Wed08122020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

As the calendar turns from 2015 to 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown and his Sacramento conservation team are pleased with the results of California’s statewide drought-emergency restrictions.

However, they’re not happy with the efforts of Coachella Valley’s largest water agencies—despite significant cuts in local water usage.

“Californians have reduced water use by 27.1 percent in the five months since emergency conservation regulations took effect in June,” wrote Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), in her Dec. 1 monthly press release. “In October, when outdoor water use—and the opportunity for significant savings—typically drops off from the hot summer months, the statewide conservation rate was 22.2 percent, down from 26.4 percent in September. Adding to the challenge, October brought temperatures that were well above normal for most of the state. Nonetheless, average statewide water use declined from 97 gallons per person per day in September to 87 in October.”

Meanwhile, representatives of the Coachella Valley’s two major water agencies expressed pride over their customers’ conservation achievements—and frustration with SWRCB delays in addressing multiple requests for reductions in their state-high 36 percent reduction targets, and the lack of transparency in the state’s process to levy onerous fines against them.

“I think our customers have done a really good job,” said Heather Engel, the director of communication and conservation for the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD), which provides water to most of the eastern valley. “We’re averaging 27 percent savings over 2013, and honestly, that’s pretty impressive. But—and unfortunately, there is a ‘but’—that 27 percent is not enough to make the state happy.

“We were fined $61,000 by the state, because they don’t think our customers are doing enough. It was very disappointing to receive that fine, because I think we’re doing a good job. But we’ve got to move on.”

How often may fines be levied? “They haven’t made that clear. In fact, when they released the October numbers at the beginning of this month, they did not announce any new fines. I don’t think anyone knows when to expect another announcement of fines.”

On the western end of the valley, Ashley Hudgens, the Desert Water Agency (DWA) public information officer, expressed concern over the CVWD fine and a similar fine levied against the Indio Water Authority (IWA). So far, the DWA has avoided a penalty.

“The hard thing about this is that the state’s action here is kind of arbitrary,” Hudgens said. “If you look at Indio, and you look at CVWD, there are very different circumstances there. Each of them had very different levels of contact with the state before the fine, and there wasn’t a real pattern (of which agencies the state fined). We crunched the numbers a dozen ways: Was it suppliers who missed their targets by volume, or was it those who missed by gallons per capita, or was it those who missed their target by percentage? There was no rhyme or reason necessarily to link the people the state chose to fine in any of the calculations that we did. So we don’t know if we’re in peril of a fine.”

Repeated attempts to contact Brian Macy, general manager of the IWA, for comment were unsuccessful.

Hudgens reiterated the DWA’s disagreement with the 36 percent reduction target assigned to the agency.

“The 36 percent target in our minds is arbitrary, and it’s disproportionate to the circumstances here (high average temperature and lack of rainfall) and our (existing) water supply,” she said.

Hudgens also praised her agency’s customer base for achieving a cumulative savings through October of 29.2 percent—above the state average, but below the state’s mandate to the DWA.

“I’m incredibly proud of our customers for doing that, but there is still more to do,” she said. “Everybody needs to do their part. I think the city of Palm Springs has set an incredible example. They’ve done a really good job of conserving—and since they’re our biggest customer, that’s been huge for us.”

In response to the state fine, the CVWD implemented heightened restrictions as of Dec. 1. All residential and commercial customers are now prohibited from any outdoor irrigation on Mondays and Thursdays. Also, penalty fees for exceeding water-usage allotments have increased close to 100 percent.

“In the cooler months that we’re entering now, your landscaping doesn’t need water seven days a week,” Engel said. “The plan is for people who don’t normally cut back to do so for these two out of seven days. If they do, then they are reducing their water use by about 28 percent. If we have a large segment of customers who do that, it could have a significant impact on our overall savings. We don’t know for sure if that will generate enough savings to allow us to reach our 36 percent target, but we’ll see what the results are.”

We’ve all heard forecasts predicting heavy precipitation due to a strong El Nino condition in the Pacific Ocean. Could that break the drought and relieve the pressure on valley residents to limit every drop of water they use?

“We’re waiting to see what happens and how it impacts our reality,” CVWD’s Engel said. “If the state gets a lot of rain, and if the lakes get full, and there’s snow in the Sierras, then the state might lift the drought emergency. But it would require a lot of rain and snow for that to happen.”

They’re also in wait-and-see mode at the DWA.

“We are trying to be cautiously optimistic and remind people that even if we do have a wet winter, it’s going to take a lot to get us into a sustainable level in terms of the state’s aquifers,” Hudgens said.

Speaking of sustainable levels: How are the two largest valley agencies coping with the revenue shortfalls caused by the reduction in water usage by their customers?

“We are still experiencing a large drop in revenue because of the conservation, and it is mostly being made up with penalties revenue each month,” the CVWD’s Engel said. “So that has allowed us to only dip into our reserves a little bit each month. As a result, we’re in really good shape financially, because we have those healthy reserves.”

But at the DWA, there are no penalty fees, nor is there a tiered rate structure as part of a conservation strategy.

“We are in a revenue shortfall situation,” Hudgens said. “Before this year began, we adjusted the budget downward since we assumed this is where we would be—so we’re coping with it. We are going to have to look at rates, and I think that’s on everyone’s mind out here. I think all the local water agencies are going to be looking at rates. I would guess probably sometime in 2016 we will see a rate study. Of course, that’s up to our board of directors.”

