Balancing water supply and demand has never been a simple equation when it comes to the Colorado River. Serving as the “lifeline of the Southwest,” the river provides water to 35 million people and more than 4 million acres of farmland in a region encompassing some 246,000 square miles. Supplying water, generating hydroelectric power and protecting endangered species have all shaped development and management of the river. These issues have generated their share of conflict. But for more than a decade the river’s diverse stakeholders – the states, the federal government, Mexico, Indian tribes and environmentalists – forged new agreements and partnerships to confront the challenging issues of the future.
For years, California has struggled with how to provide water to its citizens from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in a way that allows for a reliable supply while attending to the needs of the environment and the Delta community. A complex, controversial and expensive process called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) is in the spotlight as the lead federal and state agencies move toward choosing an option that will have a lasting impact.
California boasts some of the finest quality drinking water on the planet. Every day, people turn on their tap and receive clean, safe water with nary a thought. But the water people take for granted isn’t so reliable for residents of small water systems and many disadvantaged communities (DACs) in rural agricultural areas.
With the start of a new year, we decided the time was right to check in with a group of people familiar with California’s water issues and get their views and opinions on the hot topics facing the state and the prospects for resolving long-standing conflicts. On Jan. 15, we met with Anthony Saracino, a water resources consultant (and former Water Education Foundation board member), Martha Davis, executive manager of policy development with the Inland Empire Utilities Agency and senior policy advisor to the Delta Stewardship Council, Stuart Leavenworth, editorial page editor of The Sacramento Bee and Ellen Hanak, co-director of research and senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.
The Colorado River is one of the most heavily relied upon water supply sources in the world, serving 35 million people in seven states and Mexico. The river provides water to large cities, irrigates fields, powers turbines to generate electricity, thrills recreational enthusiasts and serves as a home for birds, fish and wildlife.
It may surprise some people to know that California is the fourth largest producer of crude oil in the United States and has a long history of oil exploration. Since the 1860s, wells in Kern County and Southern California have been tapped for more than 500,000 barrels of oil each day.
The San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem needs freshwater to survive. How much water and where it comes from is a longstanding debate that is flaring up as the state embarks on an updated water quality plan for the Bay-Delta.
Levees are one of those pieces of engineering that are never really appreciated until they fail. California would not exist as it does today were it not for the extensive system of levees, weirs and flood bypasses that have been built through the years.
There are two constants regarding agricultural water use – growers will continue to come up with ever more efficient and innovative ways to use water and they will always be pressed to do more.
It’s safe to say the matter will not be settled anytime soon, given all the complexities that are a part of the water use picture today. While officials and stakeholders grapple to find a lasting solution to California’s water problems that balances environmental and economic needs, those who grow food and fiber for a living do so amid a host of challenges.
Everywhere you look water infrastructure is working hard to keep cities, farms and industry in the state running. From the massive storage structures that dot the West to the aqueducts that convey water hundreds of miles to large urban areas and the untold miles of water mains and sewage lines under every city and town, the semiarid West would not exist as it does without the hardware that meets its water needs.
Balancing water supply and demand has never been a simple equation when it comes to the Colorado River. Serving as the “lifeline of the Southwest,” the Colorado River provides water to 35 million people and more than 4 million acres of farmland in a region encompassing some 246,000 square miles. The 1922 Colorado River Compact that divided the water among the seven Western states was straightforward in its allocation formula, apportioning 7.5 million acre-feet to each basin. But in the 89 years since the Compact was signed, a subsequent treaty to provide water to the Republic of Mexico, Indian water rights settlements, and operational changes for the environment have all challenged notions of how much water is reliably available to “develop” for urban growth and agricultural uses.
Growth may have slowed in California, but advocates of low impact development (LID) say the pause is no reason to lose sight of the importance of innovative, low-tech management of stormwater via incorporating LID aspects into new projects and redevelopment.
If there is one constant in all the turmoil surrounding California’s water, it is the pivotal role of science in decision-making. It is science that seeks to tell us what’s happening in the natural world and the possible actions that can be taken to affect change for the better.
For something so largely hidden from view, groundwater is an important and controversial part of California’s water supply picture. How it should be managed and whether it becomes part of overarching state regulation is a topic of strong debate.
Is the water consumed by people everyday safe to drink or should there be concern about unregulated contaminants, many of which are the remnants of commonly used pharmaceutical and personal care products?
In the grip of 11 years of drought in the Colorado River Basin, Lake Mead is a sobering sight with its ever-growing white bathtub ring and declining water level – about 130 feet below capacity. In October, Lake Mead reached its lowest elevation, 1,082 feet, since the 1950s. Mead’s level has since risen a few feet, but it remains at only 41 percent of capacity. Thanks to December storms and an above-average January snowpack in the Colorado Rockies, the likelihood of more water being released from Lake Powell to Lake Mead has increased and the potential of a 2012 Lower Basin shortage declaration has decreased.
The connection between water and energy is more relevant than ever. After existing in separate realms for years, the maxim that it takes water to produce energy and energy to produce water has prompted a re-thinking of management strategies, including an emphasis on renewable energy use by water agencies.