On a March afternoon on the Los Angeles River, two anglers waded in the concrete channel of the Glendale Narrows, casting their lines for carp and largemouth bass. Above them, a belted kingfisher perched on a mattress that had been caught in the crook of a budding cottonwood during a recent storm surge. Some recreationists enjoy catch-and-release on the river, but others — low-income and unhoused people who need sustenance — were hoping to leave with coolers, buckets or even shopping carts full of freshly caught fish.
For over 10,000 years, the Los Angeles River — known to the local Gabrieliño-Tongva Tribe as Paayme Paxaayt — has provided food, water and a way of life to residents of the Los Angeles Basin. Steelhead trout once spawned in its headwaters and helped feed the numerous villages along its course. But since 1938, the 51-mile river has been bound in concrete. Now, many worry that its fish aren’t safe to consume, a stigma that has long loomed over angling here.
“Most tend to think the quality of the water in the Los Angeles River is poor, but it’s fairly clean water,” says Sabrina Drill, natural resources advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension. While toxicity varies by species and location on the river, a 2019 LA River report found that a person can safely consume 8 ounces of common carp, bluegill, and green sunfish, up to three times per week. Still, Drill did not recommend this, since most of the studies contained small samples.
Yet many unhoused and other low-income Angelenos — over a thousand people a year, according to some experts — supplement their diets with the urban river’s fish and crustaceans. Nearly 9,000 of the estimated 66,000 unhoused people in Los Angeles County live along the river, where they’ve set up camps and shelters — even small gardens with fruit trees, bushes and terraced agriculture, hidden off its concrete banks.
Their future, however, has become even more tenuous with the recent draft of the LA River Master Plan, a massive proposal to revitalize portions of the river with pavilions, cultural centers and multimillion-dollar parks. The plan — developed by a committee of nonprofit organizations, municipalities and governmental entities, assisted by public comment — will be released later this year. But already advocates have raised concerns, and groups like the Eastyard Center for Environmental Justice are worried about the prospect of “green gentrification,” which occurs when housing prices rise after parks are built in historically marginalized communities.
The draft plan’s environmental impact report suggests that many homeless encampments are likely to be removed during construction, and that law enforcement patrols will increase to prevent new ones from forming. The plan offers no housing solutions for the thousands of people currently living on the river.
Homeless advocates worry that those who will be most heavily impacted by the plan had no chance to comment, since many who live on the river lack reliable access to the internet or are unable to attend public meetings. “What’s happening on the Los Angeles River is a humanitarian crisis,” says Jason Post, who has been studying the river for six years. “The reality and experiences of LA River anglers and of people who, on the day-to-day, live in and along the river are not reflected in the master plan. You have economic revitalization and park construction prioritized over people’s ability to live and survive.”
“You have economic revitalization and park construction prioritized over people’s ability to live and survive.”
What we know about the river’s modern community is limited, but its members are part of a long history of invisible Angelenos who have lived and fished along the riverbanks for more than a century, both before and after channelization. In “Unnatural Nature,” a study published in the December 2020 Geographical Review, Post and co-author Perry Carter examined how anglers have reimagined and repurposed this far-from-pristine space as parkland and urban wilderness.
Their study, which noted the inequities in the park-poor city of Los Angeles, showed how the river provides refuge, food and shelter for some anglers and unhoused people. None of the 23 sustenance anglers I spoke with in the three months I reported on this story wished to speak on the record. Many couldn’t afford fishing licenses and so were operating outside of the law; others said they had been harassed by law enforcement. In the past, anglers and unhoused Angelenos have been given loitering tickets while on the river. Others feared encampment sweeps.
Carolina Hernandez, the Los Angeles County Public Works principal engineer and spokesperson for the LA River Master Plan, says that while the plan doesn’t specifically address fishing or sustenance fishing on the river, it does prioritize healthy ecosystems that allow angling. Social justice and environmental groups were on the plan’s subcommittee, but no homeless advocacy groups were involved, and very few unhoused residents attended meetings. “There was not a direct survey of our unhoused community in the LA River Master Plan,” Hernandez told me. The plan is a road map, she added, one that shouldn’t supersede specific project engagement.
Recently, in Glendale Narrows, I saw how intimately those experiencing homelessness interacted with the river. One woman washed her clothes in the current as her cat watched a stand of black-necked stilts feeding in the shallows. In the distance, three men played darts on a sandbar island, their tents lined up below a large cottonwood. Another man sat patiently nearby with his tenkara rod cast in the flow. Beside him, a small red cooler held a medium-sized carp.
One unhoused resident I met near an encampment farther upriver told me he’s lived along the waterway for over a decade, constantly moving his camp up and down the river to stay hidden. The man, who is in his mid-40s, told me he bathes in the river, eats carp from it, and currently sleeps at the mouth of a storm drainage. “I don’t know where I would go if (the master plan) swept me away from my home,” he said. “The river keeps me alive.”
Across a sprawling corner of southern Tulare County snug against the Sierra Nevada, a bounty of navel oranges, grapes, pistachios, hay and other crops sprout from the loam and clay of the San Joaquin Valley. Groundwater helps keep these orchards, vineyards and fields vibrant and supports a multibillion-dollar agricultural economy across the valley. But that bounty has come at a price. Overpumping of groundwater has depleted aquifers, dried up household wells and degraded ecosystems. The land is literally sinking, throttling the Friant-Kern Canal, a major artery that bisects the area on its way to bringing much-needed water south to farms and communities in Kern County.
Against this backdrop, the Eastern Tule Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) has the urgent challenge of bringing its groundwater basin into balance within the next 20 years. It’s an epic task: reduce pumping by the growers whose products fill the nation’s grocery aisles and are exported globally, and protect the more than 800 domestic wells within Eastern Tule’s boundaries.
“We are trying to keep enough flexibility so that you make the decision economically whether you continue farming or not.”
~Eric Borba, Tulare County dairyman and chair of Eastern Tule GSA.
“We know there is going to be a lot of property going out [of production] because there is not enough water for every acre to be farmed,” said Eric Borba, a dairy operator in Tulare County who chairs the Eastern Tule GSA. “We are trying to keep enough flexibility so that you make the decision economically whether you continue farming or not.”
About 80 miles up Highway 99 to the northwest, in an area straddling the verdant center of Fresno County, the McMullin Area Groundwater Sustainability Agency is facing its own set of challenges in trying to balance groundwater use with its available supply – and seeing opportunities.
The land in McMullin is conducive to growing just about anything the market wants, but much of what grows there are acres upon acres of grapes and almonds. Unlike the Eastern Tulare GSA, McMullin is almost entirely dependent on groundwater – it has no surface water rights – and those groundwater levels have been dropping for decades.
“We are a desert within the tropical oasis, as far as surface water supply,” said Matt Hurley, general manager of the McMullin Area GSA.
McMullin and Eastern Tule offer an up-close look at how two of the San Joaquin Valley’s more than 40 groundwater sustainability agencies are trying to meet the requirements of California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). After decades of pumping, the valley’s basins are significantly depleted, and local agencies, whose boards in many cases are comprised of the growers themselves, are on the hook for making things right.
Like their neighbors, McMullin and Eastern Tule anticipate a future with less groundwater pumping. At the same time, they’re counting on capturing any extra surface water (including flood flows) for their respective basins to remain economically vibrant. While they are pursuing different approaches to achieve sustainability and must wrestle with different challenges, both know that decades of pumping too much water from the ground must end.
‘A Monumental Step’
In 2014, California became the last state in the West to take on groundwater oversight through SGMA. The law requires critically overdrafted basins — mostly in the San Joaquin Valley, home to a $36 billion farm economy — to achieve groundwater sustainability by 2040. To attack the problem, the law required regions across the state to form groundwater sustainability agencies like Eastern Tule and McMullin. A year ago, those agencies overseeing the most critically overdrafted basins submitted groundwater sustainability plans (GSPs) to the state that describe how their basins will achieve balance.
Forty-three plans representing 18 of the valley’s most critically overdrafted groundwater basins – including those from the Eastern Tule and McMullin GSAs – are in the hands of the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) for review. Getting them there “was a monumental step” because it showed what local jurisdictions are looking at over the course of the next 20 years, said Ryan Jacobsen, chief executive officer of the Fresno County Farm Bureau.
Ellen Hanak, director of the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center, said the next five years will show how well the plans are going to set up areas for success. “They don’t need to solve everything overnight,” she said, “but they will need to show progress.”
SGMA is historic and unprecedented – more than 250 new local agencies were set up across California covering different portions of 140 groundwater basins. It’s been an extensive process of mapping basins, estimating supplies and drafting allocation strategies. And it has not been easy.
“This is the equivalent of building a Boeing 747 jet and you are flying it at the same time as you are trying to build it,” said Tricia Stever Blattler, executive director of the Tulare County Farm Bureau.
