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Before I moved to the Coachella Valley, I lived in Tucson, Ariz.

One of the things I love about Tucson is that the residents there seemingly understand that they live in the desert: Outside of a few neighborhoods, lawns are the exception, not the rule; instead, residents put xeriscapes and low-water desert plantings in their yards. At our house in Tucson, our yard featured rocks, cacti and other desert vegetation. My neighbors and I got cranky when we saw someone watering a sidewalk. In other words, water was viewed as a precious resource.

But here … well, as much as I love the area, I’ve always been turned off by the fact that lawns are, in many neighborhoods, the rule, not the exception.

When my partner and I first moved here, we were in escrow for 53 days on a nice home in Cathedral City which had an epic, lawn-centered backyard. (We fell out of escrow after 53 days when the bank we were using for our mortgage decided to screw us, and we wound up scrambling to find an apartment—but that’s a story for another time.) I was always conflicted about that yard: It was gorgeous, and I loved it, but it always felt wrong to me. My partner and I discussed getting rid of the grass, and I’d like to think that we would have done so—but had we done so, ours would have been the only house within eyesight without a lush, green lawn.

Of course, water is not unlimited. Due to the pervasive drought (which some people believe is less of a “drought” and more of a “new normal” due to climate change), state and local jurisdictions are finally cracking down and instituting severe water restrictions. Let’s just hope it’s not too little, too late.

Our Kevin Fitzgerald recently brought you the latest news on local water restrictions—watch CVIndependent.com for updates. We also recently published a story about the pros and cons of using a more market-based approach when it comes to water rights; consider it food for thought.

Of course, water issues will continue to be a coverage-focus area for us here at the Independent—just as they have been from Day 1. Our goal is to keep you informed—and perhaps play a part, albeit a small part, in changing the culture here in the Coachella Valley. We live in a desert, folks, and we need to act like it.

By the way, our May 2015 print edition of the Coachella Valley Independent is on newsstands now. Pick one up, and enjoy.

Published in Editor's Note

California has been taking strong measures to deal with extreme drought. Gov. Jerry Brown recently ordered cities to cut water use, and approved new regulations to limit the flow of water in toilets, urinals and faucets.

But some economists think that there are more efficient and effective ways to mitigate drought—so they’re starting to dust off the idea of water markets.

Putting financial tools to work in the world of water management, they believe, could free up more water for use, overcoming some of the major problems associated with dry spells, and avoiding the need for some crisis measures. Proponents say markets can tell us where water is scarce and where it isn’t, and could help address one of the more nefarious aspects of water-wasting: how cheap water seems compared to how important it is.

“Drought is a train moving at us at three miles per hour,” Jennifer Pitt, director of the Colorado River Program for the Environmental Defense Fund, says, “and if we don’t get off the track, it’s our own damn fault.”

Rather than complicated laws, policies and agreements, a market system could allow users to sell or buy rights from year to year, or to conserve water use without losing water rights. Such instruments, for example, would help a broccoli farmer lease his water rights to an almond farmer, earning money on a fallow field for a year while preventing a catastrophe in his neighbor’s orchard. Water law today often prohibits farmers from doing that.

While California’s drought has dominated headlines, the Colorado River Basin and many other watersheds are facing a longer-term problem: As the climate changes, dry areas of the planet are likely to get drier, so droughts will probably last even longer.

“Markets are going to be critical to the solution to drought,” Pitt says. That doesn’t mean privatizing water fully, but recognizing water’s relationship to the land it runs through—and therefore to property.

Currently, most water is bound to property rights, under a series of doctrines that make it hard to move around and hard to conserve. A use-it-or-lose-it aspect underpins many water policies. They may be mere slips of paper, but water rights can be as cumbersome to move as boulders. That lack of flexibility in Western water policy and law creates “quite a bit of tension and risk,” says Peter Culp, a water lawyer at Squire Patton Boggs, in Phoenix.

In a recent discussion paper for the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, “Shopping for Water: How the Market Can Mitigate Water Shortages in the American West,” Culp and co-authors Robert Glennon, at the University of Arizona, and Gary Libecap, at the University of California at Santa Barbara, give five proposals for putting water markets in place: “Reform legal rules that discourage water trading to enable short-term water transfers; create basic market institutions to facilitate trading of water; use risk mitigation strategies to enhance system reliability; protect groundwater resources; and continue to expand federal leadership.”

That means, for example, that states could encourage water users to free up water on a short-term basis. (The broccoli farmer who gives his water for a year for the sake of his neighbor’s almonds is an example of this.) They also suggest finding ways to link water rights to consumption, rather than diversion, and to ensure that junior water users are not harmed in times of drought. They advocate for eliminating the “beneficial use doctrine,” which demands that all water must be used for a beneficial purpose, such as agricultural irrigation or a city utility, or see its right forfeited. That idea, the authors say, hampers markets and discourages efficient use of water.

Water markets certainly have detractors and caveats. There’s a lot of reluctance to move out of the old system, which has been in place for years and is surrounded by complicated, hard-to-untangle laws and traditions.

Such rights could also be traded without regard to the rural communities that rely on them, says Patricia Mulroy, the former water czar for Las Vegas and currently a fellow at Brookings.

“Once the market forces take hold, the only thing people will talk about is the money,” she says. “And only the economists and the accountants will move their lips.”

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

On March 17, the California State Water Resources Control Board made it clear: Californians need to escalate the battle against the continuing, disastrous drought that’s plaguing our state.

Gov. Jerry Brown first held a press conference to reiterate the need for increased voluntary water conservation. Soon after, though, he went on the offensive: In an executive order issued April 1, he delivered the first list of state-mandated water-use restrictions in California’s history—mandates which will remain in effect until at least Feb. 28, 2016, although most people believe they’ll remain in effect well beyond that date.

The order means the two main water-management agencies in the Coachella Valley—the Desert Water Agency (DWA) on the west end, and the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) on the east end—have been charged with creating, implementing and following local water-usage-reduction programs.

The CVWD held a board meeting to solicit public input on April 14.

“I’d estimate that we had nearly 100 people there—and we don’t get any people at our meetings very often,” said Heather Engel, the agency’s director of communication and conservation. “I think the board really appreciated the outpouring from the community and the sharing in the discussion. Here’s the thing: We need to hear from them which restrictions are feasible and are going to be accepted by them.”

The CVWD’s new strategies and restrictions will be announced at the board meeting on Tuesday, April 28.

Over at the DWA, on Tuesday, April 21, the board of directors held a public meeting—and an estimated 200-plus citizens packed into the small meeting room, overflowing into the lobby. The size of the crowd required that Katie Ruark, the DWA public information officer, deliver her multimedia presentation on water-conservation efforts twice—first in the meeting room, and then to the disgruntled citizens forced to stand outside the meeting room’s doors.

While the CVWD put two weeks between the public-input meeting and an announcement of new restrictions, the DWA issued revised policies just hours after public input was received on April 21. Given that tight turnaround, it’s difficult to understand how the public comments could have influenced the final policy announcement.

The DWA restrictions, which took effect immediately, declare that “the following uses of water are now prohibited (or continue to be prohibited): washing of hardscapes; running water to wash vehicles (buckets and stop nozzles on hoses are permitted); (and) the use of potable water in fountains or other decorative water features (unless necessary for aquatic pets).”

