California proposes delaying rules aimed at reducing water on lawns, concerning environmentalists

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California regulators this week proposed delaying new rules aimed at reducing how much water people use on their lawns, drawing praise from agencies that said they needed more time to comply but criticism from environmentalists who warn that the delay would damage the state’s already scarce supply.

Last year, California proposed new rules that would, cumulatively, reduce statewide water use by about 14%. Those rules included lowering outdoor water use standards below the current statewide average by 2035. On Tuesday, regulators proposed delaying that timeline by five years, until 2040. The State Water Resources Control Board is scheduled to vote on the rules later this year.

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The state would not punish people for using too much water on their lawns. Instead, it could punish the water agency that supplied those homes. There are about 405 of these agencies throughout the state that provide water to nearly 95% of Californians.

To comply with the rules, these agencies must convince their customers to use less water. Their options include public education campaigns and incentives, such as paying to install more efficient fixtures and replacing grass lawns with more sustainable plants. They could also raise rates.

State officials estimated it would cost water agencies about $13.5 billion to comply with these rules — an estimate Chelsea Haines, regulatory relations manager for the Association of California Water Agencies, says is likely too low. Water agencies had asked regulators for more time.

“The challenge is that water suppliers are regulated but compliance will come from Californians making changes to how they use water,” Haines said. “I think there will be a learning curve for residents, and that just takes time.”

The delay means there wouldn’t be an incentive for most water agencies to increase conservation until at least 2035, according to Tracy Quinn, president and CEO of Heal the Bay, an organization dedicated to protecting and restoring the coastal waterways of greater Los Angeles.

Quinn fears the delay would push agencies to make much more expensive investments in new water sources, including desalination plants to make ocean water drinkable and recycling wastewater to use again for drinking.

“The smartest thing to do first is the one that is fastest and cheapest. That’s conservation,” Quinn said. “It is true that conservation is not free, but the cost of conservation needs to be compared to the cost of other new water.”

The goal of the outdoor water standards for 2040 is to have the majority of a person’s yard made up of low-water plants irrigated by a drip system instead of sprinklers, which regulators argue are inefficient in part because they often spray water on sidewalks and asphalt.

But water agencies wouldn’t have to always meet these new outdoor standards. Each agency would have a “water use objective” it must meet that also considers indoor use and how much water is lost from leaky pipes. Agencies could also ask to have even more time to reach these standards, such as if a community uses more water than it should because it has a lot of livestock.

An agency could meet its water use objective through a combination of these factors.

“It’s always a trade-off between trying to advance conservation soon, but also providing enough flexibility so that we avoid unintended consequences,” said Eric Oppenheimer, executive director of the State Water Resources Control Board.

Water is a precious resource in the nation’s most populous state. California has long, dry summers, and relies on rain and snow in the winter and spring to fill up its reservoirs. Although climate change has made those storms more intense, it’s also increased the severity of droughts — making it much harder to manage the state’s water.

California has had plenty of rain and snow in the past two years to ease fears about its water supply. But before that, the state experienced some of the driest years on record and saw its reservoirs drop to dangerously low levels. By the end of this century, state regulators predict California’s snowpack could be up to 65% less than its historic average.

Statewide, residents account for about 6% of California’s water use each year, while businesses account for about 3%. Agriculture accounts for 40% while environmental purposes — including managing wetlands and increasing flows in rivers for fish and other purposes — makes up about 50%.

Regulators proposed changes to the water conservation rules after a critical report was issued this year by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office. It found that the proposed regulations were overly complex and would yield only modest savings — about 440,000 acre-feet (542 million cubic meters) of water per year, or about 1% of the state’s total water use. One acre-foot of water is enough to supply two households for one year.

Click here to read the full article in AP News

California agrees to long-term cuts of Colorado River water

Bracing for an ever-growing gap between supply and demand of Colorado River water, three Southwestern states today unveiled an agreement that would cut California’s portion by about 10% in most years. 

California, Nevada and Arizona submitted their plan to the federal government, which is weighing how to manage the drought-plagued river after 2026, when another historic deal expires. The decision will shape long-term management of a vital water source for 40 million people, including 30 tribal nations and 5.5 million acres of agriculture

For more than a century, the river’s water has been allocated among seven states, tribes and Mexico through a collection of deals, acts, treaties and legal decisions known as the Law of the River. But a decades-long mega-drought, culminating in the driest 23-year period in more than a century, has shriveled the river’s already over-allocated flows. 

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Despite recent improvements after storms, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the basin’s major reservoirs, remain “historically low, and long-term conservation measures will still be necessary,” the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reported Tuesday.

California takes the biggest share of Colorado River water, with a yearly allocation of 4.4 million acre-feet. And Imperial Valley growers are, by far, California’s biggest user — allocated 3.1 million acre-feet a year, or more than two-thirds of the state’s supply, to irrigate half a million acres of alfalfa, winter vegetables and other crops via the Imperial Irrigation District. 

The Metropolitan Water District, which provides water for 19 million Southern Californians, is another large user, typically receiving about 1 million acre-feet every year, according to Bill Hasencamp, the district’s manager of Colorado River resources. (An acre-foot is enough to supply three Southern California households for a year.)

“It’s a big change that we will have to adapt to as a state,” Hasencamp said, adding “it’s 10%, so we should be able to tighten up our belt 10%.”

In the new proposal, the three states agreed to collectively cut their water use when  levels dip below 69% capacity, ramping up to at least 1.5 million acre-feet a year below 58% of capacity. That’s about 17% of their total allocations, enough to supply 3.75 million Southern California households for a year. Over the past ten years, the reservoirs have largely stayed below that threshold. If the system dips lower than 38% of capacity, any additional cuts up to 3.9 million acre-feet would be shared equally between the Upper and Lower Basin states. 

