CIRS Blog about Rural California

Annie Beaman

Annie Beaman

Annie Beaman is an independent consultant working on water issues and sustainable agriculture in California. In addition to researching, writing, strategizing, and campaigning about issues that impact vulnerable ecosystems and communities, she is an avid gardener and baker. Annie is a stewardship-obsessed member of a multi-generational farming family, and a longtime advocate for environmental protection and social justice. Follow her on Twitter @anniebeaman.

The Yankees are a wonderful people - wonderful! Wherever they go, they make improvements. If they were to emigrate in large numbers to hell itself, they would irrigate it, plant trees and flower gardens, build reservoirs and fountains, and make everything beautiful and pleasant, so that by the time we get there, we can sit down at a marble-topped table and eat ice cream.  

—General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, 1863

 

Nature provides a free lunch, but only if we control our appetites.

—William Ruckelshaus, first EPA Administrator, 1990

 

California’s drought is in its fourth year, with no end in sight and the dry season upon us. The situation is dire: water supply is dwindling in reservoirs and aquifers, and the snowpack is at the lowest level on record. More than 10 percent of the state’s irrigated lands have been fallowed since early 2014 due to reduced water deliveries from state and federal programs. The Colorado River Basin is in the midst of a severe drought as well, adding another layer of instability for southern California contractors that are reliant on water from the state’s allotment. The western United States has experienced a combined water loss of at least 62 trillion gallons during the current drought, causing a measurable uplift in the land surface of the entire region, with the greatest effects (up to a .5 inch rise) occurring in California’s mountain ranges. Simply put: when we use too much water for too long, valleys subside and mountains rise.

 

Mandatory water conservation measures to cut urban water use by 25 percent are now in effect, with the State Water Board and Governor Brown warning that more restrictions will come, potentially even affecting previously untouched senior water rights holders.  In addition to building awareness and ramping up enforcement of the “low-hanging fruit” of water conservation—lawn watering, car washing, etc.—the state also announced $1 billion in drought relief funding. Reality is increasingly setting in: Californians must conserve water, and we must do it now.

 

State lawmakers have already taken critical steps toward improved water management. Last year, Californians approved a long-debated water bond that will help to fund emergency drought measures as well as increased water storage and future improvements and maintenance to the state’s water systems. The first-ever statewide groundwater protection law became effective in January, but full implementation will take decades. Senator Fran Pavley, who sponsored the groundwater bill, is calling for expedited enforcement of key measures, e.g. access to well log data, that would help water officials to understand and address excessive groundwater withdrawals in drought-stricken basins.

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The rainy season has finally arrived to California, and 2014 will end with one of the wettest months on record. Many of California’s streams are flowing again, snowpack is building, and some of the state’s most severely depleted reservoirs have recovered modestly during recent weeks. However, California is still in drought, and needs a lot more rain in order for this historic dry spell to be declared over—somewhere around 11 trillion gallons according to NASA.

 

Water is (and always has been) a highly contentious issue in California; one that politicians have struggled to deal with in a way that appropriately balances the needs of urban and rural communities, industry, agriculture, wildlife and the environment. Thanks in large part to the multi-year drought, which intensified throughout 2014, some of California’s toughest water issues will be addressed at long last. State lawmakers and regulators stepped up to the plate by enacting a series of historic reforms including unprecedented (but still modest) fines for wasting water, drought relief packages, and increased enforcement of existing regulations.

 

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In less than two weeks, Californians will vote on a water bond (Proposition 1), which would allow the state to assume $7.5 billion of debt in order to fund major water projects throughout California. The 2014 water bond represents significant compromise by the state legislature. Assembly Bill 1471The Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014—was overwhelmingly approved in August, passing by a vote of 77 to 2 in the State Assembly and unanimously in the Senate. The legislatively-referred Proposition 1 is almost a third less expensive than the two previous water bond acts which were removed from the ballot in 2010 and 2012. 

