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New California law bolsters groundwater recharge as strategic defense against climate change

A recent change in California law is expected to result in significantly more public funding for groundwater recharge like this state-run project, which diverted floodwater from the San Joaquin River to a Madera County ranch in winter 2023. Source: California Department of Water Resources

By Nick Cahill | Western Water | September 7, 2023

A new but little-known change in California law designating aquifers as “natural infrastructure” promises to unleash a flood of public funding for projects that increase the state’s supply of groundwater.

The change is buried in a sweeping state budget-related law, enacted in July, that also makes it easier for property owners and water managers to divert floodwater for storage underground.

The obscure, seemingly inconsequential classification of aquifers could have a far-reaching effect in California where restoring depleted aquifers has become a strategic defense against climate change — an insurance against more frequent droughts and more variable precipitation. The state leans heavily on aquifers, drawing about 40 percent of its water supply from the ground during an average water year and up to 60 percent during dry years.

More than $1 billion in state funds could become available to a wide range of projects that replenish groundwater, including flood control improvements and wetlands restoration, according to the Planning and Conservation League and the conservation nonprofit River Partners, which pushed for the designation.

“We’re not talking about [funding] one thing at a time anymore — flood control or recharge or improving wetlands — but now everything.”
~Judy Corbett, Planning and Conservation League board member

“There’s no question this is a critical step,” said Judy Corbett, a board member of the league. “We’re not talking about [funding] one thing at a time anymore — flood control or recharge or improving wetlands — but now everything.”

The new law also positions local water managers and nonprofit groups to potentially tap Proposition 1 funds – a 2014 statewide bond that dedicated $7.5 billion for water projects – and a sweeping climate resilience bond that Gov. Gavin Newsom and lawmakers are planning for the 2024 statewide ballot.

In the world of environmental policymaking, “natural infrastructure” refers to natural landscape features that provide concrete benefits to the public and to wildlife. Wetlands and floodplains, for example, can slow and retain water to reduce flooding while filtering pollutants and providing habitat for fish and water birds.

Bringing Basins into Balance

Adding the designation to aquifers opens doors to a wider array of funding programs. Water suppliers and communities looking to replenish groundwater basins and jumpstart flood control improvements can now compete for state funds on more equal footing with projects to restore riparian forests, floodplains, coastal wetlands and other types of natural or green infrastructure.

Matt Hurley, who helps farmers in Fresno County balance their groundwater use, said the additional funding opportunities could help local water managers comply with California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Widespread flooding following this year’s epic snowfall piqued California lawmakers’ interest in ways to store more water underground, as this Fresno County orchard did in March with floodwater diverted from the nearby Kings River. Source: California Department of Water Resources

The 2014 law requires local managers of the state’s most depleted aquifers – many of them in the San Joaquin Valley – to end overpumping and bring their basins into balance by 2040 or 2042.

“Clearly river and floodplain-related items are going to get more water in the ground,” said Hurley, general manager of the McMullin Area Groundwater Sustainability Agency. “If we’re trying to deal with groundwater overdraft by recharging to offset it, sure it would be helpful to provide more funds for [floodplain projects].”

In the past, putting water back into a California aquifer wasn’t considered a public benefit under the state’s resources code but rather a strategy water districts and growers used to protect their interests against drought.

Projects to expand floodplains or restore wetlands for wildlife habitat or flood control didn’t qualify for state grants earmarked for recharging groundwater even though these improvements would help replenish water tables tapped for drinking water and irrigation.

Likewise, many groundwater recharge projects that coincidentally provide flood relief and bird and fish habitat missed out on state funds for environmental restoration and flood control.

Recasting Aquifers for Public Good

The solution, proposed by environmental groups, former Assemblyman Roger Dickinson and officials with the California Department of Water Resources, was to expand the state’s view of natural infrastructure.

“This bill would add ‘aquifers’ to a list of examples of aquatic or vegetated terrestrial open spaces for purposes of this definition of natural infrastructure.”
~Text of Senate Bill 122

Following a winter of historic snowfall and widespread flooding, lawmakers were eager to talk about ways to store more water underground.

In April, Assemblymember Steve Bennett, D-Ventura, proposed bringing aquifers under the umbrella of natural infrastructure in Assembly Bill 900, saying the expanded definition would increase state grant opportunities for a wider variety of recharge projects.

Bennett’s proposal eventually ended up as a single sentence in Senate Bill 122, a 62-page “trailer” bill needed to implement the state budget for the 2023-24 fiscal year.

Ann Hayden

Ann Hayden, who promotes “climate resilient water systems” for the Environmental Defense Fund, applauded the change, saying it was far overdue for the state to invest in aquifers like it would a dam or irrigation canal.

“We’re learning – far too late – that the aquifers need ongoing care and management,” Hayden said in an email.

The move comes as California steps up efforts to protect its underground water supply.

Earlier this year, Newsom signed an executive order that temporarily allowed water managers and property owners to pull water from flooded streams and store it underground without a permit. The state estimates nearly 4 million acre-feet of water went back into aquifers this year, enough water to supply 11 million households for a year. The budget trailer bill extends the streamlined floodwater diversion rules through 2028.

The banner 2022-2023 water year created a flood of interest in groundwater recharge and inspired the relaxed regulations, said Paul Gosselin, California Department of Water Resources deputy director of sustainable groundwater management.

“This allows people to plan ahead, invest and start thinking about how to divert water if and when the next big atmospheric river event occurs,” Gosselin said.

Capitalizing on ‘Climate Resilience’

With aquifer replenishment now deemed a public benefit, more recharge projects are certain to come online before the next banner water year and increase the state’s ability to corral floodwater.

The change in law also appears to be designed to help aquifer projects capitalize on a new “climate resilience” bond that is likely to land on the 2024 ballot.

“It’s another tool in the box, it means there’s more channels for funding.”
~Charles Delgado, Sustainable Conservation’s policy director, on designating aquifers as “natural infrastructure”

bond proposal still pending in the Legislature includes hundreds of millions of dollars for groundwater-related projects and states “preference shall be given to natural infrastructure projects.”

The decision to invest in aquifers mirrors a policy California adopted in 2016 when then Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that defined the upper mountain watersheds that are the source of water for the State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project as “integral components of California’s water infrastructure.”

A key function of the bill was to make source watershed restoration projects eligible for the same funding as other water collection and purification infrastructure, such as wastewater treatment plants.

Many California water experts cast the expanded natural infrastructure definition as a simple fix that will benefit farms, communities and ecosystems.

“It’s another tool in the box, it means there’s more channels for funding,” said Charles Delgado, policy director at Sustainable Conservation, a California advocacy group.

“It’s really important that we find ways to do projects that not only put water back into the ground,” he said, “but shore up community drinking water supplies, address water quality issues and also safeguard the environment.”

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.

A Mexican water expert on what Arizona can learn from Hermosillo

Nicolás Pineda, professor of public policy at the Colegio de Sonora, Hermosillo, Sonora, México. Behind him is the artificial lake that partially supplies Hermosillo’s drinking water. Credit: John Washington

By John Washington | AZ Luminaria | July 21, 2023

Leer en Español

As severe water scarcity becomes an increasingly real and increasingly dire prospect for Arizona, looking south to Sonora offers important insight. Understanding the experience of our neighboring Mexican state in recent decades could also help steer Arizona towards a more responsible – and less dry – future. 

To learn more about the water challenges Sonora has long faced and how they mirror those in our state, Arizona Luminaria spoke with Nicolás Pineda, professor of public policy at the Colegio de Sonora, Hermosillo, Sonora, México. His research focuses on water policy and urban water governance in México and the U.S.-México border region.

“We can learn from Arizona, and maybe Arizona can learn something from Sonoran towns as well,” Pineda says.

Hermosillo, the state capital, used to be known as Pitic, an Indigenous Seri word meaning “where the rivers meet.” It was a place where “you could have access to water all year round,” Pineda says. That’s no longer the case.

Pineda explains the history, and what Hermosillo — one of the hottest cities in all of Mexico — has done to try to guarantee water for its residents and businesses. 

The shallow Abelardo L Rodriguez dam in Hermosillo, Sonora, finished in 1948. The water typically dries up every year in the summer heat.

Sister cities

There are a lot of comparisons to make between Hermosillo and Phoenix, Pineda says. They are both capital desert cities with rivers that can’t provide enough water for consumption. Both cities also continue to grow, and both of their populations contend for water with surrounding agricultural interests. 

“In Hermosillo, we’re seeing increased competition between city dwellers and farmers,” Pineda says. That tension may soon be matched in the Phoenix area.

“The city has a big problem with efficiency,” Pineda says of Hermosillo. Inefficiencies include unaccounted for water — as not all of the houses have meters — and leaks. In total, he says, more than 71 million cubic meters of water are lost in Hermosillo every year. That’s about 19 billion gallons, or enough to fill about 30,000 Olympic size pools.

While major cities in Arizona don’t waste nearly that much water, excessive usage north of the border remains a serious issue. 

With the Colorado River being depleted by a decades-long drought — poignantly made clear by the “bathtub ring” left around Lake Mead — the agriculture industry, which uses more than 70% of Arizona’s water, will have to act fast to adapt to hotter conditions and less water accessibility. 

Paul Brierley, Director of Arizona Department of Agriculture, told Arizona Luminaria that rising temperatures, and the region’s decades-long drought, will have unexpected impacts as well. 

Heat and limited water “change the equation a little bit about the types of pests and plant diseases we see,” Brierley said. He added that the crops themselves farmers grow may have to change. 

A May 2021 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research estimated that a two degrees Celsius increase in temperature would effectively “eliminate profits from the average acre of current farmland in the eastern U.S.” Farmers in the western U.S. may be better able to adapt, but still face stiff challenges in the summer growing seasons. 

Arizona cities, and their residents, which account for about 22% of total water use in the state, also need to start adapting. While Arizona is ahead of the curve compared to Sonora, “there’s a lot Arizonans should be doing to save more water,” Pineda says.

One of the major problems facing both states is what Pineda calls “pork politics.” In Hermosillo, he explains, the city keeps changing the water directors.  

In Arizona, Gov. Katie Hobbs accused her predecessor, Doug Ducey, of sitting on a report that showed some areas in Phoenix — undergoing a development boom — do not have the mandatory 100-year water supply to continue building. 

The state will begin limiting future growth in some areas around Phoenix. Unchecked urban growth is the major factor in Hermosillo’s water challenges, Pineda says. Understanding how such growth affected the water supply is important, he says, if we are to avoid going completely dry.

A history of water management and mismanagement

Farmers in the valleys around Hermosillo — growing vegetables, cotton and feed crops — started using electric pumps in the late 1940s and ‘50s, Pineda explains, as they began developing agriculture in the area between the city and the Gulf of California, about 80 miles west. At the time, the pumps were drilled down about 7 meters below the surface to dip into the aquifer. 

Today, wells have to be drilled down to about 120 meters below the earth to reach the aquifer. And some of the water, in recent years, is coming up brackish, meaning the aquifer is so depleted that it’s below sea level, and has been tinged with salt water. 

To deal with a burgeoning urban population and more farmers — beginning to grow wheat as well — the city built the Abelardo L Rodriguez dam, finishing it in 1948. 

The dam was originally intended to store water for farmers, but it was poorly designed, critics have long contended. “They say it’s a very bad dam because it’s basically a large mirror and the water evaporates,” Pineda says. “It has very little depth and, especially in the summer, it dries up completely.”

In the 1970s the city started pumping dam water into residential pipes as well. There were about 80,000 people living in Hermosillo at the time, but demand was increasing. 

The population now almost reaches a million.  

The area around the San Miguel River, which curves its way through downtown Hermosillo, frequently flooded, causing a problem for the growing city. So, in the 1980s and 1990s, “the city urbanized the river,” Pineda says, turning what was a frequently flooding and often muddy waterway into a cement chute. But, Pineda says, controlling water with concrete — both the dam and the paved riverbottom — didn’t match the growing demand for water. 

Looking for water elsewhere

“The focus has always been on supply,” Pineda says. “If there’s not enough water, you need to bring more water, but we’re trying to refocus on ‘demand management,’ and not just bring more water to meet constantly growing needs.”

Hermosillo uses as much water as Tijuana, Pineda offers as an example. And yet Tijuana has a population of about four times as large as the Sonoran city. Leaks and inefficiencies are the primary culprit of Hermosillo’s over-usage, Pineda says.

The San Miguel river, which was “urbanized” in the 1980s and 90s to control flooding, trickles through downtown Hermosillo.

Water shortages in the late 1990s and 2000s led Hermosillo officials to implement the first “tandeos,” or water restrictions, cutting off water to parts of the city for a few hours every day. “It was a problem with the city growing too fast,” Pineda says.

