Skip to content Skip to navigation

As California’s Groundwater Free-for-All Ends, Gauging What’s Left

Felicity Barringer
Nov 9 2018

New rules and new technology are giving farmers and managers a better look at groundwater supplies.

alt

Photo Illustration – Original image by Chris Austin via Flickr
 

By Felicity Barringer

Most areas of California farm country have a significant lack of information about their groundwater use. The water managers responsible for putting California’s depleted aquifers on the path to sustainability now need to get the data to do the job. Running the new agencies created under the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, these managers must first decide what they need to know, and how to get the information.

The measuring gauges they need would ideally give two different views of groundwater reality. First, account for withdrawals by identifying who is taking the water, then control the withdrawals to ensure sustainability, now required in 109 of the state’s 517 groundwater basins. Second, monitor the overall health of the aquifer to ensure it is not trespassing over the various boundaries of unsustainability now carved into state law.

Heavy users have for decades ardently resisted any accounting. Well meters were anathema. Newly drilled wells were reported to the state, but by law, that information was kept private.

Before they can explore the technical answers to measuring options, managers must wrestle with local attitudes about privacy that have prevailed in areas subject to chronic over-pumping. Heavy users have for decades ardently resisted any accounting. Well meters were anathema. Newly drilled wells were reported to the state, but by law, that information was kept private.

Such confidentiality restrictions ended in 2015, after the passage of the groundwater act; and in early 2017, the State Water Resources Control board made public its digital map of state wells. But just knowing where the wells are isn’t the same as knowing how much they pump, or their impact on the aquifer below.

“As long as nobody was measuring or monitoring groundwater, it was to the advantage of any farmer to pump as much as they could,” said Peter Gleick, the co-founder of the Pacific Institute, who has deep expertise on water issues. The system, he said, “was designed to favor ignorance.” Other experts reject such a blunt anti-farmer viewpoint. Both agricultural use and urbanization, they say, expanded groundwater use beyond sustainability: fingers could point anywhere.

Even With Pumping Unmetered, Remote Sensing Technology Had Lifted the Veil on Groundwater Depletion

Science cover article on GRACE
Science Magazine, September 2014

The intransigence of some groundwater users became less of an obstacle with the rise of options for remote observation. For instance, a pair of twin satellites launched by NASA were able to estimate that Central Valley aquifers had, just between 2003 and 2010, lost 25 million acre-feet of groundwater – well more than half of California’s annual groundwater use around that time. The GRACE satellites showed the world the depletion many Central Valley farmers were already beginning to tackle.

By the time the GRACE program went out of service last year, even finer-grained analysis was possible using data from additional satellites, like NASA’s Landsat orbiters. Such remotely gathered data, along with the need to comply with the new law, has made on-farm metering more palatable. Some managers are learning from areas that have already collected abundant data about groundwater use. Before the new law, the courts spurred the work.

Under State Adjudication for 22 Years, Mojave Agency Keeps a Clear Tally

Ignorance is not something judges accept as an excuse for inaction. Data on wells and groundwater usage is plentiful in groundwater basins that were subject to water rights lawsuits in past years. The Mojave Water Agency works a basin covering 4,900 square miles of desert spreading west from the intersection of California, Nevada and Arizona. The adjudication of its water was handed down in 1996. Every year since, it has duly reported the number of wells drawing groundwater and their annual “production,” or withdrawal.

For example, Mojave’s report shows that Joe and Sue Harter, proprietors of Harter Farms, in Needles, have 11 agricultural wells and two for domestic use. The Harters took 2,361 acre-feet of water from underneath the desert last year, less than half as much as the 5,234 they pumped in 1990.

Joe Harter’s son, Andrew, who grows pistachios and bermuda grass with his father, said that the 1996 court order requiring well accountability “made us progressive about controlling our use,” he said. “We had to do more with less.” He added, “At the end of the day, we have to have sustainability.” What irritates him is the seemingly constant construction of new housing subdivisions, each of which creates new demand for water. “I think sustainability is the best thing. My problem is they put it on the backs of the farmers.”

Pistachio trees growing on the Harter family's farm in Kern County.

Pistachio trees growing on the Harter family's farm in Kern County. Andrew Harter

In Mojave, an engineering firm was charged with verifying claims about how much everyone had pumped. When there were no records, the firm assembled aerial photos of plantings, and used those to estimate how much water different crops used.

At the time of the court order, there was little consistency about measuring and reporting withdrawals of groundwater in the Mojave Water Agency’s area. An engineering firm was charged with verifying claims about how much had been pumped. When there were no records, the firm assembled aerial photos of plantings, and used those to estimate how much water different crops used. This prompted most users, like the Harters, to begin collecting their own records, often by using flow meters on their wells.

Electricity consumption is a commonly used proxy for groundwater use, said Mojave’s general manager, Tom McCarthy. Water is heavy, and pumping groundwater from depths of dozens or even hundreds of feet is energy intensive. The more electricity used, the more water has been pumped. “We tend to use methods that are tried and true,” he said.