 

The 2014 water bond will not fund short-term projects related to the current drought; rather, it creates a funding mechanism for long-term, generally large-scale water projects that are deemed to be publicly beneficial in one or more ways.

 

 

WHAT IS A WATER BOND?

A bond is simply a form of debt: governments can sell them to private investors and pay them back with interest (assumed to be 5%). Water bonds have been the main vehicle to fund major water infrastructure in California for decades. The 2014 Water Bond reauthorizes $425 million in unissued bonds, and authorizes $7.12 billion in new general obligation bonds, all to fund water-related programs and projects throughout the state. According to the Senate Appropriations Committee, the 2014 water bond will require annual debt service payments of $491 million for 30 years for a total of $14.724 billion.

 

 

WHAT WILL THE WATER BOND FUND?

The seven categories of projects and programs, from most expensive to least expensive, are: 

  1. Statewide Water System Operational Improvement and Drought Preparedness [$2.7 billion, continuously appropriated]
  2. Protecting Rivers, Lakes, Streams, Coastal Waters, and Watersheds [$1.495 billion]
  3. Groundwater Sustainability [$900 million] 
  4. Regional Water Security, Climate and Drought Preparedness [$810 million]
  5. Water Recycling [$725 million]
  6. Clean, Safe, and Reliable Drinking Water [$520 million]
  7. Flood Management [$395 million]

 

There are several subcategories within each of these seven funding “buckets.” Although the language of the water bond is unspecific about connections to existing proposals like the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) or individual dams and reservoirs, the proposed funding amounts reflect official cost estimates for existing proposals. Perhaps most notably, these proposals include raising the Shasta Dam and building two more: Temperance Flat on the Upper San Joaquin, and Sites Reservoir north of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in Colusa County. Approximately one third of the money authorized by Prop 1 will go toward increased water storage. The environmental organizations that have endorsed Prop 1 regularly point out that the water storage funds will not necessarily be used for new dams, as the most efficient and beneficial proposals (perhaps including increased groundwater storage rather than new dams) should prevail in the competitive funding process. 

 

The BDCP has long been tied to potential funding from voter-approved water bonds. Although Governor Brown insists that the water bond is “BDCP neutral” and points out that Prop 1 specifically prevents the funding of the highly controversial “twin tunnels.” the BDCP proposal relies on funding from the 2014 water bond, and assumes even more funding from a future water bond. A November 2013 BDCP document estimating costs and funding sources states that [t]he BDCP is expected to secure a large portion of the funds allocated to Delta sustainability, as well as smaller portions of funds allocated to conservation and watershed protection. […] For the purposes of the funding program and assuming the water bond passes, the BDCP is expected to receive the conservative estimate of [$1.514 billion]. […] BDCP assumes passage of a second water bond to fully fund the state portion of the Plan. The total BDCP funding assumed for the subsequent water bond is $2.25 billion. The timing of any subsequent bond is unknown […].

 

 

WHAT IF THE WATER BOND FAILS? 

Without new state funding, a wide range of water-related projects will be delayed, revised, and/or canceled. Federal funding, particularly for local water quality and infrastructure improvement in California, is already limited and is unlikely to increase in the near term given the current atmosphere in the U.S. Congress. The state could still sell previously approved bonds, but there is little doubt that less money will be available for major water projects during the coming years if Proposition 1 is voted down.

 

California’s specific programs and funds for drought-related assistance will continue regardless of the outcome of the water bond. Additionally, local governments and water districts may  continue to fund and implement water projects independently. 

 

 

WHO SUPPORTS AND OPPOSES THE WATER BOND?