Arizona would shoulder much of the burden by cutting use about 27% in most years. Nevada would cut back by about 17%, and Mexico — if it agrees — by 250,000 acre-feet, or about 17% of the 1.5 million acre-feet it’s entitled to under an agreement with the U.S.

The three states also proposed a new way to trigger the cuts — based on seven reservoirs across the basin, not just Lake Mead, Hasencamp said.

John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said at a briefing today that the aim is to avoid suspicions of states manipulating the system. Withdrawing water from Lake Mead or holding it in Upper Basin reservoirs could result in massive changes in water releases. 

The current system “has led to a number of conflicts between the states since it was implemented in 2007 because literally one foot of elevation difference in Lake Mead or Lake Powell can result in more or less water being released,” Entsminger said. “There were constant suspicions about states gaming the system, being able to manipulate those elevations. And we believe what we are presenting today will remove the ability for this, any even suspicion.” 

Click here to read the full article in CalMatters

A new SoCal underground water storage project aims to keep supplies flowing during drought

A solution to help bolster Southern California’s water outlook during future droughts is taking shape in the Mojave Desert. Water transported in canals and pipelines has begun flowing into a series of basins carved into the desert, filling a large underground reservoir that will be available to draw upon in dry times.

The facility, called the High Desert Water Bank, started taking in supplies from the State Water Project last month. Water diverted from the East Branch of the California Aqueduct has been flowing through a 7-foot-wide pipeline and gushing into one of the basins, where it gradually percolates into the desert soil and recharges the groundwater.

Newly drilled wells will allow for water to be pumped out of the aquifer when needed to supply cities and suburbs throughout Southern California.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is spending $211 million to build the facility. The district’s officials say the project is a vital step in improving the region’s water infrastructure to adapt to climate change.

“We know that climate change will bring more of the dramatic swings between wet and dry that we saw over the last few years, so we must take every opportunity to store water when it is available,” said Adán Ortega Jr., chair of the MWD board.

The agency already stores water underground in other areas, but the High Desert Water Bank represents the MWD’s largest investment in groundwater storage to date.

The district developed the facility working with the Antelope Valley-East Kern Water Agency, which owns the property near Lancaster.

After three years of construction, the initial phase of the project has enabled the district to take advantage of the plentiful water from this year’s historic storms. And more water could be coming with the current strong El Niño, which has brought forecasts of another wet winter.

There is enough aquifer space in the Antelope Valley groundwater basin to store up to 280,000 acre-feet of water, comparable to the capacity of Castaic Lake and nearly four times the size of Big Bear Lake.

The facility, which is scheduled to be fully built in 2027, will enable the MWD to put in or withdraw up to 70,000 acre-feet of water per year — enough for about 210,000 average households.

With this much additional storage in place, Ortega said, “we can confront the next drought with more confidence.”

By increasing the district’s ability to store and withdraw water along the aqueduct, the project provides the state’s largest urban water supplier greater flexibility and a valuable backup supply to adapt to more extreme cycles of drought and wet weather.

The district’s managers said having the water bank will ensure more reliable supplies during severe droughts like the one during the last three years, when supplies from Northern California were drastically cut, forcing mandatory water restrictions for nearly 7 million people.

By banking more backup supplies, the project is also intended to help Southern California reduce its reliance on the overburdered Colorado River, where depleted reservoirs remain at low levels.

“When drought hits California, we can turn to this stored water, instead of drawing more heavily on our Colorado River supplies,” MWD General Manager Adel Hagekhalil said.

Hagekhalil and other officials spoke last week at an event inaugurating the facility. As they spoke beneath a tent, water gushed into the pond behind them, creating a fountain-like upwelling in the wind-rippled surface.

“Climate change is upon us,” Hagekhalil said. “We need to have creative new tools, holistic solutions.”

Hagekhalil noted that the district is developing a new climate adaptation master plan, focusing on building more flexibility into the region’s water system to improve the reliability of supplies. He said storing more water underground will be one piece of the district’s climate adaptation efforts in the coming years, along with recycling wastewater and cleaning up contaminated groundwater.

“It’s finding new ways to take water when we have it during wet years and put it in the ground, so we can have access to it when we have dry conditions,” Hagekhalil said. “This is the future of water management in the 21st century.”

COLORADO RIVER IN CRISIS video loop

Water has been flowing into the facility from the California Aqueduct since mid-September. By the end of the year, the district estimates it will have stored about 12,000 acre-feet in the groundwater basin, enough to meet the annual needs of about 36,000 average households.

Managers of the Antelope Valley-East Kern Water Agency said this part of the High Desert is well-suited for storing water underground. The 1,300-acre property includes vacant land and farm fields that were left dry and abandoned years ago.

As work crews have built recharge basins, they have removed old irrigation systems.

Farms in the valley have produced a variety of crops, such as hay, peaches, carrots and onions, but falling groundwater levels and increased costs for imported water have led to a decline in agriculture. The Antelope Valley groundwater basin is managed under a 2015 court ruling, which regulates pumping to manage supplies and address the long-term declines in aquifer levels.

“Our groundwater supplies, they’ve diminished. And thank goodness for these water banks,” said George Lane, president of the Antelope Valley agency’s board. “It will raise the water table. … It was completely overdrafted for a number of years.”

The Metropolitan Water District will be able to recover 90% of the water it stores at the site, paying the Antelope Valley agency when it withdraws water.

Evaporation losses and water that will be left underground will account for the remaining 10%, said Matthew Knudson, general manager of the Antelope Valley-East Kern Water Agency.

So far, crews have finished building six recharge basins to receive water. When finished, the water bank will have 26 recharge basins covering about 600 acres, and 27 wells for recovering water from the aquifer.

The groundwater is tainted with toxic arsenic, so the project will also require building a facility to treat the water before sending it flowing back into the California Aqueduct.

