Tag Archives: Colorado River

Less than zero

So some states are double counting their water supplies which you now, leads to problems like they are having now.

Yet California and Arizona — the two states water experts say are facing the most severe water crises — continue to count and regulate groundwater and surface water as if they were entirely separate.

“States have their own take on this. Or they choose to not address it at all,” said Stanley Leake, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and a leading expert on properly accounting for the connection between ground and surface waters in the West. “In some cases they pretend that there is no connection.”

Leaders in California and Arizona acknowledge that their states have done this, at least in part to avoid the grim reckoning that emanates from doing the math accurately. There is even less water available than residents have been led to believe.

If these states stopped effectively double-counting their resources, they would have to change laws, upend traditional water rights and likely force farmers and cities to accept even more dramatic cuts than they already face — a political third rail.

“The politics of water are more challenging than any other issue the state faces,” said Fran Pavley, a California state senator who helped draft a much-praised package of state laws passed last year regulating groundwater withdrawals for the first time.

Tucked into Pavley’s package was a little-noticed provision that explicitly prohibits California state regulators from addressing the interconnection between groundwater and surface water in local water plans until 2025, a compromise meant to give local water agencies a leisurely runway to adjust to a new way of counting.

Pavley said the prospect of more immediately acknowledging the overlap between ground and surface waters threatened to derail the legislation entirely, triggering fierce opposition from the Agricultural Council of California, the California Chamber of Commerce and other industry groups.

So politics is getting in the way of science.  Basically by draining rivers, you drain aquifers.  By draining aquifers, you cause rivers to dry up.

The West has consumed these resources ravenously, as if they were bottomless. By 1965, scientists measured that parts of the aquifer beneath Las Vegas had dropped by more than 75 feet. Arizona officials estimated the state’s aquifers had dropped by as much as 500 feet by 1980. By 2004, USGS scientists estimated — based on modeling — that the region south of Denver had drawn down water levels by more than 900 vertical feet.

In some places, so much water has been drained from underground, the effects can be seen with the naked eye. A USGS scientist’s 1977 photograph near the town of Mendota in central California uses a telephone pole to show how the ground had effectively collapsed, sinking some 30 feet.

Anyone who recognized these telltale signs would worry that the West’s groundwater was approaching a state of crisis. But even as the drought began and then worsened, with surface water vanishing, the West dug in and doubled down — replacing dwindling reservoirs with new water pumped from underground.

Today, the Colorado River states consume more than 21 billion gallons of groundwater each day — adding up to 1 1/2 times the flow of the Colorado River itself each year.

In 2009, Jay Famiglietti, now a scientist researching underground water in partnership with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, set out to quantify just how much groundwater had been lost over time.

NASA had a pair of satellites that gathered data on subtle changes in the Earth’s mass by measuring almost indiscernible shifts in gravitational forces during orbit. Famiglietti and his team of doctoral students at the University of California Irvine, where he also teaches, thought they could tease out which parts of those gravitational shifts were due to a changing volume of water inside the Earth’s crust.

The team determined that aquifers were shrinking at an astonishing rate in Asia, North Africa and across the globe. The western United States stood out.

“It was among the worst in the world,” Famiglietti said. “The rate of decline is much steeper than the rate of decline of the reservoirs. While everyone is looking at the surface water, no one is looking at the groundwater, and it’s disappearing at a rapid clip.”

Famiglietti and his team determined that some 13 trillion gallons of water had been lost from underground reservoirs in the Colorado River basin since the NASA satellites began collecting data in late 2004. To put that figure in perspective, it’s nearly 1 1/2 times the total capacity of Lake Mead — the nation’s largest reservoir and the West’s most important — and as much water as the state of Arizona uses in six years.

The research suggested the seven-state Colorado River basin region was actually using about one-third more water each year than its river budget alone allowed. In separate research Famiglietti looked at California’s aquifers — which lay outside the Colorado River basin — and found that they had also been severely diminished, having dropped by about 7 trillion gallons since just 2011.

The U.S. is screwed.  Of course those aquifers also come into western Canada so it’s going to have an impact on all of us.