The California Democratic Party, Republican Party, Governor Jerry Brown, U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and U.S. Representative Mark Levine have all endorsed Prop 1. Various water authorities and organizations support the measure as well; including the Association of California Water Agencies, League of California Cities, California State Association of Counties, California Chamber of Commerce, Western Growers, California Farm Bureau, Nature Conservancy, American Rivers, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The San Francisco Chronicle, San Diego Union-Tribune, Palm Springs Desert Sun, and Modesto Bee have all published editorials voicing strong support for the 2014 water bond. Supporters of Proposition 1 emphasize that the long-term benefits of large water projects will outweigh the costs to taxpayers and any potential harm to ecosystems. Read more at http://www.yesonprops1and2.com

 

Opponents to Proposition 1 include Restore the Delta, The Center for Biological Diversity, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, San Francisco Baykeeper, Food and Water Watch, Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, and a long list of other environmental and ecological organizations and wildlife conservation groups. These groups emphasize that dams are environmentally harmful and the current water bond is writhe with thinly-veiled connections to existing dam proposals and the BDCP. Read more at http://www.noonprop1.org.

 

recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that Prop. 1 has the support of 58% of likely voters. The California Water Foundation launched a public education campaign on October 15 to increase access to information about Proposition 1. The Water Bond Education Project website can be accessed at www.waterforthelonghaul.com.  

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California is offering free wireless devices that allow farmers to accept money from CalFresh recipients at farmers markets, farm stands, and CSAs. The grant-funded program covers the $1000-value POS (point of sale) device for scanning CalFresh cards, and provides complimentary training for using the device. Farm marketing and promotion are built in as well: CalFresh customers have access to lists of farms and farmers markets that participate in the program, and the Foodies Project, and likely others, will promote individual farm participants online.

 

Farms should apply now to take advantage of this ultimate win-win program for the rest of the season. Food and food justice advocates, health workers, CSA members, and anyone with a favorite farm should encourage their local producers to sign up.

 

CalFresh is the federally-funded food assistance program for Californiathe state version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the nations largest source of nutrition assistance. This major entitlement program is fully funded by the federal government, which is required to make funds available to all eligible applicants, i.e. individuals and families who qualify based on income level. Participation and costs for SNAP are higher than ever, with nearly 50 million program participants in 2013, and a total annual cost of nearly $80 billion. State and county governments cover a portion of the administrative costs to run the program.

 

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California’s historic drought continues to intensify. The very real impacts across the entire state include idled farmland and associated farmworker job losses, farm income losses, and food price increases. The state’s dwindling reservoir supply has resulted in mandatory water cutbacks and unprecedented fines for some, but no region of California has conserved as much water as Governor Brown has requested (20 percent). Water use actually increased 1 percent in urban areas last May, compared to the May average from 2011-2013. Residents of several cities are still receiving violation notices for failing to keep front lawns green, even though they are saving water. In rural communities, the impacts of drought are far more obvious, particularly in communities reliant on groundwater as a primary source of drinking water.

  

 

San Joaquin Drought

Caption: The San Joaquin River running dry below Fraint Dam in April 2014, image from American Rivers, ©Julie Fair, flight by LightHawk

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The first six months of  2014 were the warmest ever recorded in California. According to NOAA's National Climatic Data Center, the past six months were nearly 5º F hotter than the 20th century average and more than 1º F warmer than the previous record, which was set in 1934.

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Under normal circumstances, drought and increased temperatures are not necessarily connected, but scientists are now exploring the notion that heat can exacerbate dryness via increased evaporation and plant transpiration. Experts already acknowledge that dry conditions can exacerbate heat because when there’s little to no water to evaporate, the heat from the sun more effectively warms the air and the ground. The ridiculously resilient ridge that has prevented winter storms from dropping rain in California during recent years is caused by a system of high pressure thatalso contributes to warm weather.

Temperatures are on the rise throughout the state, easily exceeding triple-digits on a daily basis in warmer inland and southern regions. Even when air temperatures are relatively low, scientists have found that the earth and the oceans are warming beyond any previously recorded levels. Accordingly, California state officials have turned their attention to protecting outdoor workers from the dangerous and potentially lethal impacts of working in the heat during a summer that has proven to be one of extremes.

FARM WORK: A HIGH-HAZARD JOB

As the primary producer of several crops that require hand-harvesting and non-mechanical labor, California has more farm workers than any other state, and the state’s agriculture industry is more dependant on farmerworker labor than at any other point during the past century.

