CVIndependent

Thu05242018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

The Salton Sea was accidentally created in 1905, and its relentless deterioration began in earnest after the area’s heyday as a resort area in the 1950s and 1960s.

In the decades since, water levels have dropped precipitously, while pollution and salinization levels have skyrocketed—and as a result, the lake is a gradually evolving natural disaster in our backyard.

Over the years, various scientific and political initiatives have been proposed to forestall the very real dangers posed by the degrading sea. But few, if any, of the proposed solutions have been implemented.

Until now, that is.

“The two-pronged approach is moving forward under the Salton Sea 10-Year Plan,” said Bruce Wilcox, the assistant secretary of Salton Sea policy at the California Natural Resources Agency. “(The first prong is) concentrating on getting some construction done out there so there’s some habitat restored, and more importantly, from a public health point of view, getting some dust suppression happening. We’re doing that right now. We’ve already started.”

The second prong is still being developed, and various Salton Sea threat-management stakeholders—including the Salton Sea Authority, the California Department of Water Resources, the Imperial Irrigation District and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife—are in the process of conducting a series of community workshops, led by Wilcox, in cities surrounding the Salton Sea.

“These meetings are for anyone, but they’re particularly designed for the public,” he said. “We hold them in the evenings so that folks who are working during the day can go.”

What’s the goal of these workshops?

“What we’re hoping to get from the general public is some input on whether or not they think the short-term projects make sense,” Wilcox said. “Are (people) happy with where they are located (geographically)? What other longer-range solutions do you see for the Salton Sea? So far, we’ve gotten some interesting feedback. For instance, there’s concern about water import. There’s concern on the part of people who live on the west side of the sea as to how soon there might be a restoration program under way near them. Those are the sorts of things we’re trying to get from folks.

“Also, longer-term, we want to know if they think the two-pronged approach will work, and how well they think it might work, or what they think we should do to change it.”

One encouraging aspect of the Salton Sea 10-Year Plan rollout is that it offers the first evidence that separate bureaucratic efforts are finally coming together. Signed by the governor in October 2015, Assembly Bill 1095 called for the creation of a list of “shovel-ready” Salton Sea restoration projects by March 31, 2016.

“All of the projects which were mentioned in that bill are included in the 10-Year Plan,” Wilcox said. “Red Hill Bay has started construction.”

The Red Hill Bay Project is a joint effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Imperial Irrigation District to restore habitat on the southeastern shore of the Salton Sea. Wilcox said the state-funded project includes about 500 acres.

Wilcox said other projects will get started later this year and early next year.

“The southwest corner of the sea includes the New River, and on the east side of that river, there are about 640 acres of species-conservation habitat,” he said. “We will advertise in the next month for a bid on the development of this project, and we should start construction on that later this year. That’s a deeper-water fisheries habitat. We now have salinity issues with the Salton Sea that are raising heck with the fisheries, so when we put these on the ground, we’ll manage the salinity in these impoundments. At least we’ll then have some stable fish habitats. It’s not enough, but it’s a start.”

The 10-Year Plan projects are expected to cost about $390 million in total. Who will provide that funding?

“We have $80 million in state of California grants stemming from (2014’s) Prop 1,” Wilcox said. “But we’re looking at getting additional funding from the (United States Department of Agriculture) perhaps, or from the (federal) watershed improvement acts. There’s a bill right now in the California State Senate that would provide additional funding. I’m confident that we’ll get the money we need.”

However, the Trump administration has not exactly embraced funding for environmental issues.

“Well, it’s a new administration, and we’re learning about them as they’re learning about us,” he said, rather diplomatically. “We have a signed memorandum of agreement with the Department of the Interior for funding. I’m going to assume that we’ll get that funding.”

However, Wilcox acknowledged that the memorandum was signed under the Obama administration.