“Mismanagement and bad planning made things worse,” he says. The restrictions helped, but, with a still-growing population, it wasn’t enough.

In 2010, the Sonoran government proposed the construction of an aqueduct which would transport water from the Yaqui River, about 80 miles away, to Hermosillo. Critics, among them members of the Yaqui tribe, said that developers failed to consult relevant local stakeholders and were illegally pushing forward on the project. 

The Independencia Aqueduct, which started flowing in 2013, now accounts for 20% of Hermosillo’s water. 10% comes from the nearby dam, and the remaining 70% comes from wells — which continue to suck up the depleting aquifer. Even with the aqueduct running, it’s still not enough. 

“Could something like CAP be built in Hermosillo?” Pineda asks.

The Central Arizona Project aqueduct, commonly known as CAP is a more than 300-mile system of built waterways that carries water from Northern Arizona to Phoenix, Tucson, and elsewhere.

The project was enormously expensive and largely funded by the federal government. Given the exorbitant costs, and necessary local, state and federal cooperation, “something like CAP is just not possible in México right now,” Pineda says.

Catching water, and using less of it

One small effort – not the ultimate solution but what Pineda says is still important to start scaling back usage and raising consciousness – is rainwater harvesting. 

“There is zero water harvesting in Hermosillo,” Pineda says. Hermosillo should follow the models of Tucson and other places, he says. 

Tucson mayor Regina Romero has been vocal about the city’s ambitious climate action plan, with a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2045. Part of the plan, Romero says, includes “investing in urban shade, capturing rainwater to grow trees and native vegetation, promoting infill and transit-oriented development, and piloting cool pavement technologies.” 

The consumption of water in desert cities spikes in the summer, Pineda says, by as much as 30% per person. At the same time, both Hermosillo and Phoenix act as heat traps, with temperatures blistering in the “islands of concrete,” Pineda says, which yet further increases water demand.

Most of Hermosillo’s efforts at developing a better water management system, focus on the agricultural sector.

Farmers in Sonora have begun changing to drip irrigation. Similarly, Yuma area farmers, among others in Arizona, are also implementing more water efficient growing systems

All of the above, “and a lot more,” must be undertaken, Pineda says, for Hermosillo and Arizona’s desert cities to survive. In recent years, the water in the Hermosillo dam has dropped so low that they were days away from not being able to deliver water through city pipes.

In 2022, with another water crisis pending, Hermosillo officials set out to repair wells, install more water meters, provide reserve tanks, and implement electronic leak detection equipment. Not until August, when sufficient rainfall finally hit the city, could residents rest assured they’d have enough water through the end of the year.

Hermosillo could soon dry up even more and simply not have enough water to pump through the pipes. “Those risks exist,” Pineda says. He pointed to Monterrey, in northeastern México, which has had to limit water usage for certain residents. 

Though he doesn’t expect water rationing to hit Arizona any time soon, it’s not out of the question. Arizonans have never faced water restrictions, Pineda says, though Tucson has recently taken other steps to decrease water usage, including banning ornamental grass, among other water saving incentives. 

For now, Pineda says everyone in the entire borderlands region should be more water conscious.

“If we’re more efficient, we can survive longer,” Pineda says. 

Drinking the ocean?

With more than two-thirds of the planet covered in water, albeit salty, many have wondered whether our oceans could be a solution to water shortages. But desalination, or taking the salt out of salt water is not the solution for Sonora or Airzona, Pineda says. 

“I think they’d kill the Sea of Cortez,” he says. “They’d release too much brine back into the sea, throwing off the equilibrium.”

An Israeli company, IDE Technologies, proposed in late 2022 a $5 billion desalination plant to be built in the resort city of Puerto Peñasco — the popular vacation destination also known as Rocky Point — which would pump water hundreds of miles away, all the way up to Phoenix. 

In a 2022 report to the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority of Arizona, IDE proclaimed that adding a new source of water to Arizona would be a boon for both farmers and cities in the state. 

It would also “benefit the sensitive ecosystem of the lower reach of the Colorado River.” The company touted the benefits to Sonora, as not all of the water would have been heading to Arizona. Though there was some initial support for the idea on both sides of the border, Sonoran Gov. Alfonso Durazo Montaño has become a staunch opponent. 

After meeting with envoys from IDE in January, Durazo took to Twitter to say that the potential sale of water was a federal matter, adding that IDE was lacking ethics and he wouldn’t meet with them again. 

“I am going to defend the interests of Sonorans. That is my responsibility,” Durazo said at a late January press conference, describing IDE’s plans as “utter absurdity.” Despite dashing hopes for desalination, the two countries must work together.

Binational water dialogue remains key, Pineda says.

Our drier future

“We share an ecosystem, a climate,” Pineda says of Arizona and Sonora. He says there’s a lot each state can learn from the other, and it’s important to look not just to innovative technologies, but the ways people have long lived in the desert.

Pineda points to the temperature efficiency of adobe as building material, the use of less thirsty native plants, and more thoughtful urban design. 

We may need to revive some older traditions, he says. 

A lot of the people who have moved to Arizona and Sonora over the last half-century or so don’t come from desert environments, Pineda explains. 

“We need to learn from the history of these places, and the people and plants who have long lived here,” he says. 

In other words, looking into the past may be the only way to survive the future.

This article first appeared on AZ Luminaria and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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.

Can Colorado’s source streams make a comeback? These scientists, and beavers, think so

Sheep Park, just south of Fairplay, Colorado, represents a near-pristine, stage-zero headwaters system. Photo by Mark Beardsley

By Kelly Bastone | Aug 16, 2023

Intrepid though they were, the first European explorers and settlers along the West’s various river systems did a lot of complaining. Pioneers groused about downed trees blocking their path and waterlogged ground that made footing treacherous. Mosquitoes, debris jams, underwater snags, and a confusing network of secondary streams thwarted humans’ attempts at efficient travel.

“It was hard to boat, hard to hike,” explains Ellen Wohl, an author and geosciences professor at Colorado State University who has researched written accounts of early exploration–along with virtually every other aspect of changing stream structure and ecology.

The tangles were particularly thick at headwaters—the source streams feeding into the larger rivers that we know by name, such as the Colorado and South Platte rivers. Beavers typically turned these smaller waterways into a vexing labyrinth of dammed pools and wetlands choked with water-loving willows and trees.

And so, feeling antagonized by the headwaters’ soggy, messy terrain, Colorado’s early European settlers devoted their energies to tidying up. They killed the beavers and demolished their dams; settlers also straightened and diverted the streams to irrigate crops and fill miners’ rocker boxes. Human engineering replaced nature’s infrastructure across most of the state’s headwater systems.

Fast forward almost 200 years and Colorado communities are facing new threats. Catastrophic wildfires, enduring drought, and waterborne pollutants endanger the many cities that developed downstream of headwater systems. Experts now believe that the swampy ecosystems that once tormented early explorers may actually become allies in weathering and adapting to these new threats. Restoring natural infrastructure, such as beaver habitat and the wetlands it creates, could shield communities from damaging floods, remove toxins and high sediment loads from water, and reduce the apocalyptic effects of megafires.


The Big Thompson River headwaters flow through Moraine Park, which doesn’t appear to be degraded—at least not to most observers. They see a simple ribbon of water snaking among grasses that allow for unobstructed views of the surrounding summits as well as the valley’s resident elk—making this one of the best-loved areas of Rocky Mountain National Park. Even anglers flock here to cast for Big Thompson trout without worrying about tangling their lines in trees or shrubs, both of which are largely absent.

However, this kind of naked channel isn’t natural, explains Mark Beardsley of EcoMetrics, a collective of scientists that analyzes and restores headwaters. The Big Thompson’s ribbon-like stream resulted from previous generations’ attempts to impose order on what was once a jumbled, waterlogged valley. Before, willows and trees slowed the water’s flow and created sanctuaries for juvenile members of many wildlife species. The slower water also would let woody debris like leaf litter, branches and roots settle out of the flow, keeping downstream rivers cleaner.

Now across Colorado, many headwater streams look as stripped-down as the Big Thompson. “We have simplified our headwaters into ditches,” says Wohl. “Like a tree that’s had all its branches cut off, but actually, all those branches are really important to the health of the tree.”

Ellen Wohl is a geosciences professor and researcher at Colorado State University. Here, she poses for a photograph along Spring Creek, in Fort Collins. Photo by Matt Staver

Changes began with the fur trade in the early 1800s, when trappers all but eliminated beavers from Colorado. By some estimates, today’s beaver population represents just 10% of historical numbers. Without those dam-builders, many headwaters lost the ponds and waterlogged uplands that once filled valleys such as Moraine Park. Where wetlands persisted, settlers drained them to establish streamside homesteads and ranches.

Regardless of where they’re located, headwaters often take on tangled shapes that slow the water’s progress and distribute it across meandering oxbows and liquid fingers that look more like wet webs than streamlined ribbons. Though some Colorado headwaters stop flowing during dry seasons, historically they’re moist, soggy places that keep water on the landscape, like sponges.

And headwater streams are often so small that they could be plowed over or piped underground, explains Wohl. Many were diverted to run mines and ranches. Others served as flumes conveying felled timber, and, says Wohl, as those logs rode snowmelt rushing downstream “it was like taking a scouring brush to the channel.”

The complex of wetlands and connected floodplains found in intact headwater systems can slow runoff and reduce flood flows, creating better downstream conditions, trapping sediment to improve downstream water quality, and allowing groundwater recharge. Graphic by Restoration Design Group, courtesy of American Rivers

Over time, as headwater streams lost their “branches” and became a single trunk of water, they began to act like irrigation ditches that accelerate water, and everything in it, to locations downstream. With climate change intensifying both storms and droughts, the canal-like efficiency of modified headwaters is proving to be a detriment.

Here we see an unhealthy system with an incised stream channel that is disconnected from its floodplain, resulting in reduced water storage, less groundwater recharge, and degraded water quality. Graphics by Restoration Design Group, courtesy of American Rivers

“Floods get bigger, with a higher peak flow for a shorter time,” Wohl says. Researchers are only now beginning to measure the flood-intensifying impact of channelized headwaters and every site is different, but according to unpublished modeling studies conducted by Nicholas Christenden, a PhD student at CSU’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, one Front Range site demonstrated that restored beaver structures and associated vegetation might reduce peak flow by 26%.

Faster, stronger floodwaters threaten bridges and riverside roads, and pollutants—including everything from sediment to agricultural chemicals—get funneled into municipal water sources.

Biodiversity also suffers from this channelization, because without complex wetlands and floodplains, streams support a less diverse population of insects, fish, amphibians, plants, birds and even bacteria.

Yet Colorado has managed to preserve a limited number (about 20% of the state’s total headwaters mileage, estimates Wohl) of “stage-zero” headwater streams that still function as nature designed—streams, which have recovered to near pre-disturbance levels. Stage-zero systems demonstrate remarkable resiliency during extreme weather events, and they’ve persuaded some experts that we need to up our investment in preserving and restoring headwaters, not as we made them, but as they were.


Should you hike up to the uppermost reaches of Cochetopa Creek, within La Garita Wilderness in the San Juan Mountains, you will find a waterlogged, willow-choked valley that Wohl adores. “Oh it’s beautiful,” she croons of this stage-zero gem.

With its beaver ponds and meandering secondary channels where juvenile amphibians and fish can take shelter and grow, the Cochetopa Creek headwaters is a de facto sponge that slows and retains water passing through. Floods are dispersed across its many inlets, which trap pollutants and suspend sediment and return clear water to the flow downstream, just as a water treatment plant might do, but without the multi-million-dollar price tag.

Healthy mountain meadows and wetlands are characteristic of healthy headwater systems and provide a variety of ecosystem services, or benefits that humans, wildlife, rivers and surrounding ecosystems rely on.

The complex of wetlands and connected floodplains found in intact headwater systems can slow runoff and attenuate flood flows, creating better downstream conditions, trapping sediment to improve downstream water quality, and allowing groundwater recharge. These systems can also serve as a fire break and refuge during wildfire, can sequester carbon in the floodplain, and provide essential habitat for wildlife.

Cochetopa’s stage-zero beaver complexes store water that’s slowly released during late summer’s hot, dry periods, which improves water quality and quantity for downstream trout, says Dan Brauch, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife fisheries biologist. “That water retention is also important to this area’s agricultural properties, because it means that more water is likely to reach those irrigators for a longer portion of the season,” he continues. Of course not all stream systems react to beaver activity in the same way. A 2015 study looking at the impacts of beaver dams on streamflow and temperature in Utah found that beavers don’t have consistent results on streamflow. During the study period, beaver development caused more variability in stream systems but, the report says, continued study is needed to better predict and understand beavers’ impacts.