Published in Environment

On July 30, the State Water Resources Control Board issued a press release highlighting the quick success of statewide water-conservation efforts.

“With record-breaking heat throughout much of the state in June, Californians continued to conserve water, reducing water use by 27.3 percent and exceeding Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr.’s 25 percent mandate in the first month that the new emergency conservation regulation was in effect,” the release said.

However, most of the Coachella Valley’s water agencies didn’t conserve as much water as the state wanted.

Among Coachella Valley’s five water districts, the Mission Springs Water District had the least success in June, reporting only a 10 percent decline in usage—missing its 28 percent target by 18.4 percent. The Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) reported a 21 percent decrease in usage—but missed the state’s huge, harsh 36 percent target reduction by 15 percent.

A bit more conservation success was realized by the Indio Water Authority; the agency reported a 26 percent usage decline, but that still fell 5.6 percent short of the targeted 32 percent. The Coachella Water Authority reported a 20 percent decline, 4 percent below the 24 percent target.

By far, the best local June conservation results came from the Desert Water Agency, which exceeded its 36 percent target with a 40 percent decline in usage.

Representatives of the agencies put a positive spin on the numbers.

“We were pretty satisfied with our June number of 21 percent,” said Heather Engel, the Coachella Valley Water District’s director of communications and conservation, “although the state water board criticized us because it was 15 percent away from our goal number of 36 percent. We got some feedback from the state that we might have to do something differently, but we felt that 21 percent was pretty impressive for summer in the Coachella Valley.”

Even more impressive are the CVWD’s July numbers: The district saw a 41 percent decrease, when compared to the same month two years ago. However, the Desert Water Authority’s reduction fell from 40 percent in June to 30 percent in July.

As of our press deadline, July reports were unavailable for the Indio Water Authority, the Coachella Water Authority and the Mission Springs Water District.

Katie Ruark, the DWA public information officer, said her agency wasn’t sure why the 40 percent reduction in June slipped to 30 percent in July.

“We haven’t been able to determine any factual evidence to demonstrate what made the difference between the conservation results in June and July of this year, since it’s only been two days since we reported that information,” she explained. “But we will continue to implement our restrictions and conservation programs to keep the momentum going.”

Ruark did offer some preliminary theories on the difference between the two months: “July was a hotter month in terms of temperatures than June, so that could have been a factor in increased use. Also, it occurs to me that we should look at an increase in tourism rates throughout July, because that could impact the level of usage as well.”

Over at the CVWD, the marked improvement in conservation results obviously pleased Engel. She credited the agency’s public outreach, education programs and rebate programs. “We’ve had this jump in July, and I think that can primarily be attributed to not only the ongoing efforts just mentioned, but that’s when the drought penalties went into effect. That was an additional financial incentive for people to cut back their water use.”

However, the water agencies now find themselves in a curious quandary: As their conservation successes increase, they’re bringing in less money. Does this forebode a rate increase for water customers?

“In July alone, our regular billed water consumption revenue was down by more than $2 million, but we received $1.9 million in new penalty revenue,” CVWD’s Engel said. “We’re hoping to use some of that (penalty) money to further fund our conservation programs, like the turf-buyback program, but I’m not sure if that’s the way it will work, honestly, because our overall revenue is down due to the conservation of water. That penalty funding may be needed to recoup some of that lost revenue.”

Ruark said the Palm Springs-area Desert Water Agency readied itself for the loss in income.

“The DWA, in the preparation of the 2015-2016 fiscal year budget … did prepare for a revenue hit that we knew would result from decreased water use,” she said. “We compensated for that by projecting a $10 million hit, and we deferred capital-improvement projects, and we’ll be taking some money out of our operating reserves to fill that gap. In 2016, we were already scheduled to be doing a rate study, so we’ll be taking a really hard look at both our costs and our rates to determine if our customer rates do need to be adjusted.”

At the east end of the valley, the CVWD’s Engel described the challenge this way. “We do have reserve funds that are specifically designated for use as a rate-stabilization resource. So, when and if we do have a large drop in revenue, we can rely on those funds to be a short term solution. As a result, we are not seriously concerned about the near future.”

There will be no relief forthcoming from the State Water Resources Control Board, which declined to accept appeals and population-data submissions by the DWA and CVWD, which felt the absence of seasonal residents in population statistics skewed the agencies’ per-capita water usage—and resulted in the harsh decrease mandates from the state.

“We did submit our data to them in a memo with backup documentation of our methods,” Ruark said. “They would not accept our conclusions because they felt that we should only include seasonal residents in our winter months’ usage calculations. We explained that those homes are still using water even when the residents themselves are absent, because most of the water usage is on landscaping needs outdoors, and continue regardless. But they declined to accept that premise.”

Published in Environment

Aspen trees are the rock stars of the tree world. They have a bold fashion sense, gilding the mountains in gold each fall. And they engage in risky behavior: In the competitive world of plant biology, their strategy is to grow fast and die young. Juniper trees, which grow slowly, invest much of their carbon in building strong vascular tissue; aspen trees instead put carbon toward growing tall quickly.

