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Facing drought and increased demands, Colorado communities eye new storage alternatives

Crystal River photo
Beaver dam on the Crystal River in Colorado. Beavers are being eyed as an important eco-builder because of their abilities to construct and restore natural wetlands, increasing storage. Credit: Sarah Marshall, Colorado Natural Heritage Program

By Jason Plautz

Colorado could need more than 750,000 acre-feet of new water supplies by 2050 to meet the demands of a growing population. But how to store that water, something historically done using dams and reservoirs, some massive in scale, isn’t clear. And cities, water planners and environmentalists, from Steamboat Springs to Sterling, are looking way beyond concrete to find new storage alternatives that minimize evaporative losses, enhance the environment, and provide security for the region in the face of chronic drought.

But the challenges are large. Increasing environmental and social concerns, limited geographic locations, and even more limited water rights have made water storage increasingly difficult. On top of that, long-range forecasting — to figure out how much water is going to be available to be stored — has become especially complicated due to climate change.

An April 2020 study published in the journal Science found that the American West’s current drought is as bad or worse than any in the past 1,200 years of tree-ring records. Ordinarily, storage would be the obvious solution to drought and dry years. You collect moisture in wet years and save it for times of need. But climate change has created a catch-22. Storage may be necessary, but it has become more challenging to build and less water is available to capture.

Dan Luecke, former director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Rocky Mountain office, says these challenges have upended a philosophy long built on risk analysis to one defined by “decision making under uncertainty.”

“For a long time, we’ve known there’s risk but we could look to the historical record to manage it,” says Luecke. (Luecke also serves on the Board of Trustees for Water Education Colorado, which sponsors Fresh Water News.) “With climate change, that record is called into question … the nature of the game has changed.”

The cascading challenges of climate change have led water managers to think creatively about alternatives to traditional infrastructure. Greeley, for example, replaced a plan to expand an existing reservoir with one that will store water underground. Front Range districts collaborated to reallocate the space in Chatfield Reservoir, a flood storage basin, raising the water level to add permanent water storage supply. As part of the Basin Implementation Plan for the Yampa/White/Green River Basin, water managers are exploring putting reservoirs high in the mountains to limit evaporative loss.

Decision making under uncertainty makes it all the more complicated for water providers to meet Colorado’s water needs and has caused many to reexamine what a smart storage project is made of — one that can help meet water supply goals for many water users while respecting the environment, one that is also acceptable to stakeholders, and one with minimum impacts so that it can make its way through the permitting process. Water managers are growing increasingly innovative, out of necessity, to develop water storage projects that will work.

Reservoirs under climate change

It’s not simply a matter of how much water is available to store. Everything from the location and size of reservoirs to the timing for capturing runoff and for making releases is being reviewed. Various climate models, including those used by the Colorado Water Conservation Board for state water planning, project warmer temperatures that will affect evaporation rates in rivers and reservoirs and seasonal shifts in precipitation, including reduced mountain snowpack and earlier runoff. Earlier and reduced flows could, for instance, necessitate dams releasing water earlier to meet demand.

Temperature rise, too, makes storing water a challenge. Any pool will lose water through evaporation, and more during hot, dry times, but the loss is worse for reservoirs at lower elevations with more exposed surface area. The science used to estimate evaporative loss is imprecise — estimates could be off by as much as 20% to 30%, according to the U.S.  Bureau of Reclamation, which is conducting a study to refine its methods. Even so, a 2018 Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society study estimated that losses from Lake Powell and Lake Mead could total as much as 15% of the annual upper basin allocation among Colorado River Basin states, or five to six times the annual water use of Denver. The same study said that summer evaporation rates may have risen by as much as 6% over the last 25 years.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment, published in 2018, states that climate change is fueling stronger storms that could overwhelm dams and infrastructure designed to capture more moderate storm surge flows. It’s also intensifying wildfires that destroy landscapes, load reservoirs with sediment, and threaten water delivery infrastructure.

The 2019 Technical Update to the Colorado Water Plan lays out a number of alternatives to new traditional storage projects, including rehabilitating existing infrastructure, reallocating flood storage to active storage, and using below-ground aquifer storage alternatives. While the options are vast, the update says that to meet the state’s goals, “at least some new large reservoirs are needed.”

But building those reservoirs also requires water to fill them, says Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University. Water rights are not as easy to come by in an era of constraint. Any new water rights claimed today are junior in the state’s legal priority system, making storage necessary to capture peak flows after all senior water rights are satisfied. But as climate change shifts the timing and magnitude of peak flows, reservoirs may not be as effective a tool for managing junior water rights.

“A dam is a bit like opening a bank account, there has to be something to put in it,” Udall says. “Ultimately, everything bends to the hydrological realities of what the supply is.”

The jigsaw puzzle

The era of uncertainty doesn’t just make individual storage projects a puzzle — the long-range plans that help utilities figure out what storage they need are now a tangle of variables. Balancing climate-complicated precipitation projections with population and water use trends, regulatory changes, and competition for resources can make the standard planning process a head-spinning endeavor.

When Colorado Springs Utilities started updating its 2017 Integrated Water Resource Plan (IWRP), the utility wanted a “comprehensive view” that would take a hard look at risk analysis, says water planner Kevin Lusk. Colorado Springs doesn’t sit on a major river system and relies on storage in remote watersheds to manage its variable supply. In the early 2000s, the utility’s water yield saw a 600% difference between the driest and wettest years.

Realizing that a backward-looking dataset might no longer apply to a present and future defined by climate change, the utility took a state-of-the-art new approach to its planning process. Recently, Colorado Springs partnered with the consulting firm Black and Veatch, which expanded the multi-objective evolutionary algorithm (MOEA) to utilities to help them assess the complexities in planning. The machine learning tool can project thousands of possible futures using precipitation, temperature and hydrological factors, then help planners narrow down their range of possible options.

“As these plans get so big, it’s hard for the human mind to comprehend them,” says Leon Basdekas, a private consultant who worked at Colorado Springs Utilities, then Black and Veatch, designing and managing the utility’s IWRP. “This tool allows you to evaluate complex planning options in ways that would be impossible to do otherwise.”

Monument Creek photo
Leon Basdekas, pictured beside Monument Creek, worked with Colorado Springs Utilities using a machine learning tool to help the water provider assess complex future water supply and demand scenarios and evaluate where new water storage could be beneficial. Photo by Matthew Staver

More than anything, Lusk says, the advanced modeling helped the utility gain a better appreciation for the full scope of storage and transmission. The “a-ha moment,” he says, is seeing how one individual new reservoir may not mean as much for the system as, say, shoring up existing pipelines to make the already-built system run more efficiently.

“We can’t just look at storage on its own, it’s a package deal with supply and conveyance,” Lusk says. “This is a complex jigsaw puzzle.”

Mitigation meets enhancement

To the north, the Northern Integrated Supply Project, or NISP, has been moving through a decades-long process to obtain the necessary permits and to gain the favor of local stakeholders. NISP has been reshaped, with operational changes and environmental improvements now built in, in response to stakeholder concerns.

The project, spearheaded by Northern Water, if fully approved, will build two reservoirs, one northwest of Fort Collins off the Cache la Poudre River and another northeast of Greeley, to deliver nearly 40,000 acre-feet of water a year to 15 communities and irrigators along the Front Range. With the population of northern Colorado expected to double by 2050, backers say that such a large shared storage project is necessary to efficiently serve booming towns like Erie, Windsor and Severance. Through water exchanges with farmers — which will average about 25,000 acre-feet per year — and the purchase of conservation easements on farms, Northern Water says the project will also help farmers reduce the negative impacts of buy and dry by keeping water on farms while serving the growing Front Range population.

Water storage map

But supplying those growing towns will have impacts. NISP will involve constructing the 170,000 acre-foot Glade Reservoir (to accommodate the reservoir, seven miles of U.S. Highway 287 will be relocated) and the 45,600 acre-foot Galeton Reservoir. Northern Water will also build another forebay reservoir, five pump plants, and 80 miles of pipeline.

That kind of construction worries environmentalists and some communities, with major concerns centering on the impact of taking water out of the already-stressed Poudre River, reducing its crucial spring peak flows, which flush sediment downriver and restore habitat.

Several environmental reviews as part of the permitting process concluded that the need for storage was there, even after accounting for planned water conservation savings. With so many communities involved, scrapping the collaborative project, as some environmental groups advocated for, would leave them all competing for limited resources.

“I think quite a few participants who saw [NISP] as a [potential] future supply are now looking at this as the future,” says Christopher Smith, general manager of the Left Hand Water District and chairman of the NISP participants committee. “I don’t think anyone is left who is speculating on this. It’s necessary.”

So Northern Water started looking for what project manager Carl Brouwer calls “the wow factor.”

“We really changed our perspective to thinking about how we could put water back and be a part of the preservation of the Poudre River,” Brouwer says.

Cache la Poudre River photo
The Cache la Poudre River through Fort Collins encounters many small diversions and has historically faced dry-up points. Through the Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP), Northern Water, though diverting water upstream, has committed to stream channel improvements and revegetation, E. coli and nutrient reduction measures, year-round streamflows, and more. Photo by Flickr user JeffreyJDavis

Project proponents added an estimated $60 million in mitigation and enhancement measures, bringing the total estimated project cost to about $1.1 billion. The idea is that water would be released from Glade Reservoir year round and no water will be diverted to storage when flows dip below 50 cubic feet per second (cfs) in the summer and 25 cfs in the winter to eliminate spots where the river already dries up. Collection operations will be adjusted to keep peak flows in the Poudre River two out of every three years, and 90% of the time little or no diversion will take place during peak flows. Organizers will also build new fish passage structures and improve 2.4 miles of stream channel near a Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) fish hatchery north of Fort Collins.

The mitigation and enhancement plan received unanimous approval from CPW and the Colorado Water Conservation Board in 2017, and the Colorado Water Quality Control Division approved the project’s 401 Water Quality Certification in 2020.

Karlyn Armstrong, water project mitigation coordinator for CPW, says that the flow program will be a benefit to the river. “Currently the river goes dry in places — once the program comes online, the river will have water 365 days a year through the conveyance flow reach,” Armstrong says. “Aquatic life will benefit from sustained minimum flows.”

Critics remain. In August 2020, the Fort Collins City Council voted 5-1 to oppose the project, citing the potential loss of spring flows, and some environmentalists say communities should explore options with less of an environmental footprint.

But Brouwer says that the project, combined with Northern’s efforts on conservation and water exchanges, should set the new standard for infrastructure in the state with its environmental focus.

“What really changed was embracing the enhancement part of mitigation and enhancement. We can make it better,” Brouwer says. “We’ve set the bar pretty high and I do think this will become the norm.”

Addressing demand

Improved or not, some still say a large storage project like NISP shouldn’t happen at all. Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates has been a long-time opponent of NISP and in 2012 released an alternative plan it said could meet the needs of Front Range communities without the footprint of new infrastructure. The nonprofit’s “Better Future” alternative included conservation tools that would offset 20,482 acre-feet of use by 2060 and apply reuse technology to another 4,905 acre-feet. Combined with flexible water sharing agreements between agricultural users and municipalities and more thoughtful expansion onto previously irrigated agricultural land that could come with water rights, WRA says their plan reimagines what adding supply could look like.

“We know we need more storage going forward, but new storage doesn’t have to be connected to new development,” says Laura Belanger, water resources engineer at Western Resource Advocates. “Alternative supply portfolios that include reuse or conservation can mean storage that optimizes existing supplies more efficiently.”

WRA’s plan as an alternative to NISP was rejected in 2018, as were all other alternatives proposed during the public comment period, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued NISP’s Environmental Impact Statement, saying that these options “did not meet the project’s purpose and need and practicability screening criteria.” WRA says it relies on different calculations than the economic reports backing NISP and has continued to update its alternative in a series of recent comments on the NISP proposal.

Whether or not it could replace NISP, the “Better Future” model represents how some are thinking about limiting demand as a way to reduce the need for additional storage. Aggressive conservation has started to decouple water use from population growth in some cities across the West; a survey of 20 Western cities published in the journal Water found that between 2000 and 2015, total water use dropped 19% while populations increased by 21% on average. Denver Water has reduced per capita water use by 22% over the past decade.

Still, Belanger says that the strain on resources under the drought makes it necessary for all municipalities to embrace conservation.

“The more efficient existing and new development is, the more water you can have in the supply,” Belanger says. “Managing the demands of your community produces sustainable savings.”

Can restoration double as storage?

Some advocates say it’s time to think beyond cement and instead embrace natural watershed restoration as a storage solution.

In 2016, the California legislature declared that source watersheds would be considered “integral components of water infrastructure,” putting reviving watersheds on essentially the same level as building new dams or pipelines. While Colorado hasn’t adopted similar language yet (Montana is the only other state to do so), there is increased attention to restoring watersheds as an ecological tool with water storage benefits.

“Our water has so much to do, we should give it a longer reach and take advantage of all the benefits,” says Abby Burk of the Audubon Society. “When water is in rivers instead of sitting in reservoirs, there are so many more benefits that support healthy, thriving ecosystems.”

Snowmelt and storm events, for instance, flash quickly through incised streams that are disconnected from their floodplains. Healthier connected floodplain-riparian areas can restore plant life, recharge underground aquifers, preserve flows for aquatic species, and even reduce flood risk. Water in the ground also won’t evaporate like it does from reservoirs. However, it’s less clear if this restoration work can provide the kind of material storage benefits providers want to see.

“We’re careful about saying that restoration of floodplains and wetlands does not produce more water, but it can change the timing,” says Jackie Corday, a consultant working with American Rivers on healthy headwaters issues. “The water can be attenuated [by absorption into the restored floodplain], the runoff is slowed when it’s stored as groundwater, then it slowly gets released throughout the summer instead of all at once.”