The complex of wetlands found in intact headwater systems, such as at Cochetopa Creek, also can serve as a fire break and refuge for the area’s animals during wildfire. “Every living thing that can get there will,” attests Beardsley. After widespread fires, waterlogged headwater systems remain as a “big green patch,” he continues, from which repopulation efforts take hold in the surrounding burn.

These wetlands even sequester carbon in the floodplain to counterbalance the factors fueling climate change. Wohl’s study of North St. Vrain Creek concluded that while its broad, sponge-like floodplains represent just 25% of the total channel length within the river network, they store 75% of its organic carbon. “Headwaters that remain in their original condition provide a lot of ecosystem services,” Wohl says.

Headwaters’ power is their complexity, says Sarah Marshall, a wetland ecologist with CSU’s Natural Heritage Program. “When you take water out of that system,” as has happened at the Big Thompson and so many Colorado headwater streams, “You take away that complexity piece.” It’s like trying to support a reef ecosystem without the coral. Headwater wetlands, like coral reefs, “Provide a structure or a home for a lot of living species, and is itself a living thing, with fungi and bacteria that live in the soil,” Marshall explains. Trout, for example, depend on the deep pools that beavers create to survive the cold Colorado winters, because only those pockets stay warm enough to keep fish alive, whereas most headwater streams are so shallow that they freeze solid.

But the biggest concern about restoring source streams and wetlands comes from downstream water users, including some water providers, municipalities, agricultural producers and others who raise concerns about the potential implications of holding water on the floodplain. These water rights holders worry that water retained upstream in headwaters areas—whether in wetlands or behind beaver dams—might alter or limit the amount of flows or timing of runoff, impacting the water that they legally have a right to use.

But, says Marshall, “If you want to catch fish and you want clean water to drink, you really need the mess upstream.”


Indeed, it’s not always easy—or desirable—to try to recreate the past with today’s streams. After all, they’re living, dynamic systems, not museum artifacts, and they’re healthiest when they have the freedom to change and adapt. “You could pick a point in history to return to,” says Beardsley, “But these ecosystems are always changing and evolving. So there’s no point in trying to create a static system.” The idea is to restore streams’ multi-faceted functionality, so earth, water, rock, chemical and biological elements all work together—and then let the system run itself.

In fact, headwaters’ adaptability is precisely what makes them such valuable assets for human communities looking to boost their resiliency in the face of climate change. “We want systems that can react and adapt to future pressures,” Beardsley continues. When torrential rains fall on mountainsides that have been denuded by wildfire, headwater systems can slow the flooding and filter the water before it arrives at municipal infrastructure—but only if these streams retain some version of their original, natural processes.

That’s why the Mile High Flood District (MHFD) recently helped a landowner in Parker to create a development plan that restored Stroh Gulch, a headwater stream that feeds Cherry Creek. Located on a cattle ranch, it includes reaches that have lost their native scrub oak and have become channelized. But as the landowner prepared to offer the property to housing developers, the MHFD collaborated on a vision for the project that would revive the headwater stream’s health and meet builders’ economic needs. Three years ago, E5X Management and Muller Engineering Company accepted the project parameters, and this year, construction begins on the 1,200-acre Tanterra development.

Instead of lining Stroh Gulch with concrete and reducing it to nothing more than a ditch, developers are planting grasses, shrubs and trees that restore the stream’s heterogeneity. “We look at them as infrastructure,” explains Barbara Chongtua, MHFD’s development services director. “One benefit to homeowners is the aesthetic component, that these become places to walk, meditate and play,” she continues. “But the natural system—we refer to it as nature-based solutions—also slows the water down and prevents erosion,” she explains. The water infiltrates the ground closer to its source, so it doesn’t all dump into the active channel. According to simulations conducted by Muller Engineering, the interplay of rocks, shrubs, and trees “really beat down the peak and the frequency of runoff,” says Chongtua.

“The Mile High Flood District is dedicated to protecting people, property, and our environment, and we used to do that with a lot of concrete and rock, to contain [flooding],” Chongtua continues. “But now we’re realizing that we can achieve that protection by working with nature, by working with its living systems, which are a lot more cost-effective and get stronger over time.”

Improving the health of Stroh Gulch makes a positive difference, even though the stream isn’t likely to achieve stage zero status. Headwaters health isn’t an all-or-nothing game: Degrees matter. The rehabilitation efforts that are most likely to succeed also work by degrees, so that the best candidates for restoration typically retain some of their defining characteristics, says Beardsley. For example, it’s hard to relocate beavers to a zone where they have no food, habitat, or building materials.

It’s difficult to relocate beavers, period, says Beardsley. They’re natural forces that humans can’t readily control. So at Trail Creek, located within the Taylor River headwaters between Gunnison and Crested Butte, efforts merely invited beavers onto the mile-long segment. Wanting to improve water quality above Taylor Park Reservoir, local land managers worked with funding partners that included the National Forest Foundation and the Coca-Cola Corporation to restore water-holding wetlands. Beginning in 2021, volunteers sunk wooden posts into the stream banks and wove willows between them to create artificial beaver dams that, they hoped, would attract beavers from the surrounding forests.

It worked: By the following summer, beavers had returned to the valley after a 20-year absence and had constructed a dam and lodge that had begun to saturate the once-parched riparian zone. Retained water nourished the 200-plus willows that teams had planted, and the revived interaction between plants, water and wildlife promises to reverse the encroachment of sagebrush that had replaced riparian plants throughout the corridor.

“The big benefit is that water remains on the landscape,” says Beardsley. “That provides a big resiliency factor in times of drought.”

Coloradans have different needs and face a fresh set of threats that didn’t bear on those European settlers 200 years ago. “We’ve traded away a lot of those functions and benefits [of headwaters] by some of our past land uses,” says Beardsley. “But we can trade back, which is exciting.” Trail Creek and related projects indicate that headwater streams can indeed heal, when humans set them up to self-adapt.

“We don’t know how they should respond to a lesser snowpack or drier conditions or wildfire,” admits Beardsley. But he trusts nature to figure it out. “We have to give [headwater systems] what they need in order for them to give back to us.”

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

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Headwaters magazine summer 2023 issue.

A freelance writer living in Steamboat Springs, Kelly Bastone covers water, conservation and the outdoors for publications including Outside, AFAR, 5280, Backpacker, Field & Stream, and others. She is a regular contributor to Headwaters magazine.

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.

Luke Runyon joins The Water Desk as our new co-director

Aerial view of Lake Powell in southern Utah in October 2022. Photo by Alexander Heilner/The Water Desk with aerial support by LightHawk.

We’re thrilled to share the news that Luke Runyon has joined The Water Desk as our new co-director!

As many of you know, Luke is not only one of the nation’s finest water journalists but also a leader in the broader field of environmental journalism and board president of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Water Desk Co-Director Luke Runyon

For the past 12 years, Luke has been a journalist at NPR stations, reporting and editing stories on the West’s environmental issues. As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, he built a successful reporting project from scratch and developed a network of partner news organizations that share work and collaborate on projects—an effort he plans to expand on at The Water Desk.

In 2021, Luke was a Ted Scripps Fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism, where The Water Desk is based. The nine-month fellowship gave Luke the time and depth of knowledge needed to produce the podcast, “Thirst Gap: Learning to Live with Less on the Colorado River,” which came out earlier this year. It’s fascinating and I’d urge you to check it out.

Luke’s email is You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Threads.

We’re very grateful to the Walton Family Foundation for supporting our work and allowing us to expand our staff.

We will be making changes to our approach going forward and will use our email newsletter to keep you posted on The Water Desk’s evolution. Although we are not currently accepting applications for grants, we’ll also use the newsletter to announce any future funding opportunities for journalists and media outlets.

In the meantime, we’re continuing to republish water-related stories and also adding new photos and videos to our free multimedia library of key water-related locations in the Colorado River and Rio Grande basins.

Please join us in welcoming Luke to The Water Desk. We’re looking forward to seeing more of his fantastic journalism!

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.

Seasonal river cleanups could be a new community conservation tradition in Tucson

A volunteer pick up trash in the Santa Cruz River Credit: Teressa Enriquez

By Teressa Enriquez, AZ Luminaria, June 23, 2023

Jessica White glances up briefly at the sky. It’s barely 9 a.m. and the morning desert sun in May is gaining momentum. 

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Jessica makes sure her boys are drinking plenty of water and slathers sunscreen on all three of them. When she deems them ready, like a mother duck and her ducklings, the little group wades into the dry Santa Cruz River, along with the other volunteers. The group traverses the rocky and sandy bed in search of cleaner waterways.

The Santa Cruz River may be dry but on this spring morning it is alive with people who are making a seasonal river cleanup a community conservation tradition in Tucson.

The three little boys look at the river, puzzled about what happens next.

The sound of running water is replaced instead by that of the rustling of trash bags. The bike route above the river is filled with cyclists zooming by.

Jessica White helps her sons, Asher, Corbin and Wade, get ready for the cleanup. They shared a laugh about wearing bandanas like bandits.

At 10 a.m. Luke Cole, the Sonoran Institute’s director for resilient communities and watersheds, stands atop the ramp that leads down to the Santa Cruz River. Cole looks like the intrepid wildlife explorers you would imagine as a child. His cowboy hat, bright, button up shirt and the teal and yellow handkerchief on his neck pair harmoniously with his white, clean-cut beard and mustache. 

Through a bullhorn he makes an announcement: We’ve met our goal. Volunteers, you’ve collected 2,000 pounds of trash! 

Cheers scatter the air as the message reaches everyone working along the snaking riverbed. The sun never lets up and, after a brief pause, neither do the volunteers. They continue cleaning, pulling, carrying and dragging trash out of the river before the event ends. This is their chance to clear out as much litter as they can before the monsoon season comes, and along with it a flowing river that carries more trash along connected Arizona waterways.

It’s 11 a.m. “Thank yous,” and “Good jobs,” shower down from the bike route as cyclists speed on by and notice the cleaner Santa Cruz River. With the cleanup complete, volunteers trudge their way up the ramp. They return all the supplies, the gloves, the trash grabbers and bags, back to Tucson Clean and Beautiful, a community partner that supplied all the tools used.

The river cleanup event was sponsored by Caterpillar and included partners from governmental agencies, like Tucson Clean and Beautiful and Pima Flood Control, and local ones, like Dragoon Brewing and food truck ViriViriBombBomb! An anonymous donor offered $1 for every pound of trash collected.

Standing together, the group eyes their day’s conservation work.

With about 70 volunteers, they helped collect almost 4,000 pounds of trash out of the Santa Cruz River in just 2 hours. This one stretch connects to miles and miles of Arizona waterways that experts say are critically endangered.

Luke Cole, the Sonoran Institute’s director for resilient communities and watersheds, removes a box spring that had been dumped in the river bed. Claire Zugmeyer, the lead ecologist and project manager for the Santa Cruz River projects, fills a trash bag.

A river at risk

Due to climate change, overuse and outdated management, American Rivers, a nonprofit that advocates for protecting waterways, named the Colorado River the most endangered river of 2022. 

The Colorado River is critical to “30 federally-recognized Tribal Nations, seven states, México and the drinking water for 40 million people,” the American Rivers report stated. “Also threatened is vital habitat for wildlife, as the Basin is home to 30 native fish species, two-thirds of which are threatened or endangered, and more than 400 bird species.”

The rivers and lakes connected to it, such as the Santa Cruz River, are also at risk. While water legislation and interstate drought plans are regularly changing, conservation experts argue that without movements in favor of cleaner habits, any efforts to expand water resources will suffer, as those resources become increasingly contaminated.

The institute had planned to host its first Santa Cruz River cleanup in 2020. But then COVID-19 hit and they had to cancel the event. So instead, the Sonoran Institute began working on a trash study with interns from the University of Arizona. The study was made to figure out what kind of trash was in the Santa Cruz River and where. 

This analysis is vital information for the future of Tucson’s environmental policies.

They also started the #NotinmyRiver hashtag to make people aware of all the ways they can help by simply picking up trash in their neighborhood. Finally, in October of 2022, they hosted their first river cleanup. They’ve hosted two more since.

The cleanup event concluded with a group picture.

Michael Zellner is the Sonoran Institute’s CEO. In a February interview, Zellner advocated not only for the Santa Cruz River but for a change in perspective that incorporates more personal responsibility and collective community action in conservation efforts.

“For the past 100 years we have been protecting nature from human beings, parks and rivers. ‘Don’t touch it, leave it alone.’ But in the next 100 years what we are seeing is that we have to take care of natural resources for ourselves,” Zellner says. “If you look at it along the Colorado river and all the rivers like the Santa Cruz River, their water is running out. That phenomenon has to do with us, not with nature, and in fact nature will be alright. It will be us that suffer from our conduct.”

