Monday, November 16, 2015
U-T San Diego
3 states work to share the Colorado’s waters
Instead of fighting over water, California, Arizona and Nevada are trying cooperation
By Bradley J. Fikes
California, Arizona and Nevada have quarreled and litigated over Colorado River water for many decades. Now the states are slowly moving to a new model of cooperation.
Once rare water shortages have become seemingly perpetual, posing a common danger. So instead of fighting to secure the most water for themselves, the states are increasingly focused on conserving water.
That water is staying in Lake Mead, the linchpin to reliable supply in the three states. The more water they can store in this key reservoir, the better they are all protected.
For now, the states are cooperating informally. But the federal government says it is possible for them to develop more long-range plans, which the U. S. Bureau of Reclamation can be done under existing provisions of the Law of the River, a complex set of provisions of historic agreements and legal decisions governing use of the Colorado.
Colorado River water is allocated among seven Colorado River basin states and Mexico. These states include Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. But in recent decades it has become clear that on average, less rain and snow falls in the river basin than is used.
That over-allocation, along with a recent drought, have resulted in Lake Mead falling to less than 40 percent capacity, the lowest level since it has been filled. If the reservoir falls much further, it will trigger a declaration of shortage on the Colorado River.
A shortage declaration would start a series of increasingly severe cutbacks in supplies none of the states want to see happen. Hardest hit would be the lower basin states, especially Arizona. Thanks to clever negotiating by California, Arizona will take all of the initial cuts before California loses one drop.
But that event would trigger a political firestorm, causing uncertainty and possibly threatening California’s water rights. So water agencies such as Metropolitan Water District of Southern California are talking with their counterparts in Arizona and Nevada to head that off.
Stockpiling unused water in Lake Mead doesn’t legally change the amount allocated to each state. But it does raise the reservoir’s level above the point where a shortage is declared. That’s a surface elevation of 1,075 feet. The reservoir briefly dropped to 1,074.98 feet in late June, but rebounded above that point a few hours later.
Unexpected spring rains in the Colorado River Basin helped keep Lake Mead from falling into shortage. The near-miss underscored the precarious nature of this water supply, and the importance of the states working together to strengthen its reliability.
One of the most worrisome facts is that unlike California, the Colorado River basin is no longer in drought.
Precipitation in the basin area returned to normal about a decade ago, said Bill Hasencamp, Manager of Colorado River Resources for Metropolitan Water District. The district is Southern California’s main water wholesaler, supplying about half the water used in San Diego County.
Over-allocation is the fundamental problem for Colorado River users, Hasencamp said. The seven basin states and Mexico are allotted a total of 16.5 million acre-feet a year. But the allocations were developed based on weather patterns of the early 20th century, which were unusually wet.
Currently, the lower basin shortfall is about 1 million acre-feet annually, Hasencamp said. The amount is predicated on the upper basin states releasing their agreed-upon amounts of water and varies with the rate of evaporation from Lake Mead.
According to a report released by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in December 2012, the long-term shortfall is about 3.2 million acre-feet annually. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough for two single-family households a year.
California gets the most of the lower basin states, 4.4 million acre-feet. Arizona gets 2.8 million acre-feet, and Nevada gets just 300,000 acre-feet. Nevada actually uses more, but the amount it recycles and returns to Lake Mead is subtracted from the total.
Lake Mead can hold a maximum of about 29 million acre-feet, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Lake Powell, its companion reservoir upstream, holds up to about 24 million acre-feet. Total storage capacity of the Colorado River system is just under 60 million acre-feet.
While that’s a lot of capacity, the drought and overuse has over the years drawn down the reservoirs to worrisome levels. Unlike in California, where much smaller storage capacity means that just three or for dry years can cause drought, the Colorado River basin’s problems have been building for more than a decade.
Global warming, predicted to make the shortages worse, will at some point come out of its hiatus, say UC San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientists in new research. They released their findings this month in a study published in Nature Geoscience.
“With the current hiatus we are on a flat step of the staircase, but the greenhouse gas increase drives the staircase going upward,” lead researcher Shang-Ping Xie said in a statement.
Talking it out
Hasencamp said the district has been working on ways to save water in Lake Mead for a decade. It has worked not only with the other basin states, but Mexico.
“We’ve done things like operating the Yuma desalting plant (to reduce the salt content of Mexico’s Colorado River water), funded Brock Reservoir, and funded cloudseeding,” Hasencamp said.
“So we’re slowing the drop from the million acre-feet because of our actions,” he said.
More recently, the basin states have begun taking steps to conserve water under a memorandum of understanding signed last December between the U. S. Department of the Interior and agencies in the three states. This includes funding for conservation projects.
“We’re still talking, which is a good thing,” said Jayne Harkins, executive director of the Colorado River Commission of Nevada.
