WEEKLY WATER NEWS DIGEST for Dec. 26-30: Atmospheric rivers end drought year with heavy snow and rain; ‘Extra winter’s worth of precipitation’ needed to bust drought; El Niño is coming—and the world isn’t prepared; and more …

A wrap-up of posts published on Maven’s Notebook this week …

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In California water news this week …

Miracle or mirage? Atmospheric rivers end California drought year with heavy snow and rain.

After the driest start to any year on record, California will end 2022 with snow-capped mountains, soaked roadways and — in some places — flood warnings.  The soggy end to an otherwise bone-dry year came as something of a surprise. Only weeks earlier, officials sounded the alarm about a rare third appearance of La Niña — a climate pattern in the tropical Pacific that is often associated with dry conditions in the state. On Thursday, skiers in Mammoth enjoyed some of the deepest snow in the nation, while in Los Angeles, a steady drizzle signaled stronger storms to come.  Officials said the parade of atmospheric rivers dousing the state will probably continue in the days ahead, providing a glimmer of optimism after a year marked by water restrictions, drying wells and perilous lows on the Colorado River. But though California’s wet season has defied expectations so far, the pattern must persist to truly undo several years of significant rain deficits. … ”  Read more from the LA Times here: Miracle or mirage? Atmospheric rivers end California drought year with heavy snow and rain. | Read via Yahoo News

Storms boost snowpack as first survey nears

Reporters who slog through a meadow near Lake Tahoe next week for California’s first manual snow survey of the season will find copious amounts of snow.  The state Department of Water Resources’ electronic readings on Dec. 29 showed a statewide snowpack at 156% of normal as a persistent parade of storm clouds has pelted the West Coast in December.  The statewide snow-water equivalent is more than half the average for April 1, considered the peak of snow season. Snow levels in the southern Sierra Nevada are at 187% of normal. … ”  Read more from the Western Farm Press here: Storms boost snowpack as first survey nears

Thanks to winter storm, Lake Oroville and Shasta Lake see positive jump in water levels

The Northstate is experiencing a needed winter storm this week and the excess rainfall is already yielding positive results for two primary water resources: Lake Oroville and Shasta Lake.  According to the California Department of Water Resources (CDWR) website, Lake Oroville is currently 683 feet high; up over 10 feet since Monday afternoon. That’s a tremendous jump and an encouraging sign for Butte County, but the lake is still nearly 30 feet lower than it was on this date last year. On top of that, the water is only at 32% of its capacity and 61% of the historical average for this date. … ”  Read more from KRCR here: Thanks to winter storm, Lake Oroville and Shasta Lake see positive jump in water levels

‘Extra winter’s worth of precipitation’ needed to bust California drought, scientist says

Some western residents are breathing a sigh of relief after recent atmospheric river storms have drenched the drought-parched region, and more are on the way. However, scientists caution that it is too early to celebrate.  “At this point in time, we still have another four or five months in our snow season and in our typical rainy season,” said Andrew Schwartz, lead scientist at the Central Sierra Snow Lab. “That means that while we’re kind of scoring the touchdown in the first quarter of the game. Right now, we still have three-quarters left, and there’s a lot that can happen.”  He points to the record-breaking snow amounts the lab recorded last December. The Soda Springs, California, lab maintains one of the longest manual snow depth records in the world, dating back to 1879. The picture below is of the lab after over 17 inches of snow fell in Dec. 2021 – over half of the snow they usually get in a season. … ”  Read more from Fox News here: ‘Extra winter’s worth of precipitation’ needed to bust California drought, scientist says

El Niño is coming—and the world isn’t prepared

In 2023, the relentless increase in global heating will continue, bringing ever more disruptive weather that is the signature calling card of accelerating climate breakdown.   According to NASA, 2022 was one of the hottest years ever recorded on Earth. This is extraordinary, because the recurrent climate pattern across the tropical Pacific—known as ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation)—was in its cool phase. During this phase, called La Niña, the waters of the equatorial Pacific are noticeably cooler than normal, which influences weather patterns around the world.  One consequence of La Niña is that it helps keep a lid on global temperatures. This means that—despite the recent widespread heat waves, wildfires and droughts—we have actually been spared the worst. The scary thing is that this La Niña will end and eventually transition into the better-known El Niño, which sees the waters of the equatorial Pacific becoming much warmer. When it does, the extreme weather that has rampaged across our planet in 2021 and 2022 will pale into insignificance. … ”  Read more from WIRED here: El Niño is coming—and the world isn’t prepared

When the state cut their water, these California users created a collaborative solution

