CVIndependent

Thu10182018

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

After months of rain—and increased revenue from last year’s rate increases—both the western Coachella Valley’s Desert Water Agency and the eastern valley’s Coachella Valley Water District find themselves wading in more riches than they could have imagined just one short year ago.

However, that does not mean that all of the water-conservation mandates are a thing of the past.

“The drought is over, but conservation isn’t,” said Ashley Metzger, the DWA’s outreach and conservation manager. “That’s the big message.”

While Gov. Jerry Brown declared on April 7that the drought was officially over in most of the state—including Riverside County—many of the water-usage restrictions imposed during the drought may be with us for some time.

“We live in the desert, and we’re always in a drought,” said Heather Engel, the CVWD’s director of conservation and communication. “Even though there were many areas of the state that were facing unprecedented circumstances, for us, this is how it is all the time.”

Coachella Valley residents are continuing to conserve. According to the CVWD’s March conservation report, customers used 24.5 percent less potable water than compared to the same period in 2013, while the DWA reported a 23.6 percent decrease.

“There are still prohibitions on water waste, water runoff and watering during or soon after rainfall. These are all things for which the DWA will cite people,” Metzger said. “We see the drought as having been a good learning opportunity for our customers, and we want to keep that message going in terms of water use efficiency.”

However, some of the most onerous water restrictions may be eased.

“Any restrictions that local water agencies imposed above and beyond the state’s, according to my understanding, can be eliminated,” said Engel. “That’s where you see that some of the local time or day-of-the-week outdoor-irrigation usage restrictions are being lifted. But the state restrictions are pretty much common-sense restrictions, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the governor and the State Water Resources Control Board make those kinds of restrictions permanent.”

Still, the local agencies are celebrating the results of all the recent precipitation.

“The big and good news is that, with the state getting plenty of rain and snowmelt runoff in Northern California, we are expecting to get 85 percent of our imported water allotment from the State Water Project this year,” Engel said. “That’s huge. If you’ve driven over that Whitewater Bridge lately, you’ve seen the water flowing down, and it’s going to be flowing all year. We’re thinking that we might be able to put about 300,000 acre feet of water into the aquifer, which is huge for all of us here in the Coachella Valley.”

The last year in which the valley received a noteworthy imported water allotment from the state was 2013.

“The only downside is that we have to be more diligent in our messaging concerning safety,” Metzger said. “You know during the summer when people want to get a reprieve from the heat out here that the river flow is alluring. But we want to point people to the reserve to experience the water resource—and not have them go into the river.”

The CVWD may also receive an unexpected revenue windfall. Last year, the CVWD board of directors approved aggressive incremental rate increases over five years. Engel explained: “When we pitched the need for these rate increases to the community, we said there were three key reasons: chromium 6 treatment (required by new state regulations); reduced revenue due to conservation; and the third had to do with a number of other capital-improvement projects, some of which had been deferred during the recession years.”

However, CVWD staff members last fall—after the rate increases were enacted—became aware of test results involving an alternative chromium 6 treatment program.

“We decided to take a timeout and do a pilot study of this alternative treatment method,” Engel said. “If this doesn’t work, we probably won’t meet the deadline to be in compliance with state-mandated chromium 6 levels by 2020. So there’s a bit of a risk there, but the savings to our customers would be so significant, and the positive impact on our communities and the environment so significant, that our board decided it was a risk worth taking. Since the report came, a handful of water districts in the state, and the city of Coachella, are looking into this other method.”

Could this new treatment option lead to—at least—lower rate increases for CVWD customers?

“The board could reduce rates back to 2010 levels if they wanted to do that,” she said. “Or they could say they don’t need any increase this year. Or they could increase any amount up to the total that was published.”

At 8 a.m., Monday, May 22, the CVWD Board is holding a public meeting to review a presentation on next year’s fiscal budget, effective July 1.

“Certainly, we did not spend the money in the last year on the chromium 6 treatment project that we had planned, but we’re uncertain about that future,” Engel said. “People are still conserving, and that’s good, and we do still have these additional projects that we need to do. For instance, we’re in the planning stages for the construction of a new aquifer-recharge facility in Palm Desert, where subsidence of the aquifer has become an issue. So there’s still a need to fund these other projects, but whether or not we can do it with or without a rate increase is still undecided. Based on what the board has said in recent public meetings, it’s clear they’re hoping that staff can come up with a plan (for the next fiscal year) that does not require an increase.”

Meanwhile, the DWA and other local water agencies have found a way to lessen the impact of rate increases on some customers. Partnering with the United Way, the DWA formed the Help2Others program, which provides financial aid to help lower-income residents pay their water bills.

“We have a lot of seniors and some lower-income neighborhoods. … it was really important to get a program like that set up, and we did,” Metzger said. “… Now all five public water agencies in the valley have this program in conjunction with the United Way.

This valuable assistance is funded differently through each of the participating agencies. “Here at the DWA,” Metzger said, “our vendors and our employees have contributed funds to make our program possible, which I’m super-proud of. I think we all realize what we do wouldn’t be possible without the residents paying our rates, and if you need help, we understand water is one of the most fundamental things you need.”

Published in Local Issues

LAKE ELSINORE (Reuters)—As Coachella Valley residents know, Southern California’s deserts and hillsides are ablaze with color after a wet winter spurred what scientists say is the biggest wildflower bloom in years.

Golden California poppies, the state’s flower, blanket hillsides along busy high desert roads and freeways around Lake Elsinore in Riverside County. At Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in San Diego County, the desert blooms with purple Canterbury Bells, red Monkey Flower, white Desert Lily and more poppies.

