Waterless World

A Global Water Crisis Forum


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That Sinking Feeling

We have discussed the massive groundwater depletion that has occurred in California here and here as the drought has lingered for the past four years.  It should not surprise anyone that one of the very visible impacts of the groundwater pumping is that some areas of the state are, quite literally, sinking.  Groundwater takes a long time to replenish, so even if the drought ended yesterday, the sinking would remain.  From the AP:

Vast areas of California’s Central Valley are sinking faster than in the past as massive amounts of groundwater are pumped during the historic drought, NASA said in new research released Wednesday.

The research shows that in some places the ground is sinking nearly two inches each month, putting infrastructure on the surface at growing risk of damage.

Sinking land has occurred for decades in California because of excessive groundwater pumping during drought conditions, but the new data shows it is happening faster.

Mark Cowin, head of the California Department of Water Resources, said the costly damage has occurred to major canals that deliver water up and down the state. In addition, wells are being depleted, he said.

“Because of increased pumping, groundwater levels are reaching record lows — up to 100 feet lower than previous records,” Cowin said in a statement.

The report said land near the city of Corcoran sank 13 inches in eight months and part of the California Aqueduct sank eight inches in four months last year.

Long-term subsidence has already destroyed thousands of public and private groundwater well casings in the San Joaquin Valley. Over time, subsidence can permanently reduce the underground aquifer’s water storage capacity.

As part of an ongoing effort to respond to the effects of the drought, a task force is working with communities to develop short-term and long-term recommendations to reduce the rate of sinking and address risks to infrastructure.

“Groundwater acts as a savings account to provide supplies during drought, but the NASA report shows the consequences of excessive withdrawals as we head into the fifth year of historic drought,” Cowin said in his statement. “

The Department of Water Resources is also launching a $10 million program to help counties with stressed groundwater basins to develop or strengthen local ordinances and conservation plans.

A record low mountain snowpack has increased pumping of groundwater by farmers and other water users. Scientists used satellite images of the Earth taken over time to measure the sinking land.


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California Water’s Untapped Potential

With most of the state suffering through an exceptional level of drought, dismal snowpack data and tugs-of-war among all the needy constituencies, there is some pragmatism floating around.  From a recent story in Mother Jones:

The chart below, part of a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pacific Institute, sums up some of the options for saving water. California could reduce its water use by 17 to 22 percent with more efficient agricultural water use, including fixes like scheduling irrigation when plants need it and expanding drip and sprinkler irrigation. Urban water use could be reduced by 40 to 60 percent if residents replaced lawns with drought-tolerant plants, fixed water leaks, and replaced old toilets and showerheads with more water-efficient technology. And instead of channeling used water into the ocean, the state could treat it and reuse it—a practice that tends to gross some people out (because of the “drinking pee” factor) but has long been used in Orange County and is becoming more popular as the drought continues.

untapped-savings-infographic


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Experts’ Dismal Views on California Snowpack

CAlifornia Snowpack

Two Stanford experts have been widely quoted on issues related to the ongoing California drought this Spring: Noah Diffenbaugh, an associate professor of Earth system science and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, and Leon Szeptycki, executive director of Stanford’s Water in the West program and a Woods professor of the practice specializing in water law.

Stanford News Service recently interviewed Diffenbaugh and Szeptycki about why California’s snowpack is in decline, and what it means for water management in the state.  Some of their thoughts on the situation does not make happy reading.

Noah Diffenbaugh

This is the kind of extreme event that falls outside our historical experience. This is not only a low April 1 snowpack, but it is muchlower than the previous record low. California’s water infrastructure and management system relies on natural water storage from snowpack, which accumulates during the cool season and melts gradually into reservoirs and streams during the warm season. April 1 is typically the fulcrum between the snow accumulation season and the snowmelt season. Because we have such little snow right now, what is in the reservoirs is essentially what we will have between now and the next rainy season, which typically doesn’t start until the autumn. Even in a normal summer without pre-existing drought conditions, it would be stressful to have essentially no snow supply. But we are already in severe drought conditions with record high temperatures so far this year, meaning this drought is very likely to worsen during the summer.