The more depleted basins now have new agencies managing them. In less than two years, they must produce plans for long-term sustainability. Some users may find their pumping sharply restricted. Some may trade their water rather than farming with it. All will need good data.

Tracking Groundwater Use, With or Without a Well Meter

If only it were so simple as checking a water meter. But in truth, much of California's agricultural water use has been off the record. Before the passage of groundwater reform in 2014, few irrigators were required to report – or even measure – how much water they pumped from the ground.

If regulation has started to catch up with groundwater use, technology has been nipping at its heels even longer. Whether through educated guesswork based on what's growing – and for, example, how hot the air has been – to other proxy measures like electrical use for pumping, scientists and water managers have developed a number of direct, and quite indirect, ways of knowing who is using water, and how much.

Common Methods for Measuring Groundwater Supply – and Use

Graphic: Tracking Groundwater Use, With or Without a Well Meter

Sources: Idaho Department of Water Resources; ESRI Earth Imagery; Natural Earth Data

Bill Lane Center for the American West

Newer Measuring Technologies Emerge in Another Desert Water Basin

One manager who has consulted with Mojave is Don Zdeba, the head of the Indian Wells Valley Water District. This district is not far to the north of Mojave, in Ridgecrest, in far eastern Kern County. While Zdeba has carefully studied Mojave’s practices, he says he is exploring newer technologies to manage his system.

Zdeba’s is one of a group of local agencies working with a Stanford University program run by Rosemary Knight, an environmental geophysicist at the School of Earth Sciences. She directs the Center for Groundwater Evaluation and Management, whose goal is to map local aquifers to know how depth and salinity varies, as the first study of Indian Wells showed. They are working with all of the agencies that use water from the Indian Wells basin.

The technology that Stanford’s group is using involves flying a helicopter over the basin while dangling a loop emitting electrical impulses into the ground. This Time-domain Electromagnetic scan (“TEM”) method can help determine the geology of the aquifer and its level of salinity. A Danish firm called Ramboll is developing a data management system and a map of the basin, said Zdeba. Another Danish company, SkyTEM Technologies, provides Ramboll with the data gathered using a method developed in Denmark by Aarhus University, when that country faced a groundwater crisis.

Measuring What Lies Beneath

graphic

Bill Lane Center for the American West


More Accurate Measurement Leads to More Efficient Management

Zdeba said that day-to-day management of the groundwater controlled by the water district is made easier by knowing how much each customer uses. Like McCarthy, he finds that his biggest agricultural users are cooperative, sharing their pumping data. Why? Amidst a groundwater crisis almost two decades ago, a local cooperative formed in the Indian Wells basin and began measuring and sharing their consumption data.

Their two decades of data show that groundwater pumping overall is down 17 percent in the last decade; the biggest agricultural user, Meadowbrook Farms, has cut its annual consumption by nearly a third percent in the same period, from 9,270 acre-feet to 6,387 acre-feet. Mr. Zdeba’s water district used 29 percent less over that period. His big agricultural users, mostly pistachio and alfalfa farmers, have been open and cooperative, he said.

Less cooperative, he said, are small users. “Someone saying: ‘How much are you pumping?’ doesn’t play well with a lot of private well owners.” He added, “The challenge for us locally is [all users] recognizing there’s a need to know who is pumping how much.”

Resistance to Individual Measurements Begins to Fade

What Mr. Zdeba faces with some of the smaller agricultural users in his district is what Eric Averett faced 25 years ago. Averett, the general manager of the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District, remembers, “there was a hesitancy to share a lot of different types of data. There was more of a private-property mindset, people felt it was confidential, and might affect competitiveness.”

But even before the 2014 passage of SGMA, he said, those attitudes began to change, both because of the brutal five-year drought, and the rise of technologies for remote sensing of groundwater levels. He has been to meetings recently when “landowners have called me every name in the book and accused me of being big government.”But, he said, general acceptance of accounting for water use has spread widely, even as resistance lingers.

Five Years of Drought Underscored Importance of Groundwater

When the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act passed in 2014, California was well into a severe multi-year drought. As of November 2018, 85% of the state is dry or under drought conditions.

Bill Lane Center for the American West

So the transformation in attitudes that began in adjudicated districts in the desert is now spreading to the agricultural heartland of the San Joaquin Valley. Here, the favored method is not meters, but a measurement derived from satellite images. Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo Irrigation Training and Research Center uses the “METRIC” method – originally developed at the University of Idaho – for areas in Kern and Tulare Counties.

The idea is to use high-resolution satellite images of farm fields to pinpoint what crops are using water. Knowing how much water is released into the air (or “transpired”) by a given crop, and combining that with the rate of evaporation from the soil at specific temperatures, lets researchers turn satellite photographs into water-use data. The combination of these two losses of water to the air – from both the plant and the soil – is called “evapotranspiration.”