Yet the two trees adopt the same strategy when drought hits: Unlike pines, they leave their stomata open. Those tiny pores on their leaves allow the trees to take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and photosynthesize. But the atmosphere demands water in return, which escapes through the tree's stomata. During drought, the process creates extra tension in the plant's tissue, since the trees have less water to give, and the parched atmosphere is especially thirsty.

This is when the juniper's investments in building tough tissue pays off: The tubes that transport water through the tree can withstand an increase in tension. The Aspen tree, on the other hand, becomes vulnerable. Their tubes are more likely to collapse, which can eventually lead to the tree's death.

A few years ago, Bill Anderegg, a forest who is now an assistant professor at the University of Utah, figured out that this was what was killing aspen trees in his native Colorado. (Around 2004, aspen trees throughout the Rocky Mountains began mysteriously dying in droves, a phenomenon that was dubbed "sudden aspen decline.") But he noticed something else curious about their pattern of death: There seemed to be a lag between the drought and its consequences. Tree growth would slow for a few years, but they often wouldn't start to die until three to eight years after the drought.

"There was an interesting paradox of trees being stressed and dying from drought in completely wet soils," Anderegg says. "Which prompted me to ask the question: How widespread are these legacy effects?"

It turned out they were quite widespread, according to the results of a study Anderegg recently authored in the journal Science. Using data from a global tree ring archive, Anderegg measured tree growth following severe drought at 1,338 sites, primarily in the Northern Hemisphere and outside the tropics. Growth is a good proxy for forest health, Anderegg explains, and it's also the primary way trees store carbon. That's important, because globally, forests take up about a quarter of anthropogenic carbon emissions. Their continued ability to sequester carbon at that level is critical to blunting the most severe effects of climate change.

With a few exceptions, tree growth slowed for two to four years after severe drought, with the most enduring effects appearing in arid environments—another indication of the troubles Southwestern forests are likely to face as the climate warms.

"It does seem like species that took more risks during drought seemed to recover more slowly," he says, like aspen, which don't close their stomata and conserve water. "Which does indicate that there's some role of this damage to their hydraulic systems that could slow their growth in subsequent years."

Scientific models of the global carbon cycle—which are important for projecting climate change—don't account for this slow-down in growth. "The models assume there is no lag, so as soon as climate is better, so is growth," says Nate McDowell, who researches the physiology of tree death at Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico. That means that models may overestimate the ability of ecosystems to store carbon—and underestimate the severity of future climate change.

If droughts do become more frequent and severe, Anderegg says, as climate models predict, "this suggests that more forests are going to spend more and more of their time recovering, and become less good at taking up carbon." Anderegg estimates that in Southwestern forests, the lag could amount to a 3 percent reduction in their carbon storage over a century. That may not sound like much, but when it comes to squirreling away the emissions we stubbornly keep spewing, we need all the help we can get.

Plus, the meaningfulness of such numbers is a matter of scale, notes Adrian Das, a forest ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in the Southern Sierra Nevada. While we don't know what the precise effect of that reduced carbon storage might be, locally or globally, "these changes can translate into really large absolute numbers," he says. "Three percent is not very much if it’s five trees. It means something different if it’s thousands of trees."

Cally Carswell is a contributing editor to High Country News, where this story originally appeared.

Published in Environment

If you tuned into the debate on a drought bill in the House earlier this month, you would have gotten a bleak picture of the agriculture industry in a state that fills the produce aisles in much of the rest of the country.

You also would have heard the water shortage blamed on radical environmentalists who sacrificed farms to protect fish in California, and the failure to build any new dams over the last 40 years. The Western Water and American Food Security Act of 2015, written to correct those problems, passed 245-176 on Thursday, July 16, with only five Democrats joining nearly all Republicans to support it.

“We’ve watched our lawns turn brown; we’ve watched our water bills skyrocket; we’ve watched businesses shut down; we’ve watched thousands of farm workers thrown out of work,” said Rep. Tom McClintock, R-California, a co-sponsor of the bill. “We will not solve our water shortage until we build more dams; that’s what our bill does.”

Despite McClintock’s rhetoric, California’s agriculture employment has actually grown in recent years. And California stopped building dams decades ago in large part because 1,500 already occupied most stretches of rivers where dams make economic sense.

Despite its passage, the House bill is going nowhere fast. The White House threatened a veto. The Interior Department sent a letter arguing that the bill could unintentionally worsen water shortages. Also, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is expected to be a major player in drafting a Senate bill, stressed that she opposes provisions in the House bill that “would violate environmental law.”

“We need to facilitate water transfers and maximize water pumping without violating environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act or biological opinions,” Feinstein said in a statement.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who chairs the committee that would draft a Senate bill, plans to craft West-wide legislation, but not until the fall. “Senator Feinstein’s ideas will be central to moving that forward,” Murkowski’s spokesman Robert Dillon told High Country News.

There’s no question that these are tense times for Central Valley farmers. Agriculture jobs in the San Joaquin region in March, the most recent month with state data, were down by 4,000 from last year to 164,200. But what’s unexpected is that they’re up from 2011, before the drought. Locally, they’re not even down year-to-date: In the desert region (Imperial, Riverside and San Bernardino counties), there were 25,600 jobs in March—1,100 more than the same month a year before. And statewide, average annual agriculture employment actually grew slightly from 2013 to 2014, continuing a decade-long trend that’s driven by a shift to more labor-intensive crops like fruits and almonds. Still, the drought has forced some farmers in the Central Valley and elsewhere to reduce their workforces as they’ve fallowed fields because of water shortages.

