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Putting a Tempest into a Teapot: Can California Better Use Winter Storms to Refill its Aquifers?

Felicity Barringer
Jun 4 2019

With new rules coming into effect, farmers and municipalities using groundwater must either find more water to support the aquifers or take cropland out of use. To ease the pain, engineers are looking to harness an unconventional and unwieldy source of water: the torrential storms that sometimes blast across the Pacific Ocean and soak California.

A “groundwater replenishment facility” run by the Coachella Valley Water District, photographed in 2014.

A “groundwater replenishment facility” run by the Coachella Valley Water District, photographed in 2014. California Department of Water Resources
 

By Felicity Barringer

The general long-term forecast for California as climate change intensifies: more frequent droughts, intermittently interrupted by years when big storms bring rain more quickly than the water infrastructure can handle.

This bipolar weather will have profound implications for the state’s $50 billion agriculture industry and the elaborate network of reservoirs, canals, and aqueducts that store and distribute water. A system built for irrigation and flood protection must adapt to accommodate more conservation. “The effects of climate change are necessitating wholesale changes in how water is managed in California,” the state Department of Water Resources wrote in a June, 2018 white paper.

During droughts, farmers and municipalities pumped groundwater to augment sparse surface supplies. After nearly a century of heavy use, many aquifers are badly depleted. And California’s five-year-old law regulating groundwater basins is nearing a moment of truth: in 2020, sustainability plans are due from agencies managing critically depleted aquifers. They must either find more water to support the aquifers or take cropland out of use. The law – the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA – is beginning to bite. A 2019 study from the Public Policy Institute of California predicted that at least 500,000 acres of farmland will eventually be idled.

Map: Groundwater overdraft in the San Joaquin Valley
Sources: PPIC (groundwater overdraft), California DWR (water district boundaries); Natural Earth Data;   Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West

To ease the pain, engineers are looking to harness an unconventional and unwieldy source of water: the torrential storms that sometimes blast across the Pacific Ocean and soak California. “We need to capture the atmospheric rivers,” said Tim Quinn, the former director of the Association of California Water Agencies. But, he added, “We don’t have the right conveyance facilities. There’s not enough storage to capture the atmospheric rivers.” Quinn wants to capture stormwater and divert it to aquatic “parking lots,” as he calls them, where water can trickle back into depleted aquifers. This serves several ends: restoring a depleted natural resource, reducing land subsidence and providing for future water supply.

After passage of the law, groups including state and local water agencies, nonprofits, farmers, and agricultural groups like the Almond Board, are pushing to increase opportunities for recharge. “SGMA is a huge driver,” said Ashley Boren, executive director of Sustainable Conservation, a nonprofit working with farmers and local water agencies around the state. “There is a much greater interest in recharge than there was pre-SGMA.”

In the Tulare basin in the south, irrigation districts have long directed water onto special fields designed to allow it to percolate swiftly down and recharge aquifers. Now, “instead of sticking with the original recharge plans, we are aggressively recharging,” said Aaron Fukuda, general manager of the Tulare Irrigation District. “If someone can point to a hole one foot by one foot by one foot, I’ll go and put water in it.”

“Instead of sticking with the original recharge plans, we are aggressively recharging. If someone can point to a hole one foot by one foot by one foot, I’ll go and put water in it.”

Boren’s colleague at Sustainable Conservation, Daniel Mountjoy, said more than 120 million acre-feet of groundwater “has been pumped out of California aquifers” in the Central Valley in the last 70 or 80 years. He added, “I think of it as a giant underground reservoir that has already been built.” If you think about the cost of building one reservoir” — and the cost of environmental permitting – “why would we do that when we have access to 120 million acre-feet of capacity?”

“If you think about the cost of building one reservoir, why would we do that when we have access to 120 million acre-feet of capacity?”