The agencies plan for water levels to rise and fall as supplies are deposited and withdrawn. Groundwater levels at the site now range from about 260 feet to 280 feet underground, and will be allowed to rise as high as 75 feet underground at full capacity.

When water is pumped back into the aqueduct, it will flow into the MWD’s delivery system. The district supplies drinking water for 19 million people in six counties from San Diego to Ventura.

Click here to read the full article in the LA Times

Federal officials say plan for water cuts from 3 Western states is enough to protect Colorado River

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Federal officials said Wednesday that conditions have improved on the Colorado River to the point that a plan by California, Arizona and Nevada to voluntarily reduce water use should help keep the river basin on stable footing for the next few years.

The U.S. Department of the Interior said in a statement that the risk of reaching critically low water elevations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the river’s two key reservoirs, has gone down substantially.

“We have staved off the immediate possibility of the System’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production,” Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau said in a statement.

The river serves seven U.S. states, Native American tribes and two states in Mexico, supports a multibillion-dollar farm industry in the West and generates hydropower used across the region. Years of overuse by farms and cities and the effects of drought worsened by climate change has meant much less water flows through the river today than in previous decades.

But the announcement displays how much things have changed since summer 2022, when U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton said drastic cuts would be needed to stave off a crisis in the river. The states failed to reach a consensus on cuts, and the federal government did not end up forcing any.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration released two options that would have forced cuts on Arizona, California and Nevada either proportionally or based on the existing water priority system, which most benefits California. The threat of those two options finally forced the three states to reach their own voluntary plan for how to reduce their use of the river’s water.

In May, they proposed to help shore up water levels by conserving at least an additional 3 million acre feet of water through the end of 2026 in exchange for $1.2 billion in federal money.

Though the federal government needs to finish its regulatory process, Wednesday’s announcement indicates it is poised to officially accept that plan, said JB Hamby, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California and a board member at the Imperial Irrigation District, the largest user of the river’s water.

Federal money and a good winter that shored up water supplies across California and the West have helped changed the trajectory of negotiations, he said.

“This is a victory for collaboration as an approach rather than conflict, which is where we started,” Hamby said.

California will be responsible for more than half of the total cuts. Those could be achieved through things like implementing water efficiency measures and idling certain crops for months at a time, Hamby said previously.

Already, the three states have lowered their water use, said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the state’s representative on Colorado River issues. He said Arizona was on track this year to use about one-third less water than the amount it is allocated.

“Arizona’s conservation efforts alone have been substantial,” he said in a statement.

Now, the states can turn their attention to a new long-term agreement for how to share the river’s water beyond 2026.

Hamby said he looks forward to “using that momentum to start to build what the next 20 years looks like on the Colorado River.”

Click here to read the full article in AP News

Making Water Conservation a ‘California way of life’: Controversial State Rules Could Cost $13 Billion

Saying the targets to cut water use in cities and towns will be costly and difficult to achieve, water agencies throughout California have raised concerns about an ambitious state proposal that would require more water conservation statewide beginning in 2025.

The State Water Resources Control Board’s proposed regulations would mandate conservation measures by more than 400 cities and water agencies that serve about 95% of Californians. The measure could save about 413,000 acre-feet a year by 2030, enough to serve about 1.2 million households per year. 

During the last three-year severe drought, which ended this year, the Newsom administration set voluntary conservation goals that were largely ineffective. Californians used only about 6% less water from July 2021 through the end of last year compared to 2020, far less than Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 15% goal. 

The new rules are mandated by a package of laws — enacted in 2018 by the Legislature and former Gov. Jerry Brown — that aim to make “water conservation a California way of life,” not simply an emergency drought measure. 

Water providers from the Mojave Desert to Sonoma County and beyond warned at a board workshop on Wednesday that the regulations would be a challenge, particularly because many would have to make steep cuts to outdoor water use. About 80 people, mostly representing water agencies, spoke during the meeting, which lasted longer than eight hours.

The regulation would cost water suppliers about $13.5 billion from 2025 to 2040 — more than 40% of which would fund rebate programs and other efforts to cut residential water use, according to the water board. But the benefits are anticipated to reach about $15.6 billion between 2025 and 2040, largely from reduced water purchases by both suppliers and customers. 

“It’s awkward, because we are committed to water use efficiency,” said Ryan Ojakian, government relations manager for the Regional Water Authority, which represents Sacramento-area providers. “It really comes down to, are the regulations feasible? Are the costs worth the benefits? And what are the consequences in achieving the regulations?” 

The water board is expected to vote by next summer on the rules, which could go into effect next fall.

“Even if we had all the money, we would not be able to convince our customer base to participate at the rates we need them to. We can build it, but they don’t necessarily come.”JOE BERG, MUNICIPAL WATER DISTRICT OF ORANGE COUNTY

Water suppliers, not individual customers, would have to meet the targets — and each supplier would need to figure out its own strategy. These could include rebates that encourage customers to swap out thirsty lawns for more drought-proof landscapes or rate structures that penalize heavy water users. 

Water providers said it will be difficult to squeeze more conservation out of their customers. 

“They want us to save water at such an accelerated rate, that even if we had all the money, we would not be able to convince our customer base to participate at the rates we need them to,” said Joe Berg, director of water use efficiency at the Municipal Water District of Orange County. “We can build it, but they don’t necessarily come.”

The state agency’s formula sets targets for each water agency based on goals for indoor and outdoor residential water use, business landscapes with dedicated irrigation meters, losses like leaks and other variables, such as the presence of livestock in a region.

In the rules, the state’s targets for indoor and outdoor water use in residential areas ratchet down, beginning in 2030 and then again in 2035.

Suppliers that fail to live within their prescribed water budget could face escalating consequences that could eventually lead to fines of $1,000 a day starting in 2027 or $10,000 a day during droughts.