“It certainly could be taken away,” Wilcox said. “But for the state of California, and for most people who look at this question, the cost of restoring the Salton Sea is a huge number. But when you look at it from the federal government’s perspective, it’s a line item in a budget, and there are all sorts of line items in there that are bigger than this one, so I’m reasonably confident that we’ll be able to prevail with the agencies. We’ve had some very productive discussions with them to this point. … But I don’t want to kid anybody. Funding is going to be an uphill fight. It always is, no matter what the project is.”

Wilcox expressed optimism that the 10-Year-Plan will succeed.

“I think the odds are reasonably good,” he said. “(The sea) won’t be like it was in the 1960s. It’ll be smaller, but sustainable. We call it the Salton Sea Management Program for that reason: It’s not restoration, necessarily. It’s to manage and impact all of the things going on.”

Workshops on the Salton Sea’s 10-Year-Plan are being held in cities all around the Salton Sea, including one at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, July 6, at the Indio Performing Arts Center, 45175 Fargo St., in Indio; and another at 5:30 p.m., Wednesday, July 12, at the Rancho Mirage Public Library, 71100 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. For more information, including a complete schedule of workshops, visit resources.ca.gov/salton-sea.

Published in Environment

In the late 1980s, a Japanese scientist named Koji Minoura stumbled upon a medieval poem that described a tsunami so large it had swept away a castle and killed 1,000 people.

Intrigued, Minoura and his team began looking for paleontological evidence of the tsunami beneath rice paddies—and discovered not one, but three massive earthquake-triggered waves that had wracked the Sendai coast over the past 3,000 years.

In a 2001 paper, Minoura concluded that the possibility of another tsunami was significant. But Tokyo Electric Power was slow to respond to the science, leaving the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant unprepared for the 15-meter wave that inundated it in 2011. The wave resulted in a $188 billion natural disaster. More than 15,000 people died.

For the past several decades, paleo-hydrologist Victor Baker of the University of Arizona has been using techniques similar to Minoura’s to study the flood history of the Colorado Plateau. Like Minoura, he’s found that floods much larger than any in recorded history are routine occurrences. And like Minoura, he feels his research is being largely ignored by agencies and public utilities with infrastructure in the path of such floods.

Earlier this month, when a spillway at the nation’s tallest dam in Oroville, Calif., nearly buckled under the pressure of record rainfall, the consequences of under-estimating flood risks were brought into sharp relief. Dams aren’t built to withstand every curveball nature can throw—only the weather events that engineers deem most likely to occur within the dam’s lifespan. When many Western dams were built in the mid-20th century, the best science to determine such probabilities came from historical records and stream gauges.

But that record only stretches back to the late 1800s, a timespan Baker calls “completely inadequate.” Today, technology allows scientists to reconstruct thousands of years of natural history, giving us a much clearer picture of how often super-floods occur.

“The probability of rare things is best evaluated if your record is very long,” Baker explains.

By combing the Colorado River, the Green River and others in the Southwest for sediment deposits and other flood evidence, and then carbon-dating the results, Baker has concluded the short-term record severely underestimates the size and frequency of large floods. On the Upper Colorado near Moab, Utah, Baker and his team estimated the average 500-year flood at roughly 246,000 cubic feet per second, more than double the 112,000 cfs that scientists had estimated drawing on the stream-gage record alone. Baker’s calculations put the 100-year flood at 171,000 cfs, also much greater than the previous estimate of 96,000 cfs. In comparison, legendary flooding in 1983 and 1984 that nearly overwhelmed Arizona’s Glen Canyon Dam, just downstream, peaked at just 125,000 cfs. (The dam has been bolstered since then, and today engineers say it can handle flows up to 220,000 cfs.)

In California, too, super-floods may be more common than previously thought. United States Geological Survey hydrologist Michael Dettinger and UC Berkeley paleoclimatologist B. Lynn Ingram have studied the paleo-flood record across a broad swath of California and discovered that such floods happen at least every 200 years, and maybe more frequently. The last one was in 1862. Thousands of people died; towns were submerged; and the state’s economy was devastated, yet it was nowhere near the worst: One flood in the 1600s was at least twice as big.