Could the southwest of the U.S. be in for a megadrought?

From Mother Jones

A new study by Cornell University, the University of Arizona, and the US Geological Survey researchers, looked at the deep-historical record (tree rings, etc.) and the latest climate change models to estimate the likelihood of major droughts in the Southwest over the next century. The results are as soothing as a thick wool sweater on mid-summer desert hike. 

The researchers concluded that odds of a decade-long drought are “at least 80 percent.” The chances of a “mega-drought,” one lasting 35 or more years, stands at somewhere between 20 percent and 50 percent, depending on how severe climate change turns out to be. And the prospects for an “unprecedented 50-year megadrought”—one “worse than anything seen during the last 2000 years”­—checks in at a non-trivial 5 percent to 10 percent.

It gets worse

his (paradoxically) chilling assessment comes on the heels of another study (study; my summary), this one released in early August by University of California-Irvine and NASA researchers, on the Colorado River, the lifeblood of a vast chunk of the Southwest. As many as 40 million people rely on the Colorado for drinking water, including residents of Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, and San Diego. It also irrigates the highly productive winter farms of California’s Imperial Valley and Arizona’s Yuma County, which produce upwards of 80 percent of the nation’s winter vegetables.

The researchers analyzed satellite measurements of the Earth’s mass and found that the region’s aquifers had undergone a much-larger-than-expected drawdown over the past decade—the region’s farms and municipalities responded to drought-reduced flows from the Colorado River by dropping wells and tapping almost 53 million acre-feet of underground water between December 2004 and November 2013—equal to about 1.5 full Lake Meads, drained off in just nine years, a rate the study’s lead researcher, Jay Famiglietti, calls “alarming.”

Considering how much of the Colorado River Basin, which encompasses swaths of Utah, Colorado, California, Arizona, and New Mexico, are desert, it’s probably not wise to rapidly drain aquifers, since there’s little prospect that they’ll refill anytime soon. And when you consider that that the region faces high odds of a coming mega-drought, the results are even more frightening. (Just before Labor Day, over fierce opposition from farm interests, the California legislature passed legislation that would regulate groundwater pumping—something that has never been done on a state-wide basis in California before. Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign it into law.)

Lake Mead Is Drying Up

This is bad and reminds me of what Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote in The Ingenuity Gap when he was shocked that no one in Las Vegas was calculating projected droughts (which have arrived)

Lake mead nevada all time low fe

The water level at Lake Mead dropped to a new record low this week, but it hasn’t hit rock bottom—yet.

As of Tuesday, Lake Mead was at about 39 percent of its capacity. The drought has taken a toll on water resources, resulting in precautionary actions such as a decreased flow allowance into Hoover Dam to protect current distribution policies. 

The projected lake level is at about 1,082 feet above sea level, and officials say they can meet water obligations at least through next year without a key shortage declaration. But if the water level drops below the 1,075-foot trigger point, Arizona and Nevada will face water delivery cuts, according to the Washington Times.

The lake is currently storing 10.2 million acre-feet of water. Lake Powell, the reservoir managed in conjuction with Lake Mead and located farther up the Colorado River, is holding 12.7 million acre-feet of water—or 52 percent of its capacity.

Remains of a River: source to sea down the Colorado

From October 2011 to January 2012, Will Stauffer-Norris and Zak Podmore hiked and paddled from Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains to Mexico following the Colorado River system from its farthest inland source to the sea, filming and narrating on the fly. The resulting film, Remains of a River, is an unforgettable story of friendship, adventure and environmental degradation.

The Colorado River Runs Dry

The United States and Mexico are trying to fix that

Until 1998 the Colorado regularly flowed south along the Arizona-California border into a Mexican delta, irrigating farmlands and enriching a wealth of wildlife and flora before emptying into the Gulf of California.

But decades of population growth, climate change and damming in the American Southwest have now desiccated the river in its lowest reaches, turning a once-lush Mexican delta into a desert. The river’s demise began with the 1922 Colorado River Compact, a deal by seven western states to divide up its water. Eventually, Mexico was allotted just 10 percent of the flow.