For conservationists, the growing worry of the Colorado River water crisis has been getting people more involved with their local bodies of water and pushing people to start asking: How can I be part of the solution? 

Melissa Cordero is the Sonoran Institute’s marketing and communications manager. Cordero says they’ve seen a huge influx in community participation, including clicks on their social media pages and questions about how to get involved.

“I think it has a lot to do with our great turnouts to these kinds of events,” she says.

Getting kids involved

Jessica, the mom who took her three sons to the May river cleanup, is a respiratory therapist who works long hours. While she’s careful about how she manages her family’s time, Jessica saw volunteering as an opportunity to work collectively.

Unfortunately, the river being that dirty did not catch her family off guard. 

“I live on the southwest side of Tucson near the Casino Del Sol and they’re just dumping trash pretty much everywhere – it just makes me really sad,” she says. “But I was happy that there was a group of people to do it. It’s hard to make a difference, one individual just doing something, so having a big group of people like that can be so impactful.”

Jessica White volunteers with her sons, Asher, Corbin and Wade.

Her boys got a kick out of volunteering.

“They were mostly excited that they got to wear a vest and some trash grabbers,” Jessica says, chuckling at the memory.

The Sonoran Institute works to hold events that are open to anyone, including families with children.

“As far as bringing my kids out there, I didn’t know how that was gonna turn out,” she says. “I didn’t know whether we would last 20 minutes and we would have to leave, but I thought it would be a good opportunity for them to kind of learn about looking outside of themselves.”

Jessica says she was not too environmentally conscious or active until 5 or 10 years ago. She wants her kids to start early.

“I really wanted to get them out and get them introduced to things outside of our little world early, so that they have a broader perspective,” she says. “And so they don’t grow up not wanting to get involved.”

Volunteers pick up as much trash as they can in 2 hours in the Santa Cruz River bed.

We are one: Our river, our community and our change

The theme for the Sonoran Institute’s 2022 annual report was, “We are One.” 

“It really is important when we are facing challenges like we are right now, when it comes to water conservation and restoration of these rivers, it’s not something just one organization can do,” Cordero says. 

Successful outreach and turnout for events starts with collaboration, she says. The institute regularly interacts with organizations like the LGBTQ+ Chamber of Commerce, Watershed Management and Ward 1 and Ward 3. 

The institute wants to change the outlook people have on volunteering and environmental activism. They want it to be fun.

“What we’re really trying to do is to set ourselves apart by incentivizing,” Cole says. “All these great local businesses are offering up gift certificates, are offering up bags of coffee and nice treats like that so that we can reward people for coming out here.”

They are also trying to bring out food trucks like ViriViriBombBomb. Dragoon Brewery gave all the river cleanup volunteers of drinking age a coupon for their first drink. “The last thing we want to do is have Tucson’s excited volunteer community get burnt out on cleaning the river,” says Cole.

Jessica appreciated that local businesses like 81 Barbershop and The Loft offered prizes but says internal motivation often outweighs incentives.

“I don’t think that a raffle is going to draw people out to the 90 degree weather to go clean up the river bed if they already don’t have the right intentions,” she says. 

Jessica White and son, Wade, walk up a ramp out of the river bed at the end of the cleanup event. Behind them is a pile of trash bags filled by volunteers.

What a river says about its communities

It is vital to clean the river, even if the river does not always carry water, says Cole. Monsoon storms move water from various sources, especially through the downtown corridor of the Santa Cruz River. 

“Getting that trash out of the river, even when the riverbed’s dry, at a minimum is us being good neighbors to Marana and other communities downstream where this trash would get washed down into,” Cole says. “Plus the Santa Cruz River is a wildlife corridor, you’re gonna want those beautiful animals to be using a river that isn’t full of trash.”

Cole says that because of the way Tucson is engineered all the water drains into the Santa Cruz River.

“It really genuinely makes a difference for you to clean up trash that you see when you’re walking around in your neighborhood because it will find its way to the Santa Cruz River,” Cole says. “Just throw it in the trash barrel and you’ll feel great for having done it and you’re benefiting the river by doing that too.”

Cole hopes the river cleanups can be done quarterly in coming years. There would initially be one in the spring, in the fall, in the winter and one right before the summer gets too hot and the monsoon season comes.

What you find in a river can say a lot about its city. Sometimes there are medical masks that flutter in bushes on the banks. Thirstbusters that stick out of the sand like trash hermit crabs or used needles that end up in the river bed. 

On a good day, sometimes you will find volunteers dedicated to something bigger than themselves. 

Glance into the Santa Cruz River on a hot May morning and you would find people ankle deep wrestling with old wet blankets clinging like cement to the moist sand. People walking around with milk gallons, collecting needles to correctly dispose of the hazardous waste. 

People throwing faded, torn face masks, a signature pandemic symbol, and thinking back to a time when they could not come together like they did today.

You would see a mom guiding her three little boys, dressed in vests way too big for them, and gripping trash grabbers, working with a community conservation effort to remove nearly 4,000 pounds of trash out of the Santa Cruz River in just 2 hours.

How to get involved

The Sonoran Institute needs donations to further their research and outreach for projects in renewable resources, water conservation and sustaining natural resources. You can follow them on their Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, or Twitter and visit their website for upcoming events and volunteer opportunities.

This article first appeared on AZ Luminaria and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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.

Climate change is increasing stress on thousands of aging dams across the US

Flood damage in Edenville, Mich., after a dam failed on May 19, 2020. AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

By Hiba Baroud, Vanderbilt University

Heavy rainfall in the Northeast on June 9-11, 2023, generated widespread flooding, particularly in New York’s Hudson Valley and in Vermont. One major concern was the Wrightsville Dam, built in 1935 on the Winooski River north of Vermont’s capital city, Montpelier. The reservoir behind the dam rose to within 1 foot of the dam’s maximum storage capacity, prompting warnings that water could overtop the dam and worsen already-dangerous conditions downstream, or damage the dam.

Hiba Baroud, associate professor and associate chair in the department of civil and environmental engineering at Vanderbilt University, explains how flooding stresses dams in a changing climate.

How serious is the risk when flooding overtops a dam?

Dam overtopping can result in erosion, which subsequently could lead to a dam breach or failure and a sudden, uncontrolled release of impounded water.

The risk of dam overtopping results from the combined effect of a hazardous event, such as heavy rainfall, and the vulnerability of the dam. A vulnerable dam could be old, poorly maintained or not have enough spillway capacity to safely release water from the dam.

A dam’s design can affect its ability to withstand overtopping and resist failure. For example, concrete dams can typically better withstand certain levels of overtopping compared to soil embankment dams.

Overtopping is the leading cause of dam failures in the U.S. It accounts for 34% of all dam failures. How long water flows over a dam and the volume of water that flows over it are important factors in determining the likelihood that a dam will fail.

The consequences of a dam overtopping, and possibly failing, depend on several factors, such as the purpose of the dam, its size and its location. If a dam is designed for flood protection and is surrounded by homes, businesses or critical infrastructure, a large uncontrolled release of water could be catastrophic. Dams that are small and located in rural areas may cause less damage if they are overtopped or fail.

How old are most US dams?

There are more than 91,000 dams across the U.S., in all 50 states, with diverse designs and purposes. The average dam age is 60 years, and more than 8,000 dams are over 90 years old.

Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers produces a report card for the nation’s infrastructure that assigns grades based on the condition of structures like roads, bridges and dams, and the investments that they need. The most recent report card estimates that 70% of U.S. dams will be more than 50 years old by 2030.

Overall, the report gave U.S. dams a “D” grade and estimated that more than 2,300 high hazard potential dams – those that could cause loss of life or serious property damage if they fail, based on the level of development around them – lacked emergency action plans.

This video captures the failure of the 90-year-old central spillway of the Lake Dunlap Dam in Seguin, Texas, on May 14, 2019. The collapse led to lawsuits and the creation of a water control district to replace the dam and others like it nearby.

Are there ways to strengthen older dams against flooding without completely replacing them?

Decommissioning or replacing dams can be complicated and cost-prohibitive. It also can have cascading effects on the surrounding community, and possibly on other infrastructure. Regularly maintaining and upgrading older dams can be a cost-effective way to strengthen them and make them resilient to natural hazards.

When dams no longer serve the purposes for which they were built, they may be partially breached or entirely removed to restore the river’s natural flow.

The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates that it would cost US$157.7 billion to rehabilitate all nonfederal dams in the U.S. Of this amount, about one-fifth ($34.1 billion) is for rehabilitating high hazard potential dams. The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes approximately $3 billion for dam safety projects, focusing on rehabilitation, retrofitting and removal.

Is climate change increasing stress on older dams?

Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of natural hazards like storms that threaten dams. And these shifts don’t follow historical trends. Conditions that once were considered extreme will likely be more common in the future.

For example, one recent study on predicting coastal flooding found that in New England, a 100-year flood – that’s an event of a magnitude that now has a 1% chance of occurring in any given year – could become an annual occurrence by the late 2100s.

The fact that the climate is changing also means that extreme events are becoming more extreme. In 2015, a 1,000-year rainfall event in South Carolina resulted in breaches of 47 dams.

Designing new dams and upgrading existing infrastructure will need to be based on updated design procedures that take into account future climate projections, not just historical hazardous events. While older dams aren’t necessarily unsafe, they were constructed following outdated design standards and construction procedures and for different environmental conditions. That influences the likelihood and consequences of their failure during disasters.

The near-failure of California’s Oroville Dam in February 2017 led to the evacuation of nearly 190,000 people living downstream. A review cited multiple causes, including design and construction flaws, the bedrock upon which the dam was built and lapses in ongoing inspections.

Do you see this event in Vermont as a warning for other communities?

The disasters that have hit the U.S. in recent years should spur government agencies and communities to prepare and plan for disasters through proactive steps such as developing emergency action plans.

While the number of high hazard potential dams in the U.S. has more than doubled in the last 20 years as development has moved farther into rural areas, the proportion of these dams with an emergency action plan has also increased. It is now at 76%, which is much higher than just a few years ago.

Vulnerable dams and the risk of dam failure cascade through our economy and affect many sectors. Dams serve many purposes: They provide water for drinking and irrigation, generate energy and protect communities from flooding. They are also part of a large navigation network that transports more than 500 million tons of commodities across the U.S. each year.

As my colleagues and I have shown, it’s important to understand the direct and indirect costs when critical infrastructure systems like dams fail. This information is crucial for developing strategies that can help the U.S. prepare for future disasters.

Hiba Baroud is Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Vanderbilt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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.

Pitkin County aims to bring back beavers

Beavers have constructed a network of dams and lodges on this Woody Creek property. Pitkin County is betting big on beavers, funding projects that may eventually reintroduce the animals to suitable habitat on public lands. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

By Heather Sackett, Aspen Journalism, August 3, 2023

During the summer of 2020, Woody Creek landowner Jennifer Craig noticed that beavers had taken up residence on her property, building a dam across the channel and creating a pool.

The network of dams, pools and lodges has continued to grow over the past few seasons, creating a lush, muddy wetland thick with willows. And despite what Craig characterized as complaints about flooded land from downstream neighbors and calls for her to clear out the beaver handiwork she says the beavers are beneficial because they keep water on the landscape.

“As an upstream landowner, the best thing I can do is nothing,” she said. “Flooding from a beaver dam is natural, but people don’t like the chaos. Beavers provide habitat for so many other creatures, and they are keeping water in that whole corridor down there.”

Pitkin County is hoping that other landowners see things the way Craig does as it makes beavers a top priority, funding measures that may eventually restore North America’s largest rodent to areas it once lived in the Roaring Fork watershed.

Prized among early trappers for their fur that made fashionable hats, beavers were also seen as a nuisance to farmers and ranchers — perspectives used to justify killing them. But there has been a growing recognition over the past few years that beavers play a crucial role in the health of ecosystems. By building dams that pool water, the engineers of the forest can transform channelized streams into sprawling, soggy floodplains that recharge groundwater, create habitat for other species, improve water quality, and create areas resistant to wildfires and climate change.

The growing popularity of the animal caught the attention of Healthy Rivers board members, a group whose mission includes improving water quality and quantity. They are hoping to teach landowners how to coexist peacefully with beavers, correct beaver misconceptions and maybe even reintroduce them onto carefully chosen areas of the watershed. The Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board has spent just over $70,000 to date, with another $50,000 planned toward bringing back beavers, according to Healthy Rivers staff.

“They are so important for our environment and, in particular, our water environments,” said Wendy Huber, chair of the Healthy Rivers board. “How do we shift people’s perception of them from being destructive rodents to being our partners in protecting the environment?”