Leon Szeptycki

In terms of impact on people and the environment, California’s federally operated reservoir system will likely not provide any water to agricultural users for the second year in a row – an unprecedented situation. Urban water providers are expected to get 25 percent of their allocated water. Similarly, the state-operated reservoir system is currently expecting to provide 20 percent of water deliveries to the majority of its users. Snowmelt runoff plays an important role for fish and other aquatic species because it is the primary source of summertime flow for many of our rivers and streams. The lack of snowpack will mean acutely low flows for these streams, and many of them will run dry. The impacts on aquatic life and ecosystems is potentially staggering.


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One Year (and Counting)

From the Los Angeles Times this past Thursday, Jay Famiglietti, the senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech and a professor of Earth system science at UC Irvine, sounds the alarm that, while much of the country has experienced a wet winter, California just burrowed deeper into it’s existing water crisis.

Op-Ed: California has about one year of water left. Will you ration now?

Given the historic low temperatures and snowfalls that pummeled the eastern U.S. this winter, it might be easy to overlook how devastating California’s winter was as well.

As our “wet” season draws to a close, it is clear that the paltry rain and snowfall have done almost nothing to alleviate epic drought conditions. January was the driest in California since record-keeping began in 1895. Groundwater and snowpack levels are at all-time lows. We’re not just up a creek without a paddle in California, we’re losing the creek too.

As difficult as it may be to face, the simple fact is that California is running out of water — and the problem started before our current drought. NASA data reveal that total water storage in California has been in steady decline since at least 2002, when satellite-based monitoring began, although groundwater depletion has been going on since the early 20th century.

Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing. California has no contingency plan for a persistent drought like this one (let alone a 20-plus-year mega-drought), except, apparently, staying in emergency mode and praying for rain.

In short, we have no paddle to navigate this crisis.

Our state’s water management is complex, but the technology and expertise exist to handle this harrowing future. It will require major changes in policy and infrastructure that could take decades to identify and act upon. Today, not tomorrow, is the time to begin.

Finally, the public must take ownership of this issue. This crisis belongs to all of us — not just to a handful of decision-makers. Water is our most important, commonly owned resource, but the public remains detached from discussions and decisions.

This process works just fine when water is in abundance. In times of crisis, however, we must demand that planning for California’s water security be an honest, transparent and forward-looking process. Most important, we must make sure that there is in fact a plan.

Call me old-fashioned, but I’d like to live in a state that has a paddle so that it might also still have a creek.


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America’s Most Endangered Rivers – 2014

From American Rivers

America Most Endangered Rivers

1. San Joaquin River

Outdated water management and excessive diversions leave the river dry in stretches, threatening water quality, fish and wildlife, agriculture, and leaving communities vulnerable in the face of drought.

2. Upper Colorado River

The river’s health, fish and wildlife, agriculture, and recreation are threatened by new proposed diversions and increasing water demands.

3. Middle Mississippi River

A proposed new levee would cut off the river from the floodplains that protects downstream communities from floodwaters and provide habitat for fish and wildlife.

4. Gila River

An unnecessary water diversion and pipeline would harm fish and wildlife, river health, and local economics dependent on outdoor recreation and tourism.

5. San Francisquito Creek

The 65-foot Searsville Dam blocks threatened steelhead from reaching habitat upstream, impairs water quality, and poses flooding risks for local communities.

6. South Fork Edisto River

Excessive agriculture withdrawals threaten the river’s health and downstream water users, including other farmers.

7. White River (Colorado)

15,000 proposed new oil and gas wells in the region threaten to ruin clean drinking water and fish and wildlife habitat.

8. White River (Washington)

Salmon, steelhead, and bull trout populations are often killed at the unsafe and outdated Buckley Dam.