Officials from Mexico and the United States are now talking about ways to increase the flow into the delta. With luck, someday it may reach the sea again.

It is paradoxical that the Colorado stopped running consistently through the delta at the end of the 20th century, which — according to tree-ring records — was one of the basin’s wettest centuries in 1,200 years. Now dozens of animal species are endangered; the culture of the native Cocopah (the People of the River) has been devastated; the fishing industry, once sustained by shrimp and other creatures that depend on a mixture of seawater and freshwater, has withered. In place of delta tourism, the economy of the upper Gulf of California hinges on drug smuggling operations that run opposite to the dying river.

City Report on Water Consumption

Growing up on a river, you never really think about water consumption outside of your water bill.  That started to change when we bought our house twelve years ago.  It has a boulevard out front but since we are on a corner lot, it also has a large one along the side of the house that is unbroken by a sidewalk.  The entire yard was a mess and by the time I got to the boulevard, it was a couple of years later.  We had fertilized it and watered but the problem was that the grass (basically a quack grass) was growing on clay which meant no top soil, shallow roots, and zero water absorption.  I bet 90% to 95% of the water ran off the boulevard and went straight down the drain.

Our house What I should have done was rotor till the entire boulevard, bring in top soil, organic matter and reseed but I didn’t have the money to do so and I am not sure you can do that to a city boulevard anyways.  I took another approach in that I stopped bagging my grass with the hope that it would stop some of the evaporation of the 5% of water that was being absorbed and eventually break down and decompose to provide some organic matter.  In addition to this I started to spread both some peat moss and compost down on the lawn.  Finally I started to aerate the lawn and boulevard which helped out a lot.  Over the next five years the well beaten path of people cutting through the lawn came back (we did over seed with a hearty mixtures from Early’s Farm and Garden) and the boulevard started to transition from rock hard to developing a spongy feel like there was actual soil underneath.  Now the lawn isn’t healthy enough to be organic and I do have a vacant weed infested lot behind be which causes all sorts of problems with noxious weeds which means that I tend to use a lot of weed and feed on the boulevard on the back half of our lot but we have made a lot of progress.  Last year for the first time I spread out a mixture of home brewed compost tea (recipe and instructions) after seeing how it has made a difference at Harvard (less mowing, less water, deeper roots and it absorbs wear and tear of students better).  The end result of all this has been our water consumption is way down the last several years.

Now it looks like a lot of work but it was actually less work than you think.  First of all, not picking up the grass after we mow saved a lot of time.  There are some times when a combination of rain and schedule that I do bag up our grass, plus, I do need some grass for the compost container once in a while but most of the time, it’s a big time saver and the rest of the work needs to be done anyways.  The big change has been to go to the compost tea and I am hoping that it will make a big difference over the next couple of years.

One thing that strikes me is that we don’t do a lot of talking in the city about reducing water consumption.  The average Canadian uses about 120,000 litres (26,396 gallons) of water per year which is why I was happy to see that in the full report that the Saskatoon Environmental Advisory Committee presented to the Administration and Finance Committee included five recommendations related to water conservation.  Here are their recommendations in summary

  1. amend existing bylaws to require water efficient fixtures (low-flow toilets and shower heads) for new and existing building construction and renovations in residential, commercial, industrial, and institutional sectors,
  2. implement a low-flow toilet rebate program similar to other Western Canadian municipalities,
  3. enact a bylaw implementing an outdoor water schedule,
  4. report back on a strategy to implement a water monitoring program, and
  5. promote and develop new programs and incentives for water conservation.

Number 3 is the most interesting option to me.  Okotoks’s schedule works like this

Due to the increase in water consumption in town, outdoor watering is now only permitted two days a week.  One hour of watering per week is adequate for established lawns.

Odd numbered addresses may water lawns:  (Addresses ending in 1,3,5,7,9)
Thursdays &/or Sundays

Even numbered addresses may water lawns:  (Addresses ending in 0,2,4,6,8)
Wednesdays &/or Saturdays

Watering may only occur during the following hours:
6:00 am – 9:00 am
7:00 pm – 11:00 pm

Flowerbeds and vegetable gardens may be watered by hand at any time using a watering can or hose with a trigger spray nozzle.