Making the Central Valley Flood Again

How to tap into the atmospheric rivers? Ask Don Cameron, of Helm, who manages the Terranova Farm on the North Fork of the Kings River. He has flooded his vineyards since 2011. He has invested $14 million – $5 million from a DWR grant and another $9 million from Terranova – in diversion structures that will increase the amount he can recharge into the Kings aquifer’s sub-basin from 14 cubic feet per second to 500 cfs, or 1,000 acre-feet per day. (An acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons; average California households use up to an acre-foot a year.)

For 38 years, Cameron has managed the farm, which grows 25 different crops, from tomatoes and garlic to wine grapes and, most recently, almond trees. “I noticed some time ago that the water table was declining two feet a year,” he said. “We realized we needed to do something.” His initial efforts to build recharge infrastructure – a pipe, a canal, and a spot designated for recharge – expanded nine years ago when he got a $75,000 grant from the federal Agriculture Department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. This let him monitor “whether we could do groundwater recharge on working landscapes” – flooding his fields, both those fallowed and those where permanent crops, like grapevines, grew.

“We started flooding the wine grapes. We kept the water on from February to late June. The neighbors thought we were crazy, that we were ruining our grapes.” He wasn’t. Now he floods not only vineyards but nut trees. He works with DWR, promising to take excess water in flood years to prevent downstream flooding and has set aside 400 acres as a permanent recharge site and 1,200 acres more for seasonal recharge

Flooded wine grapes at Don Cameron's farm on the north fork of the Kings River.
Flooded wine grapes at Don Cameron's farm on the north fork of the Kings River   Terranova Farm

His new system includes a large structure with gates that open to let water out of the north fork of the Kings River to a canal and the large pumping station to extract the surface water from the canal, plus a structure with gates that open to let water out of four new 72-inch pipes and into a canal, headed for recharge areas. He expects to be able to recharge at a rate of 500 cubic feet per second, which would equal 1,000 acre-feet a day, into the depleted aquifer. “The storage capacity beneath our feet is between 2 and 3 million acre-feet,” he said. “We have huge potential under our feet.”

“The storage capacity beneath our feet is between 2 and 3 million acre-feet. We have huge potential under our feet.”

He’s not alone. Anthea Hansen, general manager of the Del Puerto Water District, also wants to use flood irrigation to tap into atmospheric rivers; her district partners with another on a $2 million pilot project to recharge aquifers. Aaron Fukuda in Tulare helps operate a district using part of a $1.95 million federal grant to build a new recharge basin and study ways to expand existing recharge facilities. In the wet year of 2017, his district provided cheap water to farmers willing to put it back in the aquifer. But for an individual farmer, creating a recharge basin could be costly. Counting the price of land, engineering and excavation costs, a pipeline to move the water, and legal costs, a one-acre recharge project can cost $100,000, Fukuda estimates.

For agencies or individuals seeking to create new recharge basins, a new Stanford study offers a tool. The study, done by Rosemary Knight, an Earth Sciences professor, and a former Ph.D. student Ryan Smith — now an assistant professor at the Missouri University of Science and Technology — can help those building recharge ponds avoid the problems that plague the delivery system of the Friant-Kern Canal. Over-pumping made the land below it subside, torquing the structure and reducing its capacity. The study shows how a combination of satellite and aerial remote sensing, which map the underground sand and clay layers, can be used to predict how recharge can reduce subsidence. Combining the data sources allows creation of maps of the link between recharge — or continued groundwater pumping — and subsidence.

Recharge operations are nothing new; dedicated basins have dotted the San Joaquin Valley and the Sacramento Valley for years. Kern County’s Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District dates to 1959. Such operations helped raise the total of water recharged for the San Joaquin Valley to 6.5 million acre-feet in 2017 — a year, like the current one, soaked by atmospheric rivers. But the total amount of inflow to surface waters was closer to 30 million acre-feet, PPIC reported. While the volume of rain and the volume of recharge were exceptional, researchers say more recharge was possible. An annual average of about 500,000 acre-feet of recharge potential is available – about a quarter of the average annual groundwater deficit from over-pumping.