South Platte River photo
A series of beaver dams span much of the Middle Fork of the South Platte River in the Placer Valley, pooling water and spreading the river’s flows. Beaver systems like these store water and provide refuge for other species, even during low flow and drought conditions. Photo courtesy EcoMetrics

Stretching natural runoff releases into the hot summer months could help farmers irrigate for longer growing seasons without storing water above ground, but little research has quantified that potential. Researchers are eyeing projects meant to mimic beaver structures to see how they change flows. A project that is currently underway to restore floodplains and wetlands upstream of Grand County’s Shadow Mountain Reservoir could offer a good model; preliminary assessments from that project are expected by the end of the year.

According to Melinda Kassen, senior counsel for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, restoration fits into a more natural philosophy of water systems. She hopes to see more municipalities begin to view natural infrastructure as just as valid as traditional infrastructure.

“You just have to remember that there is an alternative, and sometimes that’s hard when you’ve done something one way for 150 years,” Kassen says. “When we talk about water storage now, one of the first things we say is that we should be looking at green infrastructure instead of gray.”

Thinking system-wide

A bigger way of thinking is taking hold in the South Platte River Basin, home to approximately 70% of the state’s population and its largest projected water supply gap. The 2019 Technical Update to the Colorado Water Plan projects that the entire state could need more than 750,000 acre-feet in new municipal water to meet the growing population’s needs by 2050. The South Platte Basin Implementation Plan, completed in 2015 to inform the state water plan, showed that, with the basin’s population expected to reach 6 million by 2050, there could be a maximum annual water supply gap of 540,000 acre-feet.

The “status quo” strategy to fill that gap for cities is buy and dry, says Joe Frank, general manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District in northeastern Colorado. Frank has always worked on behalf of the water users in his district, but as water stresses increase, he is thinking more creatively about the future of agriculture by “providing water security for both” farms and cities.

There are more water rights on the South Platte River than there is water to fulfill them in most years, which is why buy and dry — where cities purchase senior agricultural water rights, drying up a farm and gaining the priority to divert that water when flows are low — has been attractive to municipalities. As an alternative, new storage might help. Some flows are available for capture, just not every year. The South Platte Storage Study, ordered by the Colorado Legislature in 2016 and completed in 2017, found that while flows were extremely variable between 1996 and 2015, a median flow of 293,000 acre-feet per year in excess of South Platte River interstate compact obligations crossed the state line into Nebraska. The amount of water that could be put to use in Colorado is much less, the study found, but additional South Platte storage could help with a variety of things — from compact compliance to water sharing agreements to river flows and to better utilizing reusable return flows from upstream municipalities. It also found that a combination of storage pools working conjunctively up and down the river could be more beneficial than individual reservoirs.

To explore ways to move beyond individual reservoirs to close the gap, Frank and other water managers throughout the basin are collaborating on the South Platte Regional Opportunities Water Group, or SPROWG, and working toward a system-wide approach to storage and water use.

In a feasibility study published in March 2020, SPROWG members identified four alternative concepts that could help close the supply gap without diverting additional water from the Western Slope or buying up valuable water rights from local farmers. The study analyzed the potential to store between 215,000 and 409,000 acre-feet of water in various generalized locations between Denver and the Nebraska state line. New storage would rely on available flows not obligated to existing water rights, water that can be reused, or temporary lease agreements with farmers. Stored water would then be used locally, transported through a pipeline for regional use, or exchanged between locations.

The idea, said SPROWG advisory committee member Lisa Darling, was to think regionally instead of by district, to move water where it’s needed at any given time.

“Maybe there was this sort of older water buffalo thinking in the past, but I think we know now that we can’t develop projects in a vacuum anymore,” says Darling, the executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority. (Darling also serves as president of the Board of Trustees for Water Education Colorado, which sponsors Fresh Water News.) “There’s a holistic system and that’s the prism we have to look through now.”

Dan Luecke, who fought multiple large infrastructure projects across the state, says he’s been encouraged by an increase in innovation where cities and growers are thinking more collaboratively on both storage and use. In an era of constraints, he says, it will take all users — even those across state lines — working together to think about creative and efficient approaches to the storage dilemma.

“If we could get cities and irrigators to agree to some kind of combined management scheme, we might need more storage but we could look at it in a more integrated and efficient context,” Luecke says. “It’s not about storage for this user or that area, it’s about an entire system that’s more flexible.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Spring 2021 edition of Water Education Colorado’s Headwaters magazine.

Jason Plautz is a journalist based in Denver specializing in environmental policy. His writing has appeared in High Country News, Reveal, HuffPost, National Journal, and Undark, among other outlets. He can be reached at jason.plautz@gmail.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.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.

As climate change turns up the heat in Las Vegas, water managers try to wring new savings to stretch supply

Las Vegas has reduced its water consumption even as its population has increased.
Las Vegas has reduced its water consumption even as its population has increased. (Source: Southern Nevada Water Authority)

By Gary Pitzer

Las Vegas, known for its searing summertime heat and glitzy casino fountains, is projected to get even hotter in the coming years as climate change intensifies. As temperatures rise, possibly as much as 10 degrees by end of the century, according to some models, water demand for the desert community is expected to spike. That is not good news in a fast-growing region that depends largely on a limited supply of water from an already drought-stressed Colorado River.

With this in mind, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), the wholesale water provider to more than 2 million people in the Las Vegas metro area, is seeking to drive down daily per capita water use (now at about 112 gallons), through wide-ranging, innovative and permanent conservation methods. The goal is to reduce daily water use to 98 gallons by 2035, even as projections indicate per capita water use could increase by nine gallons a day as the climate warms.

Meanwhile, the Colorado River Basin plunges deeper into historic drought that seems certain to lead to water supply curtailments for Nevada and Arizona. Cities in the arid Southwest for years have sought to drive down water use to stretch supplies. Now, a warming climate, continued population growth and increased water demand have raised the stakes.

In response, SNWA aims to wring more water savings out of everything from ice machines and grassy medians to industrial cooling towers, an aggressive conservation effort that could provide examples for communities throughout the Southwest.

“We have been extremely successful helping the community embrace living in the desert and adopting a conservation mindset,” said Marilyn Kirkpatrick, chair of SNWA’s board of directors. “However, we have more work ahead to continue helping the community – especially new residents – use water as efficiently as possible.” 

A warming basin

Arguably the hardest-working river system on Earth, the Colorado River helps meet the water needs of 40 million people, farms and ecosystems across a huge landscape. Premised on an annual flow that was overestimated and overallocated, the river is under extreme stress as climate change drives warming temperatures.

Lake Mead photo
Drought in the Colorado River Basin has pushed the water level in Lake Mead, Southern Nevada’s main water source, to a historic low. (Source: Southern Nevada Water Authority)

According to the Bureau of Reclamation’s January 2021 Colorado River Basin SECURE Water Act Report to Congress, 2000 to 2019 was the driest stretch in more than 100 years of record-keeping. Average annual temperatures are creeping up and the past 20 years were likely warmer than at any time in the past 2,000 years, the report said. Of the 20 warmest years on record, 17 have occurred since 1994. The trend shows no sign of abating.

A warming climate has major implications for water supply in the Colorado River Basin. A warmer atmosphere sponges up more water from the land surface and water bodies, leaving less to run off or flow to downstream reservoirs. Everything – people, wildlife and vegetation – is left thirstier.

Writing in their 2020 report, Climate Change and the Aridification of North Americaclimate scientists Jonathan Overpeck and Brad Udall explained the phenomenon of aridification: “Soils dry out in a straightforward manner understood by anyone gardening on a hot day, and they dry out faster the warmer it gets.”

Overpeck, at the University of Michigan, explained that hotter temperatures are robbing moisture from the Colorado River Basin. The drought in the Basin, he wrote in a May 18 Twitter post, “is really an ongoing temperature-driven aridification, that if combined with a true precip-dominated megadrought, will get much worse.”

SNWA’s 2020 Water Resource Plan notes that the impacts of climate change on water supply can no longer be considered as something that might happen later. Instead, “evidence supports the fact that climate change is happening now and that it will have a lasting effect on the availability of Colorado River water supplies.”

Already in the midst of a decades-long drought, conditions in the Colorado River Basin dramatically worsened in 2021, with record low inflows into the anchor reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Over the last 20 years, Lake Mead’s water level has dropped about 130 feet. As Mead’s level continues to fall, water supply reductions increasingly kick in.

Ensuring water security

Lake Mead, filled by Colorado River water, is Las Vegas’ mainstay. Ninety percent of the area’s water supply comes from the lake. Nevada’s Colorado River allocation is 300,000 acre-feet per year. In the past 10 years, SNWA’s take from Lake Mead has been about 445,000 acre-feet. However, factoring in the approximately 220,000 acre-feet of treated effluent returned to Mead each year means the average net consumptive use of Colorado River water has been 225,000 acre-feet.

A hotter climate is expected to drive up Southern Nevada’s per capita water use just as its primary water source, the Colorado River, is shrinking. Map: Water Education Foundation Created with Datawrapper

SNWA’s water conservation campaign has helped cut its Colorado River consumption by about 23 percent between 2002 and 2020 even as 780,000 new residents arrived.

But the thermometer is inching up. Clark County, home to about 75 percent of Nevada’s population, is projected to warm by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, according to SNWA. That means incorporating warming temperatures into water accounting with greater intensity and urgency.

“We have acknowledged that warming is going to go on in the valley for a very long time,” said Colby Pellegrino, SNWA’s deputy general manager for resources. 

“Two years ago, we started taking a more serious approach to defining the conservation programs that would be necessary to meet our goal,” she said. “We have done a lot of work on what local temperature projections would look like in the future. While we’ve been making progress … there are going to be these upward pressures on demand occurring at the same time.”

Like some other Southwest cities that depend on the Colorado River, SNWA has an aggressive water conservation program that pairs education and outreach with financial incentives. The agency relentlessly pursues saving water wherever possible, from urging restaurant customers to forego the complimentary glass of drinking water (and all that gets saved as a result) to rebates for turf removal and ensuring the efficiency of all water-using machinery.

Southern Nevada Water Authority's deputy general manager for resources
Colby Pellegrino, Southern Nevada Water Authority’s deputy general manager for resources. (Source: Southern Nevada Water Authority)

Kathryn Sorensen, director of research at Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy in Phoenix, said Las Vegas and Phoenix have pursued similar approaches in that they are desert cities that emphasize certainty and the preservation of reliable water supplies.

“Both of these cities are held to a really high standard compared to other cities across the United States in terms of water security,” said Sorensen, who previously served as director of the city of Phoenix’s Water Services Department. “They are very risk-averse and spend a large amount of money and go through a very large effort to make sure that they are planning methodically for what might come.”

In Phoenix’s case, she said, that meant devising a water rate structure that charges users more for water in the summer than in the winter. Sorensen called it a “direct financial signal” for people to get rid of their lawns and lush landscaping without employing a rebate program. As a result, grass landscaping at single-family homes in Phoenix fell from about 85 percent in the 1970s to about 10 percent in 2021, she said, noting that turf for median strips has been prohibited since the 1990s.

Industrial building photo
One of the big water users targeted for reduction are the evaporative cooling towers that keep Las Vegas’ commercial and industrial buildings cool. (Source: Southern Nevada Water Authority)

Rewarding innovation

Southern Nevada’s hunt for water savings knows no limits. The uses may seem miniscule, but they add up. A glass of water not served at a restaurant saves about three gallons, when considering the amount used for dishwashing, ice production and filling the glass, said Patrick Watson, SNWA’s conservation programs administrator. SNWA subsidies for new ice machines at the region’s many golf courses saves 3 million gallons a year. The list goes on.

“We reward innovation,” Watson said. “If you have a project and it involves a new technology or an innovative way to save water, we’ll take a look at it.”

Case in point, the Ocean Spray bottling plant in Henderson. An engineer there devised a process in which industrial water is used three times during production before it gets sent out as wastewater.

“We never saw something like that before,” Watson said. “We studied it for six months, determined what the water savings was and ended up paying them an incentive.” Ocean Spray received $45,600 for saving 5.7 million gallons a year through that engineering change. Ocean Spray pursued two other water-saving innovations for which they were rewarded $27,000 by the agency, Watson said.

One of the big water users targeted for reduction are the evaporative cooling towers that keep Las Vegas’ commercial and industrial buildings cool. Transitioning that technology to other cooling processes such as air conditioning is one way to save water, more than two gallons per person per day, according to SNWA.

SNWA subsidizes tunnel washers, an amazing piece of hardware that uses less than a gallon of water per pound to wash 150 pounds of laundry in 90 seconds. Tunnel washers reduce the amount of water used per pound of laundry by three gallons, a considerable figure considering that commercial laundries in Las Vegas can wash as much as 1 million pounds of laundry each month.

The agency is now targeting homes that are on septic systems to connect them to the wastewater stream, where the effluent can be cleaned and reused or returned to Lake Mead.

Goodbye grass

One of the highest-profile conservation tactics is the war on turf. Outdoor landscaping is the single largest consumptive water user in Southern Nevada. Las Vegas’ desert environment is an unlikely place for lush, water-guzzling lawns more suited for the Midwest and East Coast. In the hot and dry West, average customer demand for water (mostly for outdoor irrigation) can be 50 to 80 percent higher than in the humid East, according to the Water Research Foundation. Limiting outdoor irrigation is critical in a region where 4 inches of rain is considered a good year.

Grass replacement photo
The Southern Nevada Water Authority offers rebates for $3 for every square foot of grass replaced with water-smart landscaping. (Source: Southern Nevada Water Authority)

Grass requires about 73 gallons per square foot, per year, while drip-irrigated landscaping only consumes about 18 gallons, according to SNWA.