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Photo of a man hand weeding in Arvin, CA. Courtesy of  David Bacon

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In the San Joaquin Valley, water is pumped out of aquifers at roughly twice the rate of replenishment through precipitation. Groundwater overdraft is a common phenomenon all over California, where demand for water outweighs supply. This is especially true during drought years, and of paramount concern right now because of California’s multiyear drought. Underground water levels have declined as much as 200 feet in the San Joaquin Valley during the past two years alone.

 

This year, California water experts estimate that over-pumping from groundwater aquifers will make up for over 1.5 trillion gallons of water that will not be delivered through the state’s extensive surface water projects. Compensating with groundwater is a risky and costly enterprise. UC Davis predicts that the increased groundwater use will cost nearly $500 million, with the greatest share of resource and economic impacts occurring in the San Joaquin Valley and the Tulare Lake Basin.

 

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Maximum land subsidence in the United States USGSThe signs on this pole in Mendota, CA show the approximate altitude of land surface in 1925, 1955, and 1977. The rate of subsidence is even faster now.

 

 

Like any natural resource, the surface of the earth is dynamic and ever-changing, and responsive to what happens around and underneath it. Land subsidence is the process by which land surfaces sink downward. Upper layers of the subsoil dry out and compact, reducing the pore sizes or eliminating the spaces between soil particles. This is a permanent, irreversible condition—watering the soil does not and will not cause the land to rebound in altitude. The land literally sinks under its own weight, filling voids where water has been extracted, thus decreasing the total storage capacity of the affected aquifer. As the water table drops, shallow wells can dry up, and the water levels in nearby lakes and streams also drop. Groundwater overdraft can cause seawater intrusion in coastal areas, further degrading the quality of remaining groundwater. The Mojave River Basin recently experienced desiccation cracks, sink holes, and fissures more than three feet wide and deep as a result of groundwater overdraft.

More than 80 percent of the identified subsidence in the United States (affecting over 17,000 sq. miles in 45 states) is a consequence of groundwater depletion by humans. In Merced County, for example, unsustainable groundwater pumping caused an alarming subsidence rate of nearly a foot per year during the past two years—much faster than previously documented.

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Controversy awaits the State Water Resources Control Board (State Board) at its July meeting. Due to decreasing water supplies and an extreme drought, the State Board has ordered junior water rights holders in certain watersheds to reduce or cease water diversions. Earlier in June, some senior water rights holders received State Board letters warning of possible curtailments to their water uses as well. So far, these lucky few have maintained their ability to use basically unlimited amounts of water while cities and farmers face mandatory cutbacks, and while several rural communities risk running out of drinking water.  

 

The Associated Press recently found that just 24 of the 3,897 entities with active senior and riparian rights (more than half of which are corporations) reported using more than twice the volume of water that California’s massive state and federal water projects deliver to cities and farms in an average year. To re-state: twenty-four individual senior water rights holders use double the volume of water that is delivered through the state’s vast and extensive system of dams, canals, and aqueducts during an average year. This year, state water projects have reduced deliveries by 95 percent. Senior water rights holders have not been required to conserve water or reduce use by even a gallon.

 

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Marijuana is the top cash crop in California and nationwide. In 2005, the U.S. Deptartment of Agriculture found that the average production value of marijuana—more than $30 billion—far exceeded the value of corn or soybeans. More recent numbers indicate that the value of marijuana exceeds the combined value of corn and soybeans, but these market estimates vary widely.

Wild west of weed post

 

Marijuana is an exceptionally water-loving crop. A pilot study by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) found that concentrated marijuana cultivation has the potential to completely dewater streams and other sources of water (e.g. mountain seeps and springs). The most common method for securing water for growing cannabis is siting grow operations in locations with reliable year-round water sources to draw upon. It is no coincidence that the so-called “Emerald Triangle”—the most productive region for cannabis in the country—is located in the part of California that receives the most average rainfall. In regions with less water and/or during recent drought years when precipitation levels dropped, CDFW also documented the groundwater use for grow operations and importing water by truck.