Please respect the specified watering days and hours, as water is a limited resource. The fines for not obeying the water regulations range from $100—$2500.

Cambridge has a similar plan but will it work and be accepted here.  It’s a big shift in behavior for Saskatoon, especially when much of our water consumption goes right back into the South Saskatchewan River (once treated).  Mark and Oliver have grown up running through the sprinkler in the yard and Maggi takes a nap under the sprinkler on many days.  To lose that or have that restricted would be a big change.  It would also lead to conflicts among neighbors.  Someone is always complaining about one neighbor on our street because they think his vehicles take up too much street parking (which makes no sense to me).  Every summer someone from the city comes by because (probably the same neighbor that complains about the parking) is sure the maple firewood we have in the backyard is elm (and banned).  Watching a recent show on Melbourne, Australia which has more severe water restrictions than what Okotoks has (Melbourne has had a drought since 1997), people put up signs saying that their gardens are being watered by excess shower water.

Saving water in MelbourneWhile we aren’t in a situation of drought, the South Saskatchewan River is under some pressure and this where I get upset.  On one hand, I totally agree with the recommendations being made to Saskatoon City Council yet on the other hand, this isn’t a Saskatoon issue.  Most of the water being taken from the South Saskatchewan River is from irrigation projects in Alberta.

“We know virtually nothing about actual use or consumption of water,” she says. “No one does.” Her assertion catches There are nearly 12,000 licensed users of river water and 80 percent of the water allocated under these licences is withdrawn in Alberta’s sprawling irrigation districts. Users typically meter their intake pipes, but the standards for reporting are lax, and withdrawal numbers alone cannot tell us actual water use. Some water is taken up by growing plants, some evaporates or is lost from leaking canals, and much simply flows back to the river. Since none of this is measured, actual consumption is just an estimate based on assumptions.

The article goes on to state

When it comes to water, getting the big picture is never easy. The truth can simply vanish in the details. Since the future of the river is, in the broadest sense, a supply-demand equation, I set off to the university’s department of economics to find Joel Bruneau, co-editor of a comprehensive technical report called “Climate Change and Water Resources in the South Saskatchewan River Basin.” The ponytailed professor does his part to avert a hotter, drier future climate by getting around Saskatoon by bicycle year-round. But his report suggests the challenges are here and now.

“The whole story is irrigation,” says Bruneau before I am quite seated in his office. His studies show there is sufficient river water to cope with regional population growth and worst-scenario climate change, but not if we keep irrigating at the present rate.

In fact, irrigation is still expanding. Even though Alberta stopped issuing new water licenses in the South Saskatchewan River Basin in 2006, room to grow comes from “efficiencies” — converting leaky, evaporation-prone canals to low-loss pipeworks. Trading in water allocations, which further maximizes Alberta consumption, is on the rise. The net result of such “savings” is less water in the river for downstream users.

“They are already overallocated on the Oldman and Bow rivers and borrowing from the Red Deer to pay the ‘bill’ to Saskatchewan,” says Bruneau, who can foresee a day when Alberta will want to buy some of Saskatchewan’s share. For years a poor cousin to its western neighbor, Saskatchewan has seen its economic fortunes rise meteorically, and some farmers have called on government to directly match Alberta’s irrigation investment.

Bruneau doubts new irrigation projects would make economic sense now, if they ever did, but he dismisses the idea on more fundamental grounds. “We are taking a third of the river for irrigation already,” he says. “There’s no way we can double that. The water would become warm, covered with algae. The fish would die.”

So Saskatoon gets to pay the bill because Alberta farmer’s want to grow crops that are more profitable then would be allowed by normal farm conditions.   I remember seeing the dry river beds of California and the Colorado River and thinking, I am so lucky to have the South Saskatchewan River.  Let’s hope enough people agree and we come up with ways to guarantee that it is always going to be there.

The South Saskatchewan River