“Plentiful rains in December, January and February have encouraged the development of a spectacular showing of annual plants in the flower fields north of town, along trails in western canyons, and even in the badlands,” naturalists wrote on Anza-Borrego’s website.

Before the state’s devastating five-year drought, Southern California families often made an annual trek to see wildflowers at Anza-Borrego and other destinations—some as close as a freeway exit in the desert. Now that storms have replenished dry desert land, the tradition has returned in force.

So many people are visiting Anza-Borrego, the state’s largest park, that officials on Tuesday warned of traffic jams and urged flower-lovers to bring plenty of water to avoid dehydration in the hot, dry weather expected this week.

On the steep hillsides of Walker Canyon in Lake Elsinore, people snapped pictures of wildflowers and gathered blooms as they strolled through the gently waving sea of color. Children played and dogs romped through the high stands of poppies as traffic whizzed by on the freeway below.

(Reporting by Alan Devall in Lake Elsinore, California and Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California; Writing by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Published in Snapshot

The highest mountains in the West run north-to-south through the Mediterranean latitudes and just 150 miles from the Pacific Ocean—a remarkable stroke of geologic luck that has made California one of the richest ecological and agricultural regions on the continent. 

These mountains accumulate deep snow in the winter, which in turn feeds cold rivers that flow through the hot, dry months. But the unique conditions that California’s native fish, its farms and its cities depend on are acutely threatened by climate change. In 2015, virtually no snow fell in the Sierra Nevada.

Droughts occur naturally, but research indicates the current drought in the American West has been made worse by climate change—and that future droughts will be exacerbated by the warming planet. A 2015 paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters calculated that climate change has made California’s current drought as much as 27 percent worse than it would otherwise have been. In 2015, Stanford researchers, led by associate professor of earth sciences Noah Diffenbaugh, predicted that extremely hot years in California will increasingly overlap with dry spells in the future. Greenhouse gases, the scientists reported, are pushing this trend. Diffenbaugh explained to The New York Times that, even if precipitation remains ample, warmer winters in the future will mean less water stored away as snow—historically the most important reservoir in the state.

As water supplies shrink, the human population is booming. By 2050, the agencies that manage and distribute California’s water will be answering to the needs of roughly 50-60 million people as well as the state’s enormous agriculture industry. Current squabbles over California’s water will escalate into blistering fights, and native salmon—once the main protein source for the West Coast’s indigenous people—will probably vanish in the fray as the Sacramento and San Joaquin river system is tapped to the max for human needs. Other native fishes, too, like green sturgeon, will almost certainly dwindle or disappear. 

The atmospheric buildup of greenhouse gases will manifest in other ways, too. Disruption of ocean currents could reduce the upwelling of cold bottom water so critical for California’s coastal ecosystem. California’s shoreline will erode as the sea level rises, threatening coastal real estate, roads and public space. In 2009, the Pacific Institute released a report predicting that a 100-year flood combined with a 5-foot rise in sea level could cause more than $100 billion in damage, most of it in the San Francisco Bay area.

Californians are as much to blame for climate change as nearly any other comparable economy. In 2013, California generated 350 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution—more than every other state except Texas, which emitted more than 600 million. Most of California’s emissions came from burning petroleum, and more than half could be linked directly to transportation—mostly private vehicles. Globally, the United States’ 324 million residents generate more carbon dioxide from fossil fuels than every other nation but China. Even all the nations of the European Union emit just 60 percent as much CO2 as Americans do, in spite of outnumbering Americans by almost 200 million. 

California has responded to the alarms of climate researchers with aggressive emissions goals. Assembly Bill 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, called for reducing greenhouse gas emissions rates to 1990 levels by 2020. More recently, the California Assembly passed Senate Bill 32, which extends some of the targets of AB32 to 2030, at which point the new law requires California to be emitting 40 percent less greenhouse gases than it was in 1990.

These goals will likely prompt shifts to renewable energy and sustainable agriculture, a carbon fee, more walking and cycling in place of driving, and adoption of clean energy. If other governments follow suit, rates of global warming could be slowed or stopped.

If business continues as usual, though, Californians will reap what we sow.

See also:

Crisis Coming: Battling Climate Change in the Trump Era Won’t be Easy—but It’s Vital

A Call to Action: Six Things Leaders Must Prioritize To Address Climate Change

Published in Environment

California’s historic drought led to immense pressure to conserve water, and during the last year, most Californians stepped up to the task.

State “water cops” issued warnings and fines; people stopped washing their cars; towns let their parks fade from green to brown. But during El Niño this winter, some regions received enough precipitation to replenish reservoirs and aquifers, so in May, Gov. Jerry Brown lifted the statewide ban on excessive urban water use, giving more than 400 water districts the power to develop individual conservation standards.

It was a controversial decision, because sweeping rules had finally moved people to take the drought seriously. Water-policy experts fear the decision may lead to a let-up in conservation, even though nearly 70 percent of the state remains in extreme drought. That concern isn’t unwarranted: Although some districts want to keep enforcing strict mandates, others have been fighting for months to put a cap on them.

“A number of water suppliers don’t necessarily deserve (this) trust,” says Sara Aminzadeh, executive director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance, an organization that unites water programs across the state. “It’s really dicey to return to local control, especially as we enter the hot, dry summer months.”

California’s water infrastructure is complicated: Supply comes from the snowpack, rivers, reservoirs, aqueducts and groundwater. These sources were so depleted in 2014 that Brown declared a state of emergency and asked districts to cut water use by 20 percent. When most failed to do so by 2015, Brown imposed the sharpest restrictions on water use in history: a ban on excessive water use for landscaping and urban areas that brought about a 24-percent reduction.