Among the concerns across the San Joaquin Valley is how much farmland will have to be taken out of production because there isn’t the water to support it. The PPIC, for example, projected that farming could end on at least 500,000 acres valleywide. A pair of economists from the University of California, Berkeley, David Sunding and David Roland-Holst, estimated the impact could be double that – as much as 1 million acres, or 20 percent of all cultivated acreage in the valley. SGMA’s economic impact, they said, could be concentrated in the valley’s southernmost and most agriculturally productive counties: Fresno (home to the McMullin Area GSA), Tulare (where Eastern Tule is located), Kern and Kings counties.
“This is the equivalent of building a Boeing 747 jet and you are flying it at the same time as you are trying to build it.” ~Tricia Stever Blattler, executive director of the Tulare County Farm Bureau
“We know we can fix part of the issue so hopefully we don’t see a million-plus acres go out, but the fact is at some point, somewhere, there is likely acreage that’s fallowed and we are trying to do everything we can to minimize that number,” Jacobsen said.
The sustainability plans are a work in progress. In some cases, they have been criticized for underestimating overdraft (the amount of groundwater pumped and not replenished) and overestimating available water to recharge the aquifers. Nongovernmental organizations say nearly all of the plans do not adequately protect domestic wells or groundwater-dependent ecosystems.
All eyes are now on DWR to see how it evaluates submitted plans and how it’s going to handle the response by agencies in the state’s less critically overdrafted basins, which must submit their plans by next year. DWR’s evaluation is predicated on the belief that sustainability can be achieved in a variety of ways using a variety of methods.
“While the path to sustainability may vary, the outcome is clear that measurable progress needs to be made over the SGMA timeline,” said Steven Springhorn, acting deputy director of DWR’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Office. “The law has this initial step of submitting the plans but that is the beginning of the journey, not the end.”
DWR is expected to release determinations on some of the plans in the first half of this year. “None of them coming in the door are perfect and that’s not a surprise,” DWR Director Karla Nemeth said at PPIC’s November 2020 conference on water resiliency. “There will be a lot of opportunities to iterate what’s working and not working.”
Still, once the plans were filed, and even though they were under review by the state, they took effect. The clock is ticking on achieving sustainability.
“We are seeing GSAs now working on implementation of the plans,” said David Orth, a water resource consultant who helped draft SGMA. “None of the overdrafted basins are sitting on their heels, despite the fact that the state has this two-year review process. They are working on projects and management actions, including defining ramp-down schedules, developing out water supply projects and pricing structures.”
Many San Joaquin Valley farmers are not thrilled with the law and fear its consequences for the region’s farm economy. But they know they have no choice but to make it work.
“For the most part, folks out here didn’t agree with SGMA in general, but the majority of them understood this was coming,” said Rogelio Caudillo, general manager of the Eastern Tule GSA.
McMullin: Chipping Away at a Deficit
The San Joaquin Valley is one of the most productive growing regions anywhere but its average annual rainfall, about 15 inches per year, necessitates a reliance on irrigation during the growing season. That water comes from local or imported surface water or groundwater. There’s plenty of land to grow crops, but not enough water to sustain it all.
SGMA was written for areas such as McMullin, which is bordered on the north by the San Joaquin River but has no broad rights to the water and no means to move it if rights existed. Thus, the region is entirely dependent on wells to pull up groundwater to irrigate thousands of acres of grapes, almonds, pistachios, grains and field crops.
“We realized that this region has relied entirely on groundwater for years and I think the growers felt that would never end,” said Don Cameron, vice president and general manager of Terranova Ranch, about 25 miles southwest of Fresno. “We’ve also seen that groundwater levels have dropped continuously over the 40 years that I’ve been farming. We know we have to do something.”
McMullin shares the Kings Groundwater Subbasin in Fresno County with six other sustainability agencies, which must deal with about 120,000 acre-feet of annual overdraft. The majority of that is McMullin’s responsibility to solve. Job one is getting a handle on water use through a metering and monitoring program. That takes time, but the aim is to keep land in production. “We are looking for balance,” said Hurley, McMullin’s general manager. “We are looking for the least amount of acreage to be lost in the process.”
Video: Matt Hurley, general manager of McMullin Groundwater Sustainability Agency in Fresno County, explains how his groundwater basin plans to meet the requirements of California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. (Video: Water Education Foundation)
McMullin’s plan hinges on getting growers to collectively reduce their pumping at increments that, after 10 years, will shave about 27,000 acre-feet from the annual overdraft. It’s a tight proposition given McMullin’s groundwater dependence. The plan, adopted in late 2019, aims to meter as many as 900 wells in the next few years to monitor groundwater use and allow for managing groundwater allocations.
McMullin’s groundwater overdraft is dealt with by a schedule of gradual reductions that grow into steeper cuts as 2040 approaches. The final 10 years – the second decade of SGMA compliance – will be crucial. Hurley said the expected reductions in groundwater use are steep, and how much farmland must be retired will depend on how successful the agency’s first decade has been at reducing overdraft.
More efficient farming practices and different crop selections make the task more manageable. “Cropping patterns have changed,” said Michael Naito, who grows grapes, almonds and pistachios in the area. “Forty years ago, pretty much all of this area was alfalfa and cotton that was all flood irrigated.” Now, many crops are watered with drip and micro irrigation systems.
Meeting SGMA’s 20-year timeline to achieve sustainability by 2040 means taking steps now to find money through grants and partnerships to build the canals, pipelines and other water infrastructure necessary to move and bank water in the aquifer.
“If we wanted to buy water right now, we couldn’t move it because we really don’t have any improvements,” said Hurley. “I’ve got to get a main conveyance system built during this first 10 years and do some things to prepare for the ability to buy water when it’s available and when we can afford it.”
A key element of McMullin’s plan is to develop a groundwater bank within its boundaries that outside partners will want to join to store surplus water when it is available. McMullin believes its plan will be attractive to potential partners because McMullin sits over a deep basin where ample water can be stored. Under McMullin’s concept, when the partners take back their banked water, they would leave some behind for McMullin’s use.
“The capacity is estimated to be substantial,” Hurley said. “The possibilities that a water bank provides are many, and a SGMA solution for us is greatly enhanced by a bank.”
Steve Shehadey, who farms about 7,500 milk cows and feed stock on more than 5,000 acres in the McMullin Area GSA just south of the San Joaquin River, said SGMA is moving him and others to be smarter with their water use through better technology. “The number one question is how much are we using and how can we be more efficient,” he said.
Shehadey, whose groundwater levels benefit from the natural recharge he gets from the river, said everyone has to pull together to help meets the goals of McMullin’s sustainability plan regardless of their groundwater situation. “Whether or not you have good water on your property, we are in the same GSA as other people who may not be as fortunate.”
Eastern Tule GSA: Looking for Balance
Eastern Tule GSA, nestled in a southern corner of Tulare County, includes small farming communities like Terra Bella, an unincorporated town of about 3,300, and the city of Porterville, with nearly 60,000 residents. East Porterville, an impoverished neighborhood just outside the city, gained notoriety during the 2012 to 2016 drought as the face of a community in crisis with depleted drinking water wells. More than half of the land within the Eastern Tule GSA’s boundaries does not receive water as part of an irrigation district or community water system.
Like McMullin, the Tule Subbasin’s reliance on groundwater has caused overdraft of about 115,300 acre-feet per year. Eastern Tule GSA accounts for just over half of that, or about 61,000 acre-feet per year. While Eastern Tule’s groundwater deficit fares better than McMullin, it still faces several critical issues on the road to sustainability, among them slowing subsidence of the Friant-Kern Canal and ensuring pumping doesn’t impair groundwater wells in small, rural communities, all of which are considered disadvantaged or severely disadvantaged because of meager household incomes.
The plan is to develop water budgets for landowners and adopt penalty fees for transitional pumping – amounts taken beyond safe yield. The penalty fees, which start at $245 an acre-foot and rise as more water is used, are meant to discourage overpumping, said Caudillo, Eastern Tule’s general manager.
It’s a tough go in an area dominated by agriculture, said Tulare County Supervisor Dennis Townsend, an Eastern Tule GSA board member and Porterville native. “Every decision you are making is impacting your friends and neighbors and yourself.”
Caudillo acknowledged SGMA will put a dent in the area’s farming enterprise. “We are trying to find a solution that achieves sustainability, without putting people out of business so there is at least a future for those who can make it happen.”
Steve Kisling, an almond grower who serves as vice chair of the Eastern Tule GSA, said requirements to ramp down pumping begin gradually during the first 10 years, then at a more aggressive pace after that. Like McMullin, the approach gives growers a transition period with the caveat that more aggressive actions can be taken should water levels drop faster than expected.
Eastern Tule is counting on an increased surface water supply from the Tule River Spillway Enlargement Project at Success Lake, a reservoir east of Porterville, to help recharge its depleted aquifer. When completed in 2023 the expansion project will allow the reservoir to capture more snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada and storm runoff, reducing the downstream risk of flooding while also increasing by 25 percent the reservoir’s ability to retain water for dry periods and recharging aquifers.
Townsend, who has been involved with the Army Corps of Engineers project as a county supervisor and flood control district board member, said the extra storage will help officials to “smooth out the curve” of drought and not have to dump water when conditions are wet.