California Gov. Gavin Newsom stood at a podium placed on the sandy bottom of Lake Mendocino, a basin built to hold more than 20 billion gallons of water. It was spring, which meant that the reservoir should have held water from the winter rains that in past decades provided water to millions of Californians. Instead, on this afternoon in 2021, the ground was dry and cracked. Newsom was there to declare a drought emergency. … The state is contending with its driest three-year period on record. The lake reservoir where Newsom set his declaration supplies water to the Russian River, which in turn provides water for 600,000 people and to some of California’s best-known wineries.  Now, the watershed and the reservoir where this drought began have become the proving ground for an innovative water agreement that aims to make more of scarce supplies. Creators say the program could become a prototype for accords elsewhere in the state and in the West, a beacon of collaboration in a place where water can be contentious. … ”  Read more from Inside Climate News here: When the state cut their water, these California users created a collaborative solution

Congressman Harder: tunnel will ‘crush’ farmers, ruin environment

Not building the controversial Delta means Southern California and Bay Area cities would need to invest in desalination plants and groundwater recharge of brackish water that could impact the visual pleasantries of coastal scenery.  That is the bottom line buried in the no-project alternative of the Army Corps of Engineers’ latest 691-page Environmental Impact Study on the proposed Delta tunnel study released this week.  The report determined building the tunnel will have major impacts on San Joaquín County as well as the Northern San Joaquin Valley including agricultural, local water supply, air quality, endangered species, and essential fish habitat.  The tunnel — if built — could have domino impacts beyond the actual project.  The Army Corps of Engineers has declined to hold any in-person hearings for feedback on the study whose comment period ends Feb. 14, 2002.  That fact has drawn a sharp rebuke from Congressman Josh Harder. ... ”  Read more from the Manteca Bulletin here: Congressman Harder: tunnel will ‘crush’ farmers, ruin environment

Pricing groundwater will help solve California’s water problems

Dr. Ellen Bruno writes, “In the face of its worst drought in centuries, California is finally getting around to regulating its groundwater use. As an agricultural economist who studies water regulation in California, I think this is a unique chance to change the way we price groundwater and protect this scarce resource. But I’m worried that we might not make the most of this opportunity.The Western US is currently in the midst of a megadrought — since 2000, the region has seen its driest two decades in more than a thousand years, in part because climate change has brought more heat and less rain and snow.This has put a huge strain on California’s groundwater supplies. The problem is that in most of California, agricultural groundwater use has long been a free-for-all. … ”  Read the full story at Freethink here: Pricing groundwater will help solve California’s water problems

Federal court denies government request to delay hearing on plan to break 22 year-old Trinity River fishery restoration agreement

Looking downstream Trinity River at Steel Bridge Road.

On December 23, 2022, in a rare and scathing rebuke, Federal Judge Jennifer L. Thurston rejected the Justice Department’s request to postpone judicial review of the Bureau of Reclamation’s alleged breach of tribal sovereignty and property rights in a 22 year-old Trinity River fishery restoration agreement.  “The Court has received and reviewed the United States’ request for a ten-day extension of time to respond to the Plaintiff’s [Hoopa Valley Tribe] pending motion for preliminary injunction,” (PI) Judge Thurston wrote. “This is not reasonable or justified”, she concluded in denying the request.  Hoopa Valley Tribal Chairman Joe Davis welcomed the decision; “Our Tribe asked for the injunction after the Government broke our 2000 agreement with the United States to restore the Trinity River fishery that had been damaged by decades of Bureau of Reclamation mismanagement.” … ”  Read more of this press release from the Hoopa Valley Tribe via Maven’s Notebook here: Federal court denies government request to delay hearing on plan to break 22 year-old Trinity River fishery restoration agreement

Legendary California fishery and water quality activist Bill Jennings dies at age 79

The California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and the fish of California lost Bill Jennings on December 27, 2022. Above all, Bill was a relentless activist. For over 40 years, he used the law, meticulously documented data, an irascible wit, and a stinging pen to defend and protect his beloved Bay-Delta Estuary and all the rivers that feed it.  Bill was chairman of CSPA’s board of directors since 1988 and its executive director since 2005. He led CSPA in decades of battles to increase flows into the Sacramento – San Joaquin Delta and through to San Francisco Bay. He campaigned tirelessly against multiple incarnations of canals and tunnels around the Delta. Through his “Watershed Enforcers” program, Bill chased down stormwater, wastewater, and agricultural polluters all over the state. … ”  Read more from the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance here: Legendary California fishery and water quality activist Bill Jennings dies at age 79