Accurate Measurement of Water Use Will Often Force Farmers to Cut Back Groundwater Use

This technique accounts for something that simple pumping records can’t measure – the amount of irrigation water from underground that seeps back through the soil and returns to the aquifer. This is commonly known as “recharge,” and mirrors how aquifers refill with water under natural conditions. Kern County farmers, said Dan Howes, an engineer at Cal Poly, said that Kern County’s farmers “know we don’t have enough water to recharge the basin year after year and sustain the groundwater we are pumping.

“The main issue farmers are coming to grips with is we have too much evapotranspiration and not enough water supply,” said Howes. Put another way, too many thirsty plants in too hot a climate use too much water and deplete the aquifer. He added, “once they come to grips with that,” there are only two options — reduce evapotranspiration, perhaps by leaving fields fallow or planting less thirsty crops — or find more surface water. For farmers without surface-water rights, that may be hard.

“California groundwater was a classic tragedy of the commons,” says Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute. Now, “the smart farmers are going to get jump on how to manage their water resources under a sustainable set of rules.”

Howes won’t hazard a firm estimate on how much of a cutback in agriculture the groundwater-dependent areas will need, other than to say the cutbacks will be significant. He works with water agencies in Tulare, Fresno, and Merced counties, and the new groundwater authority for the Kern County basin hired him to do a historical review of water use with the years of Landsat images now available. He has over 23 years’ worth of data in the region from Fresno to Bakersfield.

How are the local farmers reacting to the prospect of pumping reductions? “The ones that I’ve talked to with very little surface water, they are very depressed.” But they are realistic. “Some say, ‘I have about 20 years and then I’ll retire and give it up.’” He added, “I’m surprised at how many people I talk to who say, ‘It’s about time this came about. We all knew it was coming.’” Such comments, Howes said, most often come from farmers with rights to surface water.

Gleick, of the Pacific Institute, said, “California groundwater was a classic tragedy of the commons.” Now, “the smart farmers are going to get jump on how to manage their water resources under a sustainable set of rules.”

 

and the west logo

 

 

 

Read Next in ...& the West

Where California Grows Its Food

A look at the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world.

Back to main page

 

 

 

 

 

Reader Comments

Submit your own thoughts and questions by using the form at the bottom of this page. Entries will be reviewed and posted as we get them.

Gill Costa

Responding to As California’s Groundwater Free-for-All Ends, Gauging What’s Left

Great review, there is water for all farmers the shift in paradigm stands in water use efficiency one should only turn the water on when plants need irrigation based on allowable depletion and immediately turn irrigation off at field capacity.

Submit a Comment

We'd like to know what you think. We will not share your email address or add you to any lists. If you'd like to be notified about new blog posts and news from the Center, you can join our mailing list.

You will receive emails no more than once a week. We will not share your information.

 

...& the Best

Western Articles and Media Elsewhere
Compiled by Felicity Barringer, Melina Walling, Benek Robertson, Maya Burke, Kate Selig and Francisco L. Nodarse

Articles Worth Reading: April 26, 2021

Governor Gavin Newsom Announced Plans to Ban Hydraulic Fracturing in California by 2024 as part of a longer-term goal to cease oil extraction in the state by 2045. While fracking does not represent a majority of California’s oil production, Newsom has described the move as a symbolic action. Environmental advocates say Newsom’s proposed clean energy timelines are not fast enough, but he has faced opposition in the state legislature toward more aggressive proposed measures to ban oil and gas production. Some speculate that the guarded anti-fracking move was made with an eye on Newsom’s upcoming recall election. NPR The New York Times

Idaho’s State Senate Voted to Allow Private Contractors to Kill 90 Percent of Wolves in the state to protect hunting and agricultural interests. The population has held steady at about 1500 wolves for the past two years, but ranchers and farmers say reducing the number to 150 could reduce the financial losses associated with wolves attacking sheep and cattle. If the wolf population falls below 100, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may resume management in the area. Associated Press

The Environmental Protection Agency Is Reversing Its Decision to Keep California From Requiring More Stringent Tailpipe Emission Controls than those of the federal government. With 13 other states signing on to California standards, 36 percent of the U.S. auto market is in states abiding by the tougher rules. The Trump administration sought to throttle California’s decades-old freedom to set standards to clean the nation’s dirtiest air. The Washington Post

Researchers Consider Environmental Impacts of the Border Wall in Southern Arizona, which ecologists say threatens wildlife and poses greater risks of damage from flash floods. Indigenous communities mourn the damage to sacred lands, which they say cannot be undone by removing the wall. The Biden administration must now decide whether halting construction is enough, or whether further action is necessary to improve conservation outlooks and land management practices at the border. Arizona Republic