Tracy Quinn, CEO of the environmental group Heal the Bay, told the board that water conservation measures are critical as California stares down a water-scarce future. 

Between the declining snowpack, ongoing haggling over Colorado River water, groundwater regulations and projections that climate change could dry up 10% of the state’s water supply, “there is an incredible need for us to do a rulemaking that’s going to require the efficient use of water,” she said.  

About 231 agencies serving nearly 27 million Californians are already on track to meet the 2025 objectives without reducing their water use, mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California. And 71 agencies serving 8.5 million Californians are expected to meet the 2035 standards as well, including the city of San Diego, the San Jose Water Company, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the Irvine Ranch Water District and city of Santa Ana. 

Cumulatively, the rules are expected to save about 6.3 million acre-feet between 2025 and 2040, mostly from residential measures. 

“There is an incredible need for us to do a rulemaking that’s going to require the efficient use of water.”TRACY QUINN, HEAL THE BAY

Berg said the regulations could cost Orange County water agencies more than $707 million over 11 years to implement. But more than that, he said, he’s concerned that the standards for outdoor water conservation accelerate too quickly. 

“If an agency were to look at the cost to comply and compare that to the cost of the fines, it wouldn’t surprise me if an agency just says, ‘Okay, we’ll just take fines,’” Berg said. 

Claire Nordlie, water use efficiency supervisor for the city of Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, echoed those concerns during the workshop.

“I really want to emphasize that sustained water savings are difficult to achieve. It takes decades of time, and a significant investment of resources, as well as a population and a culture within your service area that want to participate,” she said. 

Nordlie said fewer and fewer people are participating in the city’s rebate program for removing lawns, which offers $1 for every square foot of grass removed. Customers surveyed say that it costs about $7 a square foot to tear out their lawns. That cost, Nordlie said, is a major barrier. 

“If customers don’t want to participate, we can’t force them to,” she said. 

Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis, told the board he’s concerned that the regulations could affect public trust. 

“Certainly some aspects of our society are really upset every time you come in there with a new regulation, and so I think we have to bear that in mind,” Lund said. “Because that blowback can be very bad for a lot of more important things than this.” 

Smaller water agencies, especially in inland regions, will be the hardest hit. Ten suppliers serving about 200,000 Californians are expected to face cuts upwards of 30% in 2025, but the number increases to 84 suppliers serving 3.7 million Californians in 2035. Included are the cities of Atwater and Kingsburg, the Oildale Mutual Water Company and the West Kern Water District, according to state data. 

“There’s not a lot of opportunities for savings in our community, because we’ve done so much already. A lot of folks don’t even irrigate their homes.”JENNIFER CUSACK, HI-DESERT WATER DISTRICT

Jennifer Cusack, director of public and government affairs with the Hi-Desert Water District in Yucca Valley on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park, said the water agency has long struggled with its water supply and there’s little room for additional conservation. Many ornamental lawns are already gone and indoor water fixtures have been improved. 

“There’s not a lot of opportunities for savings in our community, because we’ve done so much already,” she said. “A lot of folks don’t even irrigate their homes. They have dirt lots or maybe some trees.” 

Even so, the desert water supplier is expected to be out of compliance with the 2030 and 2035 targets, which, she said, “just raises a red flag.” 

In response to earlier calls for increased flexibility, state regulators offered an alternative pathway that would give some providers, such as those serving disadvantaged communities, extra time to meet a 2035 outdoor water-use target, provided they meet certain criteria. 

Click here to read the full article at CalMatters

California Republicans Fighting Again to Raise the Shasta Dam. Will State Law Prevent It?

The Shasta Dam started to leak at the end of May after the snowpack from the wet winter started melting. To Californians who have suffered decades of drought, that was good news.

The Shasta reservoir, California’s largest, sends water to farmers and families in the Central Valley, where a third of the nation’s produce is grown. It almost reached capacity after years of not filling up. At its peak, Shasta Lake can hold more than 4.5 million acre-feet of water. (An acre-foot is the annual consumption for two average households.)

Raising the dam, located on the upper Sacramento River northwest of Redding, to increase Shasta reservoir’s capacity has long been on the list of some federal lawmakers. The 18.5-foot rise would provide 634,000 more acre-feet of water per year, legislators say, and help ensure Central Valley farmers have a steadier and fuller supply.

But that assumes there will always be enough precipitation to fill Lake Shasta, which historically has not been the case. At that, environmentalists say it would be a drop in the bucket for the cost — at least $1.4 billion, per outdated estimates. And raising the 80-year-old dam risks flooding sacred Native American lands and harming local habitats.

With the House of Representatives in Republican control, and Bakersfield Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy as speaker, there could be more federal funding for a taller Shasta Dam if a spending package passes.

Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, who is sponsoring legislation to fund the project, said it was “regarded as the most affordable, cost efficient expansion of water infrastructure for the state of California on the table right now.”

California itself has opposed the plan, and in a letter to congressional leaders, dozens of environmental groups wrote that a taller dam would “harm Native American Tribes, salmon fishermen, and the environment, as well as violate state law.”

CALIFORNIA LAW

The potential for new funding is the latest chapter in the project’s long, heavily-litigated history.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, part of the Interior Department which oversees federal water issues, first proposed raising the dam in the late 1970s, even though it appeared to be at odds with the California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, a law that protects the free flow of certain rivers.

Support picked up under President Donald Trump — whose administration claimed the project would not break the law — only to fizzle under lawsuits from environmentalists and the state’s attorney general.

The project stalled after legal challenges forced water distributor Westlands Water District to withdraw in 2019.

Local groups are required to pay half of the cost under federal rules. Westlands, which serves farmers and rural communities in Fresno and Kings counties, agreed to do an environmental review for the project which would seemingly benefit agricultural producers there.

