Waterless World

A Global Water Crisis Forum


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How Low Can You Go?

The water level in Lake Mead, the country’s largest man-made reservoir, reached its lowest point on record back in May and the situation has not improved since then.

Water levels in the lake fell to 1,074 in May, down from an average of 1,084 feet in February, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, leaving the lake at 37% of capacity The region has suffered from a drought that has lasted more than a decade with the snow packs that feed the lake continuing to be lower than average over the past few years. Recent images of the lake show just how far water levels have dropped with “bathtub ring” markings indicating the higher height of the reservoir.

At 1073ft above sea level, the July reading at the Hoover Dam, which forms Lake Mead, was the lowest elevation since the reservoir was filled in the late 1930s.  The currently level also falls below the initial threshold of 1075ft that triggers emergency rationing measures across several states.

The manmade lake provides crucial water to parts of Arizona, Nevada and California, including the Los Angeles region. The federal government could implement emergency measures if the water level remains at 1,075 feet or below at the end of the year. Those measures would require reductions in water delivery to Nevada and Arizona.  California and Mexico would be exempt.

The Bureau of Reclamation expects the lake’s levels to drop to 1,071 feet over the summer during peak demand before rising to 1,078 at the end of the year.

However, the crucial measurement is not the current level but the mid-August assessment by the Bureau of Reclamation for 1 January 2017. And if it is below that threshold an official water shortage at Lake Mead will be declared.  The El Nino present over the past year delivered significant rain and snow fall to the West but not enough to truly impact the severe drought conditions.  If a La Nina follows, the region could see itself once again covered by extreme drought conditions that negatively impact all reservoirs and make sever water rationing the rule rather than the exception.

Lake Mead Water Level – July 2016Lalke Mead July 2016


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Reaching A New Low

The Associated Press reports that water levels in Lake Mead in Nevada have dropped to the lowest level since it was originally filled in the 1930s,  leaving Las Vegas facing existential threats unless something is done. Las Vegas and its 2 million residents and 40 million tourists a year get almost all their drinking water from the Lake and at levels below 1075ft (the level is currently several inches below that mark), the Interior Department will be forced to declare a “shortage,” which will lead to significant cutbacks for Arizona and Nevada.

The lake is now approximately 37% of capacity and features a distinctive white mineral bathtub ring that demonstrates the 130 feet in surface level that has been lost since the turn of the century.

From USA Today:

The downward march of the reservoir near Las Vegas reflects enormous strains on the over-allocated Colorado River. Its flows have decreased during 16 years of drought, and climate change is adding to the stresses on the river

As the levels of Lake Mead continue to fall, the odds are increasing for the federal government to declare a shortage in 2018, a step that would trigger cutbacks in the amounts flowing from the reservoir to Arizona and Nevada. With that threshold looming, political pressures are building for California, Arizona and Nevada to reach an agreement to share in the cutbacks in order to avert an even more severe shortage.

As population growth and heavy demand for water collide with hotter temperatures and reduced snowpack in the future, there will be an even greater mismatch between supply and demand, said Kelly Sanders, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in water and energy issues.

“The question becomes how to resolve this mismatch across states that all depend on the river to support their economic growth,” Sanders said. She expects incentives and markets to help ease some of the strains on water supplies, “but it is going to be tricky to make the math work in the long term.”


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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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Balls!

It’s not like we haven’t reported on innovative, strange and extreme ways that drought-plagued people, communities and enterprises find to manage their water resources.  This is not the first time we have heard about this method of limiting evaporation from reservoirs, but this time we have video.  From onEarth, the magazine of the Natural Resources Defense Council:

As the drought rages on in California, things have been getting weird. Now the latest effort to protect L.A.’s water supply has just turned the city’s reservoir into a giant black-ball pit.

The 96 million plastic “shade balls” floating on the reservoir’s surface will help keep the water from evaporating, protect it from contamination by birds and other wildlife, and prevent sunlight from promoting algal growth. The balls are designed to last for about 10 years without degrading (at which point they’ll be recycled) or releasing anything harmful into the water themselves—Ed Osann, a senior policy analyst with NRDC (disclosuretells Bloomberg, “Everything that comes into contact with drinking water has to be a certified material,” meaning it shouldn’t cause pollution problems. 

ABC 7 reports that the move is millions of dollars cheaper than the alternative (which is installing a cover over the reservoir), and these spheres will save 300 million gallons of water every year. L.A. is on the ball, and other municipalities are catching on, too—watch officials from the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District release shade balls into their reservoir, too.


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Watching the Water Wasters

It’s not quite “Big Brother” but California continues to promote measures to ensure that water use is managed and that violators are discovered and subjected to a public flogging.  From CBS News:

California is launching a website that lets residents tattle on water wasters, from neighbors with leaky sprinklers to waiters who serve water without asking.

California has multiple restrictions on water use, including banning washing cars with hoses that don’t shut off and restricting lawn-watering within two days of rainfall. But enforcement varies widely across the parched state. 

Residents can send details and photos of water waste at www.savewater.ca.gov. Complaints are then sent to local government agencies based on the address of the offense.

Tipsters wary of being outed as the neighborhood snitch can remain anonymous.

The State Water Resources Control Board Water announced California cut its water use by 27 percent in June, passing the conservation target set by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Data shows 265 out of 411 local water agencies hit or nearly reached their reduction goals.