East Palo Alto Residents Collaborate With Scientists and City Government to Fight Sea Level Rise in this multimedia feature from the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines Initiative. Although East Palo Alto’s budget is hundreds of times smaller than San Francisco’s, their plans to mitigate the threat of sea level rise are well ahead of much of the Bay Area. Even so, a historical legacy of disinvestment, racial segregation, and regional disparities could undermine East Palo Alto’s strategies, which include replacing old levees and accounting for infrastructure upgrades to sanitation systems and electrical towers. Experts say a coordinated effort will be necessary to keep the entire Bay safe from catastrophic flooding. KQED

Native Fishermen Compete With Industrial Trawlers For Declining Halibut Populations off the coast of Alaska, where warming temperatures wreak havoc on Bering Sea ecosystems. Crab, pollock, salmon and halibut numbers are all shrinking, but industrial fishermen don’t feel the pressure; even as they target lower-value species, they waste millions of more expensive fish like halibut as bycatch. Now, fishery managers are discussing new limits that would reduce waste and even the playing field for Native fishermen, but industrial operations are fighting the new restrictions, saying it’s unrealistic to reduce bycatch in practice. National Geographic

Anglers On The Los Angeles River Face A Tenuous Future as the city plans to revitalize the waterway with a new system of parks and cultural centers. Many destitute Angelenos rely on the river for food, shelter and refuge; the city will likely remove homeless encampments as part of their new investments. Homeless advocates worry that the new parks will create a wave of “green gentrification” that leaves out already marginalized communities. High Country News

Eastern Washington Is Investing In Clean Hydrogen Energy Infrastructure amidst debate over the alternative fuel’s viability. Supporters believe producing combustible hydrogen could help eliminate fossil fuels used by heavy emitters like the construction and aviation industries, but the technology is costly. However, the Pacific Northwest has an advantageous surplus of clean power from wind and solar farms, which engineers say makes the region an optimal place to test a pilot program. Inside Climate News

Wind Turbine Techs Brave Heights in this photo feature on blade technicians who climb and belay on the enormous fiberglass structures to perform maintenance. Patagonia

Articles Worth Reading: April 12, 2021

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland Visited Bears Ears as crowds of tourists and looters frustrate advocates seeking to restore the original scope of the national monument. Former President Trump shrank the areas of monuments at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in 2017, reversing Obama-era protections. Haaland must decide whether to recommend that Biden restore the previous boundaries. Indigenous groups want to see the monument expanded, while Republican politicians, ranchers and miners in Utah resist increased federal protections. Washington Post

Las Vegas Pushing to Become First City to Ban Ornamental Grass. This desert gambling metropolis, whose utility has for nearly two decades rewarded homeowners for replacing grass with dry landscaping – xeriscaping – is planning to go one step further. The utility is asking Nevada state legislators to outlaw about 40 percent of the remaining greensward, arguing that there are almost eight square miles of grass in medians or office parks that no one walks on. Last year was among the driest in the region’s history; for a record 240 days, there was no measurable rainfall. About 90 percent of southern Nevada's water comes from the Colorado River, whose reservoirs at Lake Mead and Lake Powell are near record lows. Associated Press

What’s In Toxic Wildfire Smoke? To find answers, scientists chase storms and rig cargo planes to become flying laboratories. Chemists, immunologists, and other experts have begun using air and ash samples from recent catastrophic fire seasons to unravel the human health impacts of wildfire emissions, though they say fully understanding the long-term effects may take years. National Geographic

Three Interest Groups Face Off In a Scramble Over Temperate Rainforests on the southwest corner of Vancouver Island. A century of logging has depleted about 80 percent of the old-growth trees on the island in British Columbia. An anti-logging group is blockading an area near Fairy Creek. But the Pacheedat First Nation, which gets provincial compensation in exchange for allowing logging in their territory, has not agreed to the blockade, though some tribal members sympathize. Legal action is pending. The Tyee

A New Wildlife Refuge In Albuquerque will become the first urban wildlife refuge in the Southwest, officially opening this fall. The Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge promises more open space for historically disenfranchised Chicano communities. The new amenities are expected to raise property values, opening the town to potential gentrification, cultural change and excess tourism. Equitable representation for community members in the preserve will be key to grounding the refuge in the values of environmental justice, the refuge’s supporters say. High Country News

Cattle Ranchers Seek Control of Free-Roaming Tule Elk In Point Reyes, prompting opposition from conservationists. When Congress designed the national seashore as public land not only for nature preservation but also for farmers’ “cultural heritage,” it sowed the seeds of repeated conflicts. In the late 19th century, human development nearly drove the elk extinct. Though herds were reintroduced in the 1960s, the species returned to a landscape shaped by cattle. Now, it’s unclear who will control the future of that landscape. Biographic

‘Glamping’ Project In Joshua Tree Puts Sustainable Development To The Test as Airstream tourism company AutoCamp breaks ground on its first high desert tourism attraction. While its designers tout the eco-friendly features of the campus, residents worry that tourism could send housing prices soaring and that heavy tourist traffic could harm desert ecosystems. Desert Sun