Then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt had been the district’s lawyer and lobbyist.

Westlands agreed to pull out in a 2019 settlement with then-California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and environmentalists, who sued contending that the district violated state laws that ascertain the free flow of rivers with “extraordinary scenic, recreational, fishery, or wildlife values.”

Alison Febbo, Westlands’ new general manager who was not there at this time, said the district supports bolstered water infrastructure in California, but not by breaking any state laws. A Shasta Dam raise would need to address the concerns of various groups and stakeholders.

The California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protects the McCloud River and its wild trout fishery, which could be affected by raising the Shasta Dam. The act prevented the state group from helping the Bureau.

Several years later, the Bureau is still without local aid.

“There have been no recent actions to accelerate or progress the project given the lack of funding to support the project and therefore no updated information has been developed,” Tara Jane Campbell Miranda, a spokeswoman for the agency, wrote in response to questions about the project.

The 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law, meant to stimulate public works projects, blocked federal funds from going to the Shasta Dam raise.

“This sticks in Mr. McCarthy’s craw and no doubt Secretary Bernhardt’s craw who was telling the adoring crowds in Fresno that they were about to pull this one off,” said Ron Stork, the senior policy advocate at Friends of the River, a California conservation group that opposes the dam raise.

Click here to read the full article in the Fresno Bee

Colorado River Deal: What Does It Mean for California?

After nearly a year of intense negotiations, California, Nevada and Arizona reached a historic agreement today to use less water from the overdrafted Colorado River over the next three years.

The states agreed to give up 3 million acre-feet of river water through 2026 — about 13% of the amount they receive. In exchange, farmers and other water users will receive compensation from the federal government.

The Biden administration has been pushing the states since last spring to reach an agreement to cut back on Colorado River water deliveries. The three-state deal is a historic step — but it is not final: The U.S. Interior Department must review the proposal. And everything will have to be renegotiated before the end of 2026.

In California, the agreement would mostly affect the water supplies of farmers in the Imperial Valley. Coming up with a plan to fairly cut water use has created tensions between farms and cities and between states, especially California and Arizona.

Here’s what you need to know about the new plan, how it will affect California and whether it will bring relief to the West’s vital water supply system:

Why was this agreement needed?

The Colorado River basin has been overdrafted for decades. Its major reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, have been steadily declining, threatening 40 million people in the West with a water supply crisis. 

In response, last June, a top Interior official asked the seven basin states to reduce water use by 2 to 4 million acre-feet per year, or a 15% to 30% annual reduction. The states failed to meet their deadlines to come up with a plan. So the Interior Department presented its own proposed actions last month, including a controversial one that would cut into the senior water rights of Imperial Valley farmers.

Unhappy with those federal proposals, California, Arizona and Nevada doubled down on their negotiations and tried to come up with an alternative. Today’s agreement by the three states to cut water use through 2026 is considered a major, albeit temporary, step. At least half of the 3 million acre feet will be conserved by the end of 2024. 

The Interior Department has now retracted its plan so it can add the states’ new agreement to the package of options it is considering.

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton called the agreement “an important step forward towards our shared goal of forging a sustainable path for the basin that millions of people call home.”

Who in California does this affect? Will they have to use less water? 

The agreement would affect the water supplies of about 19 million Southern Californians in six counties who receive imported water from the Metropolitan Water District.

But the impact will be minimal. The district will sacrifice 130,000 acre-feet per year that it usually receives through a transfer arrangement from farmers in the Palo Verde Irrigation District in Riverside and Imperial counties. That water, explained Metropolitan’s manager of Colorado River resources, Bill Hasencamp, will be left in Lake Mead instead. The federal government will reimburse the growers at the rate of $400 per acre foot.

Metropolitan will also voluntarily leave 250,000 acre-feet in Lake Mead this year. That water will be available for the district in the future.

These cuts will not affect Southern Californians this year, Hasencamp said. That’s because rains have greatly boosted supplies from the State Water Project. The state aqueduct delivered only about 100,000 acre-feet to Metropolitan last year, but will deliver 2 million this year. (An acre foot is roughly the amount that three households use per year.)

Still, Hasencamp said water conservation, both in communities and on farms, should remain a way of life.

“We need to be cognizant that the West is getting drier,” he said.

Farmers in the Imperial Valley are the biggest users of Colorado River water. The Imperial Irrigation District announced today that it will reduce usage at farms by roughly 250,000 acre-feet per year, about 10% of its average amount.

The district said it expects to receive $250 million from the federal government to reward the growers who cut back water deliveries. The money could be used to compensate growers who fallow crops.

Imperial Irrigation District General Manager Henry Martinez applauded the agreement, saying it is “is based on voluntary, achievable conservation volumes that will help protect critical Colorado River reservoir elevations, and in particular Lake Mead.”

With water from the Colorado River, arid Imperial County has become the ninth largest agricultural producer in the state, reporting $2.3 billion in sales in 2021, led by cattle and lettuce.

By acreage, alfalfa and other water-intensive crops used to feed dairy cows and cattle dominate in the Imperial Valley, covering more than half of its farmland. Imperial also produces two-thirds of the vegetables consumed in the U.S. during winter months.  

The Interior Department said it would use the Inflation Reduction Act to pay farmers and other users for saving 2.3 million acre-feet of water. The remaining 700,000 acre-feet “will be achieved through voluntary, uncompensated reductions by the Lower Basin states.” The Interior Department did not release how much it will spend or who would get the money.

What does the Colorado River need in the longer term? 

In most years, farms, cities and tribes use around 13 million acre-feet of the Colorado River’s water, which is significantly more than the 11 million acre-feet of rain and snow that feeds into the river system in an average year. Unless drastic cuts are made, these supplies — most importantly Mead and Powell, which together contain about 50 million acre-feet — could essentially run out of water within several years. 