Under Brown’s May mandate, local agencies don’t need to meet specific conservation targets. Districts can analyze their water needs and certify conservation plans before submitting them to the state. They must ensure a three-year supply of water in case of future drought, and the agencies that will face at least three more years of drought must set high conservation standards.

Some broader restrictions from the governor’s mandate, like a ban on hosing off sidewalks or washing cars without hose nozzles, will remain in place. But theoretically, if the water supply and demand equal out, a district’s conservation target could be zero. That means people won’t face such strict requirements, which could lead to them returning to old water habits, such as watering lawns too frequently, turning on their fountains again, or filling up their pools. This new process also adds a reporting burden on the state board, which has to sift through hundreds of analyses to make sure each district is complying. It’s unclear how that will be done logistically; the board did not respond to a request for comment.

However it pans out, the new plan allows agencies to roll back conservation efforts without much consequence. Several water district managers say that even though following state standards and reporting numbers every month was a hassle, they saw huge gains that they hate to lose.

“Once you start changing behaviors, you don’t want to unwind that,” says Harry Starkey, manager of West Kern Water District. His district will continue to take detailed measurements of water usage and enforce landscaping restrictions, he says.

Other agencies are relaxing water-saving efforts because they have reserves for now. San Diego County recently lowered its reduction goal because a new desalination plant provides 10 percent of local water supply. Riverside Public Utilities says it has already exceeded conservation goals, so the district doesn’t need to enforce strict mandates. The Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, which got so much rain the local reservoir was spilling over this winter, is cancelling emergency-conservation programs and public-education programs for conservation. Several managers from around the state added that because water efficiency is now such an accepted part of everyday life, they don’t believe residents will stop saving water.

“Even before the regulations, we had moved the needle quite a bit,” says Todd Jorgenson, assistant general manager of Riverside Public Utilities. “Conservation, drought—these are common things to us, so we expect to continue those efforts.”

Most water agencies don’t have specific plans in place yet, but water managers say every water district in California will eventually need to raise rates to make up for revenue loss in times of drought, and it’s likely that in the future, there will be policy changes for how both commercial and residential water supplies work.

Tracy Quinn, water policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that it’s important for districts to keep in mind that even though local drought conditions may have improved, it doesn’t mean California is in the clear. This year, snowpack melted quickly and is now only 29 percent of its normal. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, meanwhile, says there’s a high chance for La Niña conditions this winter, which could mean another dry year ahead.

Since more extreme droughts are inevitable, Quinn says, water agencies should keep up strong conservation efforts and focus on in-depth reports for the state: “Water agencies should be cautious and plan for the likelihood that the worst may be yet to come.”

This piece was originally published in High Country News.

Published in Environment

Since March 24, the Coachella Valley Water District management team has been conducting a series of public presentations billed as “Water Rate Workshops.”

The managers’ goal of these presentations: Cnvince wary customers to go along with a proposed four years of considerable water-rate increases, slated to start on July 1.

The CVWD board of directors will decide on the first year of proposed increases on June 14.

At the May 2 workshop, many customers of the utility—which provides water to most of the valley from portions of Cathedral City eastward—left unconvinced about the need for the rate hikes, despite the arguments made by CVWD General Manager Jim Barrett and Conservation Manager Katie Ruark.

The CVWD cites three main factors in the increase request: a decrease in revenue due to successful conservation efforts which obviously reduced water sales; water treatment needed to meet newly adopted state drinking-water standards for chromium 6, which will cost the agency about $250 million; and system maintenance and upgrades needed to serve the 318,000 residents who rely on the agency for reliable and safe water.

Many audience members had legitimate questions regarding the proposed CVWD responses to these financial challenges.

It was obvious from the start of the state-mandated water-conservation effort in 2014 that all water agencies’ revenues would decrease if customers’ water usage decreased. The CVWD relied on budgeted reserve funds and customer over-usage penalty fees to bridge the gap, and understandably, those resources will not be sufficient to cover costs moving forward.

But are there other areas in the current CVWD budget where money might be saved? Employee-compensation costs make up 39.2 percent of the domestic-water-service expenses at the agency. Barrett mentioned that more employees had been hired in the past few years after a decrease in staff following the Great Recession, but he indicated that employee costs were not a factor in the move to increase rates.

On the other hand, in a recent interview, Heather Engel, the CVWD director of communication and conservation, recently told us: “When those chromium 6 treatment plants are built, we’re going to have to hire a lot more people, because we will need them to operate the plants.”

That leads to an interesting question regarding the proposed $250 million chromium 6 treatment plan: A customer at the May 2 workshop asked if the utility had considered pushing back or initiating a lawsuit against the new state mandate. The response: After serious consideration, the board chose not to push back, and instead to implement the costly treatment solution.

The chromium 6 situation happens to be much different on the Coachella Valley’s western end, where water customers are served by the Desert Water Agency.

“The DWA is extremely fortunate, because a lot of the (aquifer) recharge happens right in our own backyard,” said Ashley Metzger, the DWA outreach and conservation manager, in a recent interview. “One effect of that process is to dilute the naturally occurring chromium 6 levels, because the Colorado River water has no chromium 6. We’re actually below the (state’s new) 10 parts per billion threshold level, so we’re not going to have to treat anything.”

However, Metzger did express doubts about the need for the new strict state standard.

“I would argue that we don’t know if there’s a threat at all,” she said. “Our federal level is currently 100 parts per billion, and (in California), we’re now talking 10 parts. A part per billion is like if you had $10 million worth of pennies, you’re going to be able to find one of those pennies that’s different than the others. Science has evolved very quickly, and because we’re able to detect minute traces of substances, there’s a tendency, I think, to regulate based on the ability to detect. But sometimes (that tendency to regulate) is for the good of the community, and other times, all the factors are not evaluated.”