Grasshoppers, Opera, And Ecological Collapse intertwine in this audio story of a Wyoming entomologist and his quest to find the truth about a melting glacier. Atlas Obscura

Articles Worth Reading: March 29, 2021

Latino Neighborhoods in the Southwest Are Far Hotter than Anglo neighborhoods, which have more trees and shade. The difference is as much as seven degrees in southern California, according to a new study of 20 urban areas. It shows the poorest 10 percent of neighborhoods are much hotter — four degrees Fahrenheit on average — than the wealthiest neighborhoods nearby. In particular, areas with large Latino populations bear an unequal burden. Arizona Republic

The Interior Department Rescinded a Decision That Had Eliminated Tribal Ownership of a portion of the Missouri River on the Fort Berthold Reservation and given it to the state of North Dakota. Under the Trump administration, a department statement said, Interior had agreed that North Dakota owned mineral rights despite eight decades of legal precedent to the contrary. Now the department says it needs to look more closely at the legality of ignoring the ownership rights of the Mandan, Hidatsa and the Arikara Nation. The Hill

A Republican Congressman’s Proposal to Breach Four Snake River Dams has reopened more than a century of arguments over the structures. Their construction violated treaties, flooded 14,4000 acres, crippled salmon runs and provided both a modest amount of electricity and the ability to barge inland crops to Pacific ports. Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson’s $33.5 billion plan to breach the four dams has renewed that debate. A look at the pros and cons of the proposal, and an advocate’s website visualizing the impact of dam removal. Oregonian Spokesman-Review Magic Valley Save Our Wild Salmon

What Western Governors Say They Care About is reflected in this summary – complete with a word-cloud graphic – from their association’s office’s report on recent state-of-the-state addresses. Not surprisingly, the most prevalent word is “Covid.” It’s followed by “Vaccine,” “Education,” “Infrastructure,” and “Broadband.” Western Governors Association

Covering 4,000 Miles of California Canals With Solar Panels would annually save 63 billion gallons of water from evaporating and provide 13 gigawatts of renewable power, according to a feasibility study published in the journal Nature Sustainability. That is roughly half the new capacity the state needs to meet its decarbonization goals by the year 2030. Wired

The West is Losing the War to Preserve Sage-Grouse Habitat. Human activity and fire have destroyed millions of acres of habitat for the greater sage grouse. A new federal study is deeply pessimistic about the future of the bird as it loses its essential range. Expanding, ferocious wildfires play a major part in the destruction, but so do invasive, quick-burning plants like cheatgrass. Federal and multistate efforts have helped cut the rate of destruction, but a warming climate means land managers are losing their fight. E&E Daily

Ways of Emitting Less Methane, both from leaking oil and gas wells, intentional venting of gas, and even cow burps, are getting new attention. New Mexico’s Oil and Gas Commission just adopted new rules to control oil fields’ venting and flaring of gas. And researchers at the University of California, Davis have increasing evidence that adding tropical red seaweed to cow feed can reduce bovine methane emissions by up to 82 percent. Associated Press Grist

As the Nation’s Largest Wind Farm Is Readied In the Wyoming Town of Rawlins, immense pride in the coal mining that used to power its economy remains. The New York Times “The Daily” Podcast

Larry McMurtry, Novelist of the West, Dies at 84. McMurtry’s stock in trade was de-mythologizing the West of early paperbacks and mid 20th-century television series, and offering a portrait that was more raw and more real. He did so most memorably in the 843-page novel “Lonesome Dove,” about two Texas rangers driving stolen cattle from the Rio Grande to Montana in the 1870s. He was also part of the creative force behind the movie “Brokeback Mountain.” The New York Times Dallas Morning News

Articles Worth Reading: March 15, 2021

California Tribes Fight A Gold Mining Project Near Death Valley which would build an open pit mine on BLM land. K2 Gold Corp., of Vancouver, Canada, hopes to capitalize on rising gold prices using a new cyanide leaching technique to increase yields. The Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone Tribe and local environmentalists oppose the project citing its impact to natural and cultural resources Los Angeles Times

Energy Companies Have Stuck Colorado With Clean-Up Costs of Billions of Dollars for old oil and gas wells. If left unplugged, wells can leak toxins into groundwater and emit methane and other greenhouse gases. Companies are legally required to pay for cleanup, but the funds they provided to the state would only cover two percent of the wells. High Country News

Butterflies Are Vanishing Out West. Scientists Say Climate Change is to Blame. As the region has become hotter and drier, butterfly numbers have declined steadily, according to a study published in the journal Science. Washington Post

Biden Shows Support for Controversial Road in Alaska Refuge. The development project in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge -- first advanced by the Trump Administration -- has been the contested in federal courts by environmental groups. Seattle Times