In 2013, Dettinger and Ingram wrote in Scientific American that California was due for another huge water year. Their prediction has proven prescient: So much rain and snow has pounded California this winter that as of Feb. 21, half the state was under flood, rain or snow warnings. Creeks are overflowing their banks and flooding homes, and water managers were forced to spill excess water over the Oroville Dam’s emergency spillway for the first time in the dam’s 49-year history. On the night of Feb. 12, the sediment-choked water began eroding a hole in the spillway, threatening to release a wall of water. More than 180,000 residents fled to higher ground.

Luckily, emergency crews were able to patch the spillway, and people trickled back home. But Oroville isn’t alone—across the country, some 2,000 dams whose failure could cause loss of life are in need of repair, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. And in many ways, Californians dodged a bullet: This winter’s precipitation was nowhere near as heavy as the storms Dettinger and Ingram have studied, yet if Oroville’s reservoir hadn’t been depleted by years of drought, floodwaters could have easily overwhelmed the dam.

Does this mean dams like Oroville and Glen Canyon need to be fortified to withstand bigger storms? Officials from the Bureau of Reclamation are confident that Glen Canyon, at least, is equipped to handle even “extremely large hydrologic events.” And The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is reluctant to apply paleo-hydrology research to existing infrastructure, in part because we’ve altered rivers so much that some Corps’ scientists believe ancient flood records are no longer realistic indicators of current risks.

But Baker believes it would be foolhardy to not at least create contingency plans for the possible failure of some of the West’s biggest dams. That Japanese officials were warned about Fukushima and didn’t act is “an embarrassment,” Baker adds.

“We may have some similar things occurring in the United States, if we don’t seriously pay attention to this science.”

Krista Langlois is a correspondent for High Country News, where this piece first appeared.

Published in Environment

At the beginning of February last year, South Lake Tahoe in California was nearly 60 degrees Fahrenheit—almost 20 degrees above its historic average.

At that time, the drought had been dragging along for four years, and chair lifts at nearby ski resorts were swaying over barren slopes. Representatives from the California Department of Water Resources called the Sierra Nevada snowpack “dismally meager,” at only 23 percent of normal.

This year, it’s a drastically different story. January has been California’s best month for the snowpack since 2011, and the state’s measurements are at 127 percent of normal. Still, it’s still not enough to make up the deficit from the persisting drought in the state. It is enough, though, to keep ski resorts running and reservoirs in the state from drying up.

Above-normal snowpack measurements are tracking for most of the West, too. (See the chart below.) The season was off to a slow start with sporadic storms from October through December, but January winter precipitation increased measurements across all states, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s SNOTEL sites, which measure snow depth at thousands of stations nation-wide. Over the past month, California snowpack increased from 90 to 127 percent, and Arizona jumped from 83 percent to 113 percent of normal. 

Only two Western states, Montana and Wyoming, are below the historic benchmark for “normal” at this time of year—and not by much. North-central Wyoming and the eastern slope of the Northern Rockies in Montana are the low-snow areas. Both states are at more than 80 percent of normal for this time of year, and February is a crucial month for snow. Snowpack typically builds until April, says Alan Haynes, a hydrologist for the California Nevada River Forecast Center. But even in states with snowpack measurements lagging behind, readings from early in the season have improved.Since December, snow depth in Montana has hobbled to 84 percent of normal —from 73 percent in early December. And Wyoming similarly increased to 84 percent, from about 75.

Measurements from SNOTEL sites across the West, which have been recording precipitation and snow depth this season since Oct. 1, 2015, are painting a reverse picture of last year. Areas that were far below average last year—the Tahoe Basin in California and the Cascades in the Pacific Northwest—are recording the highest precipitation in the West so far this season.