The decree continues, “Irrigation restrictions include: using potable water outside of newly constructed homes and buildings that is not delivered by drip or micro-spray systems; outdoor residential irrigation shall be restricted to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, after 7 p.m. and before 7 a.m.; a commercial, industrial or institutional customer may implement an alternative water use reduction plan that achieves reductions in water use equivalent to those expected from the restrictions prescribed herein, if approved …; runoff such that water flows onto adjacent property, non-irrigated areas, private and public walkways, roadways, parking lots, or structures is prohibited; irrigating up to 48 hours after measurable rainfall is prohibited; the use of potable water to irrigate turf within street medians, and turf within the dedicated right of way on either side of a public street, is prohibited.”

The restrictions end with: “Additional restrictions for hotels and restaurants include: Restaurants may provide water to customers only upon request; (and) operators of hotels and motels shall provide guests with the option of choosing not to have towels and linens laundered daily.”

The DWA also asked customers to refrain from emptying and refilling swimming pools from June 1 through Oct. 31, unless absolutely necessary.

Per State Water Resources Control Board policy, no restrictions are being placed on the agricultural industry. In CVWD territory, agriculture accounts for 50 percent of total water usage, as compared to 17 percent by golf courses, and 33 percent for domestic use—public and private, commercial and residential.

Both of the valley’s agencies have been told to reduce their customers’ total usage by 36 percent as computed against 2013 usage numbers. By comparison, some water districts in the state have been asked to reduce usage by as little as 6 to 10 percent. The percentage target for each district was based on per-capita usage numbers, so this high target for valley residents was predicated on consistently high per-capita average-usage totals.

In a letter to the State Water Resources Control Board by DWA general manager David Luker, he blamed seasonal residents for much of the high water usage.

“During the warmer season, approximately 30 percent of water bills are sent out of the state of California,” Luker wrote. “Seasonal residents have homes that use water whether they are here or not, but they are not counted as population. The water use of seasonal residents is placed on the backs of year-round residents, as seasonal residents are not included in population data.”

Unlike the DWA, the CVWD declined to make a comment to the SWRCB.

“A 36 percent reduction is not going to be easy as a whole water district,” said Engel. “We still think that the state’s per-capita number for us is not a fair representation, but we have decided that, no, we’re not going to push back. We’ve decided that if the state wants us to reduce by 36 percent, then we’re going to do what we can to reduce by 36 percent.”

At the DWA’s public meeting, numerous community speakers urged the board to adopt and implement a tiered-billing policy soon—even though a state appeals court had just ruled that a four-tiered pricing plan adopted by San Juan Capistrano was in violation of Proposition 218, a 1996 initiative passed by voters that prohibits government agencies from charging more for services than their actual cost.

However, the CVWD, which has had a tiered-billing system since 2009, is confident the agency’s system could withstand any legal challenge.

“We don’t think it will have an effect,” Engel said about the ruling. “Our understanding is that the court’s problem was not with budget-based tiered rates in general, but with rate structures that arbitrarily set the pricing. Our rate structure is based on our cost to provide service.”

Published in Environment

Last fall, when California voters were about to go to the polls to weigh in on a complex proposition to improve the state’s water situation, some environmental groups balked. Though the bill—Proposition 1, to authorize the raising of $7.5 billion on the bond market—promised money for better parks, more wildlife habitat and the restoration of urbanized rivers (like maybe the one that runs through Los Angeles), it also set aside $2.7 billion for “water storage projects” that have a “public benefit.”

It was never quite clear what those words meant. Would the $2.7 billion become seed money for two new dams on the state agricultural industry’s wish list? Or would it go toward groundwater storage projects that keep water closer to home? The bill was written to be “tunnel neutral,” meaning it wouldn’t automatically pay for a pair of canals that Gov. Jerry Brown wants to build, to draw water from the Sacramento River and ostensibly reduce pumping from the ecologically stressed California Delta. But it wasn’t “tunnel negative,” either.

“It’s mystery meat,” said Adam Scow, California director of the activist nonprofit group Food and Water Watch, about that $2.7 billion pot.

Nevertheless, with Brown’s juggernaut of support lined up behind it, the water bill passed easily, with 67 percent of the vote. So now Prop 1’s opponents have a new cause: Riding herd on the nine governor-appointed members of the California Water Commission, the people who will decide how the money gets spent.

Formed in 1913 to referee water-rights wars in the state, the California Water Commission now exists to advise the Department of Water Resources and supervise the State Water Project. In its current incarnation, it includes at least one bona fide environmental leader of a conservationist bent, Kim Delfino, of Defenders of Wildlife, but also one passionate advocate for Central Valley farmers and their water rights, grower Joe Del Bosque, who last year got President Obama to visit his farm with a tweeted invitation. Also on the commission are a Silicon Valley contractor, an engineer, a water-district manager, an educator and a consultant. Joseph Byrne, a Los Angeles attorney specializing in California environmental law, was appointed in 2010 and serves as its current chair.

The commission has just begun to deliberate on that $2.7 billion; much of the January 21 meeting was spent setting rules for that process. Members of the public who showed up to speak weighed in heavily on the conservationist side, warning against big water-storage projects that will exacerbate California’s already unkeepable promises to farmers. Such endeavors “have a long history of claimed environmental benefits that didn’t come to pass,” said Barry Nelson, of Western Water Strategies, formerly of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Tim Stroshane, of the Environmental Water Caucus, pushed for expanding the use of existing groundwater basins, such as the one in north Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley; “investing in them will lead to less demand for imported water,” he told the commission. “Real water reliability would result.”

The commission has a deadline to finish its Prop 1 work by the end of December 2016, at which point—assuming they meet that deadline—California may have moved a tiny bit toward a more sustainable water system. Or the state will have continued farther along its current path, in which no storm, no matter how big, can make a dent in the grindingly persistent drought. Already, agricultural interests are circling the wagons around their share, accusing Brown of reneging on his promises by allocating $532 million in Prop 1 funds for stream restoration, recycling projects, aquifer cleanup and other environmentally friendly ideas. Never mind that such projects were in the bill from the start—they are, after all, what got environmentalists on board—and don’t cut into the water storage funds.

No doubt the water commissioners, too, will anger some segment of the state’s population, no matter what they decide “water storage” means for California’s future. But they also have a chance to set the state on a course toward fewer crises, and hence fewer water conflicts. As Department of Water Resources director Mark Cowin said at the commission’s January meeting, the “new responsibilities that come with Prop 1 make these probably the most important years in the California Water Commission’s history.”

The commission may not, as the Pacific Institute’s chief water wonk, Peter Gleick, rightly argued last November, be able to solve all of California’s problems with Prop 1 funds. But their work might just mark the start of asking the right questions.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

So here’s the good news: Coachella Valley residents and businesses have raced to take advantage of the turf-buyback conservation programs offered by both the Desert Water Agency on the west end of the valley, and the Coachella Valley Water District on the east end.