Woody Creek landowner Jennifer Craig points out the network of beaver dams, ponds and lodges on her property. She first noticed the animals had moved in during the summer of 2020 and the beaver dam complex has been growing each season. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Forest Service inventory

Healthy Rivers has, so far, come up with two ways to do that.

One is a public-awareness campaign called Bring Back Beavers that features cute yet edgy beaver characters and catchphrases (“It’s About Dam Time,” for example), with plans to put the slogans on T-shirts and stickers. A new website presents beaver facts (their teeth never stop growing) and busts beaver myths (they don’t eat fish).

The other part of the strategy is to fund a program with the U.S. Forest Service for a beaver survey that aims to document more than 200 randomly selected riparian sites on public land in the headwaters over two years to find where beavers are thriving and identify locations where they could be successfully relocated in the future. Healthy Rivers has spent $50,000 on the project, which paid for two Forest Service technicians to carry out the work and has earmarked another $50,000 for next season.

Clay Ramey, a fisheries biologist with White River National Forest, is leading the effort, along with two technicians in the field, Samantha Alford and Stephanie Lewis, who are spending the summer chasing beavers. Ramey said that for a watershed-scale project such as this, it is important to analyze data collected from around the entire region, not just in places where beavers live.

“Beavers come and go, so measuring known sites is not helpful,” he said. “We are in the habitat business, so we want to know the big-picture questions like where do we have beavers, where do we not have beavers and what is the habitat like at the places where we do have beavers and what is the habitat like at the places where we do not have beavers.”

To that end, Alford and Lewis have been heading into sometimes-remote sites on streams throughout the watershed — North Thompson Creek, Fryingpan River, Conundrum Creek, Hunter Creek, Snowmass Creek and others — to measure the width of waterways, the slope of streams, the types of vegetation present and any signs of beaver activity, past or present, such as dams, lodges or chewed sticks.

Beavers generally like slow-moving streams that are not too steep and have plenty of nearby willows, aspens, cottonwoods and alders, which they can use for food and building materials.

“We know slope is relevant to where a beaver can prosper,” Ramey said. “Aspen, cottonwood, alder — a site that has none of those is not a place a beaver is going to do well because it doesn’t have any food.”

Ramey hopes the information collected by the inventory project will be incorporated into revisions for the updated forest-management plan, which is in progress.

Samantha Alford, right, and Stephanie Lewis, technicians with the U.S. Forest Service, measure the slope and width of Conundrum Creek. Pitkin County has spent $50,000 on this summer’s beaver habitat survey and has earmarked another $50,000 for next season. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Beaver relocation

Tom Cardamone, executive director of the Watershed Biodiversity Initiative and former longtime director of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, is one of several beaver boosters who have been quietly meeting over the past few months, plotting how to communicate with the public about beaver restoration.

With permission from Colorado Parks & Wildlife, Cardamone has relocated nuisance beavers on Nicholson Creek, which is a tributary of Capitol Creek, but he realized that a more formal protocol will be needed if rehoming them becomes more frequent. An eventual outcome of Pitkin County’s campaign may be relocating troublemaking beavers on private land to sites identified by the Forest Service survey as prime habitat on public land.

“You need to catch a whole group and move them to get them to stick,” Cardamone said. “It takes a few days to catch them and you have to hold them someplace that’s protected and secure, so no predators. You have to clean them and make sure they are healthy and then move them all as a group. That’s a bit of a lift.”

But there may be a looming legal question about new ponds created by relocated beavers. This year, Colorado lawmakers rejected a version of a bill that would have made it easier for environmental groups to do stream-restoration projects that mimic beaver activities because of potential unknown impacts to downstream water rights holders. Engineers from the Division of Water Resources last year told groups proposing projects on Eagle County Open Space that would have included beaver dam analogues that they must get an augmentation plan — which are costly, require the work of attorneys and engineers, and involve a lengthy water court process — to replace the water lost to evaporation by the creation of small ponds.

Could the same thing happen if the ponds were created by actual beavers on Forest Service land?

“We have not seen any indication that there’s a substantial legal concern,” said Pitkin County Assistant Attorney Laura Makar.

That’s good news for Huber, who has such an affection for the creatures that she once tried but failed to carry a favorite stick she found on a Montana fishing trip — its ends chewed and denuded of bark by beaver incisors — through airport security.

“Let’s bring them back,” she said. “They were here first. It’s a no-brainer.”

Aspen Journalism is a nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water, environment, social justice and more. Visit Aspen Journalism is supported by a grant from the Pitkin County Healthy Community Fund. Jennifer Craig is the daughter of Carol Craig, a long-time Aspen Journalism supporter.

This story ran in the Aug. 6 edition of The Aspen Times and Steamboat Pilot & Today, and the Aug. 10 edition of the Aspen Daily 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 fun is back at Blue Mesa and other reservoirs, as heavy winter snows melt, restoring their glory

A marina at Blue Mesa Reservoir where boaters are returning in droves, thanks to improved water levels. Photo credit: National Park Service/Matt Johnson

By Jerd Smith, Fresh Water News, Jul 26, 2023 

Southwestern Colorado’s Blue Mesa Reservoir, drained by years of drought and a major release of water designed to aid a plummeting Lake Powell, is experiencing a rebirth this summer and could fully fill by the end of the recreation season.

“The water has been shooting up,” says Eric Loken, who manages the two marinas on the reservoir.

Blue Mesa is one of four federal reservoirs in the Upper Colorado River Basin designed to hold water to help the Upper Basin states—Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming—meet legal obligations to send water downstream to Arizona, California and Nevada. The other Upper Basin reservoirs include Utah’s Flaming Gorge, New Mexico’s Navajo, and Utah and Arizona’s Lake Powell.

In 2021, already partially drained by years of drought and thin snowpacks, millions of gallons of water were sent from Blue Mesa downstream to Lake Powell in an effort to bolster that reservoir and keep hydropower-generating turbines operating.

Even more water was released upstream that year, from Flaming Gorge.

But this year, thanks to abundant snows and a cool, rainy spring across the region, Blue Mesa and Flaming Gorge are in recovery mode, according to Alex Pivarnik, a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist.

“Flaming Gorge is on the up. Blue Mesa is on the up. Powell is going to be increasing as well,” Pivarnik says.

Two years ago the picture was much different. Marina operators were scrambling to move docks and gasoline tanks as reservoir levels plummeted.

Blue Mesa is Colorado’s largest reservoir, holding more than 940,000 acre-feet of water when it is full. An acre-foot of water equals nearly 326,000 gallons and is enough to serve two to four urban households for one year. Though reservoir levels fluctuate, depending on releases to downstream water users, Blue Mesa held 747,000 acre-feet of water as of July 25, meaning it was nearly 80% full.

Last year, with little recovery in sight, Loken was forced to close the Elk Creek Marina, the largest on Blue Mesa. He, and the thousands of boaters, campers and anglers who visit the giant watering hole, worried that the future was so bleak that the reservoir might not recover.

“There was some concern that it would never refill,” Loken says. “There was concern we might have to send everything we had downstream [to Powell].

“But this year we are way up. It’s a lake again. It’s quite nice,” he says.

And for this year, at least, as the water levels rise, federal officials say there will be no need for additional emergency releases under a special drought plan approved in 2019, giving everyone some room to breathe and enjoy the giant pool.

“There is no plan to do additional drought response [releases] in 2023,” Pivarnik says. “But we don’t want people to sit there and think one good year of runoff and snowpack gets you out of 20 years of drought. We still have to manage for a drier future.”

This article first appeared in Water Education Colorado’s Summer 2023 issue of Headwaters Magazine.

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

Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by numerous donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at

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.

Scientists Warned of a Salton Sea Disaster. No One Listened.

The Salton Sea is a 316-square mile, shallow glaze of water in Southern California that has been receding in recent years. Scientists believe the toxic dust kicked up from the exposed lakebed is contributing to respiratory disease in the region. | All photos by KITRA CAHANA for UNDARK

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By Fletcher Reveley, Undark, July 3, 2023

On the afternoon of Oct. 6, 2022, a massive dust storm rose in the drought-parched Sonoran Desert just southeast of California’s Salton Sea. Wind, gusting at more than 60 miles per hour, whipped the desert floor into a vaulting curtain of sediment that swept north across the Imperial Valley, engulfing low-slung agricultural towns like El Centro and Brawley in a mantle of suffocating dust. The storm knocked out power, downed trees, and shrouded the region in an eerie amber haze. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index, which considers scores above 150 unhealthy, and those above 300 hazardous, spiked to 659 at a monitoring station on the western shore of the Salton Sea. And as the avalanche of dust bore down, Trianna Morales, a 31-year-old baker at the local Vons supermarket in Brawley, looked on with dread. “Oh my God,” Morales thought. “We’re gonna get sick.”

Trianna Morales and their daughter, Luna, at a park in Brawley, California. Last fall, a massive dust storm hit their town, sending Luna to the ER for breathing issues for the third or fourth time in a year. Morales, their two young children, and their fiancé all have severe asthma. In Brawley and other communities near the Salton Sea, rates of respiratory disease are sky high.

Morales and their two children, 6-year-old Luna and 3-year-old Frederick, as well as Morales’ fiancé, Cyrus Ramirez, all suffer from severe asthma. Inhalers, nebulizers, and packages of various medications crowd the countertops of their apartment, while a homemade air purifier — built from a box fan and furnace filters — usually whirs away in the corner of the living room. These defenses, however, too often prove insufficient against the dust storms that now blow through the region with increasing frequency. During these events, there is little the family can do besides wait anxiously to see whose attack will be the gravest. This time, it was Luna’s.

The child began coughing soon after the storm arrived, and in the following days her symptoms worsened. When she started experiencing asthmatic retractions — a type of severely labored breathing that caused her chest to cave inward — Morales rushed her to the hospital. There, doctors administered steroids to open Luna’s airways. She soon recovered, and the family was allowed to return home. For Morales, the episode was frightening and demoralizing — but also depressingly familiar. It was Luna’s third or fourth visit to the ER for breathing issues in the last year alone. Frederick had also made several trips. “I just feel so bad for them,” said Morales. “They’re never going to get away from this.”

Morales and their fiancé, Cyrus Ramirez, administer nebulizer treatments to Luna and Frederick in January 2023. As dust storms increasingly roll through the region, the protection the family has against asthma attacks is too often insufficient.

Morales attributes their family’s breathing problems to the Salton Sea, a strange and troubled body of water 17 miles by car to the north. The largest lake by surface area in California, the Salton Sea is a 316-square mile, exceedingly shallow glaze of water that stretches from the Imperial Valley in the south to the Coachella Valley in the north. The lake has been shrinking in recent years, the result of drought, reduced Colorado River inflows to the Imperial Valley, and a package of water transfer agreements (where parties buy and sell water rights) that depleted the Sea’s main source: agricultural runoff. As the shoreline recedes, it reveals swathes of formerly submerged lakebed, or playa, laced with heavy metals, agrochemicals, and potentially hazardous microbial byproducts. Toxic dust from the playa then blows into local communities, where scientists believe it is contributing to sky-high rates of respiratory disease. As even greater expanses of playa are exposed by the shrinking lake in coming years, those health impacts will likely become much worse.

“It’s one of the biggest crises in California right now,” said Emma Aronson, a microbiologist at the University of California Riverside. “And so many people don’t even know about it.”

For nearly a quarter of a century, scientists have warned the state of California that an ecological and public health catastrophe was imminent. But repeatedly, the state, which has assumed a statutory responsibility for the lake’s restoration since 2003, has failed to heed those warnings. It has instead approved water transfers known to be harmful to the region without implementing a long-term plan to mitigate their impacts. It has never enacted a comprehensive scientific program that many scientists believe is a critical first step toward developing a successful restoration strategy. And it has, after 20 years of neglecting the region, only recently begun to offer Band-Aid solutions that most scientists agree will do little to address the existing and impending problems — and even those projects have fallen far behind schedule.

State officials point to a complicated patchwork of land ownership and difficulties navigating regional water rights — as well as the sheer magnitude of the problem — as barriers to progress. However, Lisa Lien-Mager, a spokesperson for the California Natural Resources Agency, told Undark that she believes the state has turned a corner. “We recognize the slow progress over the decades,” she said. “But now we are really feeling hopeful that we’ve broken through some of those barriers.”

For many scientists, though, hope is not good enough. The state has run out of time, they say, and the shrinking lake has already begun to exacerbate the region’s poor respiratory health. A recent survey by researchers from the University of Southern California found that about half of elementary school kids in the region had either been diagnosed with asthma or had displayed asthma-like symptoms. In Imperial County, where Brawley is located, children visit ERs for respiratory issues at twice the rate of those in the rest of California. At least two children have died from asthma attacks in the last two decades.