The agency for years has preached that turf only belongs where it’s regularly used, such as in parks and athletic fields. In 2003, local municipalities in Southern Nevada adopted ordinances that prohibited the installation of grass in front yards of new homes and limited backyard grass to 50 percent of the area. Grass was also prohibited in commercial developments.

For yards with existing turf, SNWA pays homeowners $3 for every square foot of grass replaced with water-smart landscaping. The money applies to as much as 10,000 square feet per site per year and $1.50 per square foot thereafter. It’s a popular program that’s removed more than 4,500 acres of grass, amounting to about a quarter of the turf in the Las Vegas Valley, saving about 11 billion gallons of water every year. SNWA also offers incentives for installation of artificial turf on athletic fields.

Southeast of Las Vegas, the city of Henderson adds funds to the SNWA rebate to promote turf replacement for swaths as large as 40,000 square feet in commercial, industrial and multifamily housing areas.

“We know it’s important to replace natural turf in areas where it doesn’t make much sense… so we built our program to accelerate conversions there,” Henderson’s conservation supervisor Tina Chen said on SNWA’s Water Smarts podcast. “We believe the additional incentive will entice more businesses to participate and streamline their operating costs.”

Henderson’s assistance means participants can receive as much as $120,000 for those large conversions.

Ornamental turf photo
A new law prohibits using Colorado River water to irrigate so-called nonfunctional (or ornamental) turf, indicated by the red circles in this photo. (Source: Southern Nevada Water Authority)

Now, the focus is on eliminating as much turf from Southern Nevada as possible, with an emphasis on reshaping parts of the urban landscape installed years ago and modeled after American communities much wetter than Las Vegas.

A bill passed by the Nevada Legislature and signed into law in early June will prohibit Colorado River water from being used to irrigate ornamental grass on non-residential properties starting in 2027. Of the more than 12,000 acres of turf in the Las Vegas Valley, 5,000 is considered nonfunctional.

“It’s only being walked on by the person that’s mowing it,” said Pellegrino, SNWA’s deputy general manager for resources.

Clinging to turf

While turf removal has been successful, enthusiasm for it may be waning, said Tom Warden, senior vice president with Summerlin, the largest master planned community in Nevada. Warden, a Las Vegas resident of more than 30 years, said a renewed emphasis is necessary because water rates are likely to jump and SNWA’s rebate will eventually vanish.

“It is safe to say there are folks who resist it,” said Warden, who interacts with the homeowner associations and sub associations that are part of the 22,500-acre Summerlin development. He said initially many people didn’t like the idea of not having turf everywhere, but they have come to accept the much-improved desert landscape designs.

“Southern Nevadans understand that we all have to embrace a more sustainable approach,” he said. “They are getting the picture. It’s the growth of stewardship.”

Still the conservation ethic has changed significantly since the days before the drought when Lake Mead was full and spilling water.

Back then, “nobody was thinking about conservation,” Warden said. “They were building other master planned communities that were wall-to-wall turf without a thought.”

But ornamental turf is still a part of many neighborhoods.

Water use graph
Water use in Southern Nevada is on the rise after years of decline. (Source: Southern Nevada Water Authority)

“Homeowner’s associations in Southern Nevada are still watering more than 64 million square feet of non-functional turf,” SNWA’s Watson said. “That’s close to five billion gallons of water every year to maintain grass for purely visual effect.”

SNWA’s turf replacement has reached residents but business participation has been more challenging, SNWA spokesman Bronson Mack said. Many owners of business parks, strip malls and shopping centers are out of state and disconnected from the community.

“They don’t hear the same conservation messages on a regular basis, and they are not attuned to desert living or the need to replace grass,” Mack said.

The road ahead

Climate change and the plummeting Colorado River, where a 20-plus year drought is forcing unprecedented adaptation measures, are pushing desert cities toward more aggressive water management. Anticipating drier times, SNWA in 2015 took the extraordinary step of building a third intake deeper into Lake Mead, at a cost of nearly $1 billion, to ensure it could continue to draw water from a dropping reservoir. Phoenix spent $500 million to move Salt and Verde River supplies to areas of its service territory that historically have been entirely dependent on the Colorado River.

The actions signal that both cities are able to ensure reliable water deliveries, come what may on the Colorado River, said Sorensen, with Arizona State’s Kyl Center. Increased demand management and extended use of recycled water are areas “where there’s still a lot that can be done.”

John Berggren, water policy analyst with Western Resource Advocates in Boulder, Colo., said that as municipalities realize their irrigation demand is going to go up because of warming temperatures and their water is becoming scarcer, they’ll begin taking a hard look at landscapes to see what’s expendable. It’s important to note that the effort doesn’t stop with getting rid of ornamental turf.

Berggren said more attention is being focused on gray water reuse, where types of household wastewater from dishwashers, sinks and the like can be used to irrigate outdoor landscaping.

“All communities around the West can find more ways to be water efficient, both on the indoor and outdoor side of things,” he said. “The banning of non-functional turf is a great step on an already well-developed conservation path for Nevada, but the path is long, and I hope they continue to push the envelope. I hope more states and more water providers take that step.”

Halting irrigation to ornamental turf can free up quite a bit of water that provides a cushion for future growth, Berggren said, and even allows for putting water back into rivers.

Kirkpatrick, chair of the SNWA board, said it’s up to community leaders to push the water conservation message and get people to participate in rebate programs.  

“We’ve made a lot of very impressive gains over the past 20 years, but we have more work to do, she said. “Any efforts on the part of Clark County and other municipalities to implement policies that increase sustainability will help us meet the challenge together.”

Reach Gary Pitzer: gpitzer@watereducation.org, Twitter: @GaryPitzer
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This article was supported in part by a grant from The Water Desk, an independent journalism initiative based at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Western governors ask feds to expand state partnerships to address wildfires, climate change

Firefighters clear debris photo
Firefighters clear debris around a water diversion structure in the White River National Forest as part of an effort to protect it from the Grizzly Creek Fire in 2020. Courtesy, City of Glenwood Springs.

By Jerd Smith

Western governors told top federal officials that it was time to dramatically rework programs to help states recover from wildfires, thin overgrown, drought-ravaged forests, and protect mountain water systems.

Governors representing 17 states gathered last week for the virtual Western Governors’ Association conference, which included sessions on forest health, climate change and broadband initiatives, among other policy concerns.

Because the federal government owns vast swaths of land across the West, expanding shared stewardship programs, building in more flexibility to distribute more cash in new ways, and creating a new “green” timber industry to help thin ailing forests and reduce wildfire risk are all needed quickly, according to Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who addressed a roundtable meeting with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

“With the federal government owning a big part of our state, it’s a shared responsibility to address forest health and fire mitigation,” Polis said. “Shared stewardship agreements are a valuable tool. But these need to be reimagined and re-upped given this new normal.”

The Western Governor’s Association represents 19 western states, as well as Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands.

The federal government owns roughly 30 percent of Colorado’s land and even more in other states, such as Idaho and Montana.

Thinning forests and protecting mountain watersheds is an often daunting, cross-boundary exercise between the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and state and local agencies.

Congress has been working on a massive infrastructure bill that has some bipartisan support and which will, if approved later this year, provide millions of dollars in new spending for roads, bridges and rural broadband networks, and may also include new funding to help deal with the devastation from wildfires across the West.

Governors made clear to federal leaders that forest health needs to be included in that definition of infrastructure, in part because of its importance to the West’s water supplies. In Colorado, for instance, approximately 80 percent of the drinking water for all residents flows off of forested watersheds.

“We have to have more treatment and to do that we will need more resources,” said Idaho Gov. Brad Little. “Hopefully we can get Congress to understand that as they are working on infrastructure [funding] for bridges and roads, we need to invest in our forests as well.”

Vilsack told governors he was hopeful that the new infrastructure bill as well as other federal legislation, such as the Great American Outdoors Act, would deliver funding and new programs that would help the West cope with a warming climate, water shortages and more frequent wildfires.

“We’re aware of the fire issue and we know the importance of having additional money on the treatment side, as well as ways to create more markets for the wood we produce [when forests are thinned],” Vilsack said.

“But I see a lot of opportunity, especially if we innovate and create voluntary programs and encourage people to take advantage of the income crops that are going to be created,” Vilsack said.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.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.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.

State engineers developing measurement rules for water diversions

Parshall Flume photo 1
This Parshall flume, which was installed in the Yampa River basin in 2020 and is shown in this August 2020 photo, replaced the old, rusty device in the background. State engineers are developing rules for measuring devices, which would apply to the entire Western Slope. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

By Heather Sackett

State officials are preparing for a future with less water by developing rules and guidance for water users to measure how much they are taking from streams.

State Engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources Kevin Rein is planning a rule-making process on measurement devices that includes stakeholder input. Although state engineers in each water division have the authority to enforce the requirement of measurement devices, Rein said drafting more formal rules through an administrative rule-making process, instead of an ad hoc push like in the Yampa River basin, would affirm that authority. Rules would also include specific technical guidance on the best types of flumes, weirs and meters to use for different types of diversions.

“The idea about rule-making is that we would have consistent guidance across the basin, developed through a formal process,” Rein said. “One thing I’ve found is that when you have stakeholder involvement in the development, then you have stakeholder buy-in during the implementation.”

Parshall Flume photo 2
Sprinklers and a ditch irrigate this section of Crystal River Ranch outside of Carbondale on Wednesday. According to state officials, about 95% of diversions in the Crystal and Roaring Fork River basins already have measuring devices. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Yampa/White/Green river basin

Division 6 Engineer Erin Light is still taking a lenient stance with water users in the White and Green river basins while the measurement rules are developed. In fall 2019, Light ordered nearly 500 water users in the Yampa River basin to install measuring devices to record their water use and initially received some push-back from agricultural water users unaccustomed to measuring their diversions.

In March 2020, Light issued notices to water users in the White and Green, but decided to delay sending formal orders after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the economy. Orders are still on pause while Rein’s office develops the measurement rules, which would apply across the Western Slope.

“It made more sense to wait for the measurement rules to at least get started, maybe not necessarily get completed, but allow Kevin to get out and start doing the stakeholder meetings and encourage these structures to be installed without orders,” Light said.

Compliance is gradually increasing across the basin, but at a slower pace than Light would like. In January 2020, 49% of diversions in the Yampa River basin did not have a measuring device; as of April 2021, 42% were still without one. White River basin compliance has improved from 83% without a measuring device to 68% over the same time period; water users in the Green have gone from 69% to 49%. As a whole, Division 6 has gone from 55% of diversions without measuring devices to 46%.

“I would have hoped that we would have had more compliance at this point,” Light said. “I look at those numbers and think we still have some work in front of us and how are we going to accomplish our goal, which is to assure that all of these structures that we maintain records on have operable headgates and measuring devices.”

In some basins on the Western Slope, nearly all diversions already have measuring devices. For example, in the Roaring Fork and Crystal river basins, about 95% of the structures have devices, according to Colorado Department of Natural Resources Communications Director Chris Arend. That’s because there has traditionally been more demand and competition for water in these basins, he said.

Parshall Flume photo 3
Scott Hummer, water commissioner for District 58 in the Yampa River basin, checks out a recently installed Parshall flume on an irrigation ditch in this August 2020 photo. Compliance with measuring device requirements has been moving more slowly than state engineers would like. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Water shortages drive measurement push

The push for Western Slope diverters to measure their water use comes down to impending water shortages. Division 6, in sparsely populated northwest Colorado, has traditionally enjoyed abundant water and few demands, but as climate change tightens its grip on the West, there is less water to go around. Calls by senior water users have gone from unheard of to increasingly common in just the last few years.

“We definitely have systems on call that have never been on call,” Light said of current conditions in the Yampa.

A call occurs when a senior water rights holder is not getting their full amount they are entitled to. They place a call with state engineers, who shut off more junior water rights users so the senior user can get their full amount. Under Colorado’s prior appropriation system, the oldest water rights have first use of the river.

“If you don’t have a measuring device during a call, we are shutting you off, period,” Light said.

As the threat of a Colorado River Compact call and the possibility of a state demand-management program grow, state officials say the need to measure water use grows, too.

A compact call could occur if the upper-basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — were not able to deliver the 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the lower basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — as required by the 1922 compact. Colorado water managers desperately want to avoid this scenario, in part because it could trigger mandatory cutbacks for water users.

If a compact call were to play out, measuring devices would be crucial, because as Rein says, you can’t administer what you can’t measure.

“We need to better measure what has been diverted, so having measurement rules and therefore measuring devices in place will be critical to prepare for and implement compact administration, should it happen,” he said.

The state is also currently exploring a potential demand management program, which would temporarily pay irrigators to not irrigate and leave more water in the river. The goal would be to boost water levels in Lake Powell and avoid a compact call. But in order to participate in the voluntary program, feasibility of which is still being evaluated, irrigators need to first measure their water diversions.

“We would have to know how much they were using in the years before, before we can give them credit for not using it,” Rein said.

Crystal River Ranch photo
Sprinklers irrigate this section of Crystal River Ranch outside of Carbondale on Wednesday. State engineers are creating rules that will lay out guidelines for water users to install measurement devices for their diversions from the river. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Low interest in grant funding

One of the reasons Light originally paused enforcing the measurement device requirement in the White River basin was to give conservancy districts time to secure grant money to help irrigators pay for the potentially expensive infrastructure. But there was not much interest from water users in getting grant money, according to Callie Hendrickson, executive director of the White River & Douglas Creek Conservation Districts.

“We did not proceed with (securing grants),” she said. “We didn’t hear from very many people that they were seeking funding.”