Here’s the bad news, especially if you’re a DWA customer: The agency totally underestimated how strong the customer response would be. With $250,000 earmarked this fiscal year to fund the turf buyback, DWA customers have already applied for $1.3 million in rebates—and that’s just in two months since the announcement of the inaugural plan on Aug. 1.

“As soon as we launched the program, we were absolutely flooded with applicants,” said DWA public information officer Katie Ruark. “I personally feel that’s incredibly encouraging. We wanted to take out grass, and, boy, are we going to do it.

“The bad news is there are people who didn’t get their applications in right away—and (people) who maybe got them in pretty quickly—who missed out on the funding. Of course, those people are disappointed. We’ve stopped accepting any more applications.”

The picture is brighter in CVWD territory, albeit still challenging. The agency allotted $950,000 specifically for turf-buyback rebates this fiscal year, and in two months, CVWD customer requests have burned through almost all of those funds—yet the applications keep coming in.

“We have seen such an overwhelming response to our programs,” said Heather Engel, CVWD’s director of communications and conservation. “It’s been amazing. In fact, we’re already almost out of money, and we’ve had 158,972 square feet of grass removed in our district just since July 1 of this year.”

The CVWD has offered some form of a turf-buyback rebate program to its customers, in an effort to decrease the amount of water-guzzling grass, since 2010. “In the first three months of fiscal 2014—that was July through September—we received applications for 2 million square feet of turf conversion,” CVWD conservation coordinator Dave Koller said. “It took us four years previously to reach the 3-million-square-foot total.”

The severe drought conditions prevailing in California have definitely impacted valley residents’ awareness of their use of water resources, and as a result, the turf-buyback program has become more popular.

“I think it’s because of the declaration of the drought emergency by the governor in January, and our board-mandated water restrictions in August,” Koller said. “Combined with the public outreach and publicity on the drought and turf conversions, I think it’s all just coming together. It’s a good thing, because once turf is converted, it saves 70 to 80 percent of the water that turf would need.”

What plans do the agencies have to increase funding to meet the unexpected demand? On the CVWD front, Engel said, “We’ll be going to our board on Oct. 28 to see if we can get a little more funding.”

Will there be a decisive vote at that meeting?

“Every time I’ve gone to the board for increased funding, they’ve been agreeable to it,” said Koller. “They put a high value on conservation, so I’m optimistic, but we’ll see.”

(Editor's note: The CVWD board did indeed approve more funding at that meeting. According to a news release: "The additional funding of $1.8 million will sustain the turf conversion, smart controller and nozzle programs until approximately Dec. 31, 2014. After this funding has been depleted, new applications for landscape rebates will be accepted beginning in the next fiscal year.")

Ruark said the DWA board “has sent the issue for research to the finance and conservation subcommittees and asked for them to come back with recommendations as to what they’d like to do. So that’s where we are right now. I don’t have dates as to when it will come before the board again or what the process will be from here.”

The DWA’s response to the buyback situation has irritated Paul Ortega, a longtime Palm Springs resident, a landscape design consultant and the co-founder of the Desert Horticultural Society of the Coachella Valley.

“There’s a large group (of buyback applicants) that has been told they have been placed on a wait list—or (in) what I call ‘the limbo phase,’” Ortega shared. “They’ve been told that they are not going to get a site inspection, which is a critical part of the DWA’s application process, because without that happening prior to the work, if a customer should decide to move forward with their own turf-conversion plan, they would disqualify themselves from participation in the DWA rebate. This is unfortunate, because the DWA is not giving these people any incentive to stay engaged in the DWA turf-conversion effort.”

Ortega added: “I did meet with DWA board president Craig Ewing. He believes that a subcommittee recommendation will be made to the board to increase the turf-buyback funding allotment by at least an additional $250,000 or more in the very near term. But that action won’t address the other applicants who represent some $800,000 more in requested rebate funds. He’d like to see the board approve funding now that’s sufficient to cover all of the pending turf-buyback applications.”

What does the DWA advise their “limbo phase” customers with unaccepted applications to do? Wait to do the work until they can get an application approved? Move forward at their own expense?

“Those who can wait may do so,” Ruark remarked. “Those who cannot and can afford to do their conversion without a rebate should do that. Each homeowner should do what is best for them.”

Ortega believes that stance is inadequate.

“For the DWA to put so much effort into this whole initiative, only to shut the program down a couple of months after launch due to lack of funds, is really unfortunate,” Ortega said. “If they don’t give their ‘limbo phase’ customers some reason to hang in, then they’re not going to—and they’re going to be pissed. And they already are. I hear it a lot. People are disappointed, you know?”

Updated on Oct. 30 with info from the Oct. 28 CVWD meeting.

Published in Environment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Local Issues

When Padre Juan Crespi first sighted the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in 1772, he thought he would be able to walk around it.

The Spanish missionary and his party of 15 soldiers had been dispatched to find a land route from Monterey to Point Reyes, where Spain hoped to build a port. But 10 days into their journey, in the heart of Alta California, Crespi and his men encountered a maze of water, mud and swamp. It was the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas.

Crespi expected the estuary to function like others he had seen, fragmenting into dozens of small braided channels fanning out toward the sea. Upstream, he figured, they would find a single channel to cross.

But this estuary did the opposite: As Crespi traveled upstream, the water spread out.

“Crossing these rivers by boat or canoe would be apt,” a chastened Crespi wrote in his diary. “Because if you do not, it’s (necessary) to climb the mountains to the southeast and seek the path of the large river. To climb such a high pass certainly requires a greater number of soldiers and more provisions, which is why I withdrew.”

Crespi was the first known European to glimpse this odd California landscape, and the first of many to be confounded by it. Sixteen rivers and hundreds of creeks converge from all over California on the Delta’s vast central plain—all mud, tules and marsh—finally forming one mighty river that drains the state’s whole churning belly. It’s called an “inverted” estuary, because its waterways unite before reaching the sea. The only comparable place on Earth is the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

When Crespi encountered the estuary, its floodplain extended 100 miles north and south, filling the Central Valley with a wealth of snowmelt, all of it destined to squeeze through the land gap later called Golden Gate. Today, the Delta is crossed by three state highways and hundreds of miles of railroad tracks and county roads. There are 1,100 miles of navigable channels, and 72 islands ringed by levees. Modern charts detail where to anchor, where to catch the best striped bass, where to find the most convenient bridges and ferries.

But the levees may be vulnerable to earthquakes. If they fail, the water supply would be compromised by a flood of salty water from San Francisco Bay. And rising sea levels could taint the water supply permanently.

The Delta, which still covers an area the size of Rhode Island, provides half of all the freshwater consumed by a thirsty state, serving 3 million acres of farmland and 25 million Californians, from Silicon Valley to San Diego. Gov. Jerry Brown hopes to better serve the state by spending $15 billion on a new water-diversion system. It would shunt a portion of the Sacramento River out of the estuary into two giant tunnels, 30 miles long and 150 feet underground. The intent is to divert freshwater in a way less harmful to imperiled native fish species, while protecting those diversions from floods, earthquakes and a rising sea. The tunnels would serve existing state and federal canal systems that begin in the south Delta, near Tracy, and divert water to cities and farms, mostly in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley. Another $10 billion would go to wildlife habitat improvements, in part to breach levees and restore tidal action to some islands.