Back to the Coachella Valley Water District: Are these proposed rate increases a foregone conclusion?

“(The board has) a proven history of listening to the customers and trying to be responsive to their feedback,” Engel said. “But let me say that this is not a popular rate-increase proposal. This is going to mean that most homeowners will see an increased rate of about $6 per month, but (homeowner associations) and businesses are going to see a much more significant increase on their bills, and we know that. So we have not proposed this plan without a lot of thought and consideration from CVWD.

“The challenge that we face results from the cost-of-service studies. In order to have rates that are defensible against any lawsuits, we have to base any increase on a cost-of-service study. Our consultants came back and said that we are not charging customers what we should be.”

Do the CVWD’s domestic water customers have any real voice in this debate? They do, according to the agency’s “Important Information About Your Rates” brochure, recently mailed to all invoiced customers.

In the section titled “How Can I Participate?” there is this clause: “At the time of the public hearing, the board of directors will hear and consider all written protests and public comments. After the hearing, if a majority of the property owners of the impacted parcels or tenants directly liable for the payment of the charges submit written protests in opposition to the proposed rate increases, the increases will not be imposed. If a majority protest is not received, CVWD’s board of directors may adopt the proposed changes, though they are not obligated to.”

Published in Local Issues

Three years ago, state hydrologists in the Colorado River Basin began to do some modeling to see what the future of Lake Mead—the West’s largest reservoir—might look like. If the dry conditions continued, hydrologists believed, elevations in Lake Mead—which is fed by the Colorado River—could drop much faster than previous models predicted.

For decades, the West’s big reservoirs were like a security blanket, says Anne Castle, the former assistant secretary for water and science at the Interior Department. But the blanket is wearing thin. Under normal conditions, Lake Mead loses 1.2 million acre-feet of water every year to evaporation and deliveries to the Lower Basin states plus Mexico; that all amounts to a 12-foot drop. Previously, extra deliveries of water from Lake Powell offset that deficit, but after 16 years of drought and increased water use in the Upper Basin, those extra deliveries are no longer a safe bet.

“There’s a growing recognition that even these huge reservoirs aren’t sufficient to keep the water supply sustainable anymore,” says Castle.

For the three Lower Basin states—California, Arizona and Nevada—that rely heavily on Lake Mead, the situation is particularly urgent. For the last several years, Mead has hovered around 1,075 feet above sea level, the point at which harsh water-rationing measures kicks in. And if conditions in the reservoir continue to worsen, the Interior Department could even take control of water allocation from Lake Mead.

So with the threat of a federal takeover looming, water policy leaders in the Lower Basin states, along with the Bureau of Reclamation, the reservoir’s operator, began meeting last summer to discuss ways they can jointly boost water levels in Lake Mead. Some of the details are now available and indicate that all three states are now willing to accept additional water cuts from the reservoir on top of the cuts that they previously agreed to make in 2007.

Those measures follow a set of federal guidelines adopted nine years ago to manage water deliveries from Lake Mead, given the likelihood of future shortages. The guidelines established a series of thresholds for the reservoir’s water levels that would trigger increasingly severe cutbacks for the Lower Basin states. At the time they were negotiated, few people anticipated that the drought would last as long as it has, but as Lake Mead inched closer to the critical 1,075 mark, water managers in the Lower Basin realized the existing guidelines were not enough to prevent an eventual shortage.

While the terms of the new agreement between California, Arizona and Nevada are still being negotiated, a few details have emerged. For starters, the Bureau of Reclamation has pledged to cut 100,000 acre-feet annually through efficiency measures such as lining irrigation canals to prevent seepage, or possibly by re-opening the long-shuttered Yuma Desalting Plant.

The three states’ willingness to collectively ration their water use would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago, when states fought each other in court to win as much water from the Colorado River. The cooperation is a nod to how new climate realities are re-shaping old water politics in the West. Take California, for instance. Legally, the state could hold on to every drop until Lake Mead is nearly down to mud, since the 1968 law that authorized the Central Arizona Project’s construction gave California the highest priority water rights to the Colorado River. But at that point, says Castle, they’re just as impacted as everyone else.

Other collaborative agreements to reduce the strain on the Colorado River include a 2014 Memorandum of Understanding between the big water providers in the Lower Basin states, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Central Arizona Project, pledging “best efforts” to conserve 40,000 acre feet in Lake Mead. In 2014, major municipal water providers in Arizona, California, Nevada and Colorado also agreed to fund new water conservation projects through a pilot initiative called the Colorado River System Conservation program.

For the Lower Basin especially, the negotiations are necessary to avoid the potential federal takeover, says Tom Buschatzke, the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Although the secretary of the interior, Sally Jewell, has not voiced any immediate plans to that effect, in the past, she has made public statements on the matter.

For Buschatzke, the threat is clear: “She’ll take action if we don’t collaborate,” he says.

Here are the cuts states could face:

Arizona would lose 512,000 acre-feet of its total 2.8 million acre-feet per year allotment if Lake Mead dips below the 1,075 feet threshold. That’s 192,000 acre-feetmore than the 320,000 acre-feet it had previously agreed to cut under the 2007 guidelines. Further cuts occur if the reservoir continues to drop. In another unprecedented move, Arizona water officials are talking about trying to spread cuts across all sectors of the state’s economy that rely on CAP water for drinking and irrigation—cities, farms, industries, Indian tribes and others—instead of letting only farmers take the brunt of the cuts, as dictated by their junior water rights.