The story was similar on the Yampa. The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District had a $200,000 pot of money — half of it state grant money and half from the district — to reimburse water users for installing measuring devices. Irrigators can get 50% of their costs covered, up to $5,000 through the first tier of the grant program. According to Public Information and External Affairs Manager Holly Kirkpatrick, despite a very simple application process, the program has doled out just under $40,000 so far for about 20 projects.

“I had certainly hoped to have more interest in the first year of the program,” she said.

As Rein plans for webinars and meetings with water users later this summer and fall, the situation in the Colorado River basin grows more dire. The Bureau of Reclamation this week began emergency releases from Upper Basin reservoirs to prop up levels in Lake Powell to try to maintain the ability to produce hydroelectric power at Glen Canyon Dam.

“I recognize the value in having measurement rules as soon as possible because, yes, they would be extremely helpful if we need to take measures toward compact administration,” Rein said. “Having more data sooner rather than later is important.”

This story ran in the July 17 editions of the Steamboat Pilot & Today and the Craig Press, and the July 19 editions of The Aspen TimesSummit Daily and Sky-Hi News.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.

Report: Colorado River ranch water savings hit 42 percent

Hay samples photo
Research technician and Grand County rancher Wendy Thompson collects hay samples as part of a far-reaching experiment to see if ranchers can fallow hay meadows and conserve more water for the Colorado River. Credit: Dave Timko, This American Land. Aug. 12, 2020

By Jerd Smith

Colorado’s high altitude hay meadows, a significant water user in the state, could be re-operated to yield more than 40 percent in water savings, according to a new report.

The report is based on a major high tech research initiative to see if ranch-scale water conservation techniques, in which farmers are paid to voluntarily stop irrigating their fields temporarily, could produce enough saved water to help protect the Colorado River from unplanned shortages due to drought and climate change.

The research is one of several efforts to find ways to ensure demand on the Colorado River doesn’t outstrip supply, resulting in mandated cutbacks in water use in Colorado to meet the legal rights of downstream states.

The report, released June 24, looked at how much water was saved across more than 1,000 acres of hay meadows spanning several ranches near Kremmling last summer.

Ranchers stopped irrigating their hay meadows for several months, allowing the water to stay in the river rather than being diverted and applied to the fields. Because Colorado’s regulatory system only allows so-called conserved consumptive-use water to be legally transferred to another user, it was critical to the study to understand how much the hay crop would have consumed and how much remained in the river system by foregoing irrigation.

The experiment showed that the fallowing project generated 42 percent of such legally transferrable conserved water.

Grand County map
Credit: Chas Chamberlin

As a multi-decadal drought ravages the Colorado River system, many are focused on how to more closely balance its dwindling supplies with demands. Across the American West, irrigated agriculture uses roughly 80 percent of water supplies, so any breakthroughs in finding ways to maintain productivity with less water are critical to the river system’s long-term viability.

“It’s pretty promising,” said Alex Funk, an agricultural water specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The CWCB has contributed $750,000 to the research, along with other funders including American Rivers, Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy. The Colorado River Basin Roundtable, a public group charged with helping determine how best to manage the Colorado River’s supplies within state boundaries, is also a funder.

Funk and researchers, however, are quick to point out that the savings achieved is only one part of determining how to help agriculture reduce its water footprint while continuing to thrive, raise hay and cattle and other crops, and feed Coloradans.

An equally important finding, according to researchers, is that they were able to accurately use satellite imagery and remote sensing devices to collect data from hundreds of sites at different elevations where different types of hay were being grown.

That data was matched up against traditional tools, which were manually installed and monitored last summer, in order to verify on the ground the remotely collected data.

This is key to the research because traditional, manual data collection is too costly to conduct and cannot produce the vast amounts of detailed data such studies require.

Colorado State University’s Perry Cabot, who led the research initiative, said the experiment confirms that broad-scale, satellite-based data gathering combined with remote sensing devices produces reliable results.

“We now have a spatial model we can use to do an inventory of [water] use across fields.

“Farmers are spatial people. When they look at a map and see a water use inventory of their fields, that resonates with them,” Cabot said. (Editor’s note: Cabot serves on the Board of Trustees of Water Education Colorado, which sponsors Fresh Water News.)

“This opens up our ability to start talking about numbers that we can all look at without having to get into ‘do we need another study in another river basin,’” Cabot said.

But agricultural producers say much work remains to be done before they could commit to such a water-saving initiative, in part because they have to ensure any payments they receive will cover the costs of lost hay production, as well as the cost of buying hay for their cattle in the three-year period after they begin irrigating again.

“The big question is the recovery,” Funk said. “How long does it take to scale back your crop base and your relationships with your market? Ranchers are not lining up to do this. The bigger questions are still unanswered.”

Don Shawcroft, a producer and immediate past president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, said ranchers continue to watch the issue closely.

“Producers have got to know more than they know now,” he said. “What does it mean when we force the use of less water than we normally would? For an individual producer, the question is, ‘Will I forego my ability to produce in order to have water for the residents of Colorado?’” (Editor’s note: Shawcroft also serves on the Board of Trustees of Water Education Colorado, which sponsors Fresh Water News.)

For this season and the next two summers, researchers, growers and conservationists will continue to monitor the hay fields, to measure their health, and to see what hidden effects of a summer of going without water may have on the ranches and the Colorado River itself, and the wetlands that thread these hay meadows.

Aaron Derwingson oversees agricultural water projects for The Nature Conservancy, which is one of the conservation groups helping fund the research initiative.

“We’ve got to find ways to reduce our water footprint to bring things into balance and there is a huge question about what that means for agriculture,” Derwingson said.

“Our interest is across all of these questions. How can it work for agriculture? How can it work for the environment and what does it mean for the system as a whole?”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.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.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.

Kremmling bird count studies how birds use irrigated agriculture

Wildlife biologist photo
Wildlife biologist Bill Vetter watches and listens for birds in irrigated fields outside of Kremmling. Vetter is part of an avian monitoring program run by Audubon Rockies that aims to learn more about how birds use irrigated agriculture. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

By Heather Sackett

KREMMLING — In the gray light of dawn, hundreds of swallows darted over a pool of standing water in an irrigated field along the Colorado River. The birds were attracted to the early-morning mosquitos swarming the saturated landscape. Bill Vetter, a wildlife biologist with Wyoming-based Precision Wildlife Resources, methodically counted the birds. For six minutes, he marked down every bird he saw or heard at eight different locations across the ranch, 250 meters apart. 

Vetter is part of an avian-monitoring program, headed up by Audubon Rockies, which aims to learn more about how birds use irrigated agricultural lands. In 2020, the fields near Kremmling where Vetter counted purposely did not irrigate as part of a state-grant-funded study on water use in high-elevation pastures. This year, irrigators are back to watering their usual amount and Vetter is tracking the trends in bird species and numbers. 

This year, Vetter counted four or five additional species, including the yellow-headed blackbird, white-faced ibis and sora. 

“I can say that for sure we got additional species this year that we didn’t have last year, and those species are largely associated with water habitat,” he said.

Across the Western Slope, birds and other wildlife have come to depend on these artificially created wetlands, a result of flood irrigation. But as the state of Colorado grapples with whether to implement a demand-management program, which would pay irrigators to temporarily dry up fields in an effort to send more water downstream, there could be unintended consequences for the animals that use irrigated agriculture for their habitat. 

Learning more about how birds use these landscapes is a key first step, according to Abby Burk, Western rivers regional program manager with Audubon Rockies. 

“Wetlands are the unsung hero for all the ecological services and functions they provide for wildlife,” she said. “Those low-field wetlands are good habitat for birds, for breeding, for migratory stopovers.” 

In 2020, the bird count turned up 1,285 birds, comprising 39 different species, including great blue herons, meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds, an osprey, a peregrine falcon, and several types of swallows, warblers and sparrows. The numbers are not yet tallied for this year, but the general expectation is that more water means more birds.

“Birds have adapted to how we have created these different habitat types,” Burk said. “We’ve really got to look at the larger effects of how we use water can impact birds and other wildlife. Where there’s water, birds also do thrive.”

Standing water photo
This pool of standing water in a field near the Colorado River is a result of flood irrigation. It’s also great habitat for mosquito-loving swallows.CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Water-use study

The seven ranches where the avian monitoring is taking place are part of a larger water study that is evaluating conserved consumptive use in the upper Colorado River basin. Consumptive use is a measure of how much water is consumed by thirsty plants. Conserved consumptive use is the amount by which consumptive use is reduced as a result of changing irrigation practices.

Researchers from Colorado State University are studying the impacts of using less water on the high-elevation fields in Grand County and how long it takes them to recover once water returns. Researchers hope to fill in a data gap about the impacts of reducing irrigation water on high-elevation pastures. 

In 2020, some participating landowners did not irrigate at all and some only irrigated until June 15. This year, landowners reverted to their historical irrigation practices. Remote sensors and ground-based instruments are monitoring the difference in plant and soil conditions, and will continue to do so through 2023. Early results found that the plants used about 45% less water in 2020 compared with the previous four years. 

The first phase of the project received a $500,000 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) under its Alternative Agriculture Water Transfer Method program, which aims to find alternatives to “buy and dry” water transfers. The CWCB in September will consider another $60,000 grant request for Trout Unlimited to continue to do monitoring with a field technician.  

Monitoring station photo
This monitoring station is part of a research project by Colorado State University to track soil and plant conditions in irrigated pastures. The study aims to learn more about how using less water affects high-elevation fields. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Demand management

Although the project is not directly related to the state’s demand-management feasibility investigation, the results could have implications for any potential program that the state eventually comes up with. 

“We are hoping all this information and research is going to be used down the road if a program does develop,” said Mely Whiting, Colorado water project legal counsel with Trout Unlimited. Trout Unlimited is helping to fund and implement the research project.

At the heart of a demand-management program is paying irrigators on a voluntary and temporary basis to not irrigate and to leave more water in the river in an effort to bolster levels in Lake Powell and help Colorado meet its downstream obligations. 

Under the Colorado River Compact, the Upper Basin (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) must send 7.5 million acre-feet each year to the Lower Basin (California, Arizona and Nevada). Failure to meet this obligation could trigger a “compact call” where junior water users in the Upper Basin would have their water cut off. (An acre-foot is enough water to cover one acre of land one foot deep.)

As rising temperatures due to climate change continue to rob the Colorado River and its tributaries of flows and increase the risk of a compact call, finding solutions to water shortages is becoming more urgent. Lake Powell, the upper basin’s biggest reservoir, is just under 34% full and projected to decline further. Demand management would let the Upper Basin set aside up to 500,000 acre-feet in a special pool in Powell to help avoid a compact call. 

Some still-unanswered questions remain: How much of the conserved consumptive water from high-elevation pastures would actually make it downstream to Lake Powell? And how much would local streams benefit from the added flows?

“One critical part of what we’re doing is looking at the stream and saying: Do we see any changes from one year to the next? How much water would actually make it to the stream?” Whiting said. “We are measuring to see if there’s any distinction between the year the conservation practices were applied and the following year.”

Irrigation ditch photo
Wildlife biologist Bill Vetter and Western Rivers Regional Program Manager with Audubon Rockies Abby Burk walk along an irrigation ditch in Grand County. An avian monitoring program aims to learn more about how birds use irrigated agriculture. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Trade-offs

The unintended consequences of different irrigation patterns under a demand-management program could be many and far-reaching. In 2018, the CWCB formed nine workgroups to examine some of these issues, including one that looked at environmental considerations. 

In notes submitted to the CWCB last July, the environmental workgroup acknowledged there could be trade-offs, sometimes among species. For example, reducing irrigation and leaving more water in rivers would benefit fish and riparian habitats, but might negatively impact birds or other species that use wetlands created by flood irrigation. And with full irrigation, birds may thrive, but to the detriment of river ecosystems. 

David Graf, water-resource specialist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, participated in the environmental-considerations workgroup. He said irrigated agriculture provides a lot of diversity in forbes, grasses and insects — good sources of protein for birds. But fish need water too. And in the summer and fall, the more, the better. There is an environmental value in irrigated agriculture, but only if the streams aren’t suffering at its expense, Graf said.

“There is a whole bunch of wildlife that is dependent on irrigated agriculture,” he said. “I think we all recognize the value that irrigated agriculture brings to wildlife, but it’s at the expense of fisheries in a lot of cases. There’s a little bit of a trade-off on a local level. I think we get the balance wrong sometimes.”

Flood irrigation photo
This pool of standing water in a field near the Colorado River is a result of flood irrigation. It’s also great habitat for mosquito-loving swallows. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Birds as indicator

Burk acknowledged that the usefulness of the bird count is limited by the absence of baseline data, because there was no bird monitoring on the fields before 2020. But trends are still important and, like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, birds can be an indicator of what’s happening on a landscape. Burk said she would like to do a bird-monitoring program on a larger scale at different locations around the Western Slope. 

“As we learn more about how birds respond to water on the landscape, whether that’s in the river, in the fields, in the wetlands and adjacent habitats, it’s going to help give us a better picture of how the entire landscape and our natural systems are responding,” Burk said. 

Colorado River water issues sometimes make for seemingly strange bedfellows. Nonprofit environmental groups such as Audubon are usually focused on keeping more water in the rivers, while irrigators traditionally take it out. In this case, interests align with keeping water on the landscape, with birds as the beneficiaries. Burk said those “us-versus-them” distinctions among water users are evaporating as people realize they are not facing the water crisis alone. 

“When we drop the silos, drop the fences and walls between water users, we can see that this is one water — people, wildlife, the environment, the recreation industry — we all depend upon it,” Burk said. “So, how do we keep these natural systems so they can keep doing their job for everyone with reduced water? Water has to go further because there’s less of it.” 