Jay Lund, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of Center for Watershed Sciences at University of California at Davis, questioned the reasoning behind provisions in the House bill that would streamline permitting for water storage projects to add capacity at Shasta Lake and construct new reservoirs at Sites, Temperance Flat and Los Vaqueros. “Additional storage would be useful, but it’s not clear it would be cost-effective or the best investment,” he said.

Even if all the proposed storage had been built and filled before the drought, the state still would be low on water after four years of extreme drought. Lund said that the bill’s sponsors overstate how much water is available in California, and that the state would be better off with a multi-pronged approach that includes more recycling of wastewater, recharging of groundwater during wet times, constructing water pipelines, and some additional storage projects.

To alleviate water shortages for agriculture, the House bill also would repeal the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Act, which aims to restore salmon runs and 60 miles of the river that had been dry much of the year.

“Farmers could take every drop of water and leave a dry streambed,” said Doug Obegi, a lawyer for Natural Resource Defense Council. “I don’t think that’s the vision of the rivers of the West that most Americans have.”

This was one of many provisions opposed by the Interior Department, because it would “negatively impact our ability to protect Delta fish and wildlife in the long-term; particularly those species listed under federal and state endangered species laws,” the Interior Department said in a letter.

What’s more, Interior’s letter warned the bill would have the “unintended consequence of impeding an effective and timely response to the continuing drought while providing no additional water to hard hit communities.”

But with the Senate moving slowing on its bill and a presidential veto in the mix, it’s impossible to predict what if any provisions in the House bill might endure.

“It’s too early to say. This could be a major step toward dramatically rolling back environmental protections in California or just another act of theater by far-right politicians in Congress,” Obegi said.

Elizabeth Shogren is the D.C. correspondent for High Country News, where this story first appeared.

Published in Environment

The water-energy nexus spans the world of electricity generation and water movement, particularly in Western states. It takes water to produce steam for coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants, and they usually need water to cool them down. Huge amounts of electricity are needed to pump water across the desert; the Southern Nevada Water Authority is Nevada’s biggest user of electricity, and the Central Arizona Project relies heavily on the Navajo Generating Station to keep water moving through the canals.

Surely the most obvious link between water and energy, and between climate and electricity generation, though, is found at the West’s numerous hydroelectric generation stations, and here in California—deep in a nasty drought—we’re feeling that link in a painful way.

The relationship is pretty simple: More water in a reservoir or river equals more potential for generating electricity by releasing that water to turn turbines. All of California’s reservoirs are far below the average levels for this time of year. New Melones reservoir is sitting at just 17 percent of capacity; Shasta reservoir, one of the state’s biggest hydroelectric power plants, is only 49 percent full. Meanwhile, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, backed up behind the Southwest’s two biggest hydropower plants, are at critically low levels. This is impacting electricity generation, without a doubt, and doing so during the hottest months of summer, when the grid is already stressed.

We wanted to get a more concrete sense of exactly how the drought is affecting hydropower generation in California and beyond, so we dug into the data and crunched some of the numbers. The map below in the “Media” field gives a rundown on the biggest hydropower generators in the Southwest, including all of California’s plants with a generating capacity of 200 megawatts or more, along with Glen Canyon Dam, Hoover Dam and Davis Dam on the Colorado River. Click on the icons, and you’ll see a graph of power generation from 2009 through 2014.

Here are the highlights of the number-crunch.

In California, drought has taken a direct hit on hydropower generation, as is quite evident in the map below, and the graph above. In 2014, California’s collective hydropower plants kicked out about 17 million megawatt hours of juice. Not bad, except that it was only about one-third of what they produced in 2011, an unusually wet year, and about half of an average year in pre-drought times.

The average home uses about 11,000 kilowatt hours of power—or 11 megawatt hours—each year. In other words, something like 2.8 million fewer homes were powered by hydroelectricity in 2014 as compared to 2011 in California. And things have only gotten worse since.

The good news is that burgeoning wind and solar in the state have stepped in and taken up some of the slack. The bad news is that more natural gas power has also been needed to fill the deficit.

Drought diminishes hydropower production from Colorado River dams as well, though, as directly as in California. Hoover Dam is a huge hydroelectric power plant, with a nameplate capacity as large as some of the biggest coal-fired power plants, and its “fuel” supply is running out as Lake Mead reaches historically low levels. So it’s no wonder that folks are concerned about its status as a power producer. So far, though, drought hasn’t had as severe an impact on hydropower production here or in Glen Canyon and Davis Dams, above and below Hoover, respectively. That’s because the operators of these dams can’t withhold a bunch of turbine-turning water just because their reservoirs are running on empty. In fact, Hoover dam’s turbines produced 33,000 more megawatt hours of power during the first quarter of this year, even as it approached record low levels, than during the first quarter of 2014. Yet dry times still do impact hydropower production, because the lower the reservoir, the less force the water has to turn the turbines. Lake Mead’s “dead pool”—the level at which it could no longer turn the turbines—was once 1,050 feet, about 25 feet below what it is now (and a level that is not in the cards at least for a few more years). But new wide-head turbines have been installed over the last decade, which lowers dead pool to about 950 feet, thus extending Hoover’s hydropower life for a while.