Nevada has an especially strong incentive to keep lake elevations up: if it drops too low, the intake pumps that supply the Las Vegas region will come up dry. To prevent this, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which serves Las Vegas, recently built a “third straw” to augment its two other connections to the reservoir.
The seven basin states have been talking among themselves, and the lower basin states have had their own discussions under the memorandum, Harkins said.
“We’re trying to come up with a plan, always looking for voluntary ways to reduce the use and help shore up Lake Mead elevations,” Harkins said.
While there is no agreement among all seven states, the memorandum signed by members of the lower basin states allocates up to $11 million contributed by the parties to increase water conservation efficiency throughout the entire basin. So far, about $8 million has been committed, Harkins said.
Hasencamp said the scope of the talks is confined to such voluntary actions, on a trial basis. A “complete reset” of the allocations, a revision of the Law of the River, is not part of the discussions.
The scope and pace of the voluntary agreements largely depends on the level of Lake Mead, he said.
“If Lake Mead is lower, we would try to speed up the reductions. If we have a wet year and Lake Mead goes up, we would kind of relax.”
Supervisors say feds want to reach too far with water plan
By Wes Bowers
STOCKTON — San Joaquin County is asking the federal government to rethink its plan to take jurisdiction over thousands of acres of water that the agricultural community needs to survive.
The San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted 4-0 to adopt a resolution supporting the repeal of the Final Rule defining Waters of the United States under the Clean Water Act.
This new Final Rule, according to San Joaquin County Public Works Director Kris Balaji, gives federal jurisdiction to all tributaries of waters such as oceans, bays, rivers, seas, ponds, lakes and basins.
Tributaries under federal jurisdiction include drainage ditches, irrigation ditches and sloughs, among other bodies of water, Balaji said.
Other waters that fall under federal jurisdiction, he said, include wetlands adjacent to other jurisdictional waters and as far away as 4,000 feet.
The new rule became effective on Aug. 28 despite opposition from the county, Balaji said.
As many as 30 states have filed litigation against the new rule on the grounds that it goes beyond the original intent of the Clean Water Act, he said.
Enacted in 1972, the Clean Water Act made it unlawful to discharge any pollutant from a source into navigable waters unless a permit was obtained.
Balaji said the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals on Oct. 9 issued a nationwide stay against the new rule.
With last week’s approval, the board also expressed support of HR 1732 and S. 1140, which direct the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to start over and draft a new rule that isn’t as far-reaching as the one currently in place.
Balaji said, however, that while HR 1732 is awaiting action in the Senate, S. 1140 failed Nov. 3 by a vote of 57-41.
Balaji added that the Obama administration has also issued a veto threat against any appeal of the new rule.
San Joaquin County Agricultural Commissioner Tim Pelican said about 733,612 acres in San Joaquin County will fall under the jurisdiction of this new rule. There are 870,912 acres of agricultural land in the county, he said.
That would mean that in San Joaquin County, only small portions of land near Linden and Tracy will not be impacted, according to EPA maps, he said.
Pelican added any land that may be fallowed would require a federal permit to do so. Lands requiring changes in crop rotation, or replacing perennial crops, would also require permits, he said.
The EPA has reported acquiring these permits could take as many as 120 days, Pelican said.
“Because of this, growers are being forced to move further out to convert marginal farmland into orchards and vineyards,” he said. “They will be highly impacted by the rule.”
Supervisor Bob Elliott said what is needed is a rule that doesn’t overreach and impose unnecessary mandates on individuals.
“It’s clear that this new definition is a huge overreach and expansion of the previous jurisdiction of the EPA,” he said. “It’s certainly unwarranted, and I think we need to take a stance in support of private property rights in this case.”
Board Vice Chairman Chuck Winn said property owners who apply for these new required permits under the new rule will most likely go bankrupt waiting for approval, as permits will never be issued within the time-frame the EPA has laid out.
“This is just an assault on property rights and the ability of agriculture and farmers to do their job,” he said. “The federal government, in my mind and in a lot of other people’s minds, has no credibility.”
Chairwoman Kathy Miller said the rule was bad legislation in every respect.
“This is just going to turn into a gigantic ball of litigation that’s going to go on and on and on,” she said. “A lot of individuals and economies are going to be ruined by this whole process.”
— Contact reporter Wes Bowers at (209) 546-8258 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at recordnet.com/bowersblog and on Twitter @WBowersTSR.
Could new trees provoke a downstream disaster?
By Mike Dunbar
It’s not smart to bet against scientists. Their minds grasp numbers faster than most and they’re constantly calculating and recalculating the odds.
Vance Kennedy is a scientist, or was before retiring from the U.S. Geological Survey some years back. He studied rivers, the water in them and the stuff in the water – not fish, but sand, silt and clay and how it all moves.