This story ran in The Aspen TimesVail Daily and Craig Press on July 10 and in the Summit Daily News and Sky-Hi News on July 11.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.

Tulare County’s never-ending drought brings dried up wells and plenty of misery

Pistachio grove photo
John Werner will be planting a pistachio grove on his land near Visalia after he lost his hay crop due to lack of rain. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters

By Julie Cart

Severe drought is gripping most of California, but its misery isn’t spread equally. While most of the state compares today’s extreme conditions to previous droughts, people in Tulare County speak of drought — in the singular, as in a continuous state of being. 

“The drought has never stopped in north Tulare County. It never left,” said county Supervisor Eddie Valero. “Domestic wells are drying up at an alarming rate.”

The entire West is suffering from extreme dryness, heat and fire risk, and the small, rural towns of northern Tulare County, outside of Visalia, are caught in its vortex.  

While officials around the state are devising strategies to restrict or conserve water, here in the upper San Joaquin Valley there isn’t much in the way of water to begin with. The spigot, for farms and for households, has been constricted to a trickle. For many residents, water comes in a bottle, delivered year-round by a truck from a county or social service agency.

An oft-repeated phrase in Tulare County is that there are more cows than people, and it’s true, thanks to a long tradition of dairy farms. This is a lonely place: about 92 people per square mile compared to the state average of 240.

Early settlers in this region were Okies fleeing the 1930s Dust Bowl, pushed by drought into a valley that is now suffering its own insistent drought. For many, it’s a choice to live with elbow room, out of the reach of nosy neighbors or the government’s long arm. For others, it’s simply the place where they grew up and love. And some are here because they are trapped in a financial rut with barely enough money to stay and too little to move away.

Tulare County sits astride the valley floor and mountains

Tulare County Map
Map: Jeremia Kimelman  Source: National Park Service, Census Bureau  Created with Datawrapper

About 50,000 residents of Tulare County — 10% of its population — are designated as “water insecure,” which means their drinking water supply is unreliable or nonexistent, according to county officials. Many are Latinos, who make up two-thirds of the county’s population. Entire communities have no connection to water systems, wells are old and failing and many water sources are contaminated by fertilizers and pesticides. 

During the last statewide drought, more than 2,600 dry wells were self-reported by residents in California, about 50% of them in Tulare County. Many were in a single town, East Porterville. The largest proportion of failed wells are for residential use, not agriculture, so for many families, just taking a shower means using buckets or hooking hoses to neighbors’ homes.

The drought is an awful burden here, but it’s not the only factor adding to the county’s misery index. Its homes have half the value of California’s average, and they have less access to broadband or computers. More than a quarter of the county’s residents live in poverty, almost twice the national average. Tulare County ranks at the highest extreme for social vulnerability, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention index that factors drought in its assessment. 

For those whose fortunes depend on water, the debilitating drought of the last decade has been a bleak time. Suicide hotline numbers are listed on the webpage of Tulare County’s Agriculture Commission alongside the annual crop reports.

It’s a region that demands grit and rewards resilience. In the town of Orosi, a large sign in front of El Monte Middle School (Home of the Lobos) proclaims, “Let Obstacles Become Opportunities.”

A white pickup truck and a shovel

John Werner knew he was a bona fide farmer the first time he filled out an IRS Schedule F form, an option open only to those who farm as a business and can show a profit. He qualified for the first part: He grows olives, peaches, figs and hay on his own 60 acres. The profit part has proved more difficult.

“I grew up poor, out in the country,” said Werner, who lives outside of the small town of Seville in the Sierra Nevada foothills.  “I thought the rich guys drove white pickup trucks and had shovels in the back.”

As a lifelong resident of Tulare County, Werner knew that scratching crops out of dry ground was never going to support his family of five. So he has worked as an adult education supervisor for two counties. “If I didn’t have a day job, I would’ve had to sell.”

Werner was lucky that his property sits on an aquifer so he drew water for his house and farm from two shallow wells. But his luck ran out, tracing the same path of the quickly depleted groundwater. His agricultural well went bad, and he drilled a new domestic well for his home that reaches as far down as it can go.

Today, the idea that water can be found at a 60-foot depth is not remotely feasible. He’s drilling a new agricultural well to bedrock, about 280 feet down. The digging and the pumps don’t come cheaply; they can set farmers back $60,000, and sometimes much more.

The unrelenting heat, which sucks moisture from the soil, makes matters even worse, negating even the most thorough watering. Hay can be dry-farmed, surviving on rain — if there is any. Werner has already lost his hay crop to drought this year. 

“Normally I harvest around Easter,” he said. “The week prior I was standing out there and the hay, which should have been about three feet tall  — in a good year I’ve had it up to five feet — was seven to eight inches. Turned into dust.”

Climate change is a driving factor in much of the region’s new weather landscape, with this year spiking on all the graphs for rain, heat and soil aridity. Last month was the driest May in Tulare County in 127 years of recordkeeping, and so far 2021 is its sixth-driest year in recorded history, with less than three inches of rain, about a third of average. The county has been in a drought emergency declared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for six of the last 10 years

Werner used groundwater from his house pump to survive the last drought, redirecting water from the laundry to keep the fruit trees alive. Limping along on subsistence amounts of water, the trees didn’t produce for three years, but they survived. In the meantime, there’s no crop to bring in money, but it still costs to pump water, prune the orchards and maintain equipment.

Today the once-fertile valley’s soils look exhausted, hammered by persistent dryness. Since the mid-19th century, this land has been turned and tilled and whipsawed, from producing wheat and barley to cotton, fruit and nuts.

Werner is catching the tail of a pistachio trend, refinancing his property to raise money to put in the high-value trees, a decision he made before the last two dry years. Pistachios tolerate salty water and need less of it, but it’s costly to care for the orchards while waiting years for the nuts to come.

Water sprinkles against an orange tree near Visalia on June 10, 2021. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters
With less water for crops, farmers are struggling to keep orchards alive. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters

“There’s going to be losers with this drought,” he said. “Those with money will hold on. The small farming operations will have to give way to the agribusiness outfits. They are more efficient than any of us are. I hope it doesn’t break the mom and pop farmers. It’s gonna affect a lot of poor rural communities, places like Ivanhoe and Seville, towns no one has ever heard of.”

Still, each young tree or tiny seed that’s put into the San Joaquin Valley’s dusty ground is a sign of optimism, a confident investment in the future. Farmers hoping for rain, even with no rain in sight.

“This is the place where we raised our kids. It’s our home,” Werner said. “Come hell or high water, I’ve got to plant.”

Water everywhere. Until there’s not enough.

Viewed through today’s lens of extreme water scarcity, it’s difficult to believe that the San Joaquin Valley has historically been notable more for its persistent and severe flooding. The backstory bears little resemblance to the Tulare region of today.

Until the turn of the century, steamboats plied Tulare Lake, the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi. In the 1940s homeowners in Visalia complained that cars driving through flooded streets threw up wriggling fish onto front porches. Artesian wells bubbled with warm water day and night. The valley once held a vast sea. The Kern River flowed to San Francisco.

“We still have sea mammals of different types trying to come up as far as they can on the San Joaquin, sea lions in particular,” John Austin, author of Floods and Droughts in the Tulare Lake Basin, said in an interview. “In Tulare Lake we had sea otters, harbor seals, and sea lions. We had chinook salmon runs here. When the Spanish showed up they saw the Indians swimming under water after salmon.”

It was a land of plenty, with plenty of water. Farming began to take hold when people passing through the valley to make their fortunes in the California goldfields lingered on their return trip south, busted and broken.

In time those 49ers began the water engineering that would transform the San Joaquin Valley. In the late 1800s, dryland farming  produced the nation’s largest wheat crop. Then, with the New Deal, rural electrification, and the invention of centrifugal pumps, more and more water was siphoned from vast underground stores.

Using a local invention known as the Fresno Pan, farmers scraped out canals to redirect river water to thirsty crops. By 1906, the Kings River, the biggest of the valley’s four major rivers, was irrigating more than a million acres. And the irrigated land made farmers rich. 

“They grew plums, cotton, grapes and citrus,” said Austin. “It was possible because they had land, children for labor,  sunshine. And now they had water.”

Neighbors helping neighbors — with water tanks and hoses

An employee from Bubba's Water Truck Service unravels a hose in preparation to pump water into Luzvianey Gonzalez's new home water tank in Madera on June 10, 2021. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters
An employee from Bubba’s Water Truck Service unravels a hose in preparation to pump water into Luzvianey Gonzalez’s new home water tank in Madera. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters

The road to Jim Myers’ house offers a clue as to what has been taking place in the wide fields for decades: Rusting farm machinery, odd parts and plows, are repurposed into yard art. There’s a small broken-down tractor that’s a centerpiece in a cheerful new garden Myers created. 

Most residents in the area are farmers, or used to be. Roads are defined on both sides by irrigation ditches. Regimented rows of trees pass like a dizzying kaleidoscope. Shimmering heat rises.

It’s 106 degrees outside at Myers’ home and he motors out to meet the delivery of a 2,500-gallon water tank, a service facilitated by Self Help Enterprises, a non-profit that will pay to keep the above-ground tank filled with water. 

Myers is in the driveway, sitting sidesaddle on a small red ATV that he’s using as a motorized wheelchair. A former mechanic, Myers lost his foot in a workplace accident and is on disability.

Like everyone in his community near Madera, just northwest of Tulare County, he and his wife get their water from a well. And, like many people, his wells have failed to reach the sinking water table.

His first well, sunk to 200 feet, gave out in the last drought, and his second, at 300 feet, went dry last week. “We went to turn the water on, and, boom, it just ran out.”

The new water tank, while welcome, is not a long-term solution. Some valley residents are attempting to finance their way out of the drought through second mortgages and bank loans. Myers, 62, said he has been trying to pay down his mortgage but will have to get a personal loan to dig a new well. 

But that isn’t sustainable, either. Experts say the efforts to drill deeper and deeper wells are depleting aquifers, and in many areas eventually will reach water too saline to drink or irrigate crops.

While they waited for their water delivery, Myers and his wife made do with a neighbor’s garden hose jury-rigged to bring water into their home, where they’ve lived for 20 years. To avoid running up his friend’s bills, the couple used the water sparingly and only during times when the rates were lowest — between midnight and 4 am.

“Everybody is suffering, it’s why I have all this gray hair,” he said with a laugh.

The drought response of local non-profit organizations has ramped up significantly, with daily deliveries of bottled water, assistance in getting new wells and help in connecting to water systems.

Calls to Self Help Enterprise’s water hotline have quadrupled in recent months, said Marliez Diaz, who oversees the group’s water program, which is partially funded by state grants. 

“I don’t think many of our residents have the option to leave,” she said. “They’re just very grateful that they have our tank water and they’re trying to conserve as much as they can. They’re just holding on. We’re kind of their last and only hope.”

Luzvianey Gonzalez, who lives in Madera, in one of the 350 households that have received a water tank from Self Help in recent months. She has been showering at her sister’s house since May, when her well dried up. 

Luzvianey Gonzalez watches water get delivered to her home in Madera . on June 10, 2021. Her family has been buying water bottles and showering at her sister's house since May when her well dried up. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters
Luzvianey Gonzalez is relieved when water is delivered to her home. Since May, when her well dried up, she’s been showering at her sister’s house. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters

It’s a commonplace workaround. Diaz has her own firsthand experience with water insecurity. Her family’s well gave out during the last drought and they, like the Myers household, relied on a garden hose for a time. The family went to a relative’s house to shower, cook and do laundry, then went home to sleep.

Like others in the region, the Diaz family couldn’t afford to put in a new well so her father took a job with a drilling company.

The stress of drought seems to pile heavily on top of everything else. Myers said two of his grown children’s friends committed suicide. He’d move away if he could afford it.

“I know it’s nature, but I’m just tired of what’s been going on,” he said.

No Plan B when the water’s gone

Tulare County supervisors are housed in a streamlined, modern building in Visalia, the county seat. The lobby displays various historical artifacts, among them a framed, yellowing 19th century map of the county, a lavishly illustrated sales pitch for the nation’s agricultural powerhouse that boasted: “Bounteous stores of water. Abundant streams of surface water and untold volumes subject to Artesian flow. The greatest Artesian Basin in the world.”

All true but, alas, all gone.

Denise England is attempting to get a handle on what’s left, mapping and measuring the county’s aquifers and wells. As water resources planning director, part of her job is to quantify the local water supply and use.

It’s surprisingly difficult. Given water’s central role, England is not happy to say that she’s still “getting my arms around” groundwater in a region where four counties share a single unconfined aquifer. What maps there are have proven inaccurate. This is not a region connected to networks of municipal pipes and treatment plants like much of urban California. Most communities get their water from wells, and there’s no reliable count of how many have gone dry.

“A lot of our wells have gone dry,” England said. “I don’t know what the future holds.”

Dryness here has become so omnipresent that England quickly reconstituted a drought task force disbanded after the last drought with hardly a noticeable pause. Emergency services instituted during the last drought remain in place.

“Even when the (last) drought ended we still had bottled water delivery, ran a tanks and hauled-water program and private well assistance,” she said. “We know communities are already struggling with this drought. A lot of people are white-knuckling it.”

The entirety of Tulare County is classified as being in extreme drought, and last month the Board of Supervisors declared a drought emergency.

“What that gets us, how that helps, we don’t know,” said board chair Amy Shuklian. “What’s our battle plan? It’s not a battle against any one entity, it’s a battle against the drought.”

In many places, the drought is already winning.  

“You see people pulling up orchards, or just not farming land because they don’t have water anymore,” Shuklian said. “I know dairies that have sold out, and they’re planting trees where the cows were. The oldest dairy in the state sold everything last year. I have a friend who in the last couple of years sold off all his farming land and used the money and went into commercial real estate — yeah, out-of-state commercial real estate.