In California, local forecasters say the past few months of snow are finally chipping away at the state’s five-year drought. The deficit will be hard to overcome, Haynes says, but if this season continues, the state might avoid fallowing fields. California gets 30 percent of its total water supply from snowpack, and reservoirs that have been low are now slowly filling up. Shasta Reservoir, one of the largest storage systems in the state, is currently more than 50 percent full, or about 75 percent of the historical average for this time.

However, a late-winter dry spell could cause further problems.

“If we get shut out for the rest of the winter, the outlook could be bleak,” Haynes says.

Winter recreation in California is also benefiting from the abundant snow. The Hagens Meadow SNOTEL site near South Lake Tahoe is reporting 53 inches of snow depth, or 158 percent of normal, and the Ostrander Lake site, in south Yosemite National Park, has had 220 inches of snow. 

Although the surplus of snow in the West is a positive sign for drought-stricken areas, it has been a dangerous season for those in the backcountry. Fifteen people have died in avalanches this season, and 12 of those deaths occurred in January alone. Ten of those fatalities, astoundingly, occurred in just an eight-day period spanning six Western states: Washington, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, Utah and Alaska. January was the third-deadliest month recorded since 2001, according to Karl Birkeland, director of the National Avalanche Center.

Sporadic storms from October through December created a weak foundation in snowpack across the region. The clear spells between storms allowed “depth hoar,” a sugary and large-grained snow, to develop, and large storms in December and January added dense layers on top of the fragile base.

“That set the stage of the cluster of avalanche deaths in January,” Birkeland says.

While El Niño may be creating a more robust winter storm pattern, it’s difficult to attribute all of the heavy snow to the global weather phenomenon.

“This year has been a really strong El Niño, but we’re seeing snowfall patterns that are somewhat unusual for this weather event,” Haynes says. The Northwest, which would typically be fairly dry, is wet. However, precipitation in south-central California hasn’t lived up to early El Niño predictions for that part of the state.

Still, the U.S. Drought Monitor remains cautiously optimistic about recovery. According to the center’s Jan. 28 report, “the trend is going in the right direction for now with a good chunk of the snow season still left to play out over the next two months.”

Paige Blankenbuehler is an editorial fellow at High Country News, where this story first appeared.

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

Much of the state of California is currently facing a water crisis, thanks to a record-setting drought. Yet here in our desert environment of the Coachella Valley, the happy anomaly of apparently plentiful and affordable water continues as the status quo.

However, that does not mean all is settled regarding water in the Coachella Valley.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians (ACBCI) has filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court to obtain senior water rights over the shared Coachella Valley aquifer. The suit, filed on May 14, 2013, against the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) and the Desert Water Agency (DWA)—stewards of much of valley’s public water supply since 1918 and 1961, respectively—is expected to go to trial no later than February 2015.

On May 13, the latest legal maneuver occurred when the U.S. Department of Justice filed a motion, which has since been granted, to join the lawsuit as a co-plaintiff with the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

Heather Engel, the CVWD’s director of communications and legislation, said the agencies did not object to the move.

“The Department of Justice has a stake: They own the tribal land, so it makes sense for them to get involved,” she said.

Craig Ewing, president of the DWA board of directors, agreed.

“The federal government owns the tribal lands,” he said. “The fact that they want to join their tribal trustees in the lawsuit is no surprise. It poses no real significant change for us, so we didn’t oppose it.”

The Independent contacted Kate Anderson, the Agua Caliente director of public relations, to request a one-on-one interview with an ACBCI representative. That request was denied, and we were told to instead submit a list of questions.

We asked what the tribe’s objectives are in filing the lawsuit. The response: “The tribe’s objectives would be (1) having the court affirm the tribe’s preexisting, senior rights to groundwater; (2) having the court order DWA and CVWD to implement a plan to cease any withdrawals of groundwater that infringe upon the tribe’s rights or cause the aquifer to be in a state of overdraft; and (3) requiring DWA and CVWD to use high quality water—be it treated Colorado River water or water from another source—to recharge the aquifer.”