Oregon Has a New Carbon Cap Program. After Republican legislators walked out on the latest climate bill, Governor Kate Brown issued an executive order for state agencies to draft carbon-reduction rules that would meet the same targets. They hope to have the program running by 2022. Oregonian

Most Colorado River Basin States Plan to Negotiate About Cutting Use. Not Utah. During negotiations over water usage from the Colorado River, Utah is organizing to push for an increased share. Drought conditions have led other states in the region to seek decreases in water usage. “The goal of renegotiating is figuring out how to use less,” said John Fleck, a water scholar. It’s not “staking out political turf to try to figure out how to use more.” Associated Press

A Texas Bill Seeks to Punish Companies That Divest From Fossil Fuels by cutting them off from state investment funds. Republican lawmakers are championing the bill, even as many Wall Street firms shift their portfolios to better reflect climate change. If passed, it would direct the state’s massive investment funds to divest from companies that boycott oil, gas, and other fossil fuels. Texas Tribune

Articles Worth Reading: March 1, 2021

Biden Administration Reviews Proposal to Export Five Million Tons of Natural Gas to Mexico, setting up an early test for its fossil fuel policies. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has recently approved export terminals, despite opposition from tribes and environmental groups. Sempra Energy is behind the proposal: the company owns two major utility companies in Southern California. Los Angeles Times

Tribes Flex Political Muscle in Quest to Co-Manage Parks. The National Congress of American Indians is asking President Biden to "finalize a true co-management agreement” with tribes within his first 100 days in office. Deb Haaland's nomination as the first Native American Secretary of the Interior has instilled hope in tribes seeking greater cooperative management agreements and other collaborative partnerships with the federal government. E&E News

Maritime Shippers Send Empty Containers to China, Refusing to Load Agricultural Exports. Carriers rejected hundreds of thousands of crop containers in recent months, favoring empty containers that would allow for fast turnaround times. This practice has caused particular hardships for American growers such as California’s almond farmers. Farm Progress

XCEL, a Colorado Energy Company Plans to Double its Renewable Energy generation by 2030, closing coal plants and rolling out large wind and solar projects. Consumers will shoulder the $8 billion required to get 80 percent of the company’s Colorado energy portfolio powered by renewables. Colorado Sun

A Clam Crisis Is Developing in California as fishermen’s new interest in the clam industry and their widespread use of hydraulic pumps has forced State Fish and Wildlife personnel to enact emergency restrictions. Harvest limits have been flouted, and new pumps allow for increased ease of clam harvest. Regulators suspect that illegally harvested clams are filling the vacuum left by black-market abalone – abalone poaching has declined since the fishery’s closure in 2018. Seattle Times

The Interior Department Rescinds Grazing Rights for Controversial Oregon Ranchers. The decision comes days before cattle were scheduled to roam 26,000 acres of public lands neighboring the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, site of a fatal standoff with those defying public-lands controls. Hammond Ranches Inc. had its grazing allotments revoked, after the Interior secretary’s office found that the Trump administration hadn’t allowed for sufficient public challenges. Washington Post

Articles Worth Reading: Feb 16, 2021

The Continuing Drop in Sierra Snowpack Has Led to an End to Free Water Deliveries the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power had made to ranchers annually. This has left local officials and environmentalists concerned that dewatered pastures will increase the risk of wildfire and reduce sage grouse habitat. Los Angeles Times

To Save Snake River Salmon, A Republican Congressman Wants to Breach Four Dams. Rep. Mike Simpson of Eastern Idaho has proposed a massive, federally-funded dam removal effort beginning in 2030. Many stakeholders are uncertain about the future of the $33 billion proposal, which would replace the hydroelectricity from the dams and provide alternatives to barging crops downriver. Simpson hopes this will preserve endangered salmon and support local economies. Idaho Statesman

Coachella Mandates Hazard Pay for Farmworkers under its jurisdiction in southeastern California. About 8,000 farmworkers live in Coachella Valley, with 30 percent of these in the city itself. Farms have been a common site of Covid-19 outbreaks. Workers often struggle to find protective gear and many occupy shared housing. As of mid-February, at least 12,787 farm workers have tested positive for Covid-19, and 43 have died, according to the Food & Environment Reporting Network’s outbreak tracker. The Counter

To Win State Control of Federal Lands in Utah, Suits Claimed Thousands of Wilderness “Roads” Existed. Their existence has been in dispute since suits were first filed in 2012, and a recent judicial ruling, saying wilderness advocates were improperly cut out of the certification process, may mean years more litigation. Some in state government are asking if the effort is worth it. Salt Lake Tribune

Environmentalists Fighting Tejon Valley Ranch Development Invoke Native Claims that the California condor qualifies as a cultural resource. In an appeal of a federal court ruling that allowed nearly 9,000 acres to be developed with homes and a golf course, the Center for Biological Diversity and local tribes argue the development in condor habitat would harm the bird. A dozen years ago, a landmark agreement between the ranch and major environmental organizations protected 240,000 acres of the ranch’s land and allowed development on the remaining 30,000 acres, including the land now in dispute. The Center was not a party to the agreement. Mynewsla High Country News