California: Thanks to the 1968 law that authorized CAP’s construction, California’s 4.4 million acre feet allotment is shielded from most of the cuts should a shortage on Lake Mead be declared. But as part of the new negotiations, the state has volunteered to cut its water use from Lake Mead by 200,000 acre feet if the reservoir’s levels fall below 1,045 feet, and up to 350,000 acre-feet if levels sink to 1,030 feet.

Nevada: The state with the smallest allotment of Colorado River water, Nevada would take a much smaller share of the cuts—8,000 acre-feet if Mead drops below 1,045 feet, and 10,000 acre-feet after that—because it has the rights to only 300,000 acre-feet.

According to Buschatzke, the three states anticipate finalizing the agreement by early this fall, at which point negotiators will begin working the new measures into law. Those changes in law will likely not happen before 2017.

For Castle, the discussions are part of a new era in water politics—one that looks increasingly collaborative.

“We haven’t seen states versus state or state versus feds for a long time,” she says. “There’s a recognition that litigation is failure—that we need to come together and make things work.”

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for High Country News, where this story originally appeared.

Published in Environment

"It never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way." —John Steinbeck, East of Eden

California’s State Water Resources Control Board recently indicated that mandatory water restrictions could be lowered in some parts of the state later this spring. Such a move would come just one year after the wise decision that encouraged residents to save water in the midst of a severe, multi-year drought.

Regardless of the board’s decision, Californians need to shift permanently toward water conservation and efficiency. In fact, that’s not a bad idea for all Americans.

There’s no denying it: There was a lot more rain and snowfall in California this past winter than we’ve seen in recent years, especially the last five. Unfortunately, when it comes to the drought, a closer look at recent rain and snow trends makes it clear that saying “things are better” is a long way from knowing that “the drought is over.”

As of this writing. statewide snowpack is now at 87 percent of average—a big improvement over last year’s abysmal 5 percent, but, still, not even average. As for rainfall, El Niño took good care of parts of Northern California by filling some important reservoirs to their historical average levels. Southern California, however, has not been so lucky, with well-below-average rainfall this winter, despite a handful of storms.

The Central Valley’s agricultural lands remain locked in a drought, and farmers continue to pump the region’s dwindling groundwater resources, because there isn’t enough surface water from which to draw. Farms and other customers in the southern part of the state, which depend on water distributed through the Central Valley Project, just learned that they will get far less water than they requested.

In short, the drought is not yet over. The near-average precipitation received this winter has dented it, but not crushed it. In fact, the U.S. Drought Monitor still classifies much of the state as being in an “exceptional” drought.

It is foolhardy to expect that one near-average season of precipitation will keep drought conditions at bay, particularly as El Niño weakens. We need to fully embrace strategies like drought-tolerant yards, efficient fixtures and appliances, water-smart agriculture, and additional protections for groundwater. If we focus on what residents can do, then rethinking lawns, installing water-efficient toilets, and fixing leaks are effective ways to cut back on direct water use and keep gallons in reservoirs. In addition, we have to expand our notion of water use to include the water that goes into producing the food we eat, the energy we use and the products we buy. This requires becoming more energy efficient, reusing and recycling more, and wasting less food. Tools like the Water Footprint Calculator can also help consumers track and reduce how much actual and virtual water they’re using. 

These actions may not always mean that there’s more water available in the local reservoir or aquifer, but an increasingly water-aware lifestyle requires us to look at the impact on our shared resources beyond city, water district and state borders. Californians can do it, and in fact, they already have, by nearly meeting the 25 percent reduction target on residential water use set by the governor last year. Importantly, they did so without dramatically affecting their way of life. California farmers have also become more water-efficient over the past decades, and many are now going even further by using sustainable techniques to protect the quality of water supplies. By building upon these efforts, even larger reductions in water use can provide stability, regardless of yearly fluctuations in rain and snowfall.

Local water utilities may be nervous, because reduced water use usually means less revenue, and ultimately, higher customer bills. But options exist that encourage conservation, including those already adopted in parts of California. One way is decoupling water sales from overall revenues, or tiered pricing, which provides enough water to meet basic needs for cheap or even free, and then adds increasing rates as customers use more.

Now is not the time to go back to the old ways of doing things. No harm can come from water conservation, no matter what part of the country you call home. In California and other Western states still enduring or recovering from the most recent drought, now is the time to stay efficient. Around the world, people are beginning to embrace the new normal—because it’s here, and it requires all of us to make changes that last a lot longer than just one year.

Peter Hanlon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. He is the deputy director of programs at GRACE Communications Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable food production and water use.

Published in Community Voices

On a hot summer afternoon, California farmer Chris Hurd barrels down a country road through the Central Valley city of Firebaugh, his dog Frank riding in the truck bed. He lurches to a stop in front of Oro Loma Elementary School, which was built in the 1950s to accommodate an influx of farmers’ and farmworkers’ children.

“All three of my sons went here,” Hurd says, as we walk through overgrown weeds toward the building, shuttered in 2010. “I was on the school board; the grass was green; kids were running around. Now it’s a pile of rubble.”

Agricultural land stretches out in every direction. Most of the town’s 8,300 residents are involved in growing or packing produce. The city is on the west side of the San Joaquin River, an area hit particularly hard by a historic drought, now in its fifth year. Wells have run dry, and farm-related jobs are running out.

Many other places in the eight counties comprising the San Joaquin Valley have suffered similar fates. These areas were disadvantaged to begin with, rural and isolated, lacking infrastructure, public transportation and safe housing. Persistent drought has compounded the struggles of some of the poorest communities in the nation. As of late January, 64 percent of the state was experiencing extreme drought—down from 78 percent that time last year. But even a stellar El Niño year won’t undo all the damage.