“We can release that water over a longer period of time,” he said, adding that the land downstream of the lake is sandy and loamy — perfect for groundwater recharge.
Eastern Tule: Saving the Friant-Kern Canal
While the San Joaquin Valley relies heavily on groundwater, it is crisscrossed with aqueducts, canals and pipes that import water from Northern California and elsewhere to sustain farmers and cities. On the valley’s east side, the 70-year-old Friant-Kern Canal delivers clean, snowmelt-fed water from the Sierra Nevada above Fresno that makes orchards explode with a bounty of fruits and nuts. Because of groundwater overdraft around Eastern Tule, the canal is also sagging, constricting its ability to move water by gravity to farms and cities in southern Tulare and Kern counties.
Subsidence affects the canal in a 33-mile stretch from around Porterville south to Delano. Johnny Amaral, chief of external affairs with the Friant Water Authority, said that while subsidence is occurring throughout the valley, it is particularly acute through the Eastern Tule GSA region. Ten water contractors between Porterville and Arvin in Kern County are losing water that the canal can’t deliver, he said.
And therein lies the problem. Groundwater pumping can’t come to a complete halt in the Eastern Tule region, but virtually any rate of pumping affects the canal. Eastern Tule’s 20-year plan projects another three feet of subsidence to the canal as it tries to gradually reduce overpumping. It also proposes a land subsidence management zone at the sag in the canal. Balancing pumping and subsidence effects is the goal.
Finding a solution to the problem takes coordination and patience. In December, the two agencies announced an agreement in which Friant Water Authority will support Eastern Tule’s sustainability plan in exchange for up to $200 million from Eastern Tule to fund repairs to the Friant-Kern Canal.
Amaral, with the Friant Water Authority, said his agency is sympathetic to Eastern Tule’s challenge, recognizing that the groundwater sustainability plan anticipates subsidence will continue to occur on lands immediately adjacent to the canal.
“I know some people say, ‘really?’ but we think it’s appropriate and reasonable that they be able to implement the plan,” Amaral said. “But at the same time [we] recognize their plan is going to cause damage to the canal and deliveries in the future.”
Borba, the dairyman who sits on both the Eastern Tule and Friant Water Authority boards, said the canal’s role is vital because the water it delivers helps maintain a higher water table and better water quality. That, in turn, helps people who rely on small wells for their household needs, he said, especially those living in disadvantaged communities.
Preserving Drinking Water Where It Counts
A key aim of SGMA is ensuring the survival of wells that people in small communities, many of them economically disadvantaged, rely on for their daily needs. Drought and overdraft have rendered many valley wells useless. Built to shallow depths, they are unable to reach the groundwater as it drops in the aquifer. Most of these communities are not connected to neighboring water systems and are forced to rely on trucked-in supplies when their wells dry up, which is what occurred in 2015 at East Porterville.
SGMA requires GSAs like McMullin and Eastern Tule to consider drinking water wells, but there is concern that withdrawals by large users will come at the expense of the small, individual wells.
Justine Massey, policy advocate with Community Water Center, a Visalia-based advocacy group, said drinking water concerns have not been given their due in many valley groundwater sustainability plans.
“There is substantial data missing on how communities will be impacted and they don’t have a plan for how to get it,” she said. “This is dangerous. It’s like driving blind and hoping nothing bad happens.”
Video: Ryan Jensen, community water solutions manager with the Community Water Center, based in Visalia, Calif., explains how Eastern Tule Groundwater Sustainability Agency’s groundwater plan will need to take into account the needs of disadvantaged communities like East Porterville, an unincorporated community adjacent to the city of Porterville that saw its wells go dry during the 2012-2016 drought. (Video: Water Education Foundation)
A report released in 2020 by the Water Foundation, a policy and advocacy organization based in Sacramento, notes that pumping contemplated in sustainability plans throughout the valley could leave as many as 12,000 drinking water wells partially or completely dry by 2040, leaving as many as 127,000 people without their primary source of water and costing hundreds of millions of dollars to repair. (The Water Foundation is not affiliated with the Water Education Foundation.)
Eastern Tule’s sustainability plan acknowledges the difficulties ahead, noting that increased costs of obtaining supplemental water and conservation programs could hit disadvantaged communities disproportionately. In response, Eastern Tule plans to protect drinking water wells the same way it minimizes subsidence, through targeted monitoring and metering.
Trees and crops vastly outnumber people in the McMullin Area GSA, which encompasses only one tiny community, Raisin City, with fewer than 400 residents, and a smattering of small clusters of homes. McMullin’s sustainability plan notes that two clusters of homes were identified as disadvantaged, and it got help from Fresno State’s California Water Institute to knock on doors and solicit residents’ comments on its sustainability plan. McMullin said it doesn’t anticipate any of those domestic wells going dry.
Orth, the water resources consultant, said aligning SGMA with the drinking water challenges to vulnerable communities is not a perfect process. Disadvantaged communities, he said, have long-standing issues with access to safe and reliable water, issues that groundwater sustainability agencies were not set up to deal with.
Furthermore, SGMA does not task GSAs with the authority or responsibility for ensuring drinking water for small communities. “SGMA says sustainable groundwater management should include avoiding significant and unreasonable degradation, not protection, of drinking water quality,” Orth said. “That’s a pretty gray area.”
Massey, with Community Water Center, said GSAs have broad authority to limit pumping, build effective monitoring networks and regulate recharge, all of which affect drinking water quality. “Water quality is part of the SGMA mandate,” she said. “Significant and unreasonable degradation of water quality must be avoided as one of the six undesirable results.”
Massey noted that some GSAs, including Eastern Tule, have committed to reserving domestic and small-user amounts of groundwater before allocating the rest among more heavy-duty users. “Unfortunately,” she said, “it’s not something many GSAs have done.”
SGMA: Only the Beginning
Despite concerns over how SGMA will affect the San Joaquin Valley’s multi-billion-dollar farming economy, some farmers in both Eastern Tule and McMullin GSAs acknowledge that the historic unmanaged groundwater use was unsustainable. But bringing groundwater use into balance with what nature and ingenuity can supply will be a learning process that will take time.
Kisling, with Eastern Tule GSA, said SGMA is necessary and probably overdue.
“It would have been much less disruptive if it had gone into effect years earlier and if the implementation [period] had been longer,” he said. “We are trying to create whole agencies that monitor and regulate groundwater pumping, something that hasn’t been regulated before, in just a matter of a few short years.”
Blattler, with the Tulare County Farm Bureau, noted that SGMA is the first step in getting basins on the long road to sustainability. “We are in an ever-adapting and evolving economy where land uses will change, commodity prices and farming costs will continue to be volatile and ownership transitions will occur,” she said. “There will be more competition for those resources in the next 20 years and “it’s not like we are going to have a finite amount of water locked in at a point in time. It is an ever-changing asset to our community that evolves as will the SGMA plans.”
In a way, SGMA corrects for some agricultural development in the San Joaquin Valley that perhaps shouldn’t have occurred, said Hurley, with McMullin GSA.
“I personally believe that SGMA was – contrary to the many folks who think the government should have stayed out of their business – a timely bit of legislation,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be as bad as some have predicted.”
Hurley said SGMA has forced growers to accelerate their effort to be more efficient with their water.
“That is not to say we did anything bad before, but we didn’t have to fine tune it,” Hurley said. “Now, you’ve got to balance the checkbook to the penny in order to make sure everything works correctly. That says nothing about looking backward, it says everything about looking forward. I absolutely believe we will figure this out.”
Groundwater provides about 40 percent of the water in California for urban, rural and agricultural needs in typical years, and as much as 60 percent in dry years when surface water supplies are low. But in many areas of the state, groundwater is being extracted faster than it can be replenished. In 2014, amid a deep drought, the state Legislature adopted the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), making California the last Western state to regulate groundwater. Learn more about the law and how it works.
The San Joaquin Valley is in a big hole in reaching groundwater sustainability. Driven by the need to keep using water and comply with California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, people throughout the valley are looking for innovative and cost-effective ways to manage and use groundwater more wisely. Explore three examples of innovation here.
So is there reason to freak out now that profit-hungry hedge funds and other investors can trade it like a barrel of oil or shares of Apple?
That’s exactly what CME Group recently did in California when it launched the world’s first futures market for water in December 2020. Put simply, a futures market lets people place bets on the future price of water.
Here’s a typical example. Let’s say the price of soybeans is US$12 a bushel. In the spring, a soybean farmer might sell a September futures contract for $12 a bushel that obligates her to deliver a certain amount of soybeans in the fall and receive the agreed-upon price in return – regardless of how the actual “spot” price changes. Given all the uncertainties of farming, this makes it easier to plan.
The water futures market works similarly, except there’s no physical exchange of the asset – no water actually changes hands. So someone who needs water, such as a farmer, buys a contract to purchase water in three months at $500 per acre-foot. If in three months’ time a drought drives the spot price up to $550, the seller of the contract pays the farmer the difference: $50 per acre-foot. If a sudden increase in the supply of water pushes the price lower to $450, the farmer must pay the difference.
