Salt of the Earth: Can the Central Valley Solve its Salinity Problem?
A test injection well drilled 4,150 feet deep will send processed, salt-rich wastewater into the underground of California’s Central Valley. “The idea is to inject it down into a zone where it will be contained and stay in perpetuity,” said David Albright of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The federal agency reviewed the injection well plans by Hilmar Cheese, whose Merced County manufacturing site 100 miles east of San Jose now trucks 70,000 to 80,000 gallons of wastewater concentrate from the plant to the San Francisco Bay area daily for eventual discharge to the Pacific Ocean.
Hilmar may be happier with injection wells, which the company sees as a better environmental solution than trucking to dispose of the concentrated salt called brine. But such wells won’t solve the separate, larger problem of what to do with the salt rich agricultural discharge from the San Joaquin Valley – a region that runs from Stockton to Bakersfield and is home to some of the richest farmland in the world.
“It’s one thing to take the water from a cheese plant,” said attorney Jim Ganulin, who’s spent decades dealing with agricultural drainage issues on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley “It’s another thing to take subsurface drainage water from 250,000 acres.”
“We are now seeing the potential groundwater moving across state lines and despite some protestations by elected officials that it can’t be done, U.S. Supreme Court acknowledges that it can when there’s a reason for said Rita Maguire, a former director of the Arizona Department Water Resources (ADWR) and a water attorney who recently served as president of Think AZ, a non-partisan research institute in Phoenix.
That’s how much land the Fresno County-based Westlands Water District has with potential salt buildup in the subsurface, said Ganulin, who has represented the district that supplies water to about 600,000 acres of farmland. He said injection wells such as the one Hilmar drilled were among alternatives studied and rejected as a way to handle the bigger issue of agricultural drainage said to threaten the future of San Joaquin Valley farming.
Irrigated farming is seen as the driver of the salinity issue, but cities and industry also are contributors. Tracy and Dixon are among many Central Valley municipalities facing groundwater quality matters involving salinity. Some California officials say $100-a-month increases loom for residential sewer bills as a result of tougher salinity discharge regulations.
Salinity is a shared problem. “Every time a farmer irrigates a field, every time a managed wetland is flooded, every time an industrial facility conducts some process requiring water, and every time you or I take a shower, we contribute to the salinity problem,” notes the 2006 report “Salinity in the Central Valley” by the California Environmental Protection Agency and Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board (Central Valley Board). “The water we use and release has a higher salinity concentration than what we started with.”
This Western Water looks at proposed new measures to deal with the century-old problem of salinity with a special focus on San Joaquin Valley farms and cities. More background information is available in the Foundation’s Layperson’s Guide to Agricultural Drainage, http://www.watereducation.org/store/itemdetail.asp?id=28
NOTE: A complete copy of this 16-page magazine is available from the Foundation for $3. Visit our Products Page and add the July/August 2007 issue of Western Water to your shopping cart, http://www.watereducation.org/store/default.asp?parentid=7
At the Foundation, we commonly tell people that while the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta comprises just 1 percent of California’s total area, it is at the heart of the state’s water system – and the water conflicts.
Consider these headlines the last few weeks:
Delta Smelt Numbers Plunge. Delta Pumps Turned Off to Protect Fish. Farmers Face Off with Smelt Water Policy. Delta Pumping to Resume. Delta’s Pumping Volume to Increase. Smelt Deaths Again Prompt Lawsuit that Aims to Suspend Water Exports. Water Exports to Continue, Judge Rules in Smelt Suit.
This latest water projects-environment clash in the Bay-Delta estuary reminds all of us of the state’s dependency on the Delta. More than 25 million people receive at least a portion of their water from the Delta. Some communities are more dependent on the Delta than others; the Central Valley Project pumps operated at a very low level throughout the crisis to keep the city of Tracy supplied with water.
It would be easy to summarize this as a “pumps vs. fish” story. But the story is much more complex than that. Scientists have known for some time that the numbers of smelt and other pelagic organisms have been declining. This year, smelt numbers appear to have reached an all-time low. After extensive research state officials believe that in addition to the project pumps, pesticides and invasive species are most to blame. Invasive species, for example, in recent years have dramatically altered the estuary’s functions. Some of these species eat the same food smelt depend upon. Others alter the environment by decreasing turbidity, making young smelt more vulnerable to predators. More research is needed to determine what to do about problems such as invasive species, but it is heartening to see how much scientists have learned about the Delta.
Decisions ultimately will have to be made, however. And not just to do with water and the environment. Other major challenges face the Delta and the state: flood management; land subsidence and levee stability; land use and growth in the Delta and on its periphery; water quality; and infrastructure issues related to Delta highways and communications corridors.
These issues are being addressed in a number of Delta studies now underway – the Delta Risk Management Strategy (DRMS), the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), the end of the CALFED Stage One and, of course, the high-level, governor appointed Delta Vision blue ribbon task force.
Recognizing how difficult it would be for everyone to keep abreast of all these Delta Vision efforts, the Foundation approached the state last year seeking funding to hold a series of free public Delta Vision Workshops. Our next worskhop will be July 27 in Fresno and will include a panel discussion on what this short-term Delta crisis means to the long-term Delta vision process.
For those who cannot attend, we will be posting a written summary of the event on our web site; summaries for our previous workshops in Suisun City (March) and Los Angeles (November) are available at http://www.watereducation.org/deltavisionworkshops.asp
In the News
Reclamation Releases Preferred Colorado River Plan
Shortage guidelines for the Lower Colorado River Basin and guidelines for coordination of storage in Lakes Mead and Powell are the focus of a Colorado River re-operation plan released in June by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation). The preferred alternative, which will undergo further environmental review, also includes a program under which states could receive credits for augmenting the river’s flow through water conservation and other programs.
Key elements in the preferred alternative originally were proposed by the seven states that share the Colorado River. In 2005 federal officials began the process of developing drought operation plans for the river, encouraging the states – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – to develop a consensus-based proposal. The states’ proposal and a “conservation before shortage” proposal submitted by environmental organizations were two of four river plans evaluated by Reclamation. Both these proposals incorporate “intentionally created surplus” (ICS) strategies such as water banking and water transfers that, according to Reclamation, will “create flexibility for the potential storage of additional conserved Colorado River or even non-Colorado River water in Lake Mead in the future.”
Under the preferred alternative, the first Lower Basin shortages (333,417 acre-feet) would be declared when Lake Mead’s elevation dropped to 1,075. Additional shortages would be declared at levels 1,050 and 1,025. Guidelines will be developed to allow for less water to be released from Lake Powell to Lake Mead under low-reservoir conditions, allowing for a greater balance of storage in the Upper and Lower basins.
The Colorado River is a major source of water supply for the Southwest. But a prolonged drought has taken its toll. Seven of the past eight years have been dry. Calculations of natural flow for the river at Lees Ferry, Ariz., show that since 2000, the average annual flow is the lowest seven-year average in 100 years of record keeping. Meanwhile, system storage is currently at only about 50 percent of average. Storage capacity on Oct. 1, 1999 was 92 percent.
“Hydrology dictated that we address the issue of shortages,” said Chris Treese, representative of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
Jennifer Pitt, a senior resource analyst with the Colorado office of Environmental Defense, said of the water guidelines that “We now have a plan for shortages.”
Reclamation spokesman Bob Walsh said the drought helped to move the guidelines forward but that Reclamation’s review had already been planned.
The final Environmental Impact Statement, set for release in September, will analyze potential environmental impacts of the preferred alternative. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne is expected to issue a final decision on the Colorado River plan by the end of this year.
– Ryan McCarthey and Sue McClurg