Montana’s National Bison Range Now Under Native Control. After 25 years of and on-again, off-again federal effort to transfer management of the range located on the Flathead Indian Reservation from the Interior Department to the Confederated Salish-Kootenai tribe, the final legal agreement was reached in December and earlier this year the transfer took place. Charkoosta

California Legislators Consider Vast Expansion of Offshore Wind. A new bill would require California to set a target of constructing 3,000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2030. Fishermen and environmentalists are still somewhat wary of offshore wind, but the bill has attracted support from labor leaders across the state. San Jose Mercury-News

Articles Worth Reading: Feb 2, 2021

On U.S. Public Lands, Can Biden Undo What Trump Has Wrought? President Biden’s ambitious agenda for public lands includes bans on oil and gas drilling and restored protections for key areas. Reversing the Trump administration’s policies, however, may be made difficult by conservative courts and rules changes. Yale Environment 360

Why Utah’s Wild Mink COVID-19 Cases Matter: In Utah, which faces similar problems to those encountered by the Netherlands last year, thousands of farmed minks have died of Covid-19. The affected sites have been forced into quarantine, and a wild mink tested positive for coronavirus last month -- the first wild animal to have naturally been infected with the virus. High Country News spoke with Dr. Anna Fagre, a virologist and veterinarian at Colorado State University, to help put the recent COVID-19 outbreak among wild minks in context. High Country News

Timber Tax Cuts Cost Oregon Towns Billions. Then Polluted Water Drove Up the Price. In rural Oregon, logging-related water contamination has threatened their access to clean, safe drinking water, forcing small towns to spend millions on new water infrastructure. The future of logging regulations remains murky for the nation’s top lumber producer. For decades, Oregon has allowed logging companies to leave fewer trees behind than in other states. Propublica/Oregonian

The Interior Department Effort to Relocate Jobs to Colorado Prompted a Mass Exodus; some 41 of 328 employes slated to move to Grand Junction, Colorado actually made the move; the rest left the agency. The Bureau of Land Management’s loss of so many longtime career employes – only 60 jobs were left in place in the Washington office -- is an example of the Trump Administration’s success the federal government. Washington Post

An Exploration of the Reasons to Cherish Microbiotic Soils. Fungi, lichen, cyanobacteria, algae, and other tiny organisms live in just the top few millimeters of soil; these crusts are critical to the health of the desert, and can be damaged repeated trampling by people, cattle, or off-road vehicles. Sierra Club

Some Ecological Damage from Trump’s Rushed Border Wall Could Be Repaired; conservationists are urging the Biden administration to remove sections of the barrier that cut across critical habitats, block migration corridors, and damage watersheds. The coalition opposing the wall has identified specific problematic sections to be potentially removed. Scientific American

Tens of Millions of Birds Pass Through Two Corridors in the West: California’s Central Valley and the Colorado River Delta. New research finds that more than 82 million birds pass through these regions during spring migration, with tree swallows concentrating in the Colorado delta and Anna’s hummingbirds in the Central Valley. This data helps define critical habitats for western birds, with up to 80 percent of some species’ populations passing through the two areas. Yale Environment 360

The Navajo Generating Station, a Major Employer and a Major Polluter on Navajo Land, has Been Demolished after Navajo and Hopi community members fought for years to close the facility. Now, Navajo and Hopi community members are outlining steps for community restoration, such as securing electricity and clean water access for residents, as well as job training. Center For Health, Environment And Justice

Articles Worth Reading: January 19, 2020

A Forever Drought Takes Hold in the West. The U.S. Drought Monitor — the nation’s official tally — shows Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico mired in “exceptional drought.” This type of drought is only supposed to happen every 50 years, but it’s now a regular occurrence. Even if rain and snow arrive in the coming months, parched soil will slurp it up, leaving less for riverbeds. Axios

“We’re Bound by That River,” one water expert said of the Colorado River, which supplies water to 40 million people. “All of us, regardless of our legal rights, regardless of what’s on paper, we need to consider how we can use less water. And we need to take action immediately.” The Colorado Basin and its water managers must juggle the laws that are decades old, new agreements and persistent aridity. The huge reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead have shrunk dramatically. Some observers say the rules governing distribution of the Colorado’s waters need to be fundamentally reimagined. Arizona Republic

Unlikely Coalitions Form to Block New Port Facilities to export fossil fuels. Teaming with Native Americans, ranchers and sportsmen, environmentalists have worked to block nearly every effort to export coal, oil and liquified natural gas from the West Coast. They just claimed another major victory this month – the latest of more than two dozen -- when a proposed coal-export terminal in Washington state was called off. Associated Press