Engel explained some of her agencies’ objections to the tribe’s claims. “If we start with the senior rights, the CVWD believes that, based on current law in California, nobody owns the groundwater,” she said. “Anyone in the Coachella Valley, anyone in the state of California can drill a well and pump groundwater. So it’s not our water to give them senior rights.”

Ewing, again, agreed. “No one has the (exclusive) right to the water currently, because it is a public aquifer. Anyone can put a pump in the ground and pump it, including the tribe. So for them to say that they have a right to the water goes against our understanding of the legal status of the aquifer today.”

Why did the ACBCI choose this to file this lawsuit—which some say redirects resources that could be better spent on conservation and replenishment—at this time? The tribe’s response: “The water agencies admit that ‘overdraft’ (a condition created in the aquifer when water pumped out exceeds the amount replenished on an annual basis) has been a problem in the valley for over 75 years. The agencies are exclusively dependent on (an) imported water supply from the Colorado River, a known polluted water source.”

The tribe continued, “The agencies have turned a deaf ear to the tribe’s written complaints about this situation for going on 20 years.”

Ewing argued that the tribe’s claims that Colorado River water is polluted are off-base.

“Colorado River water helps recharge (replenish) the basin and has for 40 years,” he said. “That Colorado River water meets all federal and state clean water standards. So to suggest that it is somehow inferior water is to us just plain wrong.”

A report from the California Department of Water Resources released in April, “Groundwater Basins With Potential Water Shortages,” seems to refute the tribe’s claims that overdrafts are a serious problem in the valley, at least in recent years. A map of the monitoring of wells located in the area between Palm Springs and the Salton Sea indicates that from 2013-2014, an overwhelming majority of those wells reflected groundwater-level gains or minimal declines—which was not the case in much of the rest of California.

When asked about the benefits of cooperation compared to an expensive lawsuit, the tribe responded strongly.

“The tribe and the United States attempted for many years to work in concert with DWA and CVWD to address the issues in this litigation,” said the ACBCI response. “CVWD and DWA continually refused to acknowledge the tribe’s rights or to engage the tribe in any meaningful dialogue. The decision to initiate litigation came only after attorneys for the water districts informed the tribe that they saw no reason to continue discussions with the tribe.”

Finally, we asked each of the involved parties what they think will result from the lawsuit.

From the ACBCI: “By establishing its ownership interest in the valley’s groundwater, the tribe will have a seat at the table when it comes to the management of the aquifer. It is too early in the lawsuit to predict how these issues will be resolved or identify specific steps that the tribe will take at the lawsuit’s conclusion.”

Engel of the CVWD said: “The bottom line is that obviously the CVWD thinks we’re doing a good job managing the groundwater supply. There is a plan in place. This is not something that’s new to us. We’ve been managing the supply since 1918, and we think that we’ll continue to do a good job for all the residents of the Coachella Valley.”

The DWA’s Ewing speculated that the lawsuit could have a rather complex outcome. “Well, the courts will determine what the policy is. If they determine that the tribe does have senior water rights, then the thing to remember is that this is not an aquifer that is currently divided between (just the) Desert Water Agency and CVWD. There are lots of other players who have pumps in the ground—farmers, country clubs and some industries out in the more rural parts of the valley—and all of them will have to get in line with the courts to determine how much everybody gets if one entity gets something. It could take a long, long time to sort out who gets what should the courts decide that the tribe gets something.”

Ewing added that the legal wrangling could continue for many, many years.

“The tribe has raised several issues in their lawsuit, and if they take as long as they could take through appeals and further hearings and a full adjudication, in my own opinion, the lawyers who will settle this case haven’t been born yet.”

Published in Local Issues