Volume of Groundwater Recharged in Surveyed Districts, 2017

Following the extremely wet winter of 2016-17, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) collected recharge statistics from 46 water districts in the San Joaquin Valley. They found that dedicated recharge basins stored the largest amount of water.

In Acre-Feet of Water

Source: Public Policy Institute of California

“It’s not about big infrastructure; it’s about big collaboration” among private, public and nonprofit interests.

The state Department of Water Resources has a program devoted to improving on-farm recharge called Flood Managed Aquifer Recharge, or FloodMAR. Kamyar Guivetchi at DWR said they are working with the Merced Irrigation District to find out how much water could be recharged on farmlands in the Merced River watershed. Beyond that, he said, “We want to broaden the footprint” of new projects. The obstacles he sees goes beyond infrastructure. “It’s not about big infrastructure; it’s about big collaboration” among private, public and nonprofit interests.

Buzz Thompson, a Stanford law professor, focuses on the problem of moving the water. “The bottom line is that in the really wet years, we do not have the ability to store all the water that is available,” he said. Legal obstacles include the 120-year-old system of established individual rights to specific quantities of water. These must be met before the excess can be taken for recharge. So must requirements for environmental water deliveries ensuring fish get enough water. Most problematic: “Right now the greatest amount of surface water is available north of the Bay Delta and some of the best storage sites are south of the Delta,” he said. As long as the Delta is a transportation bottleneck, that limits the amount that can be stored.”

A Hitch: Who Owns the Recharged Water?

One incentive nudging farmers to do recharge is the knowledge that in dry years they will have access to the water they deposited in wet years. Irrigation districts and groundwater sustainability agencies don’t have a common approach to the question of credit. “With SGMA, each agency is going to establish its own rules,” said Mountjoy of Sustainable Conservation. “Does it belong to the farmer or the irrigation district that has a right to send it to the farmer?”

One school of thought favors collective ownership. “The water district has a right to take that water – it remains the irrigation district’s, for the benefit of all users,” Mountjoy said. A second option is “give the farmer the right to capture it and sell it. … They paid to put it in the ground. It’s now theirs. They could pump it out of the ground in a dry year or sell it to a neighbor. You basically create a water market.”

Kern County’s Semitropic Water Storage District practices a variant of this. “Our farmers can bank” recharged water “under the district’s established program. They have a bank account for their use,” said Jason Gianquinto, the district’s general manager. “We haven’t decided if they can do anything other than keep it for their own use. I can’t say you can move water outside our district to another area.”

Another Tactic: Releasing Water from Reservoirs When a Storm Nears

One way to capture more of the atmospheric rivers is allowing dams to release reservoir water in anticipation of a storm. The Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the reservoirs, has strict rules on how much water must be held and when it can be released. Now the Corps is working with tools developed by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego that facilitate what are called Forecast-Informed Reservoir Operations.

The Turlock Irrigation District uses the tools. “In 2017, when we had an excess amount of water, we were able to know what was coming. We could start making pre-flood releases,” said Josh Weimer, the district’s government affairs manager. The advance releases, some of which could be recharged, meant the 2017 flooding at its height was 25 percent of the flooding caused by similarly strong storms two decades earlier.

Across California’s farm country, the hard reality of a future without guaranteed access to groundwater is sinking in. Jerry Gragnani, a neighbor of Don Cameron’s who is 70 years old, recently sold 8,000 acres of his farm, keeping 3,000 acres for permanent crops like nut trees. “There’s no future without recharge,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a farmer around here that doesn’t realize that. We know if you don’t recharge the water, it’s going to run out. Once the aquifer is closed, it’s closed forever.” He added, “It’s a good time to get out.”

 

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Edited by Geoff McGhee.

 

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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

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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

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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

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Articles Worth Reading: April 12, 2021

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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

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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

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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

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Articles Worth Reading: March 15, 2021

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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

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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

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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 »

 

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