While the new agreement amounts to saving about 1 million acre-feet per year, that’s not enough. Experts say at least twice that much must be conserved.

Since the lower basin states use most of the Colorado River’s water, the onus is on them — especially the biggest user, California — to come up with the water savings.

A wet winter has eased the emergency. But the relief will probably be short-lived in the arid West, where population growth and worsening droughts are sapping water supplies.

Sarah Porter, director of Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy, said the agreement represents progress, even though more action is needed. 

“This is another step toward the long-term downward adjustment in how much Colorado River water we as a region can expect to take out of the system,” she said. 

Porter noted that this plan, because it’s a voluntary one, “gets us toward our 2026 goals without risk of litigation.”

Click here to read the full article in CalMatters

Cracks, Hacks, Attacks: California’s Vulnerable Water System Faces Many Threats

On a February morning in 2021, a water treatment plant operator in Oldsmar, Fla., noticed something unusual: An unidentified user had remotely accessed the plant’s computer system and was moving the mouse around the screen.

The operator watched as the intruder clicked into various software programs before landing on a function that controls the amount of sodium hydroxide, or lye, in the plant’s water system. The hacker then increased the amount of lye — a potentially dangerous substance used to control acidity — from 100 parts per million to 11,100 parts per million.

The plant operator reversed the change almost immediately, and officials said there was never any threat to public safety. But the incident has highlighted the threats facing major drinking water systems across the country.

“Water systems, like other public utility systems, are part of the nation’s critical infrastructure and can be vulnerable targets when someone desires to adversely affect public safety,” Sheriff Bob Gualtieri of Pinellas County, Fla., said at the time.

In California, where epic Sierra Nevada snowpack and “the big melt” have substantially increased the stakes for reservoir managers, officials say they’re taking steps to protect the state’s water systems from hackers, terrorist attacks and natural disasters, such as the flooding that temporarily severed the Los Angeles Aqueduct — the city’s water lifeline that connects to the Owens Valley.

But experts say the challenges are numerous. Many of the systems in California and nationwide are still operating with outdated software, poor passwords, aging infrastructure and other weaknesses that could leave them at risk.

“We’ve seen a steady rise in both the prevalence and the impact of cyberintrusions, as well as an extraordinary increase in ransomware attacks, which have become more destructive and more expensive,” said Joe Oregon, chief of cybersecurity for Region 9 of the federal Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA.

Andrew Reddie, an assistant professor of practice in cybersecurity at UC Berkeley’s School of Information, said much of the problem is “driven by the fact that the infrastructure is really, really old, and ultimately predates the era that we find ourselves in now, where we actually bake cybersecurity into these … systems by design.”

“You can point to any number of critical infrastructure, including things like dams and water treatment plants, that are not terribly well-protected in terms of passwords,” he said.

A lot of older infrastructure is not “air gapped” from the internet, he said, referring to a separation between operational technology and internet technology. That could enable a bad actor to do things such as change chemical levels or open sluices to manipulate flows in water channels or dams.

Compounding the problem is a lack of central regulation or uniform protocols. Multiple agencies — including the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the American Water Works Assn. and the Department of Homeland Security and CISA — provide some degree of risk management oversight, or offer frameworks and recommendations. But many of the day-to-day decisions are left up to individual operators.

“A lot of the responsibility does certainly fall on the stakeholders’ shoulders to manage their own information systems effectively to prevent any type of cyber compromise or cyber incidents,” said Oregon, of CISA.

The agency estimates that about 63% of the nation’s 91,000 dams are privately owned. Federal, state and local governments and utilities own 35%, and the remaining 2% have “undetermined ownership.”

Despite the risks, experts said it’s important for water systems to be networked in order to expedite maintenance and monitoring. In California, reservoirs are often intentionally spread far apart to maximize rainwater capture and other benefits, so sending physical crews to respond to every potential problem would be time-consuming and expensive, said Ethan Schmertzler, chief executive of Dispel, a cyberdefense firm.

“It all depends upon how water systems are connected, and most water systems in the United States are not — it’s not one national water system,” he said. “The good news is each community is divided into their own command and control systems. The downside is, they’re all divided into their own command and control systems.”

Though most standards are not mandatory, cybersecurity recommendations — and spending — have vastly improved in recent years, he said. Recent legislation through the National Defense Authorization Act will soon compel utilities to report cybersecurity threats to CISA, which will help the federal agency better spot trends, share information and render a response.

John Rizzardo, security coordinator with the State Water Project at the California Department of Water Resources, said the agency operates with an ethos of “layers upon layers of security,” for both physical and cyber threats. Because the agency is also an energy provider in the state, “we probably employ more security features than a lot of just the water industry,” he said.

That doesn’t mean it is immune, however. CISA pointed to the Oroville dam crisis of 2017 as an example of the nation’s need for “comprehensive oversight and guidance over dam resilience.” During that incident, hillside erosion on the dam’s emergency spillway threatened a major flood event and prompted the evacuation of about 200,000 people, though disaster was ultimately averted.

Rizzardo said the agency has since shored up the spillway and made significant security upgrades, and is working to implement the same standards across all State Water Project facilities. The Department of Homeland Security runs national security drills for the dam sector every two years, he said, which the agency also participates in.

But even with the best protocols in place, “there’s still going to be a risk of a cyber or physical attack,” Rizzardo said. “It could happen — we’re doing our best to prevent it — but if it does happen, we do practice our emergency action plans regularly so that we’re prepared if there is some kind of attack that we can try to mitigate, to reduce the consequences.”

Indeed, the Oldsmar incident was not a one-off. A few months later, a ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline — a vital U.S. oil conduit between the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast — spurred fuel shortages, flight cancellations and a state of emergency declaration from President Biden.