The site went online Thursday as the latest conservation initiative. More than 300 agencies have signed up to see the details of water waste tips. Many local agencies already had their own reporting sites.

“Our water use complaint calls have gone up exponentially from the last two years,” Terrance Davis of the Sacramento Department of Utilities told CBS affiliate KOVR in July. The city said from January to June, it received more than 8,000 complaints.

“Obviously we can’t see everything, can’t be everywhere so having people in the community helping us out–residents, neighbors–reporting those types of things is a great tool for us too,” Davis said.


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Stealing Water

It was bound to come to this as the drought in California lingers.  Individuals and/or groups have started stealing water.  From Accuweather:

With the state of California mired in its fourth year of drought and a mandatory 25 percent reduction in water usage in place, reports of water theft have become common.

In April, The Associated Press reported that huge amounts of water went missing from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and a state investigation was launched. The delta is a vital body of water, serving 23 million Californians as well as millions of farm acres, according to the Association for California Water Agencies.

The AP reported in February that a number of homeowners in Modesto, California, were fined $1,500 for allegedly taking water from a canal. In another instance, thieves in the town of North San Juan stole hundreds of gallons of water from a fire department tank.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 46 percent of California is under exceptional drought conditions, the most intense measurement of drought according to the monitor. The drought is forecast to worsen this summer.

In Madera County, District Attorney David Linn has instituted a water crime task force to combat the growing trend of water theft occurring throughout the state and to protect rightful property owners from having their valuable water stolen.

Jennifer Allen, spokesperson for the Contra Costa Water District in Concord, about 45 minutes from San Francisco, said it’s not uncommon for her agency to receive reports of water theft, but as the drought has continued, she said there has been an uptick in reports.

With the drought showing no signs of letting up, California continues to formulate new strategies to preserve as much water as possible. On May 5, the California State Water Resources Control Board adopted an emergency regulation that calls for a 25 percent reduction in overall potable urban water use in accordance with the governor’s order.


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California Drinks to It: Toilet-to-Tap Becomes a “Thing”

We have posted about “toilet-to-tap”  initiatives in several cities in Texas in the past.  Now, California, is expanding their embrace of the technology.  From CNBC:

As the California drought worsens, some communities such as Orange County, San Diego and the Silicon Valley are expanding water recycling programs, and support for “toilet to tap” programs appears to be growing from a once-squeamish public.

 The Silicon Valley Advanced Water Purification Center, located in San Jose, began operations last year and produces up to 8 million gallons per day of purified water from wastewater. The facility was built at a cost of $72 million in a partnership between the Santa Clara Valley Water District (SCVWD) and the city of San Jose. The facility treats wastewater that would otherwise go into the San Francisco Bay for use as reclaimed water in irrigation, construction and industrial uses. They eventually hope to use some of the purified water to refill groundwater sources.

The Santa Clara County facility gets wastewater from the cities of San Jose and Santa Clara, and the goal had been to expand the recycled water to make up at least 10 percent of total county water demand by 2025. But due to the 4-year-old drought, the water agency is pushing its goals further: It’s pursuing plans to expedite that goal by three years—to reach the 10 percent number by 2022—and partnering with other cities in the county to purity their water.

Meanwhile, the Orange County Water District (OCWD) is undergoing an expansion of its own at the water agency’s high-tech Groundwater Replenishment System in Fountain Valley, California. The $481 million plant has been operational since 2008 and currently processes about 70 million gallons of treated sewage wastewater each day into drinking-quality water that goes into groundwater basins for later reuse as potable water. OCWD, which serves more than 2.4 million people, is spending $142 million to increase capacity at the facility to approximately 100 million gallons per day, or enough water for 850,000 residents.

“Recycled water is a huge benefit,” said OCWD General Manager Michael Markus. “We can produce the water for about half the energy it takes to import water from Northern California and about a third of the energy it takes to desalinate sea water.”

Orange County’s plant, for example, can produce recycled water for about $480 an acre-foot—well below the estimated $2,000 per acre-foot a new desalination plant in nearby San Diego County will be paying for new water. Similarly, the recycled water runs about half the roughly $1,000 per acre-foot price of water from the Metropolitan Water District, the giant water wholesaler for Southern California, which on Tuesday announced a 15 percent reduction in the amount of water it will supply to its 26 member agencies.

Purified wastewater could provide enough potable water to supply all municipal needs for more than 8 million people, or roughly one-fifth of California’s projected population for 2020, according to a report released last year and sponsored by the WateReuse Association, an organization supported by water utilities and companies that promote water reuse. The report also pointed out that NASA and the International Space Station already use a technology that produces potable water for six crew members from a combination of condensation and collected urine.

In 2014, two Texas towns launched the nation’s first direct-to-potable reuse water programs. Wichita Falls and Big Spring, about 230 miles apart, treat wastewater with a multistep cleaning process and then send the purified water directly to homes. The last U.S. Drought Monitor data shows 49 percent of Texas suffering from some level of drought.

San Diego is targeting an initial 15 million gallon per day water purification facility to be in operation by 2023—and there’s a longer-term goal of producing up to 83 million gallons of purified water by 2035, or enough to supply one-third of the city’s future drinking water supply. San Diego conducted a four-year demonstration project starting in 2009 and found it could produce water that met all federal and state drinking water standards.