But after seven years of study, state officials acknowledge that removing so much freshwater upstream may cause “unquantifiable” water-quality changes. Meanwhile, critics say taking so much freshwater from the estuary could harm Delta farms and perhaps concentrate pollutants in a way that hurts the same fish state officials hope to restore.

The Delta continues to confound.

Forty-five years after Crespi turned back, Padre Narciso Durán came through with two small boats on an expedition led by Lt. Don Luis Arguello. Their trip through the watery maze began on May 13, 1817, and lasted two weeks. Durán, who kept a journal, came along to baptize Indians.

They set out in a storm, and the boats became separated at the confluence. When the storm finally quit, and the boats were reunited, another challenge arose: It was snowmelt season, and the downstream current in the Sacramento River was so strong that it nearly halted their progress. Without wind, days of brutal rowing followed, with little upstream progress.

The party soon encountered a variety of branching side channels, and they could not be sure which one was the river itself. Because the Delta was in flood, the true riverbanks and many of the natural islands were submerged. They took a wrong turn, but eventually got lucky and recovered their course.

Familiarity with this labyrinth benefitted the locals, who fled as soon as they spotted the expedition boats. The Europeans found two villages vacated; occupants of a third village “fled at the noise of the launches, leaving only two old women, more than 60 years old.” Durán felt obliged to baptize both women.

Durán, who was no naturalist, does not mention any animals. But the Delta was teeming with wildlife in a way that is difficult to imagine today: Vast herds of elk and pronghorn antelope roamed here, hunted by wolf and grizzly bear. The maze of curving sloughs was a nursery for one of the world’s most productive fisheries.

The Delta remains the most important salmon fishery on the West Coast, producing most of the wild-caught king salmon in the Lower 48. Yet there are 57 endangered species here, including steelhead trout and two runs of salmon.

Modern-day Californians are as oblivious to the region’s natural wealth as Durán seemed to be. A January 2012 survey found that 78 percent of California residents don’t know where the Delta is, or even what it is.

The day after baptizing the two women, Durán and his party reached their turnaround point. They hoped to find a place to erect a cross, “and there to end our quest and retreat downriver.” After rowing upriver three more leagues, they pulled ashore to rest, where they spotted a village of Natives, “who came out at them armed with their customary fierce clamor.”

Arguello mustered his soldiers to confront the Indians, who “calmed down, to everyone’s relief, and said they had armed themselves believing we were hostile people.” The travelers were invited to visit a larger village one league upriver.

But Durán and his cohorts never found the second village. And amid the flood, they could find no solid ground to erect a cross. So they carved one on an oak tree.

The exact location of that cross is unknown today. But according to Durán’s diary, they carved it about 80 miles upstream from the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers—or near today’s state capital, Sacramento, where Gov. Brown weighs the fate of the Delta today.

Matt Weiser covers environmental issues for The Sacramento Bee and has written about the Delta and California water for 15 years. The contemporary translation of Crespi and Durán’s journals is by Alexa Mergen. This essay originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

In 1913, Los Angeles’ legendary chief engineer William Mulholland watched water flow from the L.A. Aqueduct for the first time and proclaimed, “There it is. Take it.”

The project drew water from the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, more than 200 miles away, across deserts and mountains, drying up the Owens River and the once-vast Owens Lake, and dangerously lowering eerily beautiful Mono Lake. Over time, it also made modern Los Angeles possible in all its awful glory: sprawling suburbs linked by clogged freeways underneath a blanket of smog.

Later, L.A. tore out its rail system to make room for a booming car culture. And even today, despite the dramatic natural setting—10,000-foot mountains, 30 miles of Pacific beaches and one of the nation’s largest urban parks smack-dab in its middle—many of L.A.’s 4 million residents have no easy access to nature, making the city one of our most park-poor.

And yet, last year, as the city celebrated the centennial of its original sin—that Owens Valley water grab—it also marked a turning point in its history: Under cover of one of the worst environmental reputations on the planet, Los Angeles is becoming an unlikely model of sustainability.

This coincides with a political transition. In 2013, L.A. elected Mayor Eric Garcetti, 43, who as a City Council member was a strong advocate for localizing water sources, cutting energy use, promoting efficiency, confronting climate change and providing access to parks and nature. His first official mayoral portrait, taken in a kayak on the Los Angeles River last summer, will greet visitors at LAX. That the L.A. River—a trash-strewn, concrete-lined channel famous as a backdrop for murders and movie car chases—has become an official symbol of Los Angeles says a lot about the city’s transformation. The river, like its city, is slowly but surely being rehabilitated.

Los Angeles has a solid foundation for this effort. Its 329 days of sunshine a year and ocean breezes give it an advantage, making heating and cooling more energy-efficient. The sprawling city is also, paradoxically, already the nation’s densest, with more people on average living in every square block than even New York, thanks to the number of duplexes and apartments in what you might call the suburbs. And it has not one downtown, but many—88 cities in Los Angeles County, a sort of new urbanist’s dream.

Meanwhile, California’s overwhelmingly Democratic political landscape is famously friendly to environmental initiatives. The state has moved well beyond debates about whether climate change is happening to begin implementing the country’s most-progressive policies. Locally, decades of grassroots advocacy to restore the L.A. River—initiated by poet Lewis MacAdams—have been embraced by the political mainstream. The city is also home to RePower L.A., a coalition of environmentalists, labor unions and economic-justice activists that works with the city-owned Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to train workers to retrofit homes at no cost to homeowners.

L.A.’s bid to become a 21st-century sustainable city starts where its environmental sins began—with water. Despite their hot, dry climate, Angelenos use less water than residents of any other American city with more than a million people, according to the Water and Power Department. Aggressive conservation measures during droughts have led to savings in wet times, too: The metropolitan area currently uses the same amount of water that it did in 1970, even though several million more people live here. Still, L.A. imports approximately 89 percent of its water from hundreds of miles away—the Owens Valley, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the Colorado River. But the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has been forced to leave more water in the Owens Valley, raising the level of Mono Lake, returning water to the Owens River, and keeping down dust at dry Owens Lake. With other imported supplies likely to be pinched by climate change and increasing environmental demands, the municipal utility is working to capture more stormwater and store it in depleted groundwater basins; clean up contaminated groundwater; and recycle and reuse wastewater.

Woodbury University’s Arid Lands Institute estimates that aquifers underneath the city could absorb up to 95,000 acre-feet of stormwater a year—the amount of water the Water and Power Department is now leaving in Owens Lake—if the surface landscape were re-engineered with porous paving, drainage systems, infiltration basins and urban forests, instead of shunting the water into concrete channels and out to the ocean. That’s already happening in neighborhoods and parks around the city.

Meanwhile, the utility has committed to phasing out coal-powered electricity in the next 12 years, ending long-term power purchase agreements with plants in Utah and Arizona, and inspiring the climate-advocacy group 350.org to call Los Angeles “the national leader in the fight against climate change.” L.A. already has the largest solar-rooftop incentive program in the country, and the best feed-in-tariff rules, which allow consumers to sell power back to the grid. The city itself has realized an energy savings of 57 percent by installing 36,500 LED streetlights. It’s working to reduce energy consumption by at least 20 percent overall across 30 million square feet of existing buildings. The City Council recently made L.A. the first major city to require all new and remodeled homes to have “cool roofs” that reflect rather than absorb sunlight.