Earlier this year, Biden unveiled a national strategy for cybersecurity that calls for a “more intentional, more coordinated and more well-resourced approach to cyberdefense.”

Similar attacks have threatened other water systems, including an Iranian attack on a New York dam in 2016, in which hackers tried but failed to take control of a sluice gate.

In January 2021, an unnamed water treatment plant in the San Francisco Bay Area also suffered a cyberattack, NBC News first reported. Hackers accessed the plant’s system through a remote access TeamViewer account and deleted programs used to treat drinking water. The programs were reinstalled the next day and no failures were reported. (The Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, which compiled a report on the incident, said it could not provide more details as an investigation is ongoing.)

One of the largest water providers in the country is the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a massive regional wholesaler that supplies 26 agencies serving 19 million people, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

General manager Adel Hagekhalil said in an email that America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 served as a “catalyst for utilities to evaluate their resilience to risk and create emergency plans for responding to all hazards.”

“We are constantly taking steps to ensure the security of our water supplies against physical and cybersecurity threats,” Hagekhalil said. He noted that community water systems serving more than 3,300 people are required to actively update their risk and resilience assessment and emergency response plans every five years.

Additionally, the MWD employs cybersecurity experts and constantly monitors network and computer activity to “detect unusual events quickly so they can be addressed,” he said. Computer and network access is tightly controlled, and employees are also required to take annual cybersecurity training. The agency also conducts periodic emergency management exercises at different facilities to simulate responses to physical threats such as earthquakes, floods, fires and terrorist attacks, which include first responders and law enforcement agencies, he said.

But the U.S. is home to more than 55,000 public water systems and 16,000 wastewater systems, said Jennifer Lyn Walker, director of infrastructure cyberdefense at the Water Information Sharing and Analysis Center. One of her primary concerns was that there is often a “lack of awareness” about the potential for cyberthreats and other such vulnerabilities.

“Physical threats are so much more top of mind, or more easily identified or more easily understood than the cyberthreat,” she said. “The concern is a lack of preparedness.”

However, most large systems in California “are doing what needs to be done” when it comes to cybersecurity, she said. Small and medium-size systems, which often have fewer resources than major providers, may need assistance, however, and could benefit from the guidance of larger operators.

“A smaller system that just barely services 5,000 people — that’s still 5,000 people’s lives that could be at risk if something should happen, and that’s from physical or cyber [threats],” she said.

Reddie, of Berkeley, said more auditing would provide a better understanding of which systems are networked, as well as which systems follow best practices. He also recommended educating workforces about proper cyberhygiene.

Even with such steps in place, however, vulnerabilities remain. Ongoing investigations into the Oldsmar incident indicate that it may not have been the work of an outside hacker at all, but might have been caused by an internal employee. Should that prove to be the case, it would highlight that insider threats can also be cause for concern, Reddie said.

Click here to read the full article in LA Times

Water windfall: Key California reservoir fills for just third time in 12 years

San Luis Reservoir, between Gilroy and Los Banos, is the largest off-stream reservoir in the United States

Five months ago, San Luis Reservoir — the massive lake along Highway 152 between Gilroy and Los Banos — was just 24% full, an arid landscape of cracked mud and lonely boat ramps painfully far away from the dwindling water’s edge.

But today in one of the most visible signs that Northern California’s drought is over, San Luis is full. Since Nov. 8, the water level has risen 144 feet — roughly the equivalent of submerging a 10-story building.

The state’s fifth-largest reservoir, a key water supply for millions of people from Silicon Valley to San Diego that also irrigates hundreds of thousands of acres of Central Valley farmland, is at 98% capacity and expected to reach 100% in a few days.

“A lot of people are coming out to take photos of it,” said Arzan Kermani, a state park aide working at the lake’s south shore this week. “They’re really surprised. The happiest people are the boaters. Hopefully, it stays this way for a long time.”

Hillsides around the 9-mile-long reservoir’s shoreline have turned from parched yellow to pastoral green.

“It’s significant,” said Levi Johnson, an operations manager with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. “It’s a huge turnaround after three consecutive years of drought.”

The dramatic improvement is just the third time in the past 12 years that the reservoir, which was dedicated by John F. Kennedy in 1962, has been full. The bounty is part of the reason why Santa Clara County and other parts of the state have been told by state and federal water providers they will receive all the water they need this summer. Since 2012, only 2017 and 2019 saw similar conditions.

“It looks massive,” said Lars Kvarna of Mountain View, who visited for a hike on Wednesday. “And the hills are about as green as it gets. It’s impressive that the reservoir can fill up so quickly.”

The lake holds 2 million acre-feet, enough water for 10 million people for a year. A vast inland sea, it contains 12 times as much water as Los Vaqueros Reservoir in Contra Costa County, five times as much as Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy and 100 times as much as Lexington Reservoir in Los Gatos.

Unlike many dams, which are built on big rivers, San Luis’ 382-foot-high earthen dam holds back a reservoir that acts as a switching yard for California’s water system. The reservoir is filled not by blocking a river, but by people — officials from the state Department of Water Resources and federal Bureau of Reclamation. They pump water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta near Tracy, 65 miles to the north, into San Luis, where it is stored. Then it’s sent down canals to 600,000 acres of farms in the San Joaquin Valley and cities as far south as Los Angeles and San Diego.

A tunnel from the reservoir through the Diablo Range also sends the water into Silicon Valley, where it is a key part of the water supply for the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which jointly operates San Luis Reservoir with the state Department of Water Resources, announced that cities south of the Delta will receive 100% of their water allocations through the Central Valley Project this summer — up from 25% last year and the year before. Farmers south of the Delta will receive 80%, up from 0% the past two years.