Hydroelectricity is an especially valuable form of power. Hydro is a good source of baseload power, meaning it can put a steady stream of juice into the grid around the clock. But it’s also valuable in that grid operators can crank it up or down relatively quickly, meaning it can be used to balance out variable power sources like wind and solar, or it can step in to account for a sudden surge of power demand, due to everyone turning on their air conditioners in the hottest time of the day, coupled with a drop in solar generation as the sun dips toward the horizon. It’s in this capacity that Hoover and Glen Canyon are huge assets to the southwestern grid.

If drought-induced hydropower loss is going to happen anywhere, though California’s a good place for it. If any other state lost tens of millions of megawatthours of power from one source, they’d likely replace it with coal-fired power. But California is fast on its way to completely phasing out coal, and it’s also under the most robust renewable portfolio standards, so it can only get so dirty when looking for a stand-in for hydro.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor of High Country News, where this story first appeared

Published in Environment

When the Hoover Dam was built in 1936, it was the largest concrete structure—and the largest hydropower plant—in the world, a massive plug in the Colorado River, as high as a 60-story building.

For nearly 80 years, the dam has been producing dependable, cheap electricity for millions of people in the Southwest, but as water levels in Lake Mead continue to drop, the future of “the greatest dam in the world” is more precarious than it ever has been, and utilities across the desert—including local power provider Southern California Edison—are taking notice.

Lake Mead, the 112-mile reservoir created by the dam, was recently projected to hit 1,074.73 feet above sea level, the lowest it has been since it was filled in 1937. Thanks to a 16-year drought and serious over-allocation, Lake Mead is now just 37 percent full. Although a “miracle May” of rain means the water level will rise again, the longer term prognosis is more worrisome: If water levels continue their downward trend, the amount of energy generated by the Hoover Dam will fall, leading to higher electricity costs for 29 million people in the desert Southwest.

That's because a shallower reservoir means less water pressure against the turbines, generating less electricity. A recent report by graduate students at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in conjunction with the Western Water Policy Program, examines the economic and physical impacts as Lake Mead’s elevation falls: With each 25-foot drop, total energy costs increase by roughly 100 percent, compared to a full reservoir. The costs paid by contractors for hydropower double at 1,075 feet, triple at 1,050 feet, and quadruple at 1,025 feet. At 895 feet, the turbines won’t run—a level they call “dead-pool.”

Dead pool is not imminent, and in the short term, less generation at Hoover won’t translate into soaring electrical bills, says Frank Wolak, an economics professor at Stanford. That’s because utilities buy “futures” contracts for energy, which guarantee a certain price for a period of time. It’s like buying a plane ticket in advance: The price is significantly less than one bought on the same day as a flight. In the case of Hoover, many of those contracts span up to 10 years and were negotiated before low water levels became a significant concern.

Still, Hoover’s power capacity has dropped nearly 25 percent since 2000, and the 53 hydropower facilities run by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation across the West are producing 10 percent less power than a few years ago, despite rising demand. So when those futures contracts run out—and continued low water levels appear likely—bottom-barrel prices for hydropower will likely be a thing of the past.

That means that utilities currently relying on Hoover’s power, such as the Overton Power District No. 5, which serves 15,000 people in Nevada on the southern end of Lake Mead, are wary. Overton buys 20 percent of its power from the Hoover Dam, 5 percent from other hydro projects, and 75 percent on the spot market (where energy is traded on day-by-day basis). The utility anticipates having to replace 5 percent of its hydropower with another, more-expensive energy source, says Mendis Cooper, Overton’s general manager. That switch won’t translate into sky-high energy bills, likely just a 1 to 2 percent increase. But if Lake Mead continues to fall, and shortages become routine, his customers could see more dramatic increases in their electricity bills. 

“We’ve been having those discussions,” Cooper says, noting that the major topic is moving to more renewables, like solar, as well as improving efficiency.

Luckily, the West has ambitious renewable goals, says Wolak, which will likely make up more of the region’s energy mix and help mitigate the loss of hydropower in the future.

Still, renewables aren’t a panacea. Wind and solar are far more volatile and require backup power sources, such as gas-fired power plants. And though the prices for renewables have come down in recent years, they’re still no match for cheap, federally subsidized hydropower.

“They solve the resource issue,” Cooper says, “but not the price issue.”

Sarah Tory is an editorial fellow at High Country News, where this story first appeared.

Published in Environment

California residents are dealing with unprecedented water restrictions due to our record-breaking drought.

Those of us who garden have a choice: Either we can simply comply with these limitations, or we can morally commit to reacting in a way that will help our state achieve sustainability. I, for one, believe we must take control of our water usage.

Water restrictions vary from agency to agency. Palm Springs’ Desert Water Agency, for example, restricts landscape irrigation to Monday, Wednesday and Friday during overnight hours. Fortunately, most desert landscape gardens do not need three days of water. (Please don’t get me started on grass in the desert. Artificial turf is beautiful, and lawns do not belong here.)

Of course, container gardens offer flexibility regarding placement and size—and, therefore, water usage. Here are some tips to embrace sooner rather than later. (Although I am writing about pots, many of these tips can translate to raised beds, landscapes and bedding plants.)

1. Take a pail into your shower, and fill it with the water that comes out before the water reaches your desired temperature. Use the bucket to water thirsty plants.