L.A. is also building a new rail system that is creating a different backbone for a city long defined by cars and freeways. Within a couple of years, you’ll be able to ride a train 25 miles from Pasadena to the beach at Santa Monica for the first time in nearly a century. L.A. is also, incredibly, becoming more bike-friendly, with 350 miles of bike lanes and paths and more on the way. Major city thoroughfares are shut down several times a year for CicLAvia events that attract tens of thousands of riders. And 19 new parks have been opened in recent years as part of the city’s “50 Parks Initiative,” many in L.A.’s most park-poor neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, the city has dramatically reduced smog: You can see the mountains here more often now than you could when I was a kid, visiting my grandparents in Pasadena. That said, L.A. has a long way to go. We still have the worst air quality of any major U.S. city. Many local communities suffer from disproportionate environmental health risks because of their proximity to freeways and other polluters. And like everyone else, the city still needs a strategy for kicking its addiction to fossil fuels.

As a newcomer—I moved here a little more than a year ago from Northern California—I’ve been surprised not only by L.A.’s recent accomplishments, but also by the serious self-reflection behind them. Los Angeles is taking more responsibility for its past wrongs and actively tackling current challenges.

Last fall, the University of California at Los Angeles announced a major research initiative. “Thriving in a Hotter Los Angeles” aims to wean the city off imported water and make it fully reliant on renewable energy by 2050, while preserving biodiversity and improving local quality of life. More than 70 campus researchers—from law, policy, conservation biology, engineering, humanities, climate science, public health, urban planning—are contributing to the plan, to be presented in 2019.

The necessary partnerships with local, state and federal government, businesses, other universities, and community groups are already coming together. “Let’s get it done!” Mayor Garcetti told a group of local leaders, researchers and donors, who gathered to kick off the $150 million fundraising campaign in November.

Can we get it done? With the impending impacts of a hotter climate and rising sea level, more wildfires, and reduced snowpack, one could simply argue that we have no choice. We have to get it done.

Jon Christensen is an adjunct assistant professor, senior researcher and journalist-in-residence in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and History Department at University of California at Los Angeles. This article originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Community Voices

Becky Quintana walks along the gravel shoulder of a rural two-lane road through the sprawling orange groves of California’s Central Valley, the snow-white jags of the Sierra Nevada at her back.

“On a clear day, it’s like you can almost touch the mountains,” says the 57-year-old school bus driver, who has lived all her life in Seville, 35 miles south of Fresno. The vast majority of the town’s 500 residents are Latinos, and most toil for meager wages in Tulare County’s vast nut, olive and citrus orchards.

The nearby Kaweah River, which flows from headwaters in the high peaks of the Sierra, is cool and clean. But most of its flow is diverted into irrigation canals and delivered to a faraway mosaic of farms and cities. In spite of Seville’s proximity to the Kaweah, the tiny town’s drinking water doesn’t come from the river, but from wells punched into the intensively cultivated land around town. Quintana points out the array of white tanks and a U-shaped pipe plunging earthward: This, she explains, is where the town’s water comes from. As a groundwater activist and founder of a local group called the Committee for a Better Seville, Quintana has worked for several years to improve Seville’s primitive water system.

A white PVC pipe runs down the middle of an irrigation canal, which carries three or four inches of water. The pipe—actually many pipes, loosely connected by plastic couplings—is the town’s water main. Quintana pushes on the rickety assemblage, which creaks and dips below the surface of the canal. She explains that when the canal is full, the pipe is submerged, and when pressure is low (usually in the summer, when people use lots of water), canal water can seep in through loose connections, carrying sand and other debris. A neighbor says a small tadpole once wriggled out of her kitchen tap.

In the canal’s shallow water, beside the main, the carcass of a dog slumps in a grisly state of putrefaction. “Lots of tourists come through here on their way to Sequoia National Park,” Quintana laughs. “They stop to eat in the café. I bet they wouldn’t if they knew what was in the water.”

The most harmful ingredients can’t be seen. The groundwater underlying Seville, like that beneath dozens of small towns throughout the Central Valley—the 50-by-400-mile agricultural basin, home to 4 million people, that effectively separates coastal California from the Sierra Nevada—has long borne the brunt of the region’s industrial-scale agriculture and the industrial-scale pollution that comes with it.

(A similar story can be told about portions of the eastern Coachella Valley, a recent study shows.)

While dozens of contaminants, both manmade and natural, have been detected in the region’s groundwater, nitrates are the pollutant of greatest concern. Derived from hundreds of thousands of tons of synthetic fertilizer and animal wastes applied to crops each year, nitrates pose an especially acute risk to infants; long-term exposure has also been implicated in various forms of cancer, including gastric, esophageal, ovarian and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. According to a recent University of California at Berkeley report, nitrate exposure’s health impacts fall disproportionately on the poor Latino communities of the Central Valley—the same people who make up most of the low-wage workforce of the agriculture industry.

Nitrates and other contaminants are less of an issue in larger, wealthier communities, since treatment or blending with cleaner water can often reduce concentrations to meet health standards. By contrast, the small Latino communities of the Central Valley—where median household incomes are less than $15,000 per year—simply do not have the tax base to support the construction and operation of treatment plants, or to secure alternative sources of water.

The struggles of these poor communities hint at much larger problems. Unlike every other state in the Western U.S., California does not regulate the quantity of groundwater pumped, although more than eight in 10 of the state’s residents rely on groundwater for at least a portion of their water supply. A report released in February by the State Water Resources Control Board identified 31 principal contaminants, including arsenic, uranium, perchlorate and pesticide residues, in the groundwater serving 21 million Californians.

As the state’s population grows, and its complex water systems are further racked by climate change—with Sierra snowpack expected to dwindle by as much as a quarter by mid-century—residents across all income levels will become more and more dependent on increasingly scarce and polluted groundwater. And many already drink water that’s less than clean.

“As many as 8.5 million Californians rely on supplies that experienced more than five incidences of excessive levels of contaminants in the drinking water in a single year,” former Assemblyman Mike Eng, from Los Angeles, testified before the California Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water.

In response, last October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law AB 685, the “Human Right to Water” bill. The 250-plus-word addendum to the state water code is ambitiously phrased, declaring, “Every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking and sanitary purposes.”

The bill, which reaffirms the larger goals of the federal 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, is one of the first clear victories in acknowledging the unequal burden of water contamination in California. It’s the product of an aggressive seven-year-long grassroots-inspired legal campaign focused on the Central Valley. But successfully turning the bill’s fine words into reality won’t be easy: The effort to secure clean drinking water in the Central Valley requires reversing a century’s worth of pollution, and it will be a slow, expensive process—entailing reform of one of California’s most powerful industries, which has transformed the valley into one of the planet’s most heavily engineered and industrialized landscapes.

In the meantime, says Laurel Firestone of the Community Water Center, the effort to bring clean water to places like Seville will require determination, creativity—and a recognition of the problem’s multiple facets.