Hurd, 65, who earned a degree in mechanized agriculture from California Polytechnic San Luis Obispo in 1972, has farmed for the past 33 years. These days, he tends 1,500 acres and serves on the board of a local water district. Right now, he’s debating whether to rip out 80 acres of 20-year-old almond trees whose yields don’t justify the cost of the water. Three years ago, his annual water bill was $500,000. Now, he says, it’s $2.5 million; the price per acre-foot has increased sharply since the drought. Farmers like Hurd, who have junior water rights, are the first to see their allocations from the state’s two major water projects curtailed during shortages, forcing them to invest in new wells to pump groundwater or buy water on the market. In 2014, farmers with junior water rights faced an unprecedented zero allocation from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project. That happened again last year. In late February, the federal project will announce its water supply outlook for 2016. The State Water Project has also dramatically reduced its deliveries over the last two years.

In John Steinbeck’s classic novel,The Grapes of Wrath, farmers escape Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl by heading west to California in search of jobs and fertile land. Hurd says his friends have begun joking, grimly, about the reverse scenario—California isn’t working out, so why not pick up and move back to Oklahoma?

“Some are leaving; some are staying to fight; a lot of them are in flux,” he says.

Yet while grit has something to do with who stays and who goes, it ultimately comes down to two main factors: water and money. The survivors will likely need senior water rights and money to spend on planting high-value orchards or implementing expensive technology.

Economically, California remains the largest agricultural producer in the United States. But El Niño’s precipitation not withstanding, the prolonged drought is putting some farmers under heavy duress, and no one is sure how far California’s Eden will sink.


California, like much of the United States, was losing farmers long before the current drought began. The number of principal operators shrank 4 percent from about 81,000 in 2007 to 78,000 in 2012, according to the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture. The average age of California farmers skews slightly older than the rest of the nation, at 60 years old, and the state has experienced a decline in the number of farms, reflecting a national trend.

Yet the market value of its output has grown to roughly $54 billion annually. While a mere drop in the bucket of California’s $2.2 trillion economy, this sector remains among the most productive in the world, thanks to the state’s Mediterranean climate and fertile soil. And the Central Valley—a 450-mile-long stretch of flat land through the middle of the state that encompasses parts of 19 counties and multiple watersheds—produces nearly half of the nation’s vegetables, fruit and nuts. California has accomplished this even though most of its precipitation happens in the north, while most of its agriculture occurs in the south.

However, the state’s major reservoirs remain below normal for February, although their levels have dramatically improved since last December. Historically, a strong El Niño means most precipitation occurs in January, February and March. Too much rain at once won’t help farmers and could cause flooding, and it will do little to replenish the state’s drained aquifers. There is a positive note, however: The California Department of Water Resources’ semi-annual snow survey this winter, on Feb. 2, measured snowpack at 130 percent of normal in one location. Statewide, the snowpack is at 114 percent of average, which is the highest it’s been since 2011. That snow will eventually melt into streams and reservoirs, providing water for farms and cities. In normal years, the snowpack supplies about 30 percent of the state’s water needs.

In July 2014, a report by researchers at the University of California at Davis made headlines with alarming news about the drought’s impacts. Researchers projected it would cause $1.5 billion in economic losses to agriculture—factoring in crop revenue, dairy and livestock value, and the cost of additional groundwater pumping—and the loss of 7,500 jobs directly related to farm production by the year’s end. In their latest report, the Davis researchers estimate $1.84 billion in economic losses to agriculture and 10,100 fewer agriculture jobs in 2015.

Yet for all that, California agriculture has demonstrated impressive resilience. Researchers at the Pacific Institute, in Oakland, analyzed drought’s impacts on the three major crop categories of field crops, vegetables and melons, and fruits and nuts, and found that California agriculture not only survived; it flourished overall, achieving both record-high crop revenue and record-high employment.

Crop revenue has increased steadily over the past 15 years, and 2013 was the highest ever at $34 billion; 2014 was the second highest (although it dipped slightly). Revenue has increased even as land was fallowed at high rates. A follow-up report, incorporating livestock, dairy and nursery data, found the same patterns of high levels of productivity and profitability through this drought.

Meanwhile, agricultural employment has grown every year since 2010, employing a record-setting 417,000 people in 2014. But employment in the San Joaquin Valley waned.

“It is important to note that statewide and even regional estimates can hide local variability,” the report’s authors wrote. “State agricultural revenue and employment remain high, but there are undoubtedly winners and losers.”

Excessive groundwater pumping is a major issue.

“In my mind, there is an intergenerational equity issue here,” says Heather Cooley of the Pacific Institute. Future generations’ ability to meet their farming needs has been compromised—groundwater will sink to greater depths; water quality will deteriorate; and wells could run dry. Infrastructure such as conveyance canals, roads, bridges and buildings will suffer.

“Our overdependence on groundwater is tenuous and not sustainable by any stretch of the imagination. (Farmers) recognize that,” says Scott Stoddard, a row-crop farm adviser in the Central Valley for the University of California Cooperative Extension. Underground aquifers took thousands of years to fill up and can’t be replenished at the current rates of withdrawal.