Signs of entrenched drought are everywhere, she said.

“These areas that have gone fallow, we’re seeing huge solar farms. We have the most fertile land around and it’s going to solar panels. But if you don’t have the water for the crops in this great fertile land, what do you do? You have to make a living.”

The drought-driven stressors are innumerable, county officials say: an uptick in the need for social services, mental health services and food assistance programs, while unemployment rises and the tax base falls. The region’s fiscal fortunes are intertwined with agriculture, a tenuous tether as drought intensifies. 

County Supervisor Dennis Townsend said he’s heard estimates that as much as 20% of the region’s farmland is being fallowed because of lack of water.

“Agriculture is our economy. You harm it and you harm every industry in the valley,” he said. “It’s the probability of what’s going to happen that worries me. If we do lose farmland, what is Plan B?”

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.

Floating down the San Joaquin River

Photo by Mette Lampcov

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In this era of climate change and water scarcity, one dry winter can change everything. As of this week, 95 percent of California is in a state of extreme or exceptional drought. Sierra snowpack is rapidly fading to rock, and reservoirs across the state are at a fraction of their normal levels. This has dire consequences for the state’s waterways.

In early June, water administrators who manage the San Joaquin River watershed announced that they will curtail flows from Friant Dam into the San Joaquin River until September, allowing it to dry up in a long section that environmentalists and federal water managers have worked hard over the past decade and a half to restore. The reduction in water doesn’t bode well for the river’s spring-run Chinook salmon, which spend the summer in the river below Friant Dam before laying their eggs in the fall. Adequate water is the key ingredient in an ambitious restoration program that, for the past 15 years, has sought to remake the river and bring back its vanished runs of Chinook salmon.  

The loss of water impacts other animals as well. “The drying river is an unfortunate loss to the downstream reaches where riparian vegetation has started to take root and other non-salmon fish species have begun to repopulate the [once] dry sections,” said Don Portz, the manager overseeing the San Joaquin restoration for the Bureau of Reclamation. “These fish species have sustained intermittent drought conditions for centuries. But it’s man’s intervention that makes it more sudden and drastic—and that affects them the most.” 

In a little over 350 miles—from its headwaters in the Sierra to its endpoint at the San Francisco Bay Delta—the San Joaquin River passes through some of the most intensively cultivated, hydrologically altered, and polluted landscapes in the world. In the few places where it runs freely in this terrain of 10,000-acre farms, it is a whisper of the wild river that, a century ago, could accommodate steamboats and held salmon runs so prolific that people living along its banks were said to have been kept awake at night by the sound of fins slapping on the water. 

I wanted to see for myself what this intensively managed waterway looked like and how the restoration efforts had changed it, so last July I toured the San Joaquin with river guide and activist Tom Biglione. At the time, the state’s reservoirs and rivers were faring far better. There was enough water for us to traverse 25 miles by canoe. I discovered a river that is heavily damaged—particularly in its lower reaches—but that to my surprise, still has natural stretches that feel almost wild, evoking the faint promise of what the river could be like when the restoration project is completed—that is, if there’s the water to sustain it.  

I met Biglione on a hot July morning at a dirt pullout on the outskirts of Fresno. A volunteer “river ambassador” for the Sacramento-based nonprofit Friends of the River, Biglione is a large man, 6’2″, with the baritone voice of a newscaster. He grew up near the San Joaquin’s banks, on a ranch in the town of Clovis. For the past five years, since retiring from the insurance industry, he’s led river trips to help the public understand the story of the San Joaquin. He believes that the more people get to know the river’s hidden beauty, the more likely they are to become advocates for its protection and restoration. “Most people assume that it is nothing but an agricultural ditch,” he said. “You’ll see after we’re done that this is not the case.” 

The two of us hoisted his canoe from the top of his truck and carried it into a wide stretch of the river. The water was surprisingly cold and clear. Less than a mile upstream, the concrete curtain of Friant Dam towered above us—a stark reminder that the river here was carefully controlled and moderated by the Bureau of Reclamation. 

We loaded our gear into the boat, and Biglione made a few short strokes, pulling us into the flow. Suddenly, the canoe caught the current and we charged ahead, toward a small rapid. “Draw right, draw right!” Biglione barked as the boat surged through a brief section of churning whitewater and into a stretch of calm, deep water. Below us we could see the outlines of darting fish. “We’re through,” he said, dragging an oar through the blue-green water. 

The canoe glided downstream and into a lovely tree-lined section of the San Joaquin. The river here had the feel of a large creek rather than that of California’s second-largest waterway. Its flow during our journey, a modest 400 cubic feet per second, is a tiny fraction of what the San Joaquin carried before the great impoundment and irrigation projects of the 20th century. And yet it was a marked improvement of the San Joaquin of years past, which was reduced to little more than a trickle filled with agricultural pollutants. For years, one 60-mile stretch of the river (the same section set to go dry again this summer) had been erased entirely, its water siphoned away by unchecked agricultural withdrawals.

“It’s actually amazing that we can even get a canoe out here,” Biglione said. He mentioned the landmark 2006 settlement that forced the Bureau of Reclamation to provide enough water to sustain Chinook salmon populations downstream of Friant Dam and to restore critical sections of spawning habitat. “Before the Bureau of Reclamation was forced to put water back into the channel, this would have involved dragging the canoe through long stretches of river. A lot of time you’d end up in the blackberry bushes.”

Though pleasant, the section we were drifting through was a far cry from the upper San Joaquin River—an idyllic waterway, born of hundreds of small alpine streams, each fed, in turn, by rivulets of snowmelt. The river’s official birthplace is Thousand Island Lake, considered by many a backpacker on the John Muir Trail to be the gem in the ragged crown of the High Sierra. At 10,000 feet, one has the sense of being in a connected and ecologically intact system. “When you’re up there standing on the Sierra crest, looking down on the creeks feeding into the main stem of the San Joaquin, it all makes sense,” said Peter Vorster, a hydrologist with the Bay Institute who was involved in the 2006 settlement. “It’s easy to forget what happens to the river just a short distance downstream.”

Unlike the upper river, the lower San Joaquin leaves one with disparate images and impressions rather than a holistic sense of a connected and ecologically functional waterway. But here and there the river retains traces of its wild past. Ahead of Biglione and me, a great blue heron launched from the riverside vegetation. Tall sycamores and oaks shade the river and provide roosts for kingfishers and ospreys. These small riparian sections, which comprise critical spawning habitat for salmon, are also understandably coveted by people, many of them living in low-income communities lacking access to nature.  

In one deep run fed by a fast riffle—a stretch that seemed particularly well suited to spawning salmon—we watched a group of roughly a dozen teenagers launch wildly from a rope swing into the river. Just downstream, beneath an overpass, three men in snorkels armed with spear guns patrolled the river. Further on, in a beautiful, slow-moving part of the river, we spoke with two bikini-clad women on horseback who coaxed their thousand-pound animals into the flow. “It’s so hot,” one woman said. “This is really the only place in town to escape the heat.” 

Within an hour, the silhouette of the Highway 99 bridge loomed, and we paddled through a long stretch of slack water toward our exit point. As we dragged the canoe out of the water and onto shore, I told Biglione that I was sad to be leaving the river. 

“I told you it was beautiful,” he said. 

The next day, Biglione and I abandoned the canoe. To see the sections below the Highway 99 bridge downstream to the San Joaquin’s confluence with the Merced River, we drove a maze of roads winding through agricultural lands. 

In one section accessible only by a dirt road running along the perimeter of a sprawling almond orchard, the river surged through heaps of garbage and homeless encampments. We pressed on, to the outskirts of the farming community of Mendota, where subsistence fishermen were defying warning signs—one read “Prohibido El Paso”—and casting their lines into murky irrigation canals. 

The farther downstream we went, the more disorienting and dehumanizing the landscape became. On the outskirts of Los Banos, Biglione and I tried to decipher a knot of side channels, several of them completely dry, before realizing that the river’s flow had been shunted into an arrow-straight channel called the Eastside Bypass, which faded to a vanishing point in an endless sea of almond orchards. 

On our last stop, near the San Joaquin’s confluence with the Merced River, we parked on the narrow shoulder of a two-lane highway as a steady stream of cars whooshed unnervingly past us. Biglione and I ducked onto a path littered with garbage and picked our way carefully down an embankment. Below, the San Joaquin slithered beneath an overpass, its flow almost imperceptible. The water was tinged a eutrophic green and smelled stagnant, almost dead. I could hardly believe this was the same crystalline, wilderness waterway I’d hiked and fished in the High Sierra numerous times over the years.  

We walked over heaps of broken concrete to the river’s edge. On a piece of clear plastic lay a weathered knife and several mutilated baitfish teeming with flies. I told Biglione that it felt like we had stumbled onto a crime scene. 

“It is a crime—a crime against nature,” he said. “The question is whether or not anyone cares if justice is served.”  

In this series

Can we save the San Joaquin’s salmon? Tour the San Joaquin River Floating down the San Joaquin River

Jeremy Miller is a writer in Richmond, California. His recent work has appeared in publications including Harper’s, Orion, and Pacific Standard. Follow him on Twitter @jeremyj_miller.

Can we save the San Joaquin’s salmon?

Fishing in Millerton Lake | Photos by Mette Lampcov

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FRIANT DAM, just outside Fresno, California, is a sprawling structure, 319 feet tall and two-thirds of a mile across. It’s not the tallest or the longest dam in the United States, but measured by the impact on the river that it constrains, it looms larger than most.

Constructed just after the Great Depression, Friant Dam was devised to control the San Joaquin River, California’s second-longest waterway. The river’s raucous flow, fed by snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada, was corralled in a 4,900-acre reservoir called Millerton Lake (named for the small town it drowned). From there, it was divvied up and shunted into a vast network of canals to supply water for millions of acres of farmland and the Central Valley’s growing cities. For decades, one 60-mile section—beginning 38 miles downstream of Friant Dam and stretching to the San Joaquin’s confluence with the Merced River—ran dry. Parts of the river where water still flowed were blighted with pesticides and fertilizer, creating massive algal blooms and dead zones.

The intensive engineering of the river exacted a huge toll on its native ecosystems. No species suffered more than the Chinook salmon, whose epic migration from the Pacific Ocean to its spawning grounds in the High Sierra was cut short by numerous choke points, not the least of which was Friant’s impenetrable barrier of concrete.

Millerton Lake as seen from the top of Friant Dam. Smoke from the nearby Creek Fire cloaks the Sierra Nevada.

In 1988, environmental groups including the National Resources Defense Council, the Bay Institute, and the Sierra Club used a statute in the California Fish and Game Code to argue that the US Bureau of Reclamation had failed in its duty to maintain flows below Friant Dam to support Chinook salmon. In 2006, a landmark settlement was reached, allocating nearly $900 million to repair 150 miles of river below the dam and to reestablish a self-sustaining population of Chinook salmon.

Rife with compromises, the settlement mandated that a mere fraction of the San Joaquin’s historic flow be restored. The river’s many dams would remain, but alternative passages would be built and new spawning areas added in the lower river. In other words, the settlement sought to give the salmon a chance to survive within a massive water management scheme that favors industrial-scale farming.

Last October, I visited Friant Dam to meet Don Portz, the restoration program manager at the Bureau of Reclamation, to see how, nearly 15 years later, the restoration was coming along. Portz’s job is to ensure that the terms of the settlement are met—namely, that the salmon, which were reintroduced to the river in 2012, can get around the many obstacles on their way up to the stretch below Friant Dam where they can spawn.

We stood at the top of Friant Dam looking out at Millerton Lake, which was swathed in smoke from the Creek Fire. Portz told me that the point of the restoration is not to remake the river of the past but to create something new—a human-mediated river capable of supporting fish while also delivering farmers and cities their share of water. “The goal of all these projects,” Portz said, “is to allow the volitional passage of adult Chinook salmon and other fishes upstream to spawning habitat below Friant and the successful return of their offspring back to the ocean.”

In plain terms, “volitional passage” means that the fish can migrate and complete their life cycle without human intervention. Ironically, accomplishing that goal has required—and will continue to require—major human intervention. Some of the projects planned for the years ahead will rival in scale and complexity the construction of Friant Dam. As California’s population grows, water shortages deepen, and the impacts of climate change intensify, the restoration program is an expensive and resource-intensive gamble. Can the San Joaquin and its salmon really be engineered back into existence?

Map by Simone Tieber

IN THE MID-19TH CENTURY, an estimated 1 million salmon would swim up the San Joaquin River each year to spawn as part of North America’s southernmost salmon run. They were exquisitely adapted to survive the extremes of the 300-plus-mile journey from the Pacific Ocean and the maze of tidal channels in the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, along the slow, meandering waterways and oxbow lakes of the Central Valley, to the frigid streams of the Sierra thousands of feet above the valley floor. To endure the grueling migration, the salmon ate voraciously at sea and could weigh up to 50 pounds.

Click to view an interactive map of the San Joaquin River.

Come spring, the San Joaquin, swollen with snowmelt, would overtop its banks and spill out onto the valley floor. “In June 1847,” wrote the explorer John Charles Frémont, “the Joaquin was nowhere fordable. . . . All the large tributaries, the [Merced], To-wal-um-ne, Stanislaus, and Mo-kel-um-ne, required to be boated and were pouring down a deep volume of water from the mountains, one to two hundred yards wide.” In these vast marshes and shallow lakes, baby Chinook, known as fry, found refuge from predators, and juvenile salmon on their way to sea gained in size and strength. The Chinook swam high into the Sierra foothills—to a minimum of 1,500 or 2,500 feet, depending on the time of year. Historical accounts suggest that they may have traveled much higher. “It is a fact well known to the fish culturists,” reads an 1890 report from the California Fish Commission, “that the winter and spring run of salmon, during the high, cold waters, go to the extreme headwaters of the rivers, if no obstructions prevent, into the highest mountains.” Chinook in the Merced River swam deep into the granite canyons on the western margins of today’s Yosemite National Park, and might have even reached as far as Yosemite Valley, to lay their eggs in the crystalline pools below Vernal Falls.