2. When rain is in the forecast (rare, but it happens … hopefully), put out buckets and barrels to gather as much water as possible. Rainwater has many beneficial micronutrients that your plants will appreciate.

3. If you are gone a lot, don't plant water-hungry plants and flowers. After all, you won’t be around to enjoy them.

4. Plant fewer flowers and more succulents—and consider leaving some pots empty.

5. Use large pots (greater than 20 inches wide and deep). Once new plantings are established, they will need to be watered less. You can add more water to thirstier pots from rainwater and your shower.

6. Make sure none of your irrigation emitters are over-spraying into areas with no plants.

7. Check for dripping hose bibs and leaks in your irrigation.

8. Shorten your irrigation run times. If you can cut the time by 25 percent, you will be doing more than your part. If you have your pots on a dedicated line with adjustable emitters, they should only run for five to 10 minutes—and cutting the time by 25 percent will bring those times down to four to seven minutes. As long as the plants are established, that’ll probably be enough water. If it isn’t, you always have that shower water!

9. Never irrigate your cactus and succulents. Even in the Coachella Valley, they really only need water once a week—and that is only if they are in full sun. Succulents in the shade will probably get by with watering every other week.

I am a huge proponent of setting up a dedicated irrigation line to your containers. The watering-schedule settings are very specific and not as subject to human error or forgetfulness. Irrigation lines also save water over hand-watering. I suggest you use an adjustable emitter. Be absolutely certain that you have a dedicated line for pots, because if you add pots to the landscape line, you will be over-watering your potted plants—and wasting hundreds of gallons of water.

Water is a necessity for every living thing. Save some of this precious resource while continuing to enjoy your garden.

Marylee Pangman is the founder and former owner of The Contained Gardener in Tucson, Ariz. She has become known as the desert’s potted garden expert. She is available for digital consultations, and you can email her with comments and questions at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow the Potted Desert at facebook.com/potteddesert. Get a free copy of Ten Top Tips to Desert Potted Garden Success by visiting www.potteddesert.com/m.

Below: Low-water flowers and cactus are good to plant during the drought.

Published in Potted Desert Garden

On a recent trip to California, I visited the North Coast, where spring usually means green hills with deep grass, strewn with lupine and bright orange poppies bobbing in sea breezes.

This year, we found stunted grass, browning hills and the local news obsessing over the worst drought in California's recorded history. Suddenly, the most populous state in the country faces a harsh reality, with water shortages threatening all aspects of life, from the economy, to our food supply, to the very livability of our homes.

Holed up in Bodega Bay, I heard Gov. Jerry Brown on the radio talking about mandatory water-use restrictions for California's 39 million people. Brown usually can be counted on to take on issues realistically, yet when asked if he would restrict the amount of water that goes to agriculture, he demurred. Agriculture had suffered enough already, he said.

While we are all grateful to farmers and farm workers—including those in the eastern Coachella Valley—for producing the food we crave, the tough reality of severe drought should compel us to take a closer look at agricultural water use. In America's entrepreneurial environment, we're not used to asking hard questions about legal private-sector activity, but this severe and lingering drought—not only in California, but also throughout the West—could, and should, force a serious debate about private-sector use of public water supplies. It is long overdue.

This may be an uncomfortable process for politicians who will have to consider a difficult balance: water supplies for cities versus water for rural industries, including ones that may not be able to survive in a drying region.

Here are the cold facts: Cities in California use between 10 to 20 percent of the state's developed water, producing 98 percent of its gross domestic product, while agriculture uses 80 percent of the water supply—and produces only 2 percent of the state's GDP. And of the 80 percent that agriculture uses, only a portion is used for crops that directly feed people.

We could drill down deeper and see who is using water and for what, but this is where politicians start squirming, given that farmers produce both crops and campaign contributions. The majority of Colorado River water and agricultural water in California goes to producing feed for cattle—low-value crops like alfalfa and hay. Those crops use 14 million acre-feet of water a year, which is far more than what is used by water-intensive crops like rice, cotton or wine grapes.

Alfalfa is a huge water-waster largely because of its high rates of evapotranspiration, as well as the overall inefficiency of flood irrigation, the main means of watering the crops. Seventy percent of California's alfalfa goes to dairies, which use more than 700 gallons of water per cow, per day, in facilities that have hundreds of cows, usually located in arid parts of the state. The 500,000 beef cattle in California require between 400 and 2,500 gallons of water for each pound of meat, depending on who supplies your statistics.

Of course, California is not the only area facing a drought. In the Rio Grande Basin of Colorado and New Mexico, the same pattern of alfalfa and hay production for desert dairies and feedlots depletes ground and surface water, leaving cities, wildlife and recreation chasing ever lower flows on this iconic river. According to The New York Times, livestock production uses 75 percent of Colorado River flows, which currently are 15 percent lower than they were in 1990—and dropping. Statistics for the Rio Grande are similar.

How do we handle a commercial interest that disproportionately burdens the public water supply? The dairy and beef industries, and forage growers, provide some jobs, but their high water consumption threatens many other crops and businesses—employing far more people—as well as domestic water-users who depend on water for survival.

In 1983, the California Supreme Court, in the case National Audubon Society v. Superior Court, ruled that water falls under the public trust doctrine, which says that important public resources are so fundamental to society that courts can impose restrictions when private development threatens public use. The court applied the public trust doctrine to water that had been appropriated under state law, ruling that those appropriations were contrary to the public interest.