“On one hand, the solution is complicated, and on the other, it’s not,” Firestone says. “We need to look at what our priorities are as a state and what we are using our resources on. It’s pretty obvious it hasn’t been on bringing safe drinking water to places like Seville. … All of us have to play a part in creating that solution.”

 

Along with providing around half of the nation’s fruits and vegetables, Central Valley farms generate tens of billions of dollars in revenue annually. The Environmental Working Group estimates that California farmers have received more than $10 billion in subsidies since 1995. Indeed, California farmers achieved their regional economic and political dominance largely through government largesse and publicly financed, gargantuan water projects, such as the State and Central Valley Water Projects, which funnel huge quantities of water (as much as 80 percent of the state’s overall supply, by some estimates) to the area.

And yet, the industry has spent millions on lobbying, as well as a public relations campaign that portrays itself as the victim of over-regulation and water policies aimed at its destruction. For years, local farmers have protested reductions in water deliveries to the area from the San Francisco Bay Delta—posting signs along the roadside with messages such as CONGRESS CREATED DUSTBOWL and FOOD GROWS WHERE WATER FLOWS.

Similarly, a pack of pro-agriculture groups railed against AB 685. Opponents, including the Western Growers Association—a trade group that represents California farmers—and the state’s Chamber of Commerce, offered up a litany of criticism, warning that the law could, among other things, prevent local districts from shutting off water to non-paying customers, create subsidies for poor residents, and expose farmers and water districts to lawsuits.

“A new ‘right to water’ in California law could potentially upset decades of legal precedent and could cost the state of California untold amounts of money,” the Association of California Water Agencies wrote Gov. Brown, strongly urging a veto.

Supporters of AB 685 included numerous environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and the California League of Conservation Voters, but the on-the-ground effort was headed by the Visalia-based Community Water Center and la Asociación de Gente Unida por el Agua, or AGUA, a group made up of local representatives from towns with contaminated water.

“Part of the reason we’re in the situation we’re in is because communities have been segregated and isolated,” says Firestone, whose Community Water Center helped organize the AGUA coalition, many of whose members work in the very farm fields generating the pollution. “They’re now speaking with a unified voice.”

AGUA’s efforts are in many ways reminiscent—even an extension—of the grassroots organizing of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union. That group’s famous rallying cry, “Sí, se puede” (“Yes, we can”), galvanized the movement that drew national attention to the often-terrible working conditions faced by California farmworkers.

 

On a March evening, just off Visalia’s main drag, around 40 people crammed into the living room of the small bungalow that serves as AGUA’s main offices, discussing strategies for an upcoming rally and meeting with legislators in Sacramento.

One AGUA representative, Sandra Garcia, 48, who picks fruit and vegetables near her hometown of Poplar, shook her head when I asked if she worried her activism might land her in trouble with her employer. “We have no choice,” she says. “A few years ago, my boss said, ‘I don’t want you out stirring everyone up.’ I told him, ‘I’m trying to keep you from getting sued.’“

In rapid and impassioned Spanish, the group discussed the need to press state representatives about securing grant money to improve the water supplies of disadvantaged communities. Applying for the funds—available through Proposition 84, a 2006 bond act funding safe drinking water initiatives—is a complex process, requiring input from engineers and technical experts that the towns most in need often lack the funds to hire.

Such are the problems with the new law. In spite of AB 685’s bold rhetoric, it does not actually require state agencies to do anything new. Though it mandates that state agencies take a “multi-agency” approach and consider the policy when they adopt or revise regulations, it does not require California to provide clean water or to allocate “additional resources” to fix ailing water systems. Nor does it require the agencies that oversee public water systems—the Department of Water Resources, the State Water Resources Control Board and Department of Public Health—to increase enforcement.

Nonetheless, local activists call AB 685 an important, if largely symbolic, first step toward greater recognition of the connection between clean water and human health. Firestone says AB 685 makes “a problem that was invisible into a priority. People have to pick up that rock and see the disparities around water in our state,” she says.

Debbie Davis, community and rural affairs adviser for the governor’s office, agrees. “The bottom line is that the legislation spells out our intent, which is that everyone in the state should have access to safe water for basic human needs,” says Davis, who worked as a community water activist before joining the governor’s office. “In California, that should be a reasonable, minimum expectation.”

 

In the Central Valley, however, what is “reasonable” often clashes starkly with what is. According to the Community Water Center, one in five Tulare County communities is unable to provide clean drinking water on a daily basis.

To see the conditions facing those communities and their tens of thousands of inhabitants, I traveled to several small agricultural towns in the county, outside of Visalia. In East Orosi, a tiny hamlet of 500 people, residents live in small wood-frame and stucco bungalows, many painted in bright pastel colors reminiscent of a rural Mexican village. My guide, 19-year-old Jessica Sanchez, shows me a recent warning from the East Orosi water district, citing nitrate levels that exceed the state maximum of 45 milligrams per liter. The notices that frequently come in the mail are often obvious facsimiles of previous warnings. “A lot of times, you can see tape marks around the date,” says Sanchez.

Sanchez has been active in local water issues since high school, but these days, she has a new reason to be concerned: her 11-month-old son, Jordan, whose stroller she pushes along a trash-strewn gravel shoulder. Sanchez points out an abandoned-looking trailer tagged with graffiti—the main office of the East Orosi Community Services District.

“There’s no one there,” she says with a laugh. “They hardly ever are.”

As in Seville, the East Orosi’s Community Services District delivers water to homes with “no method of treatment such as coagulation and flocculation, sedimentation, filtration or disinfection,” according to a 2011 Tulare County report on the area’s small community water systems. Moreover, its groundwater pumps sit a few yards from an orange orchard—meaning whatever is applied at the surface can potentially percolate into the shallow groundwater below and into drinking supplies.

Local municipal groundwater pumps are often located beside orchards, alongside agricultural canals, and beside sprawling dairies and their huge sewage lagoons. “The Third World conditions of these systems are truly shocking, particularly for a state that is a leader in so many areas of environmental governance,” says Richard Frank, an environmental law professor at the University of California at Davis. “It’s a striking anomaly.”

Farms and dairies are responsible for 96 percent of the nitrates entering groundwater in the Central and Salinas valleys, according to a 2012 UC Davis study. Some 220,000 tons leach into that groundwater every year—more than four times the “benchmark” level at which nitrogen will not further degrade the region’s groundwater. However, since the bulk of it comes not from single point sources, but from application of fertilizers over vast areas, farms are not required to have discharge permits for the large quantities of nitrogen pollution they generate. California’s dairies are now required to submit waste and nutrient management plans if they are located in “high risk” areas—over shallow groundwater, say, or near municipal water supplies. But much of the manure and sewage sludge generated by these dairies is destined for fields, potentially jeopardizing the groundwater beneath.

There is mounting evidence that the nitrogen in the groundwater today originated decades ago—which is to say, the Central Valley’s problems stand to get significantly worse.

“Even if we got rid of all of the sources tomorrow, it’s going to be decades before this mess is cleaned up,” says Thomas Harter, a co-author of the UC Davis nitrate report. “To think that this is a problem that we’re simply going to be able to remediate away is the wrong path.”