But for the farmer, in either scenario, when she actually buys water for her crops, she pays just $500 per acre-foot.
The important role of speculators
One of the more unnerving aspects of trading basic resources like food or water on an open exchange is that anyone can participate and speculate on the resource’s future price – anyone from hedge funds to amateur traders – not just the ones who actually use it. The worry is that they could affect either the actual price of water or its supply.
Understanding why this shouldn’t be a concern comes down to zeroing in on the role of hedgers and speculators.
Farmers, power plant operators, cities and others that rely on water to conduct business can use the futures market as basically an insurance policy to hedge their risks. A farmer may not want to worry about the price of water increasing in the summer, so she hedges that risk by buying a futures contract that locks in a price. Or a water district that sells water to commercial users may want to hedge against a drop in price so it sells a contract. The futures market allows these water users to trade away risk.
But this wouldn’t be easy without the participation of lots of investors and other speculators to grease the wheels by agreeing to be the buyer or seller of any given contract. In finance, this is called creating “liquidity,” and it allows traders to buy and sell this risk with one another.
However, the hedging benefits of water futures are contingent on the market functioning properly. And there are several key differences between California water futures and more well-established markets.
For one thing, futures markets work best when the price of the underlying asset is well-known. Cash settlement of futures contracts on agricultural products like hogs and cattle, for example, rely on price indices that are calculated using publicly available, government-collected data.
There’s much less visibility on the price of water. The futures market is based on the Nasdaq Veles California Water Index, which is constructed using confidential transaction data collected by a private company. The lack of transparency over its construction and the underlying data will limit how much confidence market participants can have in the integrity of its values.
Furthermore, the complexity of water use and policy means that the true extent of its scarcity may not be well captured by the index, which would make farmers and other hedgers less likely to participate.
Another challenge is that many of the potential users of a water futures market – such as municipalities and government agencies – may have little experience in the risky world of futures trading.
Trading in futures markets requires daily settlement. That means, at the end of every day, the day’s losers must pay the winners – so participants must always have cash available. As a result, a public agency could be on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars if it’s on the losing end of a contract whose price changes dramatically.
Finally, the weather-dependent nature of water – it either rains or it doesn’t – makes it hard to make meaningful predictions about its future price. That makes a futures market feel more like a random roll of the dice than rational speculation. As a result, it’s unclear whether there will be enough investor interest to make it work.
A sleepy start
These challenges may explain why there’s been so little activity on the water futures market since its creation over four months ago.
The number of open contracts on the exchange hasn’t exceeded 60 contracts in a single day since its inception, a fraction compared with other commodities that have been given cash-settled futures markets in recent years. For example, futures of block cheese, which began trading in January 2020, were averaging over 400 open contracts a day just two months after launch. Pork cutouts – which are all the various cuts of a whole pig – began trading only a month before water and are currently averaging over 1,500 open contracts a day.
In September, Front Range water providers released some water downstream — which they were storing in Homestake Reservoir — to test how they could get it to the state line in the event of a Colorado River Compact call.
But accurately tracking and measuring that water — from the high mountain reservoir in the Eagle River watershed all the way through the Colorado River at the end of the Grand Valley — turned out to be tricky, according to a recently released report from the Colorado Division of Water Resources.
From Sept. 23 through Sept. 29, Colorado Springs Utilities, Aurora Water and Pueblo Board of Water Works released a total of 1,667 acre-feet of water, which would have otherwise been diverted to the Front Range, from the reservoir into Homestake Creek, a tributary of the Eagle River. The release gradually ramped up from about 25 cubic feet per second to 175 cfs and then gradually back down over the seven days.
But officials were unable to put a number on how much of that water made it to the state line.
In their attempt to quantify the actual amount of reservoir release delivered to the state line, state engineers ran into challenges that caused uncertainty, they said in an email.
Although they couldn’t measure how many acre-feet officially made it, State Engineer Kevin Rein said that the exercise was still a success and that all the water, minus transit losses, crossed into Utah.
“We have heard this is a failure because not everything worked perfectly, but in my mind, this was an opportunity under non-stress conditions to find out what we need to do to ensure that things will work,” Rein said.
A goal of this project, known as the State Line Delivery Pilot Reservoir Release, was to see if the water could be “shepherded” downstream without senior water-rights holders diverting the extra water. This required Division 5 water commissioners to actively administer some headgates, especially on Homestake Creek and the Eagle River.
According to the report, the water took about 2½ days to make the journey from the reservoir to the gage on the Colorado River near Cameo — about 16 hours longer than predicted by the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. Along the way, about 10% of the water either evaporated or was soaked up by thirsty streamside soils and vegetation — processes known collectively as transit loss.
Making sure water could get to the state line would be essential in the case of a compact call.
This scenario, the chances of which increase as climate change continues to reduce river flows, could occur if the upper-basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) can’t deliver the 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the lower-basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada), as required by a nearly century-old binding agreement.
A compact call could be especially problematic for Front Range water providers since most of their rights that let them divert water over the Continental Divide from the Western Slope date to after the 1922 Colorado River Compact. That means mandatory cutbacks in water use could fall more heavily on the post-compact water rights of Front Range water providers.
Colorado Springs Utilities and Aurora Water, operating together as Homestake Partners, said the problem was that the rate of release was too low. It was more a matter of flow volume than administration. Even in a dry year, a release of 175 cfs was not high enough to reliably track the water, especially when it reaches the Colorado River, which has a much higher volume of water than Homestake Creek or the Eagle River, and the reservoir release is a smaller fraction of its overall flow.
In an email to Aspen Journalism, Homestake Partners said: “A bigger pulse of water would overcome some of the issues that DWR had in tracking the release. This sort of result is exactly what we wanted to explore — it tells us that if we, or anyone else in the state, chooses to make a state line release in the future, a higher volume of water will probably need to be released to be reliably tracked.”
State engineers also had to deal with a river that was constantly in flux. Upstream reservoir releases and changes to irrigation diversions made for additional challenges.
State officials said it was hard to separate the reservoir release from the rest of the Colorado River’s flow at the state line because of numerous ungaged streams and return flows from irrigation that enter the river between Palisade and the state line.
“The ungaged inflows could not be subtracted from the total flow in the river, therefore the separated flows were too large and did not allow for the initial waves of the reservoir release to be identified,” officials said in an email.
The total flows at the state line at the time of the reservoir release’s arrival were around 2,500 cfs, according to DWR.
River District concerns
The Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, which protects Western Slope water interests, had several concerns about the reservoir release.
“I think it’s important that the public and the state recognize that they released 1,600 acre-feet of water during an incredibly dry period and they couldn’t actually track it to the state line,” said River District general manager Andy Mueller.
But Mueller’s concerns go beyond the trouble with tracking. He said the state engineer did not reach out to Western Slope water users who had the potential to be injured by the release. He also doesn’t trust that the cities won’t just refill the hole created by the release with more Western Slope water.
The River District’s main concern is that in a water-collection system as complex as Homestake Partners — with several different transmountain diversions bringing water from the Western Slope to the Front Range — it’s hard for the state to make sure they won’t take more water to replace the pool they released.
“From our perspective, it’s very difficult for the state to verify that they haven’t just brought the water over from a different part of their diversion system,” Mueller said. “So it leaves us with a lot of skepticism, and we voiced that in several discussions.”
To address some of these concerns, the cities are required to submit a verification plan to the state to prove three things: that they had enough space available in reservoirs on the east side of the divide to store the water, and they weren’t just releasing water downstream they couldn’t use anyway; that they actually decreased water taken through the Homestake Tunnel by the same amount as the pilot release; and that they didn’t create additional space in Homestake Reservoir to allow for greater storage this year.
“In essence, we brought the ‘hole’ we created in our storage in Homestake Reservoir through to the East Slope when we operated the tunnel in February and March,” the Homestake Partners’ email reads. “This was accomplished by not drawing down Homestake Reservoir quite as much as we otherwise could have this winter in preparation for spring runoff.”
The reservoir release also could have implications for a potential demand-management program, the feasibility of which the state is currently investigating. At the heart of a demand- management program is a reduction in water use on a temporary, voluntary and compensated basis in an effort to send as much as 500,000 acre-feet of water downstream to Lake Powell to bolster water levels in the giant reservoir — which spans Utah and Arizona — and, indirectly, to meet Colorado River Compact obligations.
Under such a program, agricultural water users could get paid to temporarily fallow fields and leave more water in the river. Front Range water providers could participate by releasing water stored in Western Slope reservoirs.
Rein was careful to say that the Homestake pilot release was in no way connected to demand management. Still, the experiment may have revealed potential problem areas should a demand-management program become reality.
“The ability to track water that is conserved consumptive use all the way to the state line is really critical for the success of that program,” Mueller said. “And if you can’t track a slug of 1,600 acre-feet of water to the state line, how are you going to track the voluntary reduction in use of a small ditch on the West Slope that maybe they are saving 15 acre-feet?”
Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with the Vail Daily and The Aspen Times. This story ran in the April 16 edition of the Vail Daily and The Aspen Times.