 

These findings are significant, particularly during the third year of California’s historic drought. Despite a statewide law that allows for the legal cultivation, sale, and use of marijuana, illegal grow operations have proliferated especially in the past two decades. Every year, California authorities receive complaints about marijuana on public lands, often involving armed trespassers who divert water from local sources. Many of these operations are secretly set up in protected wilderness areas that provide limited habitat for vulnerable species, like salmonids and fishers. In addition to high-volume water use, chemical fertilizers and rodenticides have impacted local and downstream water resources as well as wildlife.   

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Groundwater is an essential buffer against the effects of prolonged drought. Many Californians think of stored water as water kept on the surface—usually in reservoirs behind dams—but California actually has vast underground basins that hold far more water than can be stored above ground.

In reality, groundwater and surface water are a single combined resource, constantly interacting and interchanging. Some programs in California recharge aquifers through carefully planned and prescribed water management practices to ensure adequate supply in the future. In these well-managed areas and some other parts of the state, aquifers still contain sufficient water despite the multi-year drought.

Other parts of the state, like the Tulare Lake Basin, have been dealing with the effects of groundwater overdraft for years already. These effects include higher pumping costs, depletion of surface water, degraded water quality in aquifers, and land subsidence.

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On average, about 30 percent of water used in California comes from groundwater. With no end in sight to drought conditions, and diminishing options for acquiring water from long-established water projects, farmers are relying more heavily on groundwater this year.

A recent UC Davis report, prepared for the CA Department of Food and Agriculture, estimates that California’s surface water shortage will be around 6.5 million acre feet in 2014, and increased groundwater pumping will make up for around 5 million acre feet. However, increased groundwater use will come at a cost of nearly $500 million, and more than half of the economic impacts involving groundwater overdraft will occur in the San Joaquin Valley and the Tulare Lake Basins.

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California’s primary election will be held on Tuesday, June 3. The last day to request a vote-by-mail ballot from county elections offices is Tuesday, May 27. On election day, polls will be open from 7:00 AM until 8:00 PM. Turnout is expected to be very low, as is often the case in primary elections in non-presidential election years, which means that your vote is even more important than usual.

California currently has more than 6 million residents who are not registered to vote. Registration is simple, and it is not too late, yet. Today, Monday, May 19th is the last day to register to vote or update voter registration for the June 3 primary.

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California is one of just three states that uses a “blanket primary” system which allows many candidates to run, but only the top two candidates in terms of overall votes proceed to the general election. This is the case regardless of party or political affiliation, and results in general elections that often come down to two candidates from the same party.

This year, there are dozens of races underway, varied local measures, two statewide propositions (41 and 42), and State Senate primaries for even-numbered districts. 2014 promises to be an especially interesting year for gauging the status of the Republican Party in California.

Detailed voter guides are available on the Secretary of State website, the Sacramento Bee website, and Ballotpedia.

Gubernatorial primary

Democratic Governor Jerry Brown is up for reelection this year. Republican gubernatorial primary candidates include tea party favorite Tim Donnelly, State Assemblymember from Twin Peaks, and the significantly more moderate Neel Kashkari, former U.S. Treasury official. Donnelly and Kashkari squared off in their first (and likely only) debate last week. Glenn Champ is also a candidate for governor and has received a lot of attention but generally not for his political beliefs; he is a registered sex offender and has branded himself as a “new breed of Christian soldier.” Several other candidates have impacted the political conversation this year, but are unlikely to win the primary. There are 15 registered gubernatorial candidates including incumbent Jerry Brown.