For local residents like Morales and Ramirez, the crisis at the Salton Sea has become an inescapable fixture of daily life. “I wish they would just find a way to clean it up,” Ramirez said.

“When I think of the Salton Sea,” he added, “I just think of how much harm it’s doing to people.”

One morning in the late summer of 1996, Ken Sturm, then a biologist at the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, was patrolling the lake’s shallow waters when he began to spot dead pelicans. Their carcasses jutted from the surface like half-submerged stones, dotting the shoreline. Other birds, still alive, writhed in the water, slowly succumbing to paralysis. Sturm raced back to alert his boss, and together they returned to the lake. By mid-afternoon it was clear that something unprecedented was occurring. “All over the Salton Sea, every shoreline we patrolled, we were finding dead and dying birds,” Sturm recalled.

“It was shocking,” he added.

What Sturm witnessed that day was the beginning of the deadliest pelican die-off ever recorded. In just a few months, 15 to 20 percent of the western population of American White Pelicans, as well as several other species, perished at the Salton Sea, some 15,000 birds in total. The cause was determined to be type C avian botulism, a bacterial neurotoxin. To dispose of the carcasses, Sturm and his colleagues ran an incinerator 24 hours a day, but still could not keep up; the birds accumulated in 6-foot-high piles, rotting in the August heat. At night, Sturm would brush the maggots out of his socks, sleep for a few hours, and then begin again, collecting and incinerating pelicans. The grisly scene received national attention, and everyone seemed to ask the same question: Why was this happening?

By that time, the Salton Sea ecosystem had been declining for decades. Formed in 1905 when an engineering mishap allowed the entire volume of the Colorado River to gush into the Salton Basin for 18 months, the lake had long been sustained by irrigation runoff from farms in the adjacent Imperial Valley. Without the runoff, the Salton Sea would have swiftly evaporated, as had Lake Cahuilla, the ephemeral body of water that had periodically occupied the basin over centuries. Instead, the lake stabilized, even enjoying a spectacular tourism boom in the 1950s and ’60s. Celebrities like Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys descended on the “Salton Riviera” for raucous motorboat regattas and boozy carousing at the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club.

SALTON SEA ENVIRONS: The Salton Sea is located roughly 75 miles east of San Diego, at the north end of California’s Imperial valley. Visual: Undark

But the good times were fleeting. A series of floods in the 1970s battered many of the shoreline tourism hubs beyond repair. The crowds vanished, leaving abandoned hotels and marinas. For those who remained — mostly poor agricultural workers in the Imperial Valley, as well as Indigenous Kamia-Kumeyaay, Quechan, and Cahuilla people — the problems continued to mount. The 1996 pelican die-off was just one in a string of lurid wildlife mortality events that sullied the lake’s reputation. One newspaper began to refer to the spring and summer months at the Salton Sea as the “season of death.”

The wave of negative publicity generated an upswell of political and scientific interest in the Salton Sea. Sonny Bono, the singer-turned-congressman from California’s 44th district, who used to water-ski at the lake as a youth, began advocating for the lake in Washington D.C., while the Secretary of the Interior simultaneously started to lay the groundwork for a coordinated, multi-agency scientific effort. When Bono died in 1998, Congress passed the Salton Sea Reclamation Act in his honor, unlocking millions of dollars in funding for research at the lake. The Salton Sea Science Subcommittee and, later, the U.S. Geological Survey Salton Sea Science Office were established, with a biologist named Doug Barnum serving as coordinator of the latter. Meanwhile, a University of Redlands environmental scientist named Tim Krantz was tapped to head the Salton Sea Database Program, under the auspices of the EPA, which would synthesize newly gathered data and model the lake system. It was a heady time for research at the Salton Sea, a rare moment when science and policy seemed to be working in concert. “The proverbial you-know-what had not yet hit the fan,” Krantz said in a recent interview with Undark.

As the scientific efforts began to generate results, it became clear that two distinct processes were threatening the ecosystem. The first was rising salinity — Colorado River water, naturally high in salt, entered the lake as irrigation runoff and then evaporated, leaving the salt behind. The creeping salinity levels threatened many of the lake’s organisms. The second was a process called eutrophication, in which nutrient-rich fertilizers fed explosive algae blooms. When the algae died, it fell to the bottom of the lake, where it consumed oxygen as it decomposed. The resulting “dead zones” were responsible for several large-scale fish die-offs, including a 1999 event where 7.6 million tilapia perished in a single day. But as the scientific understanding of the lake grew, researchers like Krantz began to worry that the most immediate threat to the ecosystem didn’t come from salt or nutrients — it came from policy.

By the mid-20th century, the Salton Sea had become a popular tourist playground. But the good times would be short-lived. Visual: Illustration by Undark; Images courtesy of Julia Hause and the Salton Sea History Museum

At the time, California was under federal pressure to reduce its Colorado River water usage, which far exceeded its legally allotted 4.4 million acre-feet per year. (An acre-foot is the amount of water required to cover an acre with one foot of water, roughly 326,000 gallons.) In order to scale back, it had been proposed that the Imperial Irrigation District, or IID, which was by far the largest user of Colorado River water, transfer some 300,000 acre-feet per year to other southern California water districts, mainly the San Diego County Water Authority. With the money IID earned through the transfers, it would be able to pay for more efficient irrigation infrastructure, as well as initiate a fallowing program, where local farmers would be compensated in exchange for not producing crops. Less water used for irrigation in the Imperial Valley, however, meant less agricultural runoff — the lifeblood of the Salton Sea. The already troubled ecosystem, Krantz realized, was about to be dealt a devastating blow.

Using new data from the ongoing scientific efforts at the lake, Krantz began to model the potential impacts of the water transfers. The results, he said, were “jaw-dropping.” Within seven to 12 years of those transfers, his models showed, the lake’s salinity would rise to a level that would no longer support fish life, rendering conversations about the ecosystem moot. The lake would shrink rapidly, eventually exposing over 100 square miles of playa, an expanse larger than Sacramento. Wind could then pick up the ultra-fine silt, Krantz realized, and potentially cause devastating air quality events. “That’s where it suddenly became really concerning to all of us that were working on the science subcommittee,” he recalled. “That it’s not about fish and wildlife anymore. It’s about human life.”

Krantz and his colleagues were keenly aware of the case of Owens Lake, about 300 miles to the north, whose tributaries had been diverted in 1913 to slake a thirsty and rapidly growing Los Angeles. By 1926, the lake’s desiccated basin had become the largest source of particulate matter air pollution in the United States (particulate matter pollution, also known as PM10 or PM2.5, depending on the size of the particles, is harmful to human health, no matter its chemical composition). The potential exposed area at the Salton Sea, however, was more than twice as large as the dust-producing area at Owens Lake, and while roughly 40,000 people are affected by the dust fluxes at Owens Lake, some 650,000 people live within the Salton Sea airshed. Barnum recalled that when the USGS Salton Sea Science Office invited Ted Schade, an air quality expert from Owens Lake, to the Salton Sea to assess the potential danger, he told them to keep the lakebed covered by water at all costs.

In the spring of 2002, the State Water Resources Control Board, the ultimate arbiter of water rights in California, held a series of hearings to determine whether to approve the transfers, which by then had been folded into a larger set of deals called the Quantification Settlement Agreement, or QSA. Krantz, Schade, and several other scientists resolved to testify so that the board would understand the stakes.

Schade, in written and oral testimony, offered a conservative scenario: If the Salton Sea playa proved just one-tenth as emissive as Owens Lake, it could produce air quality events 27 times over the federal safety standard for PM10. But it wasn’t just the particulate matter that was worrisome. A hydrogeologist named Richard Vogl testified that Salton Sea sediment contained potentially harmful levels of chemicals: cadmium, copper, zinc, nickel, molybdenum, and selenium. The PM10 was harmful on its own, but the presence of these elements in the sediment, according to Schade, was a “double whammy.”

Krantz, in his written testimony, painted a bleak picture: If the transfers went through, the Salton Sea would contract dramatically, dropping by up to 30 feet and exposing huge expanses of lake bottom sediment. Salinity levels would jump, leaving the lake uninhabitable for most wildlife within seven to 12 years. Roughly 200 million fish would die. Bird populations would plunge. And human health in the region would decline, with the blowing dust potentially triggering higher rates of respiratory disease. The board, by denying the water transfers, could avoid the worst of these impacts for another 30 to 60 years, giving scientists time to develop solutions. “The choice is yours,” Krantz told the board.

The board approved the transfers.

A pelican sculpture at the edge of the Salton Sea in Bombay Beach, California. In the summer of 1996, the deadliest pelican die-off ever recorded occurred at the Salton Sea. The cause was a bacterial neurotoxin, which struck other bird species as well, ultimately killing some 15,000 birds in total. “All over the Salton Sea, every shoreline we patrolled, we were finding dead and dying birds,” wildlife biologist Ken Sturm recalled.

To temporarily stave off the worst impacts of the deal, however, the Imperial Irrigation District was ordered to supply 15 years of mitigation water to the lake, offsetting the lost inflow. In return, then-Gov. Gray Davis signed the Salton Sea Restoration Act, committing the state to “undertake the restoration of the Salton Sea ecosystem.” A deal, then, had been struck: California had 15 years to find a solution.

Arthur Baggett, who chaired the water board at the time, told Undark that he felt the 15-year window amounted to a satisfactory compromise between a complex set of competing interests. But for Krantz, the negotiations over the QSA revealed a troubling reality. “There was this schism between the water politics and the scientific community,” he said. “That schism still is very strong and enduring, and very difficult for us to combat.” Watching the policy diverge from the science, he added, “was like watching a slow-motion train wreck.”

Following the passage of the QSA, Barnum, the Salton Sea Science Office coordinator, began working with state officials, offering recommendations on how to develop a scientifically sound restoration strategy that considered the anticipated diversion of water. When the California Natural Resources Agency, which had been tasked with leading the restoration effort, established a science advisory committee to provide direct scientific input to the state, Barnum was chosen as its chair.

Since the late 1990s, Barnum and many other scientists had been calling for a comprehensive, integrated science program at the lake. As the committee chair, he hoped his input could help put such a program into action. Among other things, he advocated for using regular data collection at the lake to develop conceptual and predictive models of the Salton Sea system, which could be used to evaluate potential management scenarios. Such a program, Barnum believed, was a crucial first step in developing an effective strategy. Without it, managers would be shooting in the dark. “You can’t make recommendations based on speculation,” Barnum said in a recent interview.

But Barnum’s vision, which was widely shared in the scientific community, failed to gain traction within the state agencies. Instead, he said, they reverted to a piecemeal approach, looking at slices of the lake system that were deemed important for specific management decisions, with no regard for how they interacted to form a dynamic whole. Crucially, the state failed to establish a central repository for the scattered data that was collected by various scientists, so there was no way to synthesize the information into useful models. (Krantz’s efforts to fill this role began to run aground in 2003, when his funding dried up.) Furthermore, Barnum said, the state neglected to implement a basic monitoring program, to keep track of changes in the evolving body of water.

Birds line the shoreline of the Salton Sea in December 2022. At hearings held by the State Water Resources Control Board in 2002, environmental scientist Tim Krantz testified that if the water transfers went through, the lake would contract dramatically and salinity levels would jump, leaving the lake uninhabitable for most wildlife within seven to 12 years.

Barnum grew increasingly vexed by what he saw as the state’s unwillingness to gather critical data on the lake system. In 2005, he recalled, he attended a meeting in San Diego whose attendees included the state’s Secretary of Resources, as well as state senators and congressional staff. There had been a recent gypsum bloom at the lake — a then-poorly understood phenomenon where hydrogen sulfide interacts with oxygen and calcium to produce the mineral, lending the lake a peculiar, green appearance. After Barnum showed images of the event, which drew gasps, the participants waited for an explanation. “Here’s the problem,” he recalled telling them. “This is going to happen again and again and again, and every time you’re going to ask me, ‘Why is it happening?’ And I’m going to shrug my shoulders 10 years from now and say ‘I don’t know, because we don’t have any monitoring to tell us what’s going on.’”

The scattershot scientific approach of the state, according to Barnum, led to critical knowledge gaps — especially regarding the dust. Barnum had come to view the potential health impacts of the dust as one of the most urgent questions facing the region. It was imperative, he believed, to determine not only how much of the dust was likely to become airborne, but also its potential toxic impact on humans. Yet despite Barnum repeatedly raising the issue with agency officials, nothing was ever done. “Management was just not concerned to throw any money at it — to throw any research dollars at it,” he said. “Despite the urgency, despite the legal ramifications, there just was no interest.”