For centuries, the Miwok, whose territory encompassed several major tributaries of the San Joaquin, relied on the delicate flesh of the kosum—the Miwok word for salmon. Early European explorers found it easier to shoot the hefty fish with rifles than to bother with trying to snag them on a hook or a spear. During the gold rush, Chinook salmon provided miners with an easy-to-harvest food source, and by the 1860s a flourishing fishery had sprung up, with 175 boats supplying 19 canneries in the delta. But the practice of hydraulic mining, which relied on water cannons to blast hillsides into a slurry, unleashed sediment and other toxic materials into the rivers, and this, along with overfishing, agriculture, and logging at higher altitudes, had greatly diminished salmon stocks by the late 1880s. The destruction of the San Joaquin’s salmon fishery followed a human holocaust along the river that had begun in the 1830s, when cholera and smallpox brought by white settlers wiped out an estimated 60,000 people, roughly three-quarters of the Indigenous population of the San Joaquin Valley.

In less than a century, the San Joaquin River was transformed from a free-flowing salmon superhighway into a corridor of agriculture and commerce.

The large-scale water-engineering schemes of the early- and mid-20th century—what writer Marc Reisner called “the worst disruption of salmon habitat you can find anywhere on Earth”—were the fatal blow to California’s salmon runs. The California State Water Project and the Central Valley Project rejiggered California’s natural hydrology on a mass scale, delivering water from the wetter and sparsely populated northern reaches of the state to the arid but highly populated southern reaches. The San Joaquin’s sinuous meanders were straitjacketed in concrete channels, and its massive wetlands and lakes were drained to make way for farms. The final cataclysmic stroke came with the commissioning of Friant Dam in 1942.

In less than a century, the San Joaquin River was transformed from a free-flowing salmon superhighway into a corridor of agriculture and commerce. By 1950, its salmon were all but extinct. George Warner, an employee of the California Fish and Game Department (today’s Department of Fish and Wildlife), recounted trying to save the last members of the San Joaquin’s spring run that year:

Only thirty-six salmon were counted at the ladder, and many of these were so weak they could barely swim from one pool to the next. . . . Some could just make it to the ladder, and I had to use a dipnet to carry them, one at a time, up the bank to release them in the canal. Probably none of the thirty-six lived to spawn.

“THE DAMAGE DONE in the last century to this river is extensive,” Portz said, peering out at the San Joaquin where it snaked through a parched landscape of golden hillsides. “There’s no easy fix.”

Together we walked Friant’s long promenade, the dam dropping away from us like a tombstone-gray curtain. Tall and affable, Portz has angular features and closely cropped hair. His accent is inflected with traces of upstate New York, where he grew up along the banks of the Hudson River. A self-proclaimed fish geek with a PhD in fish ecophysiology from the University of California, Davis, Portz took a job as a fish biologist with the Bureau of Reclamation almost 20 years ago. While the bureau was focused on operating and maintaining its vast and aging inventory of dams, Portz was devising better ways to help fish get around them. In 2018, he assumed the role of restoration manager. “I think it says a lot about where we want to go as an agency that they entrusted a fish biologist to take over the helm of the restoration,” he said.

Fish biologist Don Portz oversees the San Joaquin River Restoration Program.

Portz gestured to where a concrete channel diverges from the San Joaquin’s main waterway. This is the beginning of the 152-mile-long Friant-Kern Canal, which delivers irrigation water to a million acres of farmland and drinking water to a quarter million people in the southern region of the Central Valley. Though its flow varies depending on the demand of farms, the canal siphons as much as 5,300 cubic feet per second from Millerton Lake—more than 13 times the amount of water flowing through the San Joaquin’s main channel on the day of my visit.

One of the critical early successes, Portz explained, has been eliminating the San Joaquin’s long dry stretch. In all but the driest years, water now flows along the entirety of the river’s length. But the amount of water is still far less than what is called for in the 2006 settlement, which dictates that the San Joaquin eventually be returned to a maximum flow of 4,500 cubic feet per second. The problem is that the San Joaquin’s network of channels and levees was built to handle intermittent flooding but not a constant volume of water. A steady flow of 4,500 cubic feet per second from Friant Dam could cause a catastrophic failure of the earthen dikes or damaging “seepage” into the root zones of orchards planted along the river.

The insufficient flow has meant that fish need a lot of help navigating the San Joaquin’s lower reaches. Since the salmon’s reintroduction in 2012, California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) workers have captured fish in the lower river each spring and hauled them by truck around the river’s various choke points to a roughly 25-mile stretch below Friant. Portz pointed to a pool of water at the dam’s base. No more than a hundred yards across, it is continuously refreshed by cold water coursing from the bottom of Millerton Lake, providing an area where salmon can “hold” through the heat of summer until they are ready to lay eggs in the fall. The surge from the dam’s penstocks also supplies what elevation used to—water cold enough to sustain salmon eggs, which perish at water temperatures higher than 60°F. It was unnerving to realize that the survival of this once-mighty species now depended on such a minuscule pool of water.

Last spring, fish biologists captured juvenile salmon and tagged them with dye and tiny microchips to track their progress through the lower river and delta.

In spite of the limitations, the salmon have shown tantalizing signs of revitalization. In 2014, 60,000 juvenile spring-run salmon, raised in a hatchery on the Feather River, were introduced below Friant Dam. Three years later, something incredible happened: Heavy runoff transformed large stretches of the San Joaquin’s lower floodplain into a massive wetland. In this watery landscape, some of these Chinook salmon made it on their own, without the aid of traps and trucks—volitionally—from the Pacific Ocean to the base of Friant Dam for the first time in more than a half century. The river was so swollen that year that biologists were not able to capture these fish, but their journey was verified through genetic analysis of their offspring, which began to show up in Bureau of Reclamation traps in late fall 2017. The presence of these baby salmon marked another critical milestone—the first time spring-run Chinook had successfully spawned in the San Joaquin in more than 60 years.

There is a lot more being protected here than salmon. It’s other animals and endangered species. It’s ecosystems. It’s water quality. It’s everyone living in the valley.

Portz and I left the dam and headed about a mile downstream to see a short section of the river used by salmon for spawning. At a dirt pullout we met Mike Grill, a CDFW environmental scientist, dressed in well-worn hip waders. The three of us walked over a bridge on Route 206 that vibrated unnervingly with each passing car. Below us, near a massive slab of cast-off concrete, we saw what looked like a ribbon of clear plastic undulating in the blue-green water. Then the outline revealed itself, bone white, defiantly wriggling against the current. “That one is pretty beat-up,” Grill said. “It’s probably done spawning and on its last legs.”

To Grill, the nearly expired fish was an indication of the river’s improving ecological health. Earlier in the season, the CDFW had captured 57 adult fish near the San Joaquin’s confluence with the Merced River and released them below Friant Dam. An additional 285 “brood stock” (biological jargon for hatchery-raised adults) were added to the population of spawning fish. Grill said that in the previous weeks, his team had counted close to 75 fish nests called redds: concavities of river stones cleared by female fish to deposit their eggs. Those numbers, however, were down sharply from 2019, when biologists had counted 200 redds.

Portz suspects that this year’s lower numbers were the result of several factors, including a lower survival rate of juvenile fish in the delta and poor ecological conditions in the Pacific, but that the main variable was low precipitation. By comparison, the number of redds was higher in the 2016–17 and 2018–19 seasons, when surplus snowpack significantly boosted the San Joaquin’s flow. But lower snowpack and rainfall in 2017–18 led to a reduced runoff, which translated to a more arduous upstream journey for salmon.

When the hatchlings emerged in spring, Portz told me, some of them would be captured and tagged with dye and tiny microchips to track their progress through the lower river and delta. “We’re still trying to figure out how to create conditions in the river that are best for salmon,” he said. “But every year we are learning and getting better at it.”

The point of the entire effort is to establish a self-sustaining population of 500 Chinook salmon—a tiny fragment of a population that once numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The hope is that these fish will multiply until their numbers resemble the great schools of the past.

Later that day, Portz and I traveled farther downstream to look at another major impediment for migrating salmon—an antiquated structure called Mendota Dam. We drove an hour west of Fresno, through tangles of new construction in the town of Mendota and then across a large public park filled with rusting picnic tables. A few hundred yards beyond, the river channel appeared. Myriad side channels were hacked into the dirt, each carrying a fraction of the San Joaquin to an individual water district miles away.

Built in 1919, Mendota Dam is an ungainly edifice of concrete. Portz noted the primitive concrete fish ladder extending from the dam’s midsection. “It’s poorly designed,” he said. “Totally useless. No way a salmon is getting up through that.” In all but the largest floods, salmon and other fish become marooned at the base of the dam. To make matters worse, on the upstream side of the dam, its small reservoir was covered in an impassible tangle of invasive bright-green water hyacinth. And juvenile fish easily become lost in the side channels. “They feel all of these canals and say, ‘Hey, that way is to the delta; that way is to the ocean.’ But it’s not,” Portz said.

The bureau is in the process of acquiring land to build a nearly mile-long bypass channel that will be wider than the San Joaquin itself and will allow salmon and other native fish, including sturgeon, to circumvent Mendota Dam and its reservoir entirely. Known as Reach 2B, it is the largest and most technically complicated part of the San Joaquin restoration, as well as the most expensive—carrying an estimated price tag of $336 million.

To ensure that fish choose the correct path and don’t get trapped in the side channels or sucked into pumps, Reach 2B will incorporate an intricate series of passageways, pipes, and screens; nevertheless, it’s meant to be intuitive and easy to navigate. “This is a two-way street,” Portz said. As spawning adults are migrating upriver, juveniles from the previous year are swimming out to the Pacific. “You’ve got to let the fish and Mother Nature do it on their own.”

Portz’s prediction, that with the right human ingenuity the salmon will someday be able to “do it on their own,” seems to be bearing itself out. This past April, he called me to share the news that the restoration team had once again captured adult Chinook at the confluence of the Merced and the San Joaquin. I could hear the excitement in his voice. Despite a disappointingly dry winter and subsequent reduced flows from Friant, returning salmon had, for the fourth time in five years, made it across the delta and up to the confluence. “We’re seeing a lot of resilience,” Portz said, “even in years with less water.”

BYPASSES WON’T MATTER much if the fish can’t reach them, so recovering some of the Central Valley’s former wetlands is also a crucial part of the restoration. The largest and most promising of these efforts is the Dos Rios Ranch project—a 2,100-acre parcel roughly 50 miles downstream from Mendota Dam that was acquired in 2012 with $21.8 million in federal, state, and local funds.

The Mendota Dam is virtually impassable for salmon. A soon-to-be-built bypass channel is the restoration program’s most complicated project to date.

To date, 1,600 acres of the Dos Rios allotment have been restored. On a chilly, overcast day in February, I drove out to the property to meet with Julie Rentner, president of the Chico-based River Partners, the nonprofit heading up the project. The restoration, she explained, involves breaching and in some cases removing infrastructure such as levees and berms in order to put water back onto the land. A similar effort is underway at the Yolo Bypass. But unlike the Yolo, which provides habitat in the midst of active farms, the Dos Rios project aims to retire farmland and “give it back to the river,” Rentner said.

The property sprawls along the floodplain of the Tuolumne and the San Joaquin—the eponymous dos rios. Former farm fields had been stripped of crops and were dotted with small plastic sleeves, each encasing a hand-planted native grass, shrub, or tree, a mosaic including sedge, willow, and valley oak. “We’re just sort of throwing it all out there and seeing what takes,” Rentner said.

We snaked atop a series of levees to a vantage point upstream of the confluence. The area was once part of a sprawling Mexican land grant known as El Pescador (“the fisherman”), a not-so-subtle historical reminder of the aquatic life that once thrived here. Rentner hopes that the Dos Rios project will be the first in a series of strategically placed wetlands for juvenile Chinook along the course of the San Joaquin, providing critical habitat for them to grow and gather strength. “Wetlands are full of nutrients and insect life,” Rentner said, “all the things young salmon need to prepare for their eventual journey to the Pacific.”

California’s San Joaquin River below the salmon barrier of Friant Dam.

The benefits, however, extend far beyond salmon, Rentner said. Since restoration work began here nine years ago, many dozens of species of birds and mammals have returned, a number of which are listed as endangered. The riparian brush rabbit was rediscovered a few years ago, after it was thought to have been extirpated by the New Year’s Day flood in 1997. (The rabbits survived that and subsequent floods, Rentner speculated, by climbing to elevated parcels specially designed for wildlife in the preserve.) Dos Rios is also located along the Pacific Flyway and provides critical habitat for the endangered Aleutian cackling goose.

While our side of the river was being given back to nature, across the water we could see the self-interested, slapdash engineering that, over the decades, has transformed much of the valley into an agricultural wasteland. Huge slabs of concrete and asphalt had been dumped onto the Tuolumne’s steep riverbank in an attempt to stave off erosion. “It’s well known around here that if you have concrete debris, you give it to farmers on the riverbank,” Rentner said. “Of course, this violates at least eight environmental-protection laws on the books in California, but there is zero enforcement capacity.”