If politicians remain unwilling to confront wasteful use of our public water supplies, it might be time to bring a case to the courts.

Tom Ribe is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He lives in New Mexico.

Published in Community Voices

Five years ago, when south-central Texas was suffering through its driest year in more than a century, public officials in the city of San Antonio turned in desperation to a new tactic to enforce water conservation: They dispatched the police.

From April 2009 and on through the rest of the year, off-duty officers and other city employees prowled neighborhoods looking for over-green lawns, leaky hoses and inveterate sidewalk-washers, issuing tickets to observed offenders. The city also set up an online form residents could use to report their neighbors, just in case the authorities let one slide.

“We don’t go out in a car with sirens blazing or anything like that,” San Antonio Water System spokeswoman Anne Hayden said back then. “But we do take the report and send out a letter saying, ‘You’ve been reported for not following water rules.’”

The gambit may have seemed extreme at the time, but it worked: The city used no more water in 2009 than it did in 1984, even with nearly twice the population. By 2011, the “water police,” along with other aggressive conservation policies, had driven the city’s water use down 130 gallons per person per day—about two-thirds of the state average. San Antonio’s now-permanent conservation ordinance has kept the water level in the aquifer stable enough to sustain both an endangered blind salamander and the city’s drinking water supply through successive years of drought.

In California, state and local officials have long been mulling a way to achieve a similar kind of success, and persuade the state’s residents to stop wasting water in this third-driest year of the century. In January, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency, asking the state’s residents politely to reduce their water use by 20 percent. It’s almost as if no one read the news that week: Statewide water use hardly declined at all; in some places, such as coastal San Diego and west Lake Tahoe, water consumption actually went up.

So in July, the State Water Control Board decided more draconian measures were in order. The agency directed local jurisdictions that don’t already have mandatory water restrictions in place to adopt them: No more hosing off driveways, running fountains that don’t recirculate and watering the sidewalk with a poorly aimed sprinklers. And it authorized local agencies to fine water scofflaws as much as $500 per day. Those restrictions went into effect last week.

The Desert Water Agency, the water utility for much of Desert Hot Springs, Palm Springs, Cathedral City and other parts of the west valley, will hold a public hearing on emergency conservation regulations, as well as potential restrictions and enforcement actions, at 8 a.m., Tuesday, Aug. 5, at 1200 S. Gene Autry Trail in Palm Springs. The Coachella Valley Water District, the water utility for the east valley, will hold a similar public hearing at 9 a.m., Tuesday, Aug. 12, at the Steve Robbins Administration Building, 75515 Hovley Lane East, in Palm Desert.

Will these restrictions and fines work? Stephanie Pincetl, director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at UCLA, has done a lot of research into why people waste water during droughts. She has found that rate increases work, except when “price insensitive” wealthy residents—some of the West’s biggest water squanderers—choose to ignore them. Water budgets for consumers, like those adopted by the cities of Boulder, Colo., and Santa Rosa, Calif., are even more effective: If you use more than it appears that you need, your rate shoots up dramatically.

But mandatory water restrictions only work if they’re enforced. The city of Los Angeles reports that water use has dropped 17 percent since 2007, and mandatory restrictions on outdoor water use have been in place since 2009. Anecdotal observation, however, reveals the prohibition on driveway-washing is about as effective as the law against fireworks on the Fourth of July. In the crowded slice of coastal Los Angeles I call home, broken sprinkler systems still over-water boulevards—sometimes so thoroughly that trees topple from saturated roots. Nor do the limits curtail the 30-minute showers my neighbor takes every morning. The restrictions govern only outdoor water use, where 60 percent of the water goes. Overlong showers remain beyond their scope.

Pincetl thinks there might be a better approach: garden-variety public education. “I think we’ve lacked leadership (on water use),” says Pincetl. “We don’t have examples among our religious leaders, our political leaders or our media leaders of people taking the drought seriously.”

The governor asked for conservation, but “it’s not like the rabbis of L.A., or the Catholic Archdiocese or Ellen DeGeneres or any of these people who have prominent positions ever said anything about it. He needed to pick up the phone and call people,” Pincetl says. “He needed to say, ‘Help me out with this.’”

Pincetl advises against “drought-shaming”—confronting neighbors over their flagrant water crimes. “There’s a couple down the street from me; they’re Estonian, and probably suffered greatly in World War II.” When she gently corrected the woman in the couple for watering the sidewalk, “she blew up at me,” Pincetl says. It accomplished nothing.

“This is a campaign,” she says. “This about understanding we live in a water-restricted environment. We needsigns at libraries and grocery stores. We need Trader Joes to post messages about it.”

For the city of Los Angeles and its utility, however, the time for messaging alone to work may be over. LADWP officials have been staffing up their Water Conservation Response Unit since April, and soon plan to deploy staff to move past neighborly warnings and “fix-it” tickets to levying meaningful fines. First offenses will still get a warning (with pictures). After that, though, homeowners can expect $100 to $300 per violation, and owners of commercial buildings might incur fines as high as $600.