Beginning in 1970, Americans and later citizens across the globe have celebrated Earth Day on April 22. It’s a day dedicated annually to civic action, volunteerism and other activities to support and promote environmental protection and green living.
This year, Fresh Water News is using Earth Day as an opportunity to highlight a handful of Colorado projects and businesses that are moving the needle on water conservation and sustainability. Here are their stories.
Booze that doesn’t “destroy the planet”
In 2010, Connie Baker attended distilling school somewhat on a whim — she’d always loved vodka and thought learning more about how it’s made would be a fun week-long vacation.
In the end, though, Baker fell in love with distilling and, along with her husband, Carey Shanks, began planning to open a new distillery not far from their home in Carbondale, Colo.
But after touring distilleries around the country for inspiration, they began to fully understand just how resource-intensive — and wasteful — distilling as an industry often was. Traditional distilleries send tens of thousands of gallons of clean water down the drain during the production process — water that could easily be reused, if only they had the right setup.
“I love vodka, but I don’t want to destroy the plant to make it,” said Baker.
Instead of accepting the status quo, Baker and Shanks decided to design and build their own sustainable distillery from the ground up. Their crown jewel? A custom water energy thermal system, WETS for short, that recaptures 100 percent of the water and energy used during the distillation process.
They officially opened Marble Distilling in 2015. Ever since, their WETS system has saved more than four million gallons of water and 1.8 billion BTUs of energy per year. The recaptured energy is enough to heat and cool the distillery, which includes a five-room boutique hotel on the second floor, and to power much of the distilling process.
The distillery’s water bill is regularly less than $100 a month. While most distilleries use the equivalent of 100 bottles of water to produce one bottle of vodka, Marble uses the equivalent of just one bottle of water per bottle of vodka. (They also make bourbon, whiskey and liqueurs.)
“The only water we’re using for the spirit is what’s in the bottle,” Baker said.
Baker and Shanks also freely share information about their WETS system and other sustainable elements with anyone and everyone who’s curious, including and especially other distilleries.
“We don’t want to own this information,” Baker said. “We want to be leaders in the industry for change. We have proven over the course of six years that it absolutely can be done. It makes sense not only from a sustainability standpoint but from an economic standpoint. There’s no reason not to do it. It’s not any harder, so why wouldn’t you do it?”
Sustainability at 14,000 feet
The infrastructure atop the iconic 14,115-foot Pikes Peak is getting a refresh — and one that’s particularly friendly to water.
Construction crews are finishing up work on the new Pikes Peak Summit Complex, which includes a visitor center, a high-altitude research laboratory, and a municipal utility facility.
Visitors to the summit number upwards of 750,000 annually, and the previous facilities that welcomed them at the top were deteriorating. Replacing them created an opportunity to do things differently. The 38,000-square-foot complex, which is set to open around Memorial Day, aims to be net-zero for energy, waste and water consumption; it also hopes to become the first Living Building Challenge-certified project in Colorado, a rigorous green building standard created by the International Living Future Institute.
The project, which is expected to cost $60 million to $65 million when complete, incorporates a number of water-saving and conservation features, including a pioneering on-site wastewater treatment plant, a vacuum toilet system, low-flow fixtures, and a rainwater harvest system for potential future use.
Even with increased visitor numbers, the new complex is expected to use 40 to 50 percent less water than the 1960s-era Summit House it will replace. That water has to be hauled up the mountain, a 40-mile round trip.
In 2018, crews hauled 600,000 gallons of fresh water to the summit, according to Jack Glavan, manager of Pikes Peak – America’s Mountain, a self-supporting enterprise of the City of Colorado Springs. (Colorado Springs operates the Pikes Peak Recreation Corridor, which includes the Pikes Peak Highway and related facilities, through a special use permit granted by the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the land.) The new facility should cut that down to between 300,000 and 350,000 gallons a year, Glavan said.
“In the past, we used roughly a gallon to 1.2 gallons per person, and with this water system, we’re figuring we’re going to cut that down to 0.4 to 0.5 gallons per person,” said Glavan.
Similarly, the water-savvy upgrades will allow the facility to halve the amount of wastewater it hauls down to the Las Vegas Street Wastewater Treatment Plant, which requires an 80-mile round trip.
On top of the water efficiencies, the upgrades will also reduce vehicle trips and associated emissions. Freshwater trips are expected to drop from 127 to 72 per year, and wastewater trips from 174 to 69.
The building also aims to be one of the first in Colorado to reuse water that’s been treated on-site. But for final approval from the state, complex managers must first prove that the wastewater system works, a process that will likely involve about a year of sampling, Glavan said. Assuming all goes according to plan, the facility will use reclaimed water for toilets and urinals.
All told, the facility’s leaders hope that these and many other sustainable design features — undertaken as part of the highest-altitude construction project in the United States, on top of the mountain that inspired the lyrics of “America the Beautiful” — encourage others to reduce their impact on the environment in whatever way possible.
“We’re proud to be doing it,” Glavan said. “It does cost a little bit more incrementally but we are America’s mountain and we’re hoping we’re setting an example for everyone. If we can do it up here at 14,000 feet, people should be able to do it at lower altitudes.”
While working as a hotel engineer at the ART Hotel in Denver several years ago, Mac Marsh noticed that whenever he responded to a maintenance request in the kitchen, the faucet was almost always running. But why?
After some investigating, he found out that running cold water over frozen food was the industry standard when it wasn’t possible to defrost it in the refrigerator. These food-safety defrosting guidelines, set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and followed by local health officials, are intended to keep restaurants’ guests safe and healthy, since keeping food cool as it defrosts helps prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and pathogens.
But it takes one hour to defrost one pound of meat under cold water, which equates to about 150 gallons of water per pound. When he began to think about all the restaurants and all the food they defrosted on a daily basis, Marsh realized he had to act.
He invented a novel solution to the problem: a device that can recirculate cold water in a sink or basin. His Boss Defrost device, which plugs into a power outlet, is also equipped with a thermometer, which helps users ensure the water stays below the recommended 71 degrees Fahrenheit. The Denver company began manufacturing the devices, now used in more than 25 states, in January 2020.
The company’s leaders say Boss Defrost can reduce a restaurant’s defrosting water use to about 450 gallons per month on average, a sharp decline from the approximately 32,000 gallons that an average commercial kitchen uses to defrost food each month.
“This water waste is food service’s skeleton in the closet,” said Diana López Starkus, who’s a partner in the business along with her husband, Chris Starkus, an award-winning Denver chef and farmer. “It happens all along the food chain, from fast food to fine dining, K-12 schools, college campuses, hospitals, hospice and state and federal buildings.”
Though the pandemic — and ensuing restaurant shutdowns and capacity limits — slowed down the company’s growth, it also gave them an opportunity to expand into grocery meat and seafood departments.
Sales picked up again when restaurants began to reopen, since their owners were looking for every possible way to save money as they recovered from the pandemic. Starkus said the device generally pays for itself in water bill savings in one to three months.
“We like to say it’s a win-win-win,” Starkus said. “Good for the earth, good for your wallet and the easiest sustainability measure to initiate in 2021. “We’re passionate about empowering ourselves and others to create positive change toward a better future. That’s why we call it Boss Defrost, because every prep cook in the nation can become an environmental boss, someone that’s working optimally, respecting the resources at their fingertips and staying financially sound.”
Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org
Climate stresses are raising the stakes. Rising temperatures require farmers to use more water to grow the same amount of crops. Prolonged and severe droughts decrease available supplies. Wildfires are burning hotter and lasting longer. Fires bake the soil, reducing forests’ ability to hold water, increasing evaporation from barren land and compromising water supplies.
As a longtime observer of interstate water negotiations, I see a basic problem: In some cases, more water rights exist on paper than as wet water – even before factoring in shortages caused by climate change and other stresses. In my view, states should put at least as much effort into reducing water use as they do into litigation, because there are no guaranteed winners in water lawsuits.
Dry times in the West
The situation is most urgent in California and the Southwest, which currently face “extreme or exceptional” drought conditions. California’s reservoirs are half-empty at the end of the rainy season. The Sierra snowpack sits at 60% of normal. In March 2021, federal and state agencies that oversee California’s Central Valley Project and State Water Project – regional water systems that each cover hundreds of miles – issued “remarkably bleak warnings” about cutbacks to farmers’ water allocations.
The 1922 Colorado River Compact allocated 7.5 million acre-feet (one acre-foot is roughly 325,000 gallons) to California, Nevada and Arizona, and another 7.5 million acre-feet to Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. A treaty with Mexico secured that country 1.5 million acre-feet, for a total of 16.5 million acre-feet. However, estimates based on tree ring analysis have determined that the actual yearly flow of the river over the last 1,200 years is roughly 14.6 million acre-feet.
The inevitable train wreck has not yet happened, for two reasons. First, Lakes Mead and Powell – the two largest reservoirs on the Colorado – can hold a combined 56 million acre-feet, roughly four times the river’s annual flow.
Second, the Upper Basin states – Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico – have never used their full allotment. Now, however, they want to use more water. Wyoming has several new dams on the drawing board. So does Colorado, which is also planning a new diversion from the headwaters of the Colorado River to Denver and other cities on the Rocky Mountains’ east slope.