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Last week, a prominent environmental group released its annual report identifying the top ten “endangered” streams and rivers nationwide—waterways that are at a crossroads politically, where key upcoming decisions will have major impacts for better or worse. California’s San Joaquin River, the second longest river in the state, is #1 on the list due to the historical and ongoing impacts of state water infrastructure, and major proposals to expand this infrastructure in the future. Flowing 330 miles, the River begins in the Sierra Nevada mountains and meanders through the San Joaquin Valley toward the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which is part of the largest estuary on the west coast. Tributaries to the San Joaquin include the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Merced, Calaveras, and Mokelumne Rivers. The 10,000 square mile San Joaquin Valley receives little rainfall on average, but historical river flows have been maintained by seasonal snow melt from the Sierras. This area is the most agriculturally productive region in the country; the San Joaquin Valley supports upwards of $25 billion in food crops annually. The San Joaquin River provides important transportation corridors for agricultural products and since the early 1900s, the river has been routinely dredged to allow large cargo ships to navigate. 

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It is well documented that major changes to the Delta and the San Joaquin River have resulted from human activities, especially water diversions and other infrastructure that captures and transports water away from the Delta to drier parts of the state. Some studies estimate less than five percent of the native biodiversity of the Delta remains, with the tidal marsh habitats being most degraded. Chinook salmon and other native fish struggle to maintain healthy population levels as aquatic habitat areas along the San Joaquin (and many other waterways in and near the Delta) have been degraded and blocked by in-stream water diversions and monumental structures like dams.

 Water diversions and stream barriers reduce flows and physically alter the surrounding habitat areas. According to a report by the Public Policy Institute of California, many of these alterations and changes will be permanent: [t]he characteristics of the earlier Delta that are likely gone forever include (1) physical habitat appropriate for species that tend to rely on shallow water and structure for refuge and feeding; (2) food aggregation that long, complex sloughs and channels provide through increased production and retention, and (3) cooling functions that adjacent wetlands provide for small water bodies, such as sloughs, which provide refuge for fishes during summer heat spells.

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California’s drought has moved far beyond “severe,” and is making national and international headlines because of its far-reaching impacts. Most areas of the state are officially in “extreme” drought, with key coastal regions and agricultural areas in the Central Valley experiencing “exceptional” drought conditions. Political leaders scrambled to pass legislative relief packages as it became clear that the state would have another unusually dry winter. State and local officials have asked residents to reduce water use in homes and businesses. Meanwhile, major state and federal water projects have completely shut off water deliveries to already parched urban areas and agricultural agencies due to inadequate supply.

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 This is the final of four briefs on California’s water infrastructure by CIRS and partners. The first explained California’s surface water infrastructureThe second focused on ground water management. The third brief addressed water quality and this brief will summarize significant proposals to address California’s water needs. The goal of these short papers is to provide a road map to understanding the conversation around California water issues. All briefs will be featured on the Rural California Report and will be available as downloadable files. Here is a PDF version of the fourth brief: CAWaterProposalsbrief.pdf                                                                                                                                                                                              

California has been at the vanguard of environmental law and policy for over a century. The state adapts and expands these policies and laws as new information and technologies become available, and as previously unknown (or nonexistent) environmental issues emerged. The earliest water projects favored heavy-duty infrastructure like dams and canals to capture, control, and transport water from the wetter areas of the state to more populous and agricultural areas. California’s extensive surface water storage and delivery infrastructure originated with studies conducted in the 1870s, and with construction of dams and canals that began a few decades later. Subsequent water projects and public investments in water tended to build upon and improve existing infrastructure; a trend which continues until today. Public water projects are complicated by a legacy of convoluted private water rights that started during the Gold Rush era and further developed in courtroom battles between private landowners.[1]

However, our economic, social, and scientific understandings of water have improved substantially over the years. While dozens of water issues are extremely important, a recent study revealed that most water experts agree that improved management of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water supply network is paramount. This study also identified the next four priorities to address: dysfunctional institutions at all levels of water governance, an unsustainable water supply, poorly managed groundwater, and the effects of climate change and flood risk. State government leaders are currently considering several proposals to address some of these concerns.