In fact, there’s so much water in California’s reservoirs and canals after a winter of atmospheric river storms, and the promise of much more when the record Sierra snowpack melts, that finding places with capacity to store it is becoming a challenge.

“It’s what happened in 2017,” said Jeffrey Mount, a professor emeritus at UC Davis and senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California’s water center. “They’re running out of places to put water.”

On Monday, Metropolitan Water District, which serves 20 million people in Southern California, began refilling Southern California’s largest reservoir for the first time in three years. Now 61% full, Diamond Valley reservoir in Riverside County will go to 100% this year, they said, with the same Delta water that has filled San Luis.

Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom relaxed most water restrictions in California.

“Are we out of the drought?” Newsom said. “Mostly. But not completely.”

He noted that some parts of the state, particularly the Central Valley where farmers have overpumped groundwater for generations, still have overdrawn aquifers.

In March, Newsom signed an executive order to reduce red tape through June 1 to allow more water — particularly as the Sierra snowmelt — to be stored in underground aquifer recharging projects. Newsom has come under some criticism, however, for not constructing any new reservoirs during his more than four years in office.

The construction of San Luis is part of California’s water lore.

On Aug. 18, 1962, President Kennedy, in a well-tailored blue suit, after flying to California on Air Force One, took a helicopter to the construction site. He was met by Gov. Pat Brown, former Gov. Jerry Brown’s father, and a crowd of local officials, farmers and others.

It was a time when the elder Brown was pouring concrete across the state, building highways, universities, dams and other structures.

“It is a pleasure for me to come out here and help blow up this valley in the name of progress,” Kennedy joked.

Click here to read the full article in the Mercury News

California Releases Its Own Plan for Colorado River Cuts

California released a plan Tuesday detailing how Western states reliant on the Colorado River should save more water. It came a day after the six other states in the river basin made a competing proposal.

In a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, California described how states could conserve between 1 million and nearly 2 million acre feet of water through new cuts based on the elevation of Lake Mead, a key reservoir.

Its plan did not account for water lost to evaporation and during transportation — a move sought by the other states that would mean big cuts for California.

The 1,450-mile river (2,334-kilometer) serves 40 million people across the West and Mexico, generating hydroelectric power for regional markets and irrigating nearly 6 million acres (2,428 hectares) of farmland.

A multi-decade drought in the West worsened by climate change, rising demand and overuse has sent water levels at key reservoirs along the river to unprecedented lows. That has forced federal and state officials to take additional steps to protect the system.

California’s plan and the separate methods outlined by states Monday came in response to Reclamation asking them last year to detail how they would use between 15% and 30% less water. The federal agency operates the major dams in the river system.

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All seven states missed that deadline last August. Six of them regrouped and came to an agreement by the end of January. California was the the lone holdout to that agreement, and responded Tuesday with its own plan.

Unlike the other states’ plan, California’s does not factor the roughly 1.5 million acre feet of Colorado River water lost to evaporation and transportation.

Instead, it proposes reducing water taken out of Lake Mead by 1 million acre feet, with 400,000 acre feet coming from its own users. The state previously outlined that level of cuts in October. Arizona would bear the brunt of bigger cuts — 560,000 acre feet — while Nevada would make up the rest. Those numbers are based on discussions from prior negotiations, California’s letter said.

An acre foot is enough water to supply two to three U.S. households for a year.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources said it was still reviewing California’s proposal and didn’t have an immediate comment.

But Tom Buschatzke, the department’s director, said earlier Tuesday that water managers across the basin couldn’t reach agreement with California on cuts, even at the broader state level.

“The big issues are what does the priority system mean, what does the junior priority mean and how does that attach to that outcome of who takes what cut?” he said. “That was the issue over the summer, that was the issue over the fall, that’s still the issue.”

California has the largest allocation of water among the seven U.S. states that tap the Colorado River. It is also among the last to face water cuts in times of shortage because of its senior water rights.

That has given the state an advantage over others in talks that spanned months over how to cut water use.

California water officials have often repeated that any additional water cuts must be legally defensible and in line with western water law that honors its water rights.

JB Hamby, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California and a board member of the Imperial Irrigation District, indicated California may file a lawsuit if the federal government attempts to count for evaporative losses.

“The best way to avoid conflict and ensure that we can put water in the river right away is through a voluntary approach, not putting proposals that sidestep the Law of the River and ignore California’s senior right and give no respect to that,” he said.

Existing agreements only spell cuts when Lake Mead’s elevation is between 1,090 feet (332 meters) and 1,025 feet (312 meters). If it drops any lower than 1,025 feet, California’s plan proposes even further cuts based on the so-called Law of the River — likely meaning Arizona and Nevada would bear the brunt of them. Those cuts are designed to keep Lake Mead from reaching “dead pool,” when it could no longer pump out water to farms and cities including Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix.

The reservoir’s current elevation is around 1,045 feet.

In total, California’s plan could save between 1 million and 2 million acre-feet of water based on the elevation levels at Lake Mead, from which Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico draw their share of the river.

Adel Hagekhalil, general manager for the Metropolitan Water District of California, the nation’s largest water supplier, said it was important to protect key reservoirs “without getting mired in lengthy legal battles.”

Hagekhalil and other water managers pointed to numerous efforts the state has made to drastically reduce its water usage by making agricultural and urban water use more efficient.

“California knows how to permanently reduce use of the river — we have done it over the past 20 years, through billions of dollars in investments and hard-earned partnerships,” he said in a statement. “We can help the entire Southwest do it again as we move forward.”

The new proposals do not change states’ water allocations immediately — or disrupt their existing water rights. Instead, they will be folded into a larger proposal Reclamation is working on to revise how it operates Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams — behemoth power producers on the Colorado River.

Despite California’s inability to reach agreement with the other six states so far, the parties said they hope to keep talking.

Click here to read the full article in AP News