As the hillsides of eastern Stanislaus County have become covered with almond trees, Kennedy has been calculating the odds. He knows the hillsides were graded and ripped before being planted. Then the ground was often left bare without cover to hold the dirt in place. All this, said Kennedy, could add up to disaster.
“The odds may be 1-in-10 or 1-in-100 that we’ll get a Pineapple Express this year,” said Kennedy, 92. “If we do, I’m concerned we’re going to see a lot of property loss or even loss of life.”
Kennedy isn’t worried about mudslides; slopes of less than 30 degrees rarely give way and few hillsides that steep have been planted. He’s worried about all that loose soil that could eventually be washed into our rivers. Once there, the soil – by then called sediment – will drop to the bottom and accumulate. As that happens, flowing water must rise to get over it. If it tops its banks, it’s called a flood.
The last one in Modesto was in January 1997. It snowed hard throughout December; then, a few days before New Year’s, warm rains blew in from Hawaii – aka the Pineapple Express – and melted much of the snow. By New Year’s Day, water was raging into Lake Don Pedro, almost spilling over the dam.
A short time later, it rushed into Modesto, swamping 1,700 homes. Throughout the state, damage from the worst flood of the 20th century topped $2 billion, killed nine people, damaged 23,000 structures and forced the evacuation of 120,000. The USGS reported 24 inches of rain fell that week in some places.
It was highly, uniquely unusual. But “things are unusual” this year, too, said Kennedy, noting higher atmospheric moisture content and predictions of a strong El Niño.
“What I’m saying is if we get the worst of combined situations, we could have really bad flooding because of what they’ve done in loosening the soils,” Kennedy said.
How much rain will it take? A “pure guess,” said Kennedy: maybe 4 inches.
Modesto has never had that much rain in a day, topping out at 2.7 inches on Dec. 11, 1906. And Kennedy hastens to point out that without a singular megastorm, there is very little to worry about. In fact, all that ripped hillside soil could help speed the flow of water from the surface into the aquifers below.
Matt Machado, Stanislaus County’s director of public works, is counting on that. He’s an engineer, and engineers are pretty good with numbers, too.
“We’re not any more concerned than any other given year,” Machado said. “We’ve had El Niños before. And of the last six El Niños, only three resulted in higher than average rainfall. … Last year we had a 200-year (rainfall) event. … We had two storms, three or four days between them, and the first brought an inch and the second almost 2 inches. … It was more rain than we’ve seen in a very, very long time. We weathered them fine.”
He also has confidence in today’s farmers: “The more I get to know these (big) operations, the more advanced I know they are. They’re out there doing high-tech farming; they’re ready.”
As Machado pointed out, planting an acre of almonds costs from $6,000 to $10,000 (not counting land). “They’ve got so much invested in dirt, irrigation systems and trees, they’re not going to leave anything to chance,” he said. “They know winter’s coming.”
So does the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, and officials there aren’t as sanguine as Machado.
“Yes, we are concerned,” said Andrew Altevogt, the board’s assistant executive officer. “Given the predictions for the wet winter, our concern has been heightened. But it’s something we pay attention to any year, whether there will be erosion problems associated with some of these operations.”
His agency has already issued one abatement order for a farm and makes frequent inspections. If they find an issue that could lead to erosion – which could then muddy the rivers – they order farmers to act. The most effective remedy is a grassy ground cover, but catchment basins at the bottom of the hills or even fabric “fences” also can contain runoff.
Are those big east-side farmers that advanced?
“We had issues when they began,” said Brett Stevens, the board’s senior environmental scientist, “but we identified some problems and they made improvements. Generally, they are doing a good job.”
The best defense against sediment-laden runoff is to stop it at the source, says the state’s water plan. Which is what worries Kennedy, who once led a team that produced ground-breaking research into the nature of storm runoff. That’s why he’s telling his friends who live near low-lying areas to beef up their flood insurance.
That’s always a good idea, according to Mike Mierzwa, the lead flood planner for the Department of Water Resources. And homeowners shouldn’t wait. Mierzwa noted that it takes 30 days for policies to take effect, and they’re just as important in the foothills where the recent burns can loosen rocks and send debris crashing down hillsides. The Butte fire was just as unusual as the coming El Nino.
“Mr. Kennedy is right,” said Mierzwa. “Anytime you change the land cover there will be a watershed response.” But he notes that the El Nino might not be as strong here as in southern California.
But what if it is?
“To my knowledge, nowhere has there ever been a situation where you have deliberate ripping of material and loosening soil to that depth,” said Kennedy, who raises citrus on a small Modesto farm. “Then, if you add heavy rainfall” you have a recipe for disaster.
What are the chances of such a disaster happening? We don’t know, no one does. But do you want to gamble against a scientist?
Mike Dunbar: 209-578-2325, email@example.com