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 This is the third of four briefs on California’s water infrastructure by CIRS and partners. The first explained California’s surface water infrastructure. The second focused on ground water management. This brief will address water quality and the fourth will summarize significant proposals to address California’s water needs. The goal of these short papers is to provide a road map to understanding the conversation around California water issues. All briefs will be featured on the Rural California Report and will be available as downloadable files. Here is a PDF version of the third brief: RuralWaterQualitybrief.pdf 

Water quality management in California

As with storage and delivery, water quality is managed at the local, state and federal levels. The California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) administers many of California’s water programs through the State Water Resource Control Board (SWRCB). The SWRCB operates through nine Regional Water Resources Control Boards (RWCBs) under authority from California’s main water quality law, the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act.While the SWRCB and RWCBs  (together “State Water Boards”) are the primary agencies enforcing water quality laws and regulations in California, literally hundreds of other agencies and authorities are involved with water quality issues at some level, collaborating to develop and manage programs aimed at understanding and improving water quality statewide. Major state agencies that manage key water quality programs include the CA Department of Public Health (CA DPH) which ensures the quality of public drinking water, and the CA Natural Resources Agency.

 California’s multi-agency approach to water quality relies on delegated authority, which allows states to develop regulations and programs that meet or exceed applicable federal standards. For example, the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) and Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) apply to California waters, and the U.S. Congress  authorized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set water quality based standards and develop programs and regulations to maintain and improve water quality over time. EPA delegated authority to CalEPA to enforce major aspects of the CWA and SDWA. CalEPA divides this authority further between the State Water Boards and CA DPH, which often work closely with other agencies and local authorities to understand issues and implement programs that are authorized and funded under both state and federal law.  

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By Annie Beaman and Poppy Davis                                                  

 

This is the second of four briefs on California’s water infrastructure by CIRS and partners. This brief focuses on ground water management. A third brief will address water quality and the fourth will summarize significant proposals to address California’s water needs. The goal of these short papers is to provide a road map to understanding the conversation around California water issues. All briefs will be featured on the Rural California Report and will be available as downloadable files. Here is a PDF version of this brief: CA-Groundwater-Storage-and-Delivery-Brief.pdf

 

Importance: Over 850 million acre feet of water is stored in the state’s 450+ groundwater reservoirs. Groundwater is a critical resource in California, supplying an average of 30-40% of total water statewide, and upwards of 60-70% in dry conditions. California consumes far more groundwater than any other state, pumping an average of 10-15 billion gallons per day.

Recharge: Groundwater recharge occurs naturally when surface water from precipitation, rivers and streams, and irrigation runoff percolates through the soil to aquifers. Aquifers are underground formations of permeable rock that can contain and transmit groundwater. Artificial recharge programs allow excess surface water to be stored and released slowly through canals, irrigation furrows or sprinkler systems, or spread on dedicated recharge fields for percolation into these same underground “reservoirs.” In some cases, water is injected directly into the subsurface via wells.

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Overdraft: Groundwater overdraft occurs when water is withdrawn at a faster rate than it can be replenished. Aquifer levels change from year to year based on environmental and other factors, and regular monitoring combined with responsible management can prevent long-term groundwater depletion. Overdraft contributes significantly to water quality problems in aquifers[i] and salinization of coastal aquifers, because the effects of groundwater pollution and sea water intrusion are magnified when water levels are low. Overdraft can also cause subsidence, wherein the land above depleted aquifers sinks downward. Imported water from statewide water programs can supplement the total amount of water available for use in overdrafted areas, but can rarely restore underground water levels completely.[ii]

Management: Groundwater is managed locally in California; there is no statewide law that governs the use or management of this resource, nor any requirement that local authorities report their activities to the state.[iii]  Literally hundreds of local water agencies and authorities oversee groundwater delivery infrastructure including pumping wells and irrigation systems. Under common law, private landowners have “overlying” or “correlative” rights to use groundwater, meaning that each owner may operate wells and irrigation systems that use “reasonable” amounts of water for “beneficial” purposes—broad categories that generally lack statewide regulation or oversight.[iv] California is the only remaining western state without a statewide groundwater management system in place. Instead, disputes over groundwater are addressed at the local level and by courts.

 

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