In the meantime, Latinos living in the Central Valley are suffering disproportionately from nitrogen contamination, according to a study published in 2011 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. That study’s lead author, Carolina Balazs, a UC Berkeley researcher, says that previous research on water contamination overlooked socioeconomic and ethnic disparities, assuming that all communities served by small water systems faced similar risk of nitrate contamination.

“We found that, yes, small systems do tend to have higher nitrate levels. But it’s small systems (serving) high percentages of Latinos that have the highest levels of nitrates,” says Balazs.

Both economic and social factors may play a role in exposure risk. Data from the 2000 Census show that more than one in four Spanish-speaking families in the Central Valley are “linguistically isolated,” meaning that all adults in a household speak a language other than English, and none speaks English very well. Because of this, these families are less able to advocate for themselves and successfully use civic channels available to effect change.

For mothers like Sanchez, nitrates are particularly worrisome since they can cause methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby syndrome,” a sometimes-fatal condition in which an infant’s red blood cells cannot carry enough oxygen.

“I definitely won’t use this water to make formula,” says Sanchez, looking down at Jordan in his stroller. “But should I even give it to my dogs?”

 

The 300 people in Tonyville, tucked between the beige Sierra foothills and the boundless green of surrounding orchards, also face severe water problems. Senaida Aguilar, a vigorous 71-year-old farmworker, raised three children here after moving in the mid-1980s from her hometown of Morelia, in southern Mexico. Her skin is tanned and creased after nearly 30 years of laboring in the olive and orange orchards.

Thick gloves protect her forearms from thorns, and she wears a heavy canvas fruit-picking apron, with a large, kangaroo-like pouch in front. It takes 18 filled aprons—more than 1,600 pounds of citrus altogether—to fill a single bin, she explains; she earns $14.50 for each bin.

She is still strong, and though she no longer climbs the ladders, Aguilar says she can keep up with most of the younger pickers by working the lower limbs, filling a bin an hour. But the contract work that has become standard today makes her wages unpredictable.

“Now they tell you they need a certain number of bins, and they send you home once they are filled.” That means that, on many days, it is simply not possible for Aguilar to fill her eight bins.

This strains her budget, which includes $650 a month in rent. She also pays around $50 a month to the Lindsay-Strathmore Irrigation District for water that’s undrinkable. So she spends another $50 to $100 a month for five-gallon bottles at water vending machines for drinking and cooking.

Aguilar’s situation is not unique; seven out of 10 Tulare County households surveyed in 2011 by the Oakland-based Pacific Institute spent close to 5 percent of their annual income on water—three times the “affordability threshold” set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Aguilar shows me several recent warnings from the irrigation district, one mentioning “disinfection byproducts”—trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids—found at concentrations nearly twice the state limit. The warning that follows is confusing at best. One sentence reads, “You DO NOT need to use an alternative (e.g., bottled) water supply.” But the following line is hardly reassuring: “Some people who use water containing trihalomethanes in excess of the (maximum contaminant level) over many years may experience liver, kidney, or central nervous system problems and may have an increased risk of getting cancer.”

The most ominous warning, however, arrived with Aguilar’s February bill. It reads, TONYVILLE WATER HAS HIGH LEVELS OF PERCHLORATE. DO NOT DRINK THE WATER OR USE IT TO MAKE INFANT FORMULA. Perchlorate, a potent thyroid inhibitor, is often used in munitions manufacturing but can also be derived from fertilizers.

Aguilar runs a glass from her bathroom tap and brings it into the light. The water has a slightly yellowish tinge, and it looks cloudy on some days, she says, “the color of pond water.” It has a faint acrid smell, reminiscent of wet animal fur tinged with lighter fluid.

No one knows the actual toll bad water is taking on human health around here. But residents all share stories of illness or death. Aguilar mentions people who developed strange rashes and sores after using the water for bathing. Another Tonyville resident, Guadalupe Nunez, tells me she knows 11 people who have died of liver, stomach and kidney cancers in Tonyville in less than 10 years.

Public health statistics show the death rates from infant health issues (including birth defects, miscarriage and sudden infant death syndrome), digestive system cancers and other illnesses associated with nitrate exposure in Tulare County have been above statewide averages at one time or another since 2001. California public health workers found a cluster of childhood cancers in the Tulare County town of Earlimart between 1986 and 1989—and all the victims were children of farmworkers. Of course, proving a definitive link between water contaminants and disease requires long-term, longitudinal studies—the sorts of public-health inquiries that are rarely made in these virtually invisible communities.

To learn more about what water managers are doing to fix Tonyville’s problems, I call Scott Edwards, Lindsay-Strathmore’s district manager, whose name and number are listed on the warning notice. Edwards explains that most of the time, Tonyville’s water comes through surface canals, but that the perchlorate spikes occur every year or two when the canal is “dewatered,” and the town switches from canal water to groundwater.

According to Edwards, Tonyville’s filtration plant is simply incapable of removing the perchlorate from its groundwater. (He admits he doesn’t know where the perchlorate is coming from.) “State and federal regulations say we must deliver clean drinking water, even though we can’t afford to do that,” he says, explaining that treatment costs already run from $1,500 to $2,000 an acre-foot, while residents are paying only $250 per acre-foot. “Tonyville residents would be paying $450 a month to operate that plant. What am I supposed to do, raise the rates? They can’t afford that.”

But clean drinking water is a human right in California, I point out, referring to the new bill’s wording. “Drinking water is not a human right. Get that off your head right now,” says Edwards. “If it costs somebody else money to provide it to you, it’s not your right.”

He quickly shifts to a more sympathetic tone, though, noting that he lives in an unincorporated part of Tulare County, and his water, too, is unfiltered and undrinkable. “We have bottled water in our house at all times.”

As a manager tasked with delivering high-quality water across the county, does he find this fact troubling or, at the very least, somewhat ironic?

“It is what it is,” he replies.

 

Overwhelming costs and technical complexity compound this kind of institutional apathy. Since large-scale groundwater cleanup is, by most measures, not feasible, a different approach called “pump-and-fertilize” has been proposed. In essence, farmers would use nutrient-loaded groundwater for both irrigating and fertilizing, a practice that, over time, could gradually reduce nitrate levels in aquifers. Another idea is a tax on nitrate-rich fertilizers, meant to dissuade farmers from overusing them. The tax funds would be used to tackle nitrate contamination in towns served by small community water systems. (The UC Davis report estimates it will cost $36 million annually to bring clean water to the two regions examined in the study—either through new infrastructure or securing new sources of water.) Not surprisingly, agricultural groups are strongly opposed.

“It’s going to take action, not only from the water board, but the Legislature and other state agencies to move forward,” says John Borkovich, program manager for the state water board’s groundwater monitoring program.

The most promising technical fix may, in fact, be rooted in the ties forged by the AGUA coalition itself. The hope is that these small towns can pool their resources to create larger districts with economies of a scale capable of reducing the high costs of treatment. “If you take seven communities and combine them into one district,” says Abigail Solis of the Community Water Center, “you eliminate the costs of seven secretaries, seven attorneys, seven engineers, seven everything. You’re also much stronger politically.”