9. Haw River

Drinking water and recreation areas for more than one million people are threated by polluted runoff and wastewater.

10. Clearwater/Lochsa Rivers

The Wild and Scenic rivers’ coldwater fisheries, scenery, and whitewater are threatened by industrialization that would bring huge megaloads bound for Canadian tar sands onto narrow roads beside the rivers.


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“Last Call at the Oasis”

The global-catastrophe documentary is a thriving form these days, as the apparent unsustainability of human life has emerged as fertile ground for cinematic journalism. Jessica Yu’s “Last Call at the Oasis, is one of the more recent additions to the canon and the content, combining interviews with experts and video evidence of what is happening to water resources across the globe, brings home the catastrophic potential of global inaction.  Though released in 2012, the film remains relevant in a time of increasing drought, water wars and water pollution.

From the New York Times review of the film:

The calm, knowledgeable voices of the experts make “Last Call at the Oasis” especially scary. Nothing is more unnerving than predictions of an apocalypse delivered by a reasonable person in friendly, conversational tones.

The question is whether anyone is listening, and it is a question that always nips at the heels of documentaries like this one. One way the question is answered — or perhaps finessed — is by the optimistic, encouraging tone that tends to sneak in at the end. 

There is also a measure of hope to be gleaned from Ms. Yu’s interview subjects, though less from what they have to say — which is pretty grim — than from their seriousness and dedication.

However frustrated they may be by political paralysis, corporate trickery or plain human stupidity, none of them seem inclined to give up. When they do, we really will be screwed, and we won’t have or need movies like this to tell us so.

Here is the original trailer for the film.


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The Urban Water Challenge

There are many dynamics that contribute to the increasing challenge of providing enough clean water for the population that the Earth now needs to support. While the default issue is often the impacts that climate change has on watersheds across the globe, a critical element to be considered in the ongoing discussion around clean water access regards what is happening in the world’s cities. Global urban water supplies are increasingly polluted and will likely be unable to meet rapidly-growing demand.

Most of the major cities in the world have already grown too large to adequately deliver water to all their inhabitants. More than a slow motion train wreck, this is a challenge that needs to be addressed immediately as more and more people are living in urban environments where access to water is difficult or the quality of water being delivered is compromised.

A new in-depth report by The Nature Conservancy underscores the much broader global implications of rapid population growth in cities paired with unprecedented threats to their water supplies. Add to that mounting pressure on cities to take action on other environmental woes, like ill effects of climate change, and it becomes an even taller order for budget-constrained local governments.

The Nature Conservancy found that 1 in 3 of world’s 100 largest cities — which are cumulatively home to some 700 million people — are currently “water stressed.” That means water use by all sectors exceeds 40 percent of total availability from watersheds.

“Cities face twin challenges: water that is both scarce and polluted,” the report authors state. “Rising demand has been allowed to grow unchecked, competing users upstream do not talk to or trust one another, increasingly unpredictable rainfall patterns have been altered by climate change, and the watersheds where our water comes from have been degraded.”

A key challenge highlighted in The Nature Conservancy report is a history of short-sightedness when it comes to where our water is coming from.

Watersheds already in use are increasingly jeopardized by pollution, and new potential water supply options to meet increasing demand don’t look much better.

Significant deforestation has already impacted an estimated 40 percent of the hundreds of urban watersheds analyzed in the report, despite warnings from some in the water industry about resulting increases in pollutants since as far back as the 1980s.

“I was surprised seeing the trend over time,” said Robert McDonald, lead study author and The Nature Conservancy’s senior scientist for urban sustainability.

Add to that an anticipated 10 percent increase in the utilization of agricultural lands as a source for urban water by the year 2030. The use of fertilizer is projected to grow 58 percent during the same period, raising serious questions about the safety of water originating in those areas.

The report provides a wealth of information on the challenge for urban water systems and I will be posting excerpts from the report over the next few weeks.