Truth be told, that’s not a lot of water, and it would not exceed Utah’s unused allocation from the Colorado River. But the six other Colorado River Basin states have protested as though St. George were asking for their firstborn child.
Utah blinked. Having earlier insisted on an expedited pipeline review, the state asked federal officials on Sept. 24, 2020 to delay a decision. But Utah has not given up: In March 2021, Gov. Spencer Cox signed a bill creating a Colorado River Authority of Utah, armed with a US$9 million legal defense fund, to protect Utah’s share of Colorado River water. One observer predicted “huge, huge litigation.”
Before Utah takes the precipitous step of appealing to the Supreme Court under the court’s original jurisdiction over disputes between states, it might explore other solutions. Water conservation and reuse make obvious sense in St. George, where per-person water consumption is among the nation’s highest.
St. George could emulate its neighbor, Las Vegas, which has paid residents up to $3 per square foot to rip out lawns and replace them with native desert landscaping. In April 2021 Las Vegas went further, asking the Nevada Legislature to outlaw ornamental grass.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority estimates that the Las Vegas metropolitan area has eight square miles of “nonfunctional turf” – grass that no one ever walks on except the person who cuts it. Removing it would reduce the region’s water consumption by 15%.
Water rights litigation is fraught with uncertainty. Just ask Florida, which thought it had a strong case that Georgia’s water diversions from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin were harming its oyster fishery downstream.
That case extended over 20 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ended the final chapter in April 2021. The court used a procedural rule that places the burden on plaintiffs to provide “clear and convincing evidence.” Florida failed to convince the court, and walked away with nothing.
For the second time in less than a year, state health officials plan to ask lawmakers to fast-track permitting authority over hundreds of miles of streams left unprotected after a 2020 Trump Administration rollback of federal Clean Water Act rules.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s move comes just weeks after a federal court denied Colorado’s effort to prevent the new federal rules from taking effect.
The CDPHE is holding work group sessions and seeking public comment on a proposed bill that is likely to be introduced in the next two weeks, officials said. The CDPHE declined to comment for this article.
Last May Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and won a temporary injunction against the new rules, which would have taken effect in June 2020. But a federal appeals court overturned that decision last month.
As a result, the rules are set to take effect in Colorado April 23. Though many expect the Biden Administration to alter the new rules, once again, state health officials say an interim rule is needed to ensure the state has the permitting authority and the funds needed to protect streams.
Major water interests, such as the nonpartisan Colorado Water Congress, are closely watching the latest legislative effort.
Colorado Water Congress Executive Director Doug Kemper said right now there is too much uncertainty around which streams and which activities will be overseen by federal and state agencies.
“It’s a big deal right now because you don’t really know what activity is covered and what is exempted,” said Kemper. His group has not taken a position on the CDPHE’s initiative, in part because a formal bill has yet to be introduced.
Environmentalists said it’s important that the state moves quickly to assume the permitting authority to protect streams and to allow millions of dollars in construction, dam and road projects to be properly reviewed and permitted.
Industry groups, however, believe new legislation isn’t required right now because the state has some discretion to act already and because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees much of the work on federally protected streams, also has some discretionary authority to review and issue permits.
“We’re concerned that the focus is solely on legislative options,” said John Kolanz, an attorney who represents the Colorado Stone, Sand and Gravel Association. He believes the state could make changes to its own rules, rather than enacting a new law.
“We don’t think it’s advisable to rush through legislation and a complicated rulemaking by the end of the year,” Kolanz said during a public work group meeting hosted by the CDPHE Monday.
Melinda Kassen, general counsel for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership who tracks water quality regulation, disagreed, saying the CDPHE must be given new legal authority quickly in order to adequately monitor and fund stream protection work over the next one to two years.
“The biggest part of this legislation is getting some fees so that the [Colorado Water Quality Control] division can do its job and go out and see what’s happening on the ground,” Kassen said Monday.
At issue is what’s known as the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule. The rule was designed to classify which streams are subject to federal rules and which activities must obtain permits from the Army Corps to ensure those streams are protected even when they are disturbed by home and road building, construction of new storm water systems, and other activities.
But WOTUS has been contested in courts for years over murky definitions about which waterways fall under its jurisdiction, which wetlands must be regulated, what kinds of dredge-and-fill work in waterways should be permitted, what authority the CWA has over activities on farms and Western irrigation ditches, and what is allowable for industries and wastewater treatment plants to discharge into streams.
It has also been difficult to administer because the U.S. is home to such a wide variety of waterways.
In the East and Midwest massive rivers are filled with barge and shipping traffic and are clearly “navigable.” That was the term early courts used to determine how water would be regulated. If a stream was considered navigable, it was subject to federal law.
But Colorado and other Western states rely on shallow streams that don’t carry traditional commercial traffic. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates 44 percent of Colorado’s streams are intermittent, meaning they are sometimes dry, and 24 percent are ephemeral, meaning they can be dry for months or years and appear only after extraordinary rain or snow. Just 32 percent of Colorado streams are classified as being perennial, meaning they flow year round.
Under the new federal rule only perennial and intermittent streams, or those deemed navigable, are regulated, meaning that thousands of miles of streams in Colorado and other Western states are no longer protected under the law.
If the CDPHE’s new legislative effort succeeds, it would give state health officials the authority to issue so-called dredge-and-fill permits on stream segments no longer protected by the federal law.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.
Pitkin County on Wednesday inched a bit closer to having an additional 100 acre-feet of water flow down the Roaring Fork River with the approval of an intergovernmental agreement and memorandum of understanding.
Pitkin County commissioners unanimously approved on first reading the IGA with the city of Aurora and the MOU between the county, Aurora and the Bureau of Reclamation. The agreements are the final step in a yearslong effort by the county to get more water into the often water-short upper Roaring Fork by means of a complicated exchange.
As part of a 2018 settlement of a water court case, Aurora is allowed, in exchange for leaving more water in the Roaring Fork, to continue diverting water out of the headwaters of the Fryingpan River basin to the Front Range through the Busk-Ivanhoe system.
This can be done because Aurora owns about 5% of the diversions of the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Company, the entity that owns and operates the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System.
The IGA and MOU bring the total amount of water to be left by Aurora in the Roaring Fork to 1,000 acre-feet. That amount is about half of the water that Aurora owns in the Twin Lakes company.
Pitkin County’s goal was to get more water into the habitually stressed reach of the Roaring Fork that flows through Aspen during the summer and fall. Aurora has released water into the Roaring Fork for the past two summers under this settlement agreement.
“It was definitely noticeable by users of the river, and they were excited,” said Commissioner Patti Clapper. “It worked exactly like we wanted it to work, and the fact that we were able to draw this water when we needed it most was really a key point in this whole deal.”
But the extra water in the Roaring Fork could be diverted and used by any downstream senior water-rights holder. The new agreements would allow Aurora — which still maintains ownership of the water, even though it’s being released to the benefit of Pitkin County — to “call” the water down to the confluence of the Roaring Fork with the Fryingpan in Basalt. This water could then be used to satisfy downstream water users, who usually meet demands by releasing water they store in Ruedi Reservoir.
Leaving this water, up to 900 acre-feet, stored in Ruedi would allow Aurora to take half that amount (up to 450 acre-feet) from Ivanhoe Reservoir and send it to the Front Range for municipal use. Pitkin County would be entitled to about a quarter of the water (up to 100 acre-feet), which Aurora would release back into the Roaring Fork, bringing the complicated exchange full circle.
Benefits to using Fork water
There are secondary benefits to using Aurora’s water released into the Roaring Fork to satisfy downstream needs and leaving stored water in Ruedi, said Pitkin County Attorney John Ely. Fewer releases from Ruedi means reservoir levels can stabilize, and it would be better for anglers in the Fryingpan’s gold-medal trout fishery.
“You won’t see as many surges of water being released from Ruedi down the lower Fryingpan, making it more difficult for fishermen to access the river,” Ely said. “Those three benefits alone are pretty good scores for us.”
Ely said with the additional 100 acre-feet on top of the earlier agreement already in effect, there could be an extra 20 to 30 cubic feet per second of water flowing down the Roaring Fork, making it possible to run the Slaughterhouse rapid later in the season, among other benefits.
“I think if we are going to get 20 cfs on top of that, that saves the life of the upper Roaring Fork,” said Commissioner Greg Poschman. “I am really, really grateful and excited to see this happen.”
The IGA will have a second reading and final approval by commissioners on April 28. The agreement will allow the governments to move ahead with a storage contract and water-court filing to execute the exchange.
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the April 15 edition of The Aspen Times.
Imagine seeing a news report about lead contamination in drinking water in a community that looks like yours. It might make you think twice about whether to drink your tap water or serve it to your kids – especially if you also have experienced tap water problems in the past.
In a new study, my colleagues Anisha Patel, Francesca Weaks and I estimate that approximately 61.4 million people in the U.S. did not drink their tap water as of 2017-2018. Our research, which was released in preprint format on April 8, 2021, and has not yet been peer reviewed, found that this number has grown sharply in the past several years.