Another resiliency factor relates to improved water efficiency and crop-shifting. “Together, these two are enabling farmers to get the most out of the water that they have,” Cooley says. Farmers aren’t flooding fields as much and are using scientific data and technology to better pinpoint when, where and how much to irrigate. They are shifting away from growing cotton and corn, concentrating water instead on higher-value crops, including almonds, pistachios, wine grapes, tomatoes and fruit. But permanent crops such as trees and orchards can’t be easily fallowed, and that reduces the flexibility to respond to future water shortages. Short-term water transfers between willing sellers and buyers provide a third major reason for resiliency. But regulators lack a complete understanding of how much water is actually changing hands, because informal farmer-to-farmer sales—the kind that happen over coffee at the local diner—aren’t tracked.

When considering how California agriculture has withstood the drought—increased groundwater pumping, water transfers, a shift from field crops to higher-value nuts and fruits, better irrigation techniques, fallowing land—many of the same strategies used in previous, albeit more modest, water shortages emerge. But, Stoddard wonders: “What happens if what we’re seeing is not a drought, but the norm?”


Nonstop pressures threaten California agriculture: encroaching development; the high cost of farm and ranchland, which prices out new farmers and ranchers; onerous regulations; declining interest in the profession; water shortages; and climate change. Greater climate variability may be the state’s new reality, but that doesn’t mean the end is near.

“I think California will remain a great place to grow food and other agricultural products,” Cooley says. “One of the reasons we’ve seen high levels of agriculture development in the state is because we tend to have a dry summer, (and) when water is available, it allows farmers to manipulate the water and use it with precision.”

Another reason is that for decades, the Central Valley’s Westlands Water District has managed to pull a lot of water for farmers near Fresno. But even the powerful water utility has struggled under the current drought and state water restrictions. It remains to be seen whether it can politically pull more water as the drought continues. In the meantime, farmers are handling the crisis the way they always have: through resiliency.

Daniel Sumner, an agricultural economist at UC Davis and co-author of the economic-projection reports, says this isn’t the first time farmers have switched up crops, nor will it be the last. California used to be among the biggest wheat-producing states in the United States, and that’s no longer the case.

“California agriculture adapts continuously to markets and other shifts,” Sumner says. “The gradual move from field crops to more tree and vine crops and vegetables has been ongoing for decades. This drought has caused some temporary shifts, such as leaving rice land idle, and perhaps accelerated the long-term trends.”

Adaptation is nothing new to agriculture, but that offers little consolation to the individual farmers tasked with growing much of the nation’s food. Sure, the sector may be doing all right, but that doesn’t mean some farmers, farmworkers and their families aren’t suffering. This is especially true of farmers with junior water rights, who have had to shell out lots of money to access water, and in areas of extensive fallowing, which means fewer jobs for farmworkers. Sixty-five percent of California’s farms earn less than $50,000 annually. These farms are small, and likely more vulnerable to threats such as drought. Only 8 percent of farms fall into the highest economic class, making more than $1 million.

Increasingly, adult children find the prospect of an air-conditioned office job in a city more appealing than taking over such a harsh family business. Drought’s indirect impacts will compound agriculture’s other pressures, but won’t be realized for several years, if not decades. “It’s a very strong possibility in the future that we’re looking at an exodus of more and more people, if this lack-of-water situation continues,” Stoddard says. “We are using more water than the system allows, and something has to give.”

What will “give,” as Stoddard says, are farmers with exorbitant water bills, or those who just can’t make their operations work anymore.


If California’s agriculture is going to thrive, policymakers need to ensure better management of groundwater resources and stop underpricing water. A comprehensive statewide agriculture plan could help. So will continued improvements in agricultural practices: conservation; transitioning to drip irrigation; using cover crops and no-tillage for better soil health and reduced water usage; employing GPS and possibly drones to pinpoint inefficiencies in irrigation; and funding plant science where genetic engineering could help crops withstand drought.

Farmers with the most resources will have the best chance of surviving. Cannon Michael is a sixth-generation farmer whose ancestor Henry Miller, of Miller and Lux Co., once owned the area that’s now the town of Firebaugh. Michael inherited senior water rights, which gives him a safety net in this current drought. His business, Bowles Farming Co., brings in an average of $25 million in annual gross revenue, but he still worries about the future.

“Our good years are never going to be as good, and our bad years have the potential to be catastrophic,” he says.

His response has been to adapt. Historically, Bowles has grown almonds, pistachios, wheat, corn, alfalfa, cotton, tomatoes, onions and melons on 10,500 irrigated acres—but the drought pushed Michael to fallow one-fourth of his ground and stop irrigating alfalfa. He reduced labor needs, installed drip irrigation and transitioned to reduced-tillage to save money on gasoline. This summer, he made a multimillion dollar investment in the installation of two solar arrays that will generate 1 megawatt of power, enough to supply electricity for nearly the whole operation, including the office, shop, houses (his and the workers) and all drip-irrigation systems. Michael is also diversifying with a new 5,000-acre farm in Uruguay, where he will grow wheat, sorghum, soybeans and corn and raise 1,000 cattle.

South America may beckon as a new agrarian frontier, but Michael, like many of his peers, refuses to give up on California yet. A few years ago, he bought a struggling young almond orchard, excited by its status as a high-value crop. He says there’s not much to be excited about with farming nowadays, but raising the almonds was something that brought him hope.

On a summer afternoon in 2015, before the orchard’s inaugural harvest, Michael plucks an almond off the branch, picks out the seed and takes a bite. Fresh from a tree, almonds taste different: wetter with a hint of vanilla. “Can you be proud of trees?” he asks, closely admiring one of the leaves. “I’m proud of these trees.”

Reporting for this story was supported by an award from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

Though the super El Niño bearing down on California may help alleviate the state’s crippling drought, even a good drenching won’t wash away four dry years.