“Fossil” Groundwater Is Being Depleted in California, and its users can’t rely on it being replenished any century soon, according to new study. If the water tucked underground for 100 centuries is used for the crops and pools of the 21st century, the fossil water stores will disappear for good. “It’s just like taking gold out of the ground, out of a mountain,” said Menso de Jong, the study’s lead author. “The gold is not going to grow back.” San Jose Mercury News

Apaches Sue to Stop First Step in Approval of Copper Mine Near Sacred Site. If an environmental study’s publication is blocked, the process of approving the mine planned by Resolution Copper might be derailed. A podcast interview with the reporter covering the controversy, Debra Utacia Krol of The Arizona Republic. KSUT

To Help Rural Economies, One-Third of Spotted Owl Habitat in Oregon Was Excluded from Protection. The size of the protected acreage has yo-yoed from one administration to the next, but this cut in protected areas is one of the biggest on record. The amount of habitat protected in the Obama administration was more than 9 million acres; the Trump administration in its final days cut that by more than 3 million acres. E&E News

Rural Coloradans Seek to Contain Light Pollution. NASA photos of Colorado from space show a widening urban white-out reaching into rural areas. The dark-sky zones that southwestern Colorado leaders are proposing in areas like the San Luis Valley would, all combined, cover more than 3,800 square miles — the largest official area protected from artificial light on the planet. Denver Post

Wildlife Take Stock of Photographers Taking Stock of Wildlife. “Animals interrupting wildlife photographers,” a thread by the Catalan journalist Joaquim Campa. Twitter

Articles Worth Reading: December 7, 2020

New Data Shows Lethal Damage to Coho Salmon Is From Tire Residue, as researchers double-down on the findings about tires’ environmental damage. One chemical, 6PPD-quinone, interacts with ozone and becomes highly toxic to Puget Sound salmon, taking out 40 to 80 percent of returning salmon before the spawn. The problem extends from Washington state, where scientists have been studying the issue, to California; tires are the largest source of microplastics in San Francisco Bay. The Seattle Times Los Angeles Times

With Legal Barriers Gone, More Westerners Are Harvesting Rain to supplement the disappearing water in the Colorado River and the Ogallala Aquifer. Rainwater harvesting—a cheap, low-barrier, low-energy method—may provide one piece of the long-term solution to water shortages in a region where climate change is intensifying droughts. Today, rainwater capture is legal in every state, though many have restrictions. A few, like Colorado, didn’t legalize it until 2016 and still restrict the total amount harvested. The Counter

A Navajo-Majority County Commission in Utah Calls for Restoring the Bears’ Ears Monument to its original size. The Trump Administration dramatically reduced the monument from 1.35 million acres to two separate areas totaling 200,000 acres. The San Juan County Commission voted 2-to-1 to make the request, with its two Navajo members in the majority. Associated Press

In the Wake of Fierce Fires, A Sudden Burst of Logging in Colorado. State foresters are overseeing wholesale mechanized tree-cutting, as tractors dig holes up to 140 acres in size are appearing among the lodgepole pines. A hot national wood-products market snaps up the lumber created in Colorado, which has never traditionally been a logging state. Across western Colorado, insect attacks on old and drought-enfeebled trees over the past decade have left 5 million acres of skeletal trees in a region climate change has made susceptible to wildfire. This year, 700,000 acres burned. Denver Post

As Insurers Blanch at Newly Calculated Wildfire Losses — $24 Billion in the U.S. in 2018, they continue to flee fire prone areas. In California alone in 20219, insurers pulled coverage from more than 230,000 homes — about 31 percent more than the year before. California regulators want to keep private insurers from fleeing the state, but know that climate change is changing everyone’s risk calculation. Bloomberg

Graphics & the West

Where California Grows Its Food

See the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world. View map »

California's Changing Energy Mix

A look at the energy sources California utilities have used gives us insights into the state’s progress in decarbonizing its electricity supply. In 2015, 35% of total electricity generation (in-state generation plus imported electricity) came from zero-greenhouse-gas sources, which include solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. View Graphic »

U.S. Conservation Easements

Conservation easements of various kinds cover more than 22 million acres of land in the United States, according to the National Conservation Easement Database, a public-private partnership. Take a look at our interactive map of nearly every conservation easement, with details on over 130,000 sites. View map »

 

Recent Center News

May 6 2021 | ... & the West Blog
The Navajo Nation has the most capacity, but its troubled energy history and culture of livestock grazing make solar development fraught.
May 3 2021 | Out West student blog
Julia Leal starts her summer as an intern for the United States Army Corps of Engineers.
Apr 26 2021 | ... & the West Blog, ... & the Best | Stories Recommended by the ‘... & the West’ Blog
Deb Haaland visits Bears Ears; scientists study what makes wildfire smoke toxic; the fight to save old-growth forests in British Columbia; the first urban wildlife refuge in the Southwest; grasshoppers and an opera in Glacier National Park; and other recent news from the West.