Even Pincetl admits that repeat violators might deserve pricey tickets at this point: “We’re in a drastic position now,” she says, “because we desperately need to conserve.” In the future and going forward, however, it might be wise for communities to develop “a more integrated set of strategies. If you haven’t exhausted all the remedies,” she says, “going from zero—doing nothing—to fining people? It just seems a little churlish.”

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor to High Country News, where this story was originally published. The author is solely responsible for the content. The Independent’s Jimmy Boegle contributed the Coachella Valley-specific information to this piece.

Published in Local Issues

At night, in the parched pasturelands in the southern reaches of California’s Central Valley, strange constellations glow on the horizon: beacons atop rigs that are drilling for water.

Applications to drill new wells skyrocketed after state officials announced in February that, after the third year of pitiful precipitation, no water would be delivered via the concrete rivers of the massive State and Central Valley water projects. In Fresno County between January and April, 226 well-drilling permits were issued, compared to just 69 during the same period last year—prompting some to fear irreparable damage to aquifers.

In the daytime, signs planted in desiccated orchards come into view, declaring: “Congress created Dust Bowl” and “Man-made Drought,” expressing the widely believed myth that regulations to protect endangered fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are responsible for water shortages on Central Valley farms.

In February, House Republican David Valadao proposed lifting endangered-species protections and invalidating the federal mandate to restore the San Joaquin River, so that pumping from the Delta to the Central Valley could be increased. In March, Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer sought more “flexibility” to transfer water from wetter northern regions to the south’s water-starved farms and cities, and to expand Shasta Lake, California’s largest reservoir, for storing more water. Just last week, five Central Valley water agencies announced their own audacious plan to overcome the drought: Fill the California Aqueduct with groundwater, and reverse its normal flow along one roughly 50-mile section in order to deliver moisture to the valley’s bone-dry western edge.

In California, the worst political sin during times of extreme aridness is the appearance of idleness. However, while politicians maneuver for temporary engineering fixes and regulatory rollbacks, other Westerners argue that the old solutions to water scarcity won’t end the current crisis, or protect us from future ones.

Water expert Peter Gleick says California and the West have reached “peak water,” with more water promised to farms and cities than mountains and rivers can provide. Worse, the region could fall into a “megadrought,” lasting decades or centuries. Bigger reservoirs and new wells will bring no relief without an adequate water supply. This raises the question: Will California take realistic measures to deal with its water crisis, or succumb to political inertia and lack of rain?

The last decade’s unrelenting droughts have forced Westerners to re-evaluate the definition of a “normal” water supply. B. Lynn Ingram, a University of California earth-science professor and author of The West Without Water, didn’t have to look far to find major periods of aridity in the past. There was the 1930s Dust Bowl, and the 1976 to ’77 drought, known in California as the “year of no rain.” And yet, as economically and socially damaging as these events were, we have not witnessed the worst possible extremes—not by a long shot, says Ingram. The mid-Holocene drought, for example, persisted for 1,500 years, forcing vast migrations of Native peoples.

Add climate change to the risk of natural megadrought, and the future looks even bleaker. “The data shows that there are certainly periods of dryness that were longer and more intense than what we have in our 100 years of records,” says Elissa Lynn, program manager of the Climate Change Program at California’s Department of Water Resources. “The problem is that today, it’s hotter than it was in those periods—and that will exacerbate any drought problems we have.”

Lynn points out that the state’s snowpack, the source of about one-third of its water, is expected to decline by 48 to 65 percent this century. It has already dropped by 10 percent over 20 years. In early May, the water stored in remaining snowpack was just 18 percent of average. “We have to start making plans for its loss,” Lynn says.

The White House’s National Climate Assessment, released in May, reinforces that mandate. According to the report, temperature increases resulting from carbon pollution have played a large role in the snowline’s rapid retreat. Rising temperatures and shrinking water supplies are a double blow for farms: “The combination of a longer frost-free season, less frequent cold air outbreaks, and more frequent heat waves … increases agricultural water consumption,” the report says. “This combination of climate changes is projected to continue and intensify.”

Ingram says California and most of the West have entered an era in which water shortages can’t be solved through brute-force engineering. “We need to acknowledge how unreliable and uncertain our water supply is. It looks variable over a century. But if you go back in time, it’s even more variable. And that’s a little scary,” she says. “You can build bigger reservoirs, but if we’re heading into a drier period, you’re not going to have the water to fill them.”

She has some practical advice: “We need to be thinking about local efficiency—the use of wastewater-recycling and rainwater-harvesting,” she says. And in agricultural regions where the bulk of the state’s water is consumed, efficiency- and groundwater-monitoring must be priorities. (California doesn’t regulate groundwater-pumping, and the more aquifers are depleted, the less they can be leaned on during future droughts.)

Lynn of the Department of Water Resources agrees, pointing out that reduced snowpack and earlier snowmelt will force water managers to take a “portfolio” approach—diversifying water supplies, increasing water conservation and recycling, and devising new storage methods, like banking water in aquifers in wet years, rather than in reservoirs.

The drought currently ravaging California is, indeed, partly “man-made.” But those responsible for “making” the drought are not politicians or regulators with soft spots for endangered fish. This drought, while natural in some sense, has likely been intensified by anyone who puts gasoline in a car, flips a light switch powered by coal- or gas-burning power plants—or turns on a faucet.

In California, an estimated one-fifth of overall energy is expended moving water to places it doesn’t naturally flow. To a greater or lesser extent, we are all to blame.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

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