Others within the scientific community were similarly trying to foreground the issue. In 2006, Michael Cohen, a researcher with the Pacific Institute, a water policy think tank, co-authored a report — reviewed by Barnum, among others — that described a future even more dire than Krantz’s projections. Using a new hydrological model developed by an independent consultant hired by the state, Cohen predicted that 134 square miles of playa would be exposed by 2036 — an area nearly twice as large as Washington D.C. That exposure would result in roughly 86 tons of additional dust entering the Salton Sea airshed per day. The report concluded that the problems at the Salton Sea would ultimately result in “exorbitant costs, in terms of human health, ecological health, and economic development.”

The science program that Barnum had been calling for never happened, nor was there ever any rigorous study of how much of the playa’s dust may become airborne. But the scientific community’s concerns did trickle into a plan that the California Natural Resources Agency delivered to the legislature in May of 2007. Called the Salton Sea Ecosystem Restoration Program, or the “preferred alternative” colloquially, the plan noted that, if approved, “monitoring and testing activities would be conducted to identify the potential for and rate of dust emissions, determine chemical characteristics of the playa, and analyze response of salt crusts and sediments to humidity and wind.” An earlier draft had acknowledged that if the lake shrank as expected in coming years, “there could be dust from the exposed playa, affecting both wildlife and humans.”

Ultimately, the agency’s measured recognition of the dust problem didn’t make any difference. When the California legislature considered the “preferred alternative,” which would cost an estimated $8.9 billion, they promptly shelved it.

By 2013, a full decade after the passage of the QSA, the state of California had still done nothing to restore the Salton Sea. Following the dismissal of the “preferred alternative” by the legislature, agency officials had shifted focus to salvaging one small part of the plan, a several-thousand-acre wetland complex on the lake’s southern shore, called the Species Conservation Habitat, or SCH. But even that modest project stalled — five years after it had originally been proposed, all that existed of the SCH was an environmental impact report. Meanwhile, other southern California water districts continued to enjoy the benefits of the water transfers. As locals of the Salton Sea region stared down an imminent ecological and public health calamity, residents of San Diego used nearly 200,000 acre-feet of water — roughly double what they received from the QSA transfers that year — to water their lawns.

As it became clear that California was faltering on its legal obligation to restore the lake, tensions began to rise among the parties of the QSA. Board members at the Imperial Irrigation District, which had been fulfilling its side of the bargain every year by transferring the water, grew impatient with the state. “We weren’t seeing progress, the board was incredibly frustrated, we were starting to see shoreline receding,” recalled Tina Shields, the water department manager at IID.

“The board said we’d had enough,” she added. In 2014, IID filed a petition with the State Water Resources Control Board, asking it to intervene.

In January 2023, a banner visible from the highway reads “SALTON SEA” and “THE TIME IS NOW!” near the southern shore of the Salton Sea. For nearly a quarter of a century, scientists have warned the state of California that an ecological and public health catastrophe was imminent.

While the IID petition churned through the bureaucracy of the water board, which would not ultimately act on it for three years, the scientific community continued to advocate for a comprehensive science program at the lake. Barnum and others had spent seven years after the demise of the preferred alternative developing the Salton Sea Ecosystem Monitoring and Assessment Plan, a framework for how to integrate scientific inquiry into future management (the plan had no funding, and waited, as it said in its executive summary, “in anticipation of direction from the legislature”). In 2014, following the MAPS completion the previous year, Barnum, along with Cohen, the Pacific Institute researcher, and a biologist from the University of California Irvine named Tim Bradley, organized a meeting of some 50 scientists to assess the current state of Salton Sea science. The meeting yielded a package of research proposals, amounting to roughly $47 million, that would plug the perceived knowledge gaps at the lake and help guide state officials toward meaningful solutions. A summary report concluded: “The focus of immediate, urgent priority is related to air quality, fugitive dust, and related human-health issues.”

Still, the state failed to act. Cohen, hoping to capture the attention of policymakers by putting the problem in monetary terms, authored a sequel to his earlier report in which he argued that inaction also generated costs — but those costs would ultimately be borne by those least able to afford them: the residents of the area. He estimated that without state intervention, health care costs directly related to the dust could soar to $37 billion through 2047. Additional costs from decreased property values, potential loss of agriculture, diminished recreational revenue, and up to $26 billion in lost ecological value would combine to make restoration plans — even the $8.9 billion preferred alternative — seem frugal in comparison.

Cohen told Undark that he believes the report moved the needle somewhat. Still, he said, policymakers tend to incorporate science selectively, using “science if it supports their policy objectives. But if it doesn’t, then they ignore it.” He later added, “I’m used to being ignored.”

As the 15-year clock was running out on the mitigation water, scientists, once again, tried to sound the alarm. They attended meetings with agency managers, wrote op-eds, organized public speaking events. Tim Bradley, who headed a research effort at UC Irvine, helped launch a petition calling for the water transfers to be regulated until the state could implement mitigation measures. Years passed with no concrete action. “We just kept saying, ‘Is anybody paying attention?’ It’s very clear what the science is here, is anybody paying attention?’” recalled Bradley. “We just kept trying and we just kept trying.”

Finally, in March of 2017, the state of California, which had reorganized its efforts into a new initiative called the Salton Sea Management Program, released a 10-year plan calling for roughly 30,000 acres of habitat and dust suppression projects, to be completed by 2028. The plan, which was estimated to cost $383 million (and had secured funding for less than a quarter of that amount), no longer discussed restoring the Salton Sea — instead, it laid out a partial mitigation and management strategy for a “smaller and sustainable sea.” The original 2003 legislation committing California to the restoration of the lake had set an objective to attain “historic levels and diversity of fish and wildlife.” The new plan ignored that goal, instead aiming for simple acreage milestones — which together accounted for less than half of the playa expected to be exposed by 2028. Still, after 14 years of stagnation, the state now appeared committed to a course of action.

A few months after the release of the 10-year plan, the water board finally convened to settle the matter of the 2014 Imperial Irrigation District petition. Cohen, Bradley, and others traveled to Sacramento to speak, as did several residents of Mecca, a town on the north side of the lake. Bradley attempted to persuade the board to slow the water transfers until the state could catch up with its mitigation strategy. “It’s unconscionable,” he told them, “to wait for illness and deaths to manifest themselves in the communities around the sea before acting.” Later in the meeting, a young man from Mecca named Christian Garza spoke. Garza had suffered from asthma his whole life, and two years prior had nearly died from a collapsed lung during an attack. “I love the valley. I love my community. But I’m also scared of it,” he told the board.

“I will die in the valley if I stay there for more than five years,” he added. “I’ve seen the dust.”

The water board opted to allow the transfers to continue unchanged. But in an effort to improve California’s accountability, it obliged the state to reach the annual acreage goals laid out in the 10-year plan, and required that officials deliver an annual report updating the board on its progress. The order, however, completely lacked an enforcement mechanism. “The only tooth in there is shame,” Cohen told Undark. “It’s not clear how responsive they are to shame.”

On Jan. 1, 2018, the mitigation water essentially stopped flowing to the Salton Sea. The lake’s surface elevation began to decrease at nearly twice its previous rate, losing roughly a foot annually. To date, nearly 30 square miles of playa have been exposed — the equivalent of roughly 13,000 football fields. Meanwhile, the state has missed every single one of its acreage milestones, and each year it falls further behind.

In Brawley, decades of living with asthma have made Trianna Morales and Cyrus Ramirez adept at reading wind patterns. Morales uses a nearby crop of hills, called Superstition Mountain, as a quick and simple gauge of air quality — if they can see the hills clearly, criss-crossed by off-road tracks and buzzing with dune buggies and dirt bikes, they know to relax. If the hills appear hazy, though, or shrouded by plumes of blowing dust, Morales knows to keep their inhalers close, and pay keen attention to the sound of their children’s breathing. And if the wind is blowing from the north, the direction of the Salton Sea, they remain especially vigilant.

These are the subtle adaptations that occur over a lifetime of coping with asthma. Less subtle are the constant doctor’s appointments, the trips to the emergency room. Although Morales and Ramirez both connect their family’s asthma to the Salton Sea, they can’t afford to leave, and have lost faith that the state will ever do anything to improve the situation. “The word that comes to mind,” said Morales, “is ‘hopeless.’”

In the absence of much government intervention, residents of the so-called fenceline communities of Brawley, Westmoreland, Calipatria, and Niland, have tried to design and implement their own programs to reduce harm from the Salton Sea. The Brawley-based nonprofit Comité Cívico del Valle has developed a flag-warning system with local schools: each morning a green, yellow, orange, or red flag is hoisted in accordance with the day’s air quality risk. CCV also runs an asthma-education outreach program that sends workers into the community to teach families how to best protect themselves — the box-fan air purifier in Morales’s living room was brought over by their asthma outreach worker, who suffers from respiratory issues herself.

But preventative measures can only do so much. When severe asthma attacks strike, the emergency room at Pioneer Memorial Hospital in Brawley serves as the first line of defense. Oscar Garcia, the emergency room director, said that roughly 20 percent of admissions are pediatric respiratory cases. “Winter time, every day we have one, two, three, four, or more patients that come in with an asthma attack,” said Garcia. “Our supply of asthma tools and equipment is always ready.” Usually, the children respond to increasingly aggressive treatments with albuterol and steroids. Sometimes, though, they must be intubated and flown to Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. Garcia knows how distressing these ER visits can be for families — he used to have to take his own asthmatic son to the hospital about once a year.

A memorial altar for 12-year-old Tashia Taylor of Bombay Beach, who died after a severe asthma attack, is displayed in her family’s home. Although such deaths are rare, they rattle the community and add an urgency to calls for a solution at the Salton Sea.

Some children, though, don’t make it to the emergency room in time. In April 2022, in Bombay Beach, on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea, a 12-year-old girl named Tashia Taylor suffered a severe asthma attack after riding her bicycle near the shoreline. After several days on her nebulizer, her condition failed to improve. While her mother, Tashi Bolden, was out getting gas for her vehicle in case she needed to bring her daughter to the hospital, Tashia collapsed. Bolden says it took the paramedics 45 minutes to reach Bombay Beach from Brawley, during which time she and a police officer performed CPR on her daughter. But neither they, nor the paramedics when they arrived, were able to revive Tashia.

Although such deaths are rare, they rattle the community, and add a desperate urgency to calls for a lasting solution at the Salton Sea. Bolden, now haunted by grief, has a simple request for policymakers: “Clean it up,” she said. “Clean up that beach, that water.”

But Morales believes such pleas fall on deaf ears. Imperial County is poor, mostly Latino, and geographically set apart from the southern Californian urban centers of San Diego and Los Angeles. It’s not that policymakers are unaware of what’s happening there, said Morales, it’s that they simply don’t care. “We won’t probably get help until everybody else gets help,” said Morales. “We’re the bottom of the dogpile.”

On an overcast morning in early January 2023, Charlie Diamond and Caroline Hung, geochemists from UC Riverside, pulled their car onto a dirt road leading to Obsidian Butte, a slight promontory of volcanic rock overlooking the Salton Sea. They parked on the far edge of the outcrop, then continued on foot through a sloping scree field of glassy black stone until they reached a view of the mud flats to the east. There, a wide sweep of barren earth stretched from the water’s edge to a pale band of vegetation some 200 yards away. “This is just a nice visual representation of the rapidly receding shoreline,” said Diamond.

“This is all recently exposed,” he added.

Diamond and Hung are members of the UC Riverside Salton Sea Task Force, an interdisciplinary research group that comprises the latest effort by scientists to mount an organized response to the unfolding regional catastrophe. As one of only two teams that studies the lake by boat, Diamond and Hung say that the dropping water level has begun to pose serious logistical challenges to their research. There are no longer any functioning docks at the Salton Sea, and to launch their 300-pound, fiberglass-hulled Zodiac, they must now drag it through mud that can feel like quicksand. “Every little foot the water has receded is going to pose like 30 more minutes of effort,” Hung said.

Of their ability to launch the boat on the lake, she added, “there’s going to be a limit.”

UC Riverside geochemists Caroline Hung (left) and Charles Diamond (right) at Obsidian Butte, a volcanic rock formation overlooking the Salton Sea. Diamond and Hung are one of two teams of researchers who study the lake by boat, which has become increasingly difficult as the shoreline from which they launch recedes.

In 2021, the task force published a report, in which the team noted “the absence of an adaptive, science-based approach to addressing the environmental and human health challenges at the Salton Sea.” By then, the state had finally broken ground on the Species Conservation Habitat, the 4,100 acre wetland complex that had originally been proposed as a smaller, 2,400-acre project 13 years prior. It had also begun implementing several hundred acres of temporary dust suppression projects on the newly exposed playa (mostly surface-roughening), although these were within the boundaries of the SCH and would be flooded upon its completion. But the task force argued that “although state agencies are making efforts to mitigate the problems, the scientific assumptions informing current management practices are outdated or lacking entirely, making outcomes unpredictable at best.”