Water insecurity is an underrecognized but growing problem in the U.S. Tap water distrust is part of the problem. And it’s critical to understand what drives it, because people who don’t trust their tap water shift to more expensive and often less healthy options, like bottled water or sugary drinks.
I’m a human biologist and have studied water and health for the past decade in places as diverse as Lowland Bolivia and northern Kenya. Now I run the Water, Health, and Nutrition Laboratory at Pennsylvania State University. To understand water issues, I talk to people and use large datasets to see whether a problem is unique or widespread, and stable or growing.
An epidemic of distrust
According to our research, there’s a growing epidemic of tap water distrust and disuse in the U.S. In a 2020 study, anthropologist Sera Young and I found that tap water avoidance was declining before the Flint water crisis that began in 2014. In 2015-2016, however, it started to increase again for children.
Our new study found that in 2017-2018, the number of Americans who didn’t drink tap water increased at an alarmingly high rate, particularly for Black and Hispanic adults and children. Since 2013-2014 – just before the Flint water crisis began – the prevalence of adults who do not drink their tap water has increased by 40%. Among children, not consuming tap has risen by 63%.
To calculate this change, we used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a nationally representative survey that releases data in two-year cycles. Sampling weights that use demographic characteristics ensure that the people being sampled are representative of the broader U.S. population.
Racial disparities in tap water consumption
Communities of color have long experienced environmental injustice across the U.S. Black, Hispanic and Native American residents are more likely to live in environmentally disadvantaged neighborhoods, with exposure to water that violatesquality standards.
Our findings reflect these experiences. We calculated that Black and Hispanic children and adults are two to three times more likely to report not drinking their tap water than members of white households. In 2017-2018, roughly 3 out of 10 Black adults and children and nearly 4 of 10 Hispanic adults and children didn’t drink their tap water. Approximately 2 of 10 Asian Americans didn’t drink from their tap, while only 1 of 10 white Americans didn’t drink their tap water.
News reports – particularly high-visibility events like advisories to boil water – lead people to distrust their tap water even after the problem is fixed. For example, a 2019 study showed that water quality violations across the U.S. between 2006 and 2015 led to increases in bottled water purchases in affected counties as a way to avoid tap water, and purchase rates remained elevated after the violation.
It’s important not to blame people for distrusting what comes out of their tap, because those fears are rooted in history. In my view, addressing water insecurity requires a two-part strategy: ensuring that everyone has access to clean water, and increasing trust so people who have safe water will use it.
As part of his proposed infrastructure plan, President Joe Biden is asking Congress for US$111 billion to improve water delivery systems, replace lead pipelines and tackle other contaminants. The plan also proposes improvements for small water systems and underserved communities.
Public distrust of tap water in the U.S. reflects decades of policies that have reduced access to reliable, safe drinking water in communities of color. Fixing water lines is important, but so is giving people confidence to turn on the tap.
Asher Rosinger is Assistant Professor of Biobehavioral Health, Anthropology, and Demography, and Director, Water, Health, and Nutrition Laboratory, Penn State
John Conaway has lived in and around the town of Ridgecrest since before it was much of a town. In 1967, when he moved his young family to the remote Southern California community, Ridgecrest had been incorporated for only a few years. “It was all dirt roads,” he says. “No stop signs, no nothing.” Mostly, the town was there to support the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, an arms-testing base built nearby during World War II. The military contractor Grumman, which employed Conaway as an engineer, had given him a bonus to relocate from New York. Like many of his colleagues and their families, he and his lived on base.
A handful of years later, the Navy decided China Lake contractors would have to find their own housing. The Conaways bought 4 acres and built a house in the adjacent town of Inyokern, which like Ridgecrest is nestled in the Indian Wells Valley, a roughly 11,000-square-mile stretch of desert in the eastern Sierra Nevada about three hours north of Los Angeles. When Conaway learned there were tax incentives for farmers, he started planting. By the early 1980s he’d settled on pistachios as his crop of choice.
That was the right call. California’s pistachio industry, which comprised only a few thousand acres then, today spans 300,000 acres and takes in about $1.6 billion a year. Conaway’s business grew, too. He gave up engineering and now, at age 83, owns 175 acres’ worth of nuts. A decade ago, that was enough to make him one of the more serious farmers around. Successes like his attracted the attention of a Bakersfield pistachio magnate named Rod Stiefvater. In 2011, Stiefvater’s company, Mojave Pistachios LLC, acquired about 1,600 acres near Conaway and planted more than 100,000 trees.
Mojave sells most of its nuts to the Wonderful Co., one of America’s most powerful agricultural enterprises and the reason pistachios now rank among the country’s bestselling salty snacks. Mojave has established a farming operation on a scale unprecedented for the area. If they’re well-tended, its trees will be fully mature by 2025, turning the once-barren land into a fertile realm worth an estimated $25 million a year.
That’s a bigger “if” than it might seem. In the arid, isolated Indian Wells Valley, underground aquifers are the only reliable sources of fresh water. To make its trees grow big and strong, Mojave says, it will need almost as much groundwater as the entire Ridgecrest area uses today.
China Lake has grown at a pace faster than that of Conaway’s and other small farmers’ pistachio trees. The naval base now encompasses 1.1 million acres, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. Ridgecrest, home to about 30,000 people, remains a sort of company town for the naval installation, which employs about 10,000 active-duty military, civilians, and contractors. The base contributes $36 million in state and local taxes each year, representing about 90 percent of the town’s economy. In 2019, China Lake said one of its top concerns was encroachment on its groundwater supply, based on a recent assessment of the aquifer’s use, and implied that water shortages could mean the base would have to shut down permanently.
Local officials have taken steps to assuage the Navy. The government of Kern County, where Ridgecrest is located, banned new development of farmland in the valley in 2015, against Stiefvater’s protests. This past September, Ridgecrest announced that, as part of a groundwater sustainability plan set to take effect in January in compliance with state law, all farmers would have to pay costly new fees to pump water from the Indian Wells Valley basin. The idea is to offset the expense of importing sufficient water for the area’s future needs.
Since then, Conaway and other locals have found themselves aligned with Stiefvater in suits against the valley’s groundwater regulator. Small and big farmers alike are pushing for much lower pumping fees. Stiefvater, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is demanding that the sustainability plan be struck down and that the town fork over more than $255 million in damages. “My client has made a huge investment in the valley,” says Anthony Brown, a Mojave hydrological consultant. “Why rush to put him out of business?”
Climate change, comes the answer. Global warming has exacerbated the region’s droughts and their consequences, up to and including the record-breaking wildfires that have become California’s nightmare. In Ridgecrest, rainwater and melting snow aren’t recharging the valley’s aquifer the way they used to, and with the local population growing along with the naval base, thirsty crops such as pistachios make a more noticeable dent in the water supply every year. A state review of the valley rated the aquifer as critically overdrafted and called it one of California’s worst-managed. Ridgecrest’s hydrological consultant, Steve Johnson, estimates that 60 percent of the outflow goes to farming, the most “upside down” he says he’s ever seen.
In California, agricultural interests tend to win the usual battles between long-term community needs and short-term sales targets, but the Navy’s influence has given the Ridgecrest area a fighting chance. Some 18 percent of the state’s water now flows into vineyards, orchards, and fields, giving life to most of America’s pistachios, almonds, avocados, oranges, grapes, tomatoes, and lettuce. The tree nuts have emerged as California’s reigning cash crop, their acreage almost doubling over the past decade as demand has soared. The costs to local water tables are obvious, and perhaps unsustainable. In potentially precedent-setting places like Kern County, the question is whether the stakes are finally high enough to force people to farm less—in some cases, much less.
California is a desert disguised as a mass of fertile fields. The state’s vast water transport grid, developed after World War II, brings rainwater and melted snow from the misty northwest to inland farms and parched southern population centers. This is the chief reason California can function as Earth’s fifth-largest economy, the world’s technology capital, and the nation’s most productive farming state. It’s also why, really, the state can function at all.
For that reason, little divides Californians more sharply than water rights. The state receives close to 63 trillion gallons of water a year in rain and snow, the vast majority of it in the north, far from thirsty farms and cities downstate. A century’s worth of legal battles over redirecting that precipitation have yielded, among other things, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which carries water far south through often parched farmland. Agricultural interests in the dry south have turned to litigation and hoarding to get more water. The Wonderful Co., which declined to comment for this story, has proven particularly adept at such maneuvers. In the 1990s, the company led a successful effort to privatize the Kern County Water Bank, a massive groundwater reserve. It now controls a majority of the water bank and sells some unused water back to the state at a profit. It’s also consistently repelled environmentalists’ lawsuits seeking wider sharing of the scarce natural resource.
Given how many Californians style themselves as hippies, futurists, or hippie futurists, it’s weird that the state still settles the question of water rights based on who called dibs. Much as it was in frontier times, the first person to access a source of California water receives the right of first refusal on its use forever, a legacy of gold rushes and might-makes-right ranching. America’s other Western states have long since recognized that modern economies require much broader and more secure access to water and regulate their residents’ water rights accordingly.