Wetlands like these benefit not only animals, Rentner said, but also the surrounding human communities—even the concrete­-dumping farmer across the river. We stood at the epicenter of the New Year’s Day flood, one of the worst in state history, which inundated much of the Central Valley and left parts of the nearby city of Modesto under 15 feet of water. A more robust array of floodplains could have mitigated the damage. Wetlands also moderate a river’s behavior, making it less susceptible to wild swings of drought and flood. And while groundwater monitoring and models are still evolving, permanently retiring farmlands to restore wetlands may be key to addressing two of the Central Valley’s most pressing problems, groundwater overdraft and land subsidence, particularly as climate change bears down. “If we really think about all the public outcomes of moderating floods and improving environmental conditions for wildlife and enhancing water quality,” Rentner said, “it’s likely they will greatly surpass the value of the crops produced in those fields.”

The salvation of the San Joaquin and its salmon, Rentner believes, will ultimately depend on replacing the “siloed and segregated” water policy that has dominated California for decades with a more holistic, ecosystem-based form of management. “Somehow we need to get past the idea that putting water in the river for the fish is ‘too expensive,'” Rentner said. “There is a lot more being protected here than salmon. It’s other animals and endangered species. It’s ecosystems. It’s water quality. It’s everyone living in the valley.”

Click to view an interactive map of the San Joaquin River.


As inspiring as the work to restore the San Joaquin River is, the truth remains that it is unfolding in a human-ravaged landscape, one that forces Chinook salmon to spawn at elevations lower than what they have adapted to. In the meantime, attitudes about the West’s big dams have started to shift. Numerous dams in the Pacific Northwest—including those on the Elwha, Sandy, and Rogue Rivers—have been demolished, leading to an almost immediate rebound in salmon populations. Earlier this year, Representative Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican, proposed a $33.5 billion plan to begin removing four major dams on Idaho’s Snake River in 2030. If federal regulators are serious about saving the San Joaquin’s salmon runs, is it time to begin thinking about removing the largest obstacle on the river, Friant Dam?

I followed up with Portz by email to ask this question. He replied with an emphatic no, noting that above Millerton Lake the San Joaquin does not flow unobstructed but is interspersed with a series of other dams and reservoirs. “Spawning habitat is poor, and the risk of stranding for summer holding is high in this stretch,” he wrote. “Dam removal on the San Joaquin River would be cost-prohibitive, eliminate water storage in an already drought-prone environment of the state, and impact thousands of acres of farmland with no guarantee of a fully rebounded, self-sustained Chinook salmon population.”

All of which means that for the foreseeable future, the Chinook of the San Joaquin will be swimming upstream against a nearly insurmountable flow of human self-interest, striving to sustain themselves in the whisper of river we have left them.

In this series

Can we save the San Joaquin’s salmon? Tour the San Joaquin River Floating down the San Joaquin River

This article appeared in the Summer quarterly edition with the headline “The Whisper of a River.”

Mette Lampcov is a Danish documentary photographer based in Los Angeles. Funding for this story was provided through a fellowship at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Water Desk.

Funding for this story was provided through a fellowship at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Water Desk.

To learn more about today’s San Joaquin and the restoration challenges, go to sc.org/san-joaquin.

Tour the San Joaquin River

Fifteen years ago, a landmark legal settlement brought almost a billion dollars in funding to revitalize a badly degraded San Joaquin River. Take a tour of ongoing efforts by the US Bureau of Reclamation, an unlikely savior, and conservation groups to ease the passage of salmon and trout from the Pacific Ocean to a vital 150-mile stretch of the river below the Sierra Nevada. This interactive map was produced in collaboration with The Water Desk at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The San Joaquin

Reimagining a River

California’s San Joaquin River flows from the Sierra Nevada to the Pacific Ocean. At just over 350 miles, it is California’s second-longest waterway. But by the measure of the ecological damage it has sustained, it has no rival.

This map is a visual narrative of that history and the ambitious effort to restore the river and its iconic species, the Chinook salmon.

Scroll to continue.

The San Joaquin

Reimagining a River

California’s San Joaquin River flows from the Sierra Nevada to the Pacific Ocean. At just over 350 miles, it is California’s second-longest waterway. But by the measure of the ecological damage it has sustained, it has no rival.

This map is a visual narrative of that history and the ambitious effort to restore the river and its iconic species, the Chinook salmon.

Scroll to continue.

The San Joaquin

America’s Most Endangered River

In 2014, the environmental group American Rivers named the San Joaquin “America’s Most Endangered River.” The river has been devastated by dams and water diversions delivering the bulk of the river’s flow to the region’s farms and cities.

This change has been devastating to migratory fish populations like salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon and other species dependent on wetland ecosystems.


The lower San Joaquin flows through a mosaic of farmlands in the Central Valley. Water Education Foundation

Friant Dam

The Great Barrier

Friant Dam is the ultimate barrier to salmon on the San Joaquin River. Constructed in the late 1930s as part of the Central Valley Project, the dam dramatically altered the hydrology of the San Joaquin, shunting most of the river’s flow into the Friant-Kern Canal, which today delivers water to more than a million acres of farmland and a quarter of a million people in the Central Valley.


Construction of Friant Dam, a centerpiece of the Central Valley Project, began in 1939 and finished in 1942. Friant Water Authority

Friant Dam

The Great Barrier

Friant Dam is the ultimate barrier to salmon on the San Joaquin River. Constructed in the late 1930s as part of the Central Valley Project, the dam dramatically altered the hydrology of the San Joaquin, shunting most of the river’s flow into the Friant-Kern Canal, which today delivers water to more than a million acres of farmland and a quarter of a million people in the Central Valley.


Construction of Friant Dam, a centerpiece of the Central Valley Project, began in 1939 and finished in 1942. Friant Water Authority

Millerton, California

A Town, Drowned

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, steamboats could pass up the San Joaquin River as far as this now-vanished settlement. Before its impoundment, the river could reach spring flows of 10,000 cubic feet per second or more.


The former riverside town of Millerton was submerged under the reservoir that bears its name. Millerton Lake State Recreation Area

Millerton, California

A Town, Drowned

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, steamboats could pass up the San Joaquin River as far as this now-vanished settlement. Before its impoundment, the river could reach spring flows of 10,000 cubic feet per second or more.


The former riverside town of Millerton was submerged under the reservoir that bears its name. Millerton Lake State Recreation Area

Upper San Joaquin River and Tributaries

Denied Access

The construction of Friant Dam cut the San Joaquin River in two, denying Chinook access to their historic spawning grounds in the river’s high-elevation tributaries. This loss of habitat led to a calamitous crash in salmon populations.


Thousand Island Lake, a favorite destination of backpackers, marks the spectacular headwaters of the San Joaquin. Flickr User Marty B

Upper San Joaquin River and Tributaries

Denied Access

The construction of Friant Dam cut the San Joaquin River in two, denying Chinook access to their historic spawning grounds in the river’s high-elevation tributaries. This loss of habitat led to a calamitous crash in salmon populations.


Thousand Island Lake, a favorite destination of backpackers, marks the spectacular headwaters of the San Joaquin. Flickr User Marty B

Bureau of Reclamation Restoration Area

A Landmark Restoration

In 2006, a landmark settlement was reached between environmental groups and the Bureau of Reclamation requiring the agency to restore a self-sustaining population of Chinook salmon below Friant Dam.

Fifteen years on, the effort has met resistance, particularly from agricultural interests in the valley. But the San Joaquin and its salmon have also shown tantalizing signs of rebirth.


Restoration scientists check a rotary screw trap for migrating salmon. San Joaquin River Restoration Program

Bureau of Reclamation Restoration Area

A Landmark Restoration

In 2006, a landmark settlement was reached between environmental groups and the Bureau of Reclamation requiring the agency to restore a self-sustaining population of Chinook salmon below Friant Dam.

Fifteen years on, the effort has met resistance, particularly from agricultural interests in the valley. But the San Joaquin and its salmon have also shown tantalizing signs of rebirth.


Restoration scientists check a rotary screw trap for migrating salmon. San Joaquin River Restoration Program

Reach 1A

New Spawning Grounds

The 25-mile stretch of river below Friant Dam is a key part of the San Joaquin restoration. Known as Reach 1A, this stretch of river is supplied with cold water coursing from the bottom of Friant Dam and provides restored salmon populations with viable spawning habitat.


A verdant stretch of the San Joaquin known as Reach 1A is critical spawning habitat for Chinook salmon. Jeremy Miller

Scout Island

A Vital Refuge for Fish and People

Along Reach 1A are small areas of riparian vegetation that once filled the lower reaches of the San Joaquin River. These areas provide habitat for spawning salmon and dozens of other species of birds, mammals, and plants. They are also coveted by locals, who flock to the river in large numbers during summer to escape the heat.


Recreationists enjoy the cold waters of the San Joaquin River on the outskirts of Fresno. Jeremy Miller

Scout Island

A Vital Refuge for Fish and People

Along Reach 1A are small areas of riparian vegetation that once filled the lower reaches of the San Joaquin River. These areas provide habitat for spawning salmon and dozens of other species of birds, mammals, and plants. They are also coveted by locals, who flock to the river in large numbers during summer to escape the heat.


Recreationists enjoy the cold waters of the San Joaquin River on the outskirts of Fresno. Jeremy Miller

Mendota Dam

Giving Salmon a Way Around

Mendota Dam, built in 1919, is among the most serious barriers facing salmon and other migratory fish species in the lower river. It is also the site of the priciest and most complex project of the San Joaquin River restoration. When complete, Reach 2B will incorporate a large bypass channel that will allow spawning salmon upstream and juvenile fish to avoid the dam.


Mendota Dam is an antiquated structure on the lower San Joaquin that blocks the passage of salmon and other migratory fish. Mette Lampkov

Eastside Bypass

Loosening the Straitjacket on the San Joaquin

Over the years, engineers transformed large stretches of the river, including the Eastside Bypass, from a meandering waterway into a linear water conveyance system. These changes had drastic consequences for salmon as well as dozens of other wetland species. In low-water years, salmon must be captured and hauled in trucks around these choke points to Reach 1A, below Friant Dam. While the restoration does not call for the removal of the bypass altogether, it seeks to make it more navigable for fish.


Along much of its lower section, the once sinuous riverbed of the San Joaquin has been hemmed into linear concrete canals. Jeremy Miller

Eastside Bypass

Loosening the Straitjacket on the San Joaquin

Over the years, engineers transformed large stretches of the river, including the Eastside Bypass, from a meandering waterway into a linear water conveyance system. These changes had drastic consequences for salmon as well as dozens of other wetland species. In low-water years, salmon must be captured and hauled in trucks around these choke points to Reach 1A, below Friant Dam. While the restoration does not call for the removal of the bypass altogether, it seeks to make it more navigable for fish.


Along much of its lower section, the once sinuous riverbed of the San Joaquin has been hemmed into linear concrete canals. Jeremy Miller

Confluence with Tuolumne River

A Watery World

One can get a sense of the pre-engineered San Joaquin in the writings of John Muir. In a journal entry from November 1877, Muir wrote of a watery landscape in which “salmon in great numbers … [made] their way up the river for the first time this season.” Muir also noted the presence of “mud” from hydraulic gold mining operations miles upstream, hinting at the multitude of impacts to come.


The confluence of the Tuolomne and San Joaquin Rivers was once part of a Mexican land grant called El Pescador (the fisherman). David Rumsey Map Collection

Confluence with Tuolumne River

A Watery World

One can get a sense of the pre-engineered San Joaquin in the writings of John Muir. In a journal entry from November 1877, Muir wrote of a watery landscape in which “salmon in great numbers … [made] their way up the river for the first time this season.” Muir also noted the presence of “mud” from hydraulic gold mining operations miles upstream, hinting at the multitude of impacts to come.


The confluence of the Tuolomne and San Joaquin Rivers was once part of a Mexican land grant called El Pescador (the fisherman). David Rumsey Map Collection

Dos Rios Wetland Restoration

Remaking the San Joaquin’s Wetlands

Today, at the confluence of the San Joaquin and Tuolumne Rivers, an ambitious restoration project is underway to restore the kind of wetland habitat that Muir would have seen nearly 150 years ago. The Dos Rios Ranch Preserve, overseen by the nonprofit River Partners, seeks to restore a 2,100-acre parcel of wetland. Since acquiring the property in 2012, River Partners has restored 1,600 acres of the Dos Rios allotment.


The Dos Rios Restoration encompasses 2,100 acres of riverside farmlands being transformed into wetland habitat. River Partners

Dos Rios Wetland Restoration

Remaking the San Joaquin’s Wetlands

Today, at the confluence of the San Joaquin and Tuolumne Rivers, an ambitious restoration project is underway to restore the kind of wetland habitat that Muir would have seen nearly 150 years ago. The Dos Rios Ranch Preserve, overseen by the nonprofit River Partners, seeks to restore a 2,100-acre parcel of wetland. Since acquiring the property in 2012, River Partners has restored 1,600 acres of the Dos Rios allotment.


The Dos Rios Restoration encompasses 2,100 acres of riverside farmlands being transformed into wetland habitat. River Partners

San Joaquin–Sacramento River Delta and Beyond

Challenges Beyond

The perils for salmon extend beyond the river and into the great estuary, or delta, formed at the confluence of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers. Massive pumps delivering water to the aqueducts of the State Water Project have altered the river’s salinity and harmed migrating salmon, which depend on water chemistry for navigation. Collapsing marine ecosystems in San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean—driven by climate change, overfishing, and pollution—have also seriously imperiled the recovery of the San Joaquin’s salmon population.

A coproduction of Sierra Magazine and The Water Desk

Written and produced by Jeremy Miller and Geoff McGhee/The Water Desk

Supported by a grant from The Water Desk, part of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Map sources: United States Bureau of Reclamation; River Partners

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