Steve Worthley, a member of the Tulare County board of supervisors, is exploring just such a possibility. The county, which took over operation of Seville’s water system by court order a few years back, is considering linking it up with the water system of the nearby town of Yettem. He notes that the greatest impediments to consolidation are political. “There would have to be an election to create a district and form its boundaries and determine its governance structure. But it can be done.”

He adds that another nearby district is considering delivering clean water to these towns via water “swaps,” which entail exchanging cleaner surface waters for groundwater stored in large underground reservoirs.

While the concept of swapping tainted groundwater for cleaner surface water seems like a no-brainer, it’s not as simple as it sounds, explains Worthley—particularly in years like this, in which, as of May 1, the state’s snowpack stood at a meager 17 percent of average. Communities across the region have no choice but to turn to groundwater to augment supply.

Given the myriad threats to the Central Valley’s groundwater, I ask if the state might have a larger role to play, helping the county to more carefully manage the pumping of groundwater and more rigorously regulate sources of pollution. “I’m totally opposed to it,” says Worthley. “We can manage our own groundwater.”

Like most places in California and across the country, already-strapped Tulare County was decimated by loss of tax revenues during the financial downturn. “We know we have a problem, and we’re trying to fix it,” says Worthley. “We don’t have the money to fix it. The community services districts don’t have the money to fix it.”

So where will Tulare County get the money? I ask. “We’re looking for some assistance from the state,” he says.

Back in Seville, as we walk toward Becky Quintana’s house and the snowcapped peaks beyond, Quintana reflects on what’s been accomplished. Still, she acknowledges that the struggle to secure clean water for her community never ends.

“People always ask me, ‘How come you don’t just move?’ Is that going to solve my problem—just taking off? My parents built their house here 60 years ago. Should I just say, ‘OK, I’m leaving; the water will take care of itself?’”

She shakes her head emphatically, her large earrings swinging defiantly in the cool spring air. “It’s not just about me. It’s about the next generation. It’s about the next human being that’s going to want to come make a home here. Why not make a difference?”

Jeremy Miller is a contributing editor for High Country News, where this story was originally published. He writes from his home in Richmond, Calif. This story was made possible with support from the Kenney Brothers Foundation and with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.

Published in Environment

Ah, San Diego: As Coachella Valley residents know, the city to the south features great weather, a zoo with adorable panda bears, sandy beaches, turquoise swimming pools—and very little water.

Unlike other arid Southwestern cities, San Diego doesn’t have an aquifer to draw its drinking water from, so it imports about 80 percent of it. For many years, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California supplied most of that water. But a policy that would allow the Los Angeles-dominated agency to cut San Diego’s supply by 50 percent during drought has always made the city uneasy.

For years, San Diego has been looking for ways to wean itself off L.A’s supply, and in the 1990s, the city began eyeing the Colorado River, which is diverted through the desert in a series of huge concrete canals to the Imperial Valley, where about 80 percent of the country’s winter vegetables are grown. The valley is a heavy-hitter in the water world, with rights to one-fifth of the Colorado’s flow. In 2003, under immense pressure from the feds, the Imperial Irrigation District agreed to sell some of that water to San Diego. But Imperial County officials worried the water transfers would hasten the demise of the Salton Sea, and sued after the deal was inked. Now, a recent ruling should put much of the dispute to rest, allowing the largest rural to urban water transfer in U.S. history to continue.

Legally, California is allowed to take 4.4 million acre-feet from the Colorado, but for many years, the state sucked more than that. Upstream states didn’t mind, as they weren’t using their entire allocations. But that changed around the millennium, when, as Ed Marston reported in High Country News in 2001, “the other states, growing larger and thirstier with each passing year, worried that they would never get to use their full apportionments of the Colorado if California’s use became institutionalized.”

So the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation rolled out the “4.4 plan,” designed to shrink California’s take of the Colorado back to its legal share. The plan called for lining the All-American Canal, which carries Colorado River water to Southern California, and sending the “reclaimed” water to cities. Cutting water use in the Imperial Valley, rather than in urban areas, was another major part of the plan.

In order to reduce its use of the Colorado without leaving urban residents dry, California has been scrambling to work out a series of conservation measures and farm-to-city water transfers. Under the terms of the plan, negotiated by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, the Interior Department would wean California off the surplus Colorado River water slowly, over 15 years—if California could line up the water transfers by Dec. 31, 2002. If California couldn’t work it out, Babbitt and then his successor, Gale Norton, vowed to cut off the state from surplus water at the stroke of midnight.

And on New Year’s Eve, as California water agencies futilely struggled to finalize a crucial deal, Norton did just that, slashing California’s cut of the Colorado River by over 700,000 acre-feet, enough water for 1.6 million households.

The dramatic New Year’s cutoff worked. Later that year, the Imperial Irrigation District signed the Quantification Settlement Agreement, agreeing to send 200,000 acre-feet of water per year to San Diego for the next 75 years, or about 9 percent of its total Colorado River allotment. To meet the terms of the deal, Imperial Valley farmers fallowed some 36,000 acres of farmland.

But the water transfer, and accompanying efficiency measures, had an unexpected consequence: They accelerated the demise of our very own Salton Sea, which was created in 1905 by a blowout in an irrigation canal and fed only by continued leaks.

Here’s the problem: If the sea is allowed to dry without treatment, it will generate 17 tons of unhealthy dust a day, according to the Pacific Institute. Winds pebbled with stinking salty sand will sicken asthmatics, children and the elderly, especially in the eastern Coachella Valley. Crops in the nation’s winter salad bowl—the Imperial Valley—will be harmed. In short, if nothing is done to restore the Salton Sea by 2018, we’ll all feel the fallout. (One minor bit of fallout: a series of valley-wide foul smells from the decaying lake, most recently on July 2.)

So the Imperial County Board of Supervisors and other plaintiffs sued, arguing the Quantification Settlement Agreement, or QSA, violated state environmental rules. In 2009, a judge agreed with the plaintiffs, but that decision was later overturned on appeal. The case finally made it to the Sacramento County Superior Court, where in June, Judge Lloyd Connelly upheld the 2003 agreement.

San Diego’s water authority was thrilled; General Manager Maureen Stapleton told the Los Angeles Times that the decision is “landmark victory in San Diego’s historic quest for a more reliable water supply.”

Up in the Imperial Valley, the mood was more somber. “Regardless of how the judge ruled, all parties to the agreement need to acknowledge that the Salton Sea is suffering, and its continued deterioration poses great risks in the future to the environment and public health,” Kevin Kelley, general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District, wrote in a statement.

As uncertain as the future of the sea is, Colorado River users may have a bigger problem on their hands: over-allocation. Last December, the Bureau of Reclamation released a report predicting water demand will soon outstrip supply, due to drought, climate change and increased growth in the Southwest. In May, water districts, environmental groups, farmers and tribal members met in San Diego to discuss a way forward. The Imperial Irrigation District participated in the meeting, but made one thing very clear: no more rural to urban water transfers.

“We like to farm,” Tina Shields, Colorado River resources manager for the irrigation district, told the Los Angeles Times. “I don’t think anybody down here is going to volunteer for more transfers.”

Emily Guerin is the assistant online editor of High Country News (the site from which this was cross-posted). The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Environment

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