California began trying to tackle its growing water problems in 2014, just as Stiefvater was planting his pistachio trees and digging his wells in Inyokern. That year, then-Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which for the first time required each county to determine how much groundwater it had, figure out whether that total was rising or falling, and phase in detailed plans to make sure it didn’t run out. In 2021 counties and local water authorities have to begin implementing new groundwater sustainability plans and meet locally determined targets. By 2040, the law says, they must be fully sustainable. Putting the sustainability plans into practice is complicated, because SGMA hasn’t overturned the dibs-based system of groundwater rights.
In Kern County, the site of the highest-profile SGMA lawsuits to date, the job of accounting for the water falls to a board of five publicly elected supervisors. Mick Gleason is the supervisor for District 1, which includes Ridgecrest and much of the Indian Wells Valley. He’s also the chair of the valley’s groundwater authority.
Gleason, like Conaway, is an engineer originally from the East Coast who moved to the area to work at China Lake. Unlike the pistachio farmer, Gleason was a captain in the Navy when he arrived, a fighter pilot who moved to Ridgecrest in 2004 to become the commanding officer of the naval base. He won election as supervisor in 2012, a few years after he retired from the military.
Gleason has big hands, a big nose, a big presence, and until January to enact the sustainability plan and start getting the valley’s water consumption under control. If not, SGMA stipulates that he’ll have to turn water use over to the state Department of Water Resources, the agency that rated the Indian Wells Valley basin as critically overdrafted. Gleason says the state agency would likely take a more draconian approach than the ban on new agriculture and the pumping fees for farmers. “Their main tool is going to be how many showers I take a week,” he says.
Elected officials and the Navy have both said they’re basing their assessment of the area’s needs on a study of the local aquifer conducted by the Desert Research Institute, the research arm of the University of Nevada at Reno. Neither party has released the institute’s baseline numbers on groundwater reserves. Brown, the Mojave Pistachios consultant, says that based on the published data, he estimates the aquifer holds more than 67 million acre-feet or 21.8 trillion gallons, of which about 2.9 trillion gallons are in shallow, easily reached areas. Gleason doesn’t dispute those figures. He does, however, dispute the conclusion reached by Brown, Stiefvater, and the local farmers that the problem isn’t urgent. The town uses 10.8 billion gallons of water each year and replenishes only 2.5 billion gallons, leaving an 8.3-billion-gallon annual deficit—a paltry amount compared with the area’s vast reserves, they say. “Why rush to start the pumping reductions?” Brown asks. “Why rush with huge fees?”
One reason to rush is that, as it stands now, the town can’t afford to import water into the valley, a key longterm component of its sustainability plan. Such a pipeline will require tens of millions of dollars in funding by 2035, which Gleason calls a “tremendous challenge” and says he hopes the fees will offset.
For the pistachio farmers, who’ve been careful not to pick a fight with the Navy directly, the county supervisor has become the scapegoat. “I take Gleason to talk out of both sides of his mouth,” Conaway says. “I believe his intention is to get rid of farming and to strengthen the Navy any way he can.” In a statement, Stiefvater, too, stressed that his lawsuit against the groundwater authority seeks no relief from the Navy. “It is made necessary by the madness and arrogance of former Navy Base Commander Mick Gleason and his intention to destroy agriculture and specifically us,” Stiefvater said.
Gleason doesn’t seem intimidated by the outcry. One afternoon in October, he listens dispassionately while locals call in to a socially distanced meeting of the groundwater authority and complain about the forthcoming pumping fees, $2,130 per acre-foot (about two-thirds of a penny per gallon). Farming in the valley, he says, will eventually require the groundwater authority to import water from elsewhere, so best to start financing pipeline construction now with fees from the people using most of the water. The farmers say that would drive them out of business.
“I hope that you all hear lots and lots of seriously irate comments from all kinds of people in this valley in the coming days and weeks,” says local Mike Neel. “Just know that when you hear it, you’re getting what you deserve.”
Later, in his dull, brown office on China Lake Boulevard— former Navy land—Gleason says he wasn’t swayed by Neel’s argument, but he appreciates the civic engagement. “He’s a concerned citizen,” Gleason says, dressed in a checkered jacket and yellow tie. “I wish all citizens were as concerned as he is.”
The legal disputes under way in the Indian Wells Valley offer an early taste of what might happen throughout California as various local authorities turn SGMA’s broad principles into actionable demands. As one of the U.S.’s farthest-reaching and most aggressive climate-mitigation efforts to date, SGMA also offers a preview of what backlash to a similar national policy might look like.
The water-pumping fees lie at the heart of the lawsuits Stiefvater, Conaway, and others have filed against the groundwater authority, none of which have set court dates yet. If these are proxy fights between the Navy and the Wonderful Co., both parties have stayed pretty quiet so far. Margo Allen, a public-affairs officer at China Lake, says, “The Navy is engaged in consistent, proactive, and cooperative participation” with the local groundwater authority. The company, owned by billionaire couple Stewart and Lynda Resnick, also sells almonds, grapefruit, mandarin oranges, wine, Fiji Water, flowers, pest control products, and its namesake pomegranate juice.
Within Indian Wells Valley, the face of the farming interests is Paul Nugent, a local consultant for Stiefvater who previously spent decades working for a farm credit bank. Toward the end of an October afternoon, he drives through Stiefvater’s pistachio orchards in his white Denali pickup truck, its front license plate framed by a Wonderful Co. decal that reads “Get Crackin’. ”
Out of the truck, Nugent strolls through rows of pistachio trees and black irrigation lines stretching out in every direction, his red-checkered button-down tucked into bluejeans that taper into handsome leather boots. The fields are only now turning out quality harvests. “It takes seven years to get your first decent crop,” he says, touching an unpicked clump of pinkish pistachios as crows flit about. “Love those big old fruiting buds.”
After leaving the orchard, Nugent motors west into the Sierra, up a dirt road to a lookout point above the valley. The ascent takes him past the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which was also once a source of consternation to farmers. At the lookout point, Nugent stops and walks outside into a cool wind. He says SGMA’s 20-year sustainability targets give farmers plenty of time to adapt without having to take stronger measures that put people out of work. “See, it’s a big valley,” he says, gazing out across the vista as the sunset tints his face orange. “There’s a lot of water here.” Below, the landscape is a slate of dull brown with bright patches of pistachio fields that look, from a distance, like great globs of green paint.
Across California, a half-dozen lawsuits similar to the Indian Wells cases are making their way through the courts, and a decision on Ridgecrest’s water could prove a key precedent. Although the farmers have a chance to prevail—water law is notoriously tricky—the Navy’s interest makes their odds look worse. “The farming community in general is very troubled by what it sees in Indian Wells Valley, and people are watching closely,” says Brown, the Stiefvater consultant.
Whatever happens in the valley, California farmers have reason to worry. To comply with SGMA, at least 535,000 acres of irrigated farmland, about 6 percent of the state’s total, will need to stop producing crops by 2040, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, a think tank created by Hewlett Packard Co. co-founder Bill Hewlett. At today’s prices, that translates to billions of dollars in lost annual revenue. It’s a considerable challenge that will require farmers and farming communities to rethink how they do business and, likely, grow less.
Conaway and other farmers say they’re worried about today, not 2040. The octogenarian is paunchy and battling kidney cancer. Seated in a small office on his farm, the door left open to a warm breeze, he says that concern about sustainability in the valley is overblown, that the situation is “not as critical as they’re making it out to be,” and that the old dibs-based groundwater laws leave him plenty of room to play hardball. “If they shut me down, I still own the land and I still own the water,” he says. “I will go to heaven or hell and will not sell one goddamn gallon of water to the bastards for the next hundred years.”
That’s a bit of an oversell; the county doesn’t need Conaway to sell them the water, only to make him stop pumping it. But it’s also a reminder that in many communities throughout California, the stakes of the next water wars will probably be even higher than they are in Ridgecrest. After all, this is still very much a company town. As Gleason says in his office, there is no Ridgecrest without China Lake, and he’s betting on a future that puts the base’s water needs first, including any future expansions. “My vision is, by 2035, we have a Navy that is content and growing at the rate that they want to grow,” the county supervisor says. “So the economy of this community is also moving in the same direction as the Navy.” If he prevails in court, it will likely be a community where farming isn’t worth the tax breaks.
CORRECTION: The story has been updated to reflect that 6 percent of the state’s irrigated farmland—not 40 percent—will need to stop producing crops by 2040 to comply with SGMA, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
Lead image: Paul Nugent, a local consultant for Mojave Pistachios LLC, looks out of Indian Wells Valley, insisting that growers here have plenty of time to adapt to the shrinking aquifer. But global warming has exacerbated the region’s droughts and their consequences. In Ridgecrest, rainwater and melting snow aren’t recharging the valley’s aquifer the way they used to, and with the local population growing along with the naval base, thirsty crops such as pistachios make a more noticeable dent in the water supply every year.
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This article was supported by The Water Desk at the Center for Environmental Journalism, University of Colorado Boulder.