For nearly a half-decade, the watery foundation that underpins so many California institutions—almonds and salmon, weed and dairy, the Salton Sea and Los Angeles itself—has wobbled under the weight of mismanagement, our national hunger for fresh produce and climate change. As the writer Lauren Markham put it: “California is a great, slick hustler at the card table, bluffing a myth of plenty while holding tight the fan of truth: We are now, and have been for the entirety of modern history, running out of water.”

The drought has inspired plenty of great journalism, but some truths only literature can reveal. Enter Claire Vaye Watkins’ new novel, Gold Fame Citrus, which captures the moment at which California’s bluff has been called. Set in a drought-stricken near future, Gold Fame Citrus tracks a feckless young couple, Luz and Ray, who squat in the ruined home of a vanished starlet, drinking syrupy ration cola and paying exorbitant prices for black-market blueberries. Beyond the crumbling walls, nature lies in chaos; Luz is treated to “scorpions coming up through the drain, a pair of mummified frogs in the waterless fountain, a coyote carcass going wicker in the ravine.” At least there’s no traffic on the 101.

The plot takes off when Luz and Ray adopt a creepy child and try to get out of Dodge. Yet the real pleasure lies not in the What, but in the surreal Where. The landscape has come to be dominated by a “vast tooth-colored superdune in the forgotten crook of the wasted West,” its height rivaling Denali, that marches across the state with malevolent purpose. The desiccated wasteland is purportedly inhabited by a newly evolved menagerie: incandescent bats, land eels and sand krill. Mutant mole people roam nuclear waste disposal sites.

Watkins’ evocation of the drought, and society’s feeble attempts to ameliorate it, unspools with chilling authenticity. In Gold Fame Citrus’ afflicted future, engineers drag glaciers down from Alaska, erect vast retaining walls to repel airborne sand, drill “three thousand feet into the unyielding earth, praying for aquifer but deliver(ing) only hot brine.” Los Angeles, a thirsty Kraken, builds “new aqueducts, deeper aqueducts, aqueducts stretching to the watersheds of Idaho, Washington, Montana, aqueducts veining the West, half a million miles of palatial half-pipe left of the hundredth meridian.”

If that sounds improbably grandiose, consider that this fictional plan is only half as loony as some of the real-world ideas California has entertained. Hell, consider the Central Valley Project.

Gold Fame Citrus is the latest addition to a nascent genre dubbed “cli-fi”: science fiction, often dystopian, that confronts the environmental and social impacts of climate change. The cli-fi canon is diverse and growing, from Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, a delicate study of an errant flock of monarch butterflies, to Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, an actuarial thriller (seriously) about consulting firms that profit off storms. The pantheon grows with each passing year: 2015 saw the publication of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife alongside the release of the latest iteration of Mad Max, disaster porn set in the deserts of Australia.

As The New Yorker’s Kathryn Schulz has observed, weather no longer serves as backdrop to our stories; increasingly, it is the story.

Climate change certainly provides fertile ground for literature. Its worst symptoms—floods, fires, die-offs, insect plagues—are so cataclysmic, they make the Old Testament look banal. You can hardly blame a novelist or screenwriter for using those phantasmagoric hazards as plot devices. Think, for example, of Interstellar, which conjures a Dust Bowl redux as an excuse to launch Matthew McConaughey into space.

Yet climate change is fundamentally a public policy problem, and thus the most valuable cli-fi not only transports and terrifies; it illuminates and instructs. As Bill Chameides, former dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, put it, “The thing that makes dystopian fiction so intriguing, at least to me… is the social science aspect—the author’s vision of how humanity chooses to organize and cope in the post-apocalyptic world.”

And that’s precisely why Gold Fame Citrus is so necessary. In Watkins’ novel, climate change is not merely a backdrop against which to stage Mad Max-ish post-apocalyptic hijinks. Rather, how people “organize and cope,” to use Chameides’ words, is the driving question in Watkins’ novel. This is literature not only as humble escape, but as chilling meditation on pending social havoc.

The nail that Gold Fame Citrus hits most squarely on the head is its treatment of refugees. Like Children of Men, another dystopian work that grapples with large-scale human migration, Gold is not optimistic about our ability to compassionately manage the displaced. The refugees fleeing California, slapped with the dehumanizing label “Mojavs,” are forced into makeshift underground detainment centers, packed into labor camps, and barred from relocating to the moist paradise of Washington. Bureau of Land Management officers patrol the desert, locking up wanderers like stray dogs.

If this sounds familiar, well, that’s the point. This country is currently hot with anti-immigrant fever, and while it’s easy to blame Donald Trump, culpability may lie with even larger forces: The Syrians now seeking sanctuary in some Western states were likely dislocated in part by climate change. A study published in March 2015 found that Syria’s conflict was exacerbated by the catastrophic drought that destroyed agriculture in that country’s breadbasket. “Severe droughts such as the recent one,” wrote author Colin Kelley, “were two to three times more likely to occur under the effects of climate change than in its absence.”

As other  refugees inevitably follow Syria’s, global warming will test not only the integrity of our infrastructure but the bounds of our humanity. And that’s where fiction proves its value: It activates our empathy by forcing us to inhabit an unfamiliar skin—the skin, say, of a refugee.

That skin may not remain unfamiliar for long. Sooner or later, this country will have its own migrants, fleeing from drowning communities in Alaska, wildfire-scorched towns around Western states, and eventually, perhaps, drought-ravaged California. Gold Fame Citrus exists to show us how—and how not—to treat the climate refugees to come, as well as the ones already knocking at our doors.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Gold Fame Citrus

By Claire Vaye Watkins

Riverhead

352 pages, $27.95

Published in Literature

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

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