In the report, as well as in subsequent interviews with Undark, the UC Riverside group flagged several worrisome oversights. The group’s hydrologist argued that the state’s hydrology model was incomplete, overlooking the potential for lake water to discharge into underground aquifers, as well as failing to explicitly represent how shifting human activities in the region could affect inflow. Additionally, the task force noted that the exposed playa will likely not be uniformly hazardous, and that, as the lake recedes, the exposed dust could become increasingly toxic. Mice exposed to that dust, the team found, displayed dramatic pulmonary inflammation, while mice exposed to control dust collected 50 miles away from the lake did not. That type of inflammation, the researchers noted, could present as asthma-like symptoms in humans.

For Timothy Lyons, a UC Riverside geochemist, the dust is especially worrisome given the changing demographics of the region. Spurred in part by a potential lithium bonanza (geothermal brine underground near the Salton Sea could contain enough lithium to meet one-third of the global demand), the population of the Salton Sea airshed is predicted to double in the coming years. “They’re talking about bringing thousands of people down there on the south shore of the Salton Sea,” said Lyons. “An area that by some measures should be evacuated.”

UC Riverside geochemist Timothy Lyons is concerned about shifting demographics around the Salton Sea. Due to a store of lithium far beneath the lake, the population of the region’s airshed is predicted to double in coming years.

Yet despite the increasingly well-understood dangers posed by the shrinking lake, the state’s response has stopped short of addressing the community’s health concerns. Tonya Marshall, a senior official with the state’s Salton Sea Management Program, said that the community’s health problems are beyond the scope of the current mitigation efforts. “That’s not where the goal of the SSMP was or is,” she said. “If somebody had stated ‘well, the SSMP’s goal is to make it better for all of humans there,’ then there would be that aspect of that. But our goal right now is 30,000 [acres] of the habitat and dust suppression projects with the 10-year plan.”

For many scientists, however, it is precisely that kind of rigid, compartmentalized thinking that lies at the core of the problem at the Salton Sea. “We can’t just put blinders on,” said Cohen. “We need to know what’s going on with the Salton Sea, not just how many acres we’re building.”

Diamond and Hung agree. “There’s a lot of disconnect,” said Hung. “Everybody’s just trying to do their job.”

On Dec. 3, 2022, a community advocacy group called the Salton Sea Coalition held a public forum at an auditorium in Palm Desert, about 30 miles northwest of the lake. Many of the members of the UC Riverside task force appeared as expert panelists, and the crowd (who appeared to largely support a hypothetical plan to import water from the Sea of Cortez, which many scientists view as unrealistic) listened attentively as they described the scientific nuances and lingering uncertainties at the lake. But at one point, frustration boiled over. During a Q&A with the scientists, a community member named Art Gertz took the microphone. “We’re being told we need more studies!” he quipped. “We should study why we need more studies!” For Gertz, a longtime advocate of importing water, the solution to the lake’s woes was blindingly clear: “Just. Add. Water!” he proclaimed. The crowd erupted in applause.

Sitting a few rows back, Diamond and Hung listened patiently. Gertz’s was an attitude they had encountered frequently in their outreach work, and although they disagreed with his viewpoint, they sympathized with the man’s frustration. Years of neglect, false starts, broken promises, blown deadlines, poor communication, and bureaucratic torpor had made locals weary of anything that smelled of can-kicking — they were desperate for action that would yield results. “That is a very real sentiment: ‘Enough studies, we need action,’” said Diamond. “I completely understand that sentiment.”

In December 2022, the Salton Sea Coalition held a public forum in Palm Desert, where experts described the scientific nuances and lingering uncertainties at the lake. But after years of false starts, broken promises, and blown deadlines, members of the community are desperate for action that will yield results. “Just. Add. Water!” community member Art Gertz proclaimed during the forum.

But in December 2022, after contemplating a range of potential restoration strategies beyond the lagging 10-year plan, California decided to punt to the Army Corps of Engineers, which, in partnership with the state and local stakeholders, recently initiated a study aimed at determining the best long-range course of action. It is anticipated to be done by 2025. Once completed, the agreed-upon plan must be delivered to Congress, which would only then decide whether to furnish federal funding to enact it. For a community whose children are sick and getting sicker, and whose exasperation is already white hot, the Army Corps study will likely only inflame the opinion that the lake is, as Gertz claims, being studied to death.

Researchers like Cohen, meanwhile, are left feeling ambivalent about the best path forward. Historically a staunch advocate for a rigorous, science-based approach, Cohen said that lately he’s been identifying increasingly with the position that the state should just do something — anything — and hope that it works. “On one hand, I think ‘Screw it, just build some projects.’ You get some water on the ground, birds are going to show up and vertebrates are going to populate those ponds. And then you’re going to minimize dust. So let’s just do that,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s kind of irresponsible to spend a billion dollars and not really know what’s going to happen.” Either way, as the ecosystem approaches critical thresholds and more playa is exposed each year, one fact has become vividly clear to Cohen: “We’ve run out of time.”

The problems at the Salton Sea have now persisted for so long that multiple generations of scientists have come and gone. Krantz, Barnum, and Bradley have now all retired, making way for a new generation — Diamond and Hung among them — to continue advocating for the role of science at the lake. Among the older generation, a certain jaded pessimism has settled in; Cohen said that the past two decades didn’t even feel Sisyphean, because “that suggests we actually got the rock to the top.” Particularly troubling to many scientists who spoke to Undark is the sense that local residents have been deemed acceptable collateral in the west’s great water wars. The Salton Sea, Krantz said, “boils down to one of the most serious, exigent environmental justice issues globally.” For younger scientists like Diamond and Hung, the inequities of the region have exerted a moral pull, shifting the priorities of their lives. Diamond, who has become besotted by the lake’s oblique, alien beauty, said that working on a problem with real-world implications has changed him. Now, he said, “I want to do things that have an impact.” Hung has been galvanized by her experiences at the Salton Sea into considering law school, so that she can study how to better incorporate science into policy. “I think it takes expertise in both to really think of a solution,” she said.

The Army Corps of Engineers recently initiated a study aimed at determining the best long-term course of action at the lake. The study is expected to be done by 2025. But as the ecosystem approaches critical thresholds and more playa is exposed each year, one fact has become vividly clear to researcher Michael Cohen: “We’ve run out of time.”

Yet just as the lake, and the region surrounding it, have drawn researchers in, others are desperate to get out. Morales and Ramirez believe their asthma, and Luna and Frederick’s, is getting worse. They say they are exhausted, and have lost all faith in anyone helping them or their community. “If we had money, obviously we would be gone,” Morales said. “But we just don’t.”

Still, they like to picture it: a farmhouse near Flagstaff, Arizona, with a wraparound porch and clean, mild wind. Or maybe somewhere near San Diego — they aren’t too picky. Morales has just one strict criterion: “I want it to be fresh,” they said. “I want to be able to breathe.”

Fletcher Reveley is a freelance writer based in Tucson, Arizona.

Kitra Cahana is a Peabody Award-winning documentary filmmaker and photographer.

This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article.

This article was supported in part by The Water Desk, an independent journalism initiative based at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism. The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues.

3M offers $10.3B settlement over PFAS contamination in water systems – now, how do you destroy a ‘forever chemical’?

How long do chemicals really need to last? Andrew Brookes via Getty Images

By A. Daniel Jones, Michigan State University and Hui Li, Michigan State University

PFAS chemicals seemed like a good idea at first. As Teflon, they made pots easier to clean starting in the 1940s. They made jackets waterproof and carpets stain-resistant. Food wrappers, firefighting foam, even makeup seemed better with perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

Then tests started detecting PFAS in people’s blood.

Today, PFAS are pervasive in soil, dust and drinking water around the world. Studies suggest they’re in 98% of Americans’ bodies, where they’ve been associated with health problems including thyroid disease, liver damage and kidney and testicular cancer. There are now over 9,000 types of PFAS. They’re often referred to as “forever chemicals” because the same properties that make them so useful also ensure they don’t break down in nature.

Facing lawsuits over PFAS contamination, the industrial giant 3M, which has made PFAS for many uses for decades, announced a US$10.3 billion settlement with public water suppliers on June 22, 2023, to help pay for testing and treatment. The company admits no liability in the settlement, which requires court approval. Cleanup could cost many times that amount.

But how do you capture and destroy a forever chemical?

Biochemist A. Daniel Jones and soil scientist Hui Li work on PFAS solutions at the Michigan State University and explained the promising techniques being tested today.

How do PFAS get from everyday products into water, soil and eventually humans?

There are two main exposure pathways for PFAS to get into humans – drinking water and food consumption.

PFAS can get into soil through land application of biosolids, that is, sludge from wastewater treatment, and can they leach out from landfills. If contaminated biosolids are applied to farm fields as fertilizer, PFAS can get into water and into crops and vegetables.

For example, livestock can consume PFAS through the crops they eat and water they drink. There have been cases reported in Michigan, Maine and New Mexico of elevated levels of PFAS in beef and in dairy cows. How big the potential risk is to humans is still largely unknown.

Two cows look over a wooden hay trough with a barn in the background.
Cows were found with high levels of PFAS at a farm in Maine. Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Scientists in our research group at Michigan State University are working on materials added to soil that could prevent plants from taking up PFAS, but it would leave PFAS in the soil.

The problem is that these chemicals are everywhere, and there is no natural process in water or soil effective at breaking them down. Many consumer products are loaded with PFAS, including makeup, dental floss, guitar strings and ski wax.

How are remediation projects removing PFAS contamination now?

Methods exist for filtering them out of water. The chemicals will stick to activated carbon, for example. But these methods are expensive for large-scale projects, and you still have to get rid of the chemicals.

For example, near a former military base near Sacramento, California, there is a huge activated carbon tank that takes in about 1,500 gallons of contaminated groundwater per minute, filters it and then pumps it underground. That remediation project has cost over $3 million, but it prevents PFAS from moving into drinking water the community uses.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed establishing legally enforceable regulations for maximum levels of six PFAS chemicals in public drinking water systems. Two of these chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, would be recognized as individual hazardous chemicals, with regulatory actions enforced when levels of either exceed 4 parts per trillion, which is substantially lower than previous guidance.

Filtering is just one step. Once PFAS is captured, then you have to dispose of PFAS-loaded activated carbons, and PFAS still moves around. If you bury contaminated materials in a landfill or elsewhere, PFAS will eventually leach out. That’s why finding ways to destroy it is essential.

What are the most promising methods scientists have found for breaking down PFAS?

The most common method of destroying PFAS is incineration, but most PFAS are remarkably resistant to being burned. That’s why they’re in firefighting foams.

PFAS have multiple fluorine atoms attached to a carbon atom, and the bond between carbon and fluorine is one of the strongest. Normally to burn something, you have to break the bond, but fluorine resists breaking off from carbon. Most PFAS will break down completely at incineration temperatures around 1,500 degrees Celsius (2,730 degrees Fahrenheit), but it’s energy intensive and suitable incinerators are scarce.

There are several other experimental techniques that are promising but haven’t been scaled up to treat large amounts of the chemicals.

Several pallets of bottled water sit while people prepare to put it into the trunks of SUVs picking it up.
Wayland, Mass., one of the cities that sued 3M, distributed bottled water to residents in May 2021 after elevated levels of PFAS were detected in its public water sources. Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

A group at Battelle has developed supercritical water oxidation to destroy PFAS. High temperatures and pressures change the state of water, accelerating chemistry in a way that can destroy hazardous substances. However, scaling up remains a challenge.

Others are working with plasma reactors, which use water, electricity and argon gas to break down PFAS. They’re fast, but also not easy to scale up.

What are we likely to see in the future?

A lot will depend on what we learn about where humans’ PFAS exposure is primarily coming from.

If the exposure is mostly from drinking water, there are more methods with potential. It’s possible it could eventually be destroyed at the household level with electro-chemical methods, but there are also potential risks that remain to be understood, such as converting common substances such as chloride into more toxic byproducts.

The big challenge of remediation is making sure we don’t make the problem worse by releasing other gases or creating harmful chemicals. Humans have a long history of trying to solve problems and making things worse. Refrigerators are a great example. Freon, a chlorofluorocarbon, was the solution to replace toxic and flammable ammonia in refrigerators, but then it caused stratospheric ozone depletion. It was replaced with hydrofluorocarbons, which now contribute to climate change.

If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s that we need to think through the full life cycle of products. How long do we really need chemicals to last?

This is an updated version of an article originally published Aug. 18, 2022.

A. Daniel Jones, Professor of Biochemistry, Michigan State University and Hui Li, Professor of Environmental and Soil Chemistry, Michigan State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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.

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