Biden WOTUS rule revives decades-old protections

The Biden administration today finalized its definition of which wetlands and waterways are protected by the Clean Water Act.  The rule from EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers largely revives a definition of “waters of the United States,” or WOTUS, coined during the Reagan-era, updated to accommodate limits the Supreme Court has placed on federal jurisdiction during the intervening 36 years.  The latest definition is an effort by the Biden administration to find a “durable” solution for protecting wetlands and streams — an issue that has been hotly debated since the Clean Water Act’s passage in 1972. Through the years, the question has triggered regulatory back-and-forth, intense lobbying, and legal and political brawls among developers and agricultural and environmental groups.  “It’s grounded in our longstanding authority provided by Congress, and we really learned from the 45 years of implementation as we developed this final rule so [it] balances the needs for clean water protections with the needs of all water users,” she said in an interview. “I think we found that middle ground and that place with this rule.” … ”  Read more from E&E News here: Biden WOTUS rule revives decades-old protections

SEE ALSOEPA and Army Finalize Rule Establishing Definition of WOTUS and Restoring Fundamental Water Protections, press release from the EPA

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In commentary this week …

Is racism behind the Delta’s decline?

Columnist Michael Fitzgerald writes, “Greed and outmoded ideas about nature are usually blamed for the death spiral of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. A new complaint identifies another culprit: white supremacy.  Stockton’s Little Manila Rising and Restore the Delta, the Winnemem Wintu and Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, and Save California Salmon allege that racism is baked into California’s water system.  “The ecological crisis in the Bay-Delta, like California’s water rights regime, is rooted in white supremacy,” begins a 288-page complaint to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  It alleges that the state Water Resources Control Board is failing to do its job to set clean water standards for the Delta — which is true — and this mostly hurts people of color, a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requiring all groups be given equal treatment under the law.  To my mind, a persuasive legal argument. … ”  Read more from Stocktonia here: Is racism behind the Delta’s decline?

10 years later, California’s promise of a human right to water remains unfulfilled

Jenny Rempel, a doctoral student in the UC Berkeley Energy & Resources Group, and Dr. Kristin Dobbin, an assistant professor of cooperative extension in the UC Berkeley Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, write, “Ten years ago, Californians impacted by unsafe and unaffordable water secured legal recognition of the human right to water. Since then, activists have leveraged California’s vital water law to promote safe, affordable and accessible water for all. But we are still far from achieving its intended purpose.  More than 1 million Californians still face water insecurity caused by ongoing contamination, high water rates and groundwater well failures, among other challenges. When the state Legislature reconvenes next week, it is time to make good on the decade-old promise under Assembly Bill 685. ... ”  Continue reading at Cal Matters here: 10 years later, California’s promise of a human right to water remains unfulfilled

Droughts, technology thrust desal to the fore

Columnist Thomas Elias writes, “It has taken an unprecedented series of multi-year droughts, conversion of thousands of California lawns to water-sparing cacti and other plants and stricter than ever water rationing in many parts of the state, but at last it’s beginning to look like Samuel Coleridge’s sailor may have been premature.  For there’s plenty of Pacific Ocean water being drunk in California today, with every indication suggesting there will be much more to come.  No, California will likely never be like Israel, drawing 90 percent of its drinking water from desalinized sea water. But eventually, it’s now probable that such purified brine will eventually make up something more than 10 percent of the state’s supply.  This looks like a simple necessity. … ”  Read more from the Chico Enterprise-Record here: Droughts, technology thrust desal to the fore

Promising research on Pacific Salmon

Columnist Denis Pierce writes, “The salmon runs in the north state have been in overall decline for half a century. The populations are cyclical. Last year, we had a substantial run on the Lower Yuba. The spring run came on strong and the fall run was also good. The peaks and the troughs of the cycle have been trending downward.  This season, the salmon returns were disappointing. With warm low water, the few fish that came were late. When the fish were running, the bite was off on the Feather and Sacramento Rivers.  In the last few years biologists working on the issue have made some promising progress.  In 2020 at the Coleman Fish Hatchery near Red Bluff, which services the Sacramento River salmon run, there were some disturbing things going on with juvenile salmon. … ”  Read more at the Union here: Promising research on Pacific Salmon

Bring new water to the Colorado River, and a national infrastructure bank to finance it

Alphecca Muttardy, a Macroeconomist with the Coalition for a National Infrastructure Bank, and Don Siefkes is an MIT-trained chemical engineer who represents the Coalition for the NIB in the San Francisco Bay Area, write, “Mike Wade, “Imperial Valley can’t sustain another water cut,” Dec. 14, is absolutely right. However, if we can’t get new water to the Colorado River, and even though conservation is important, no amount of conservation is going to fix this problem.  Here’s one solution to avoid the looming disaster. The National Infrastructure Bank (NIB) set out in House Resolution 3339 would provide $5 trillion in low-cost loans for a broad range of public infrastructure projects – including massive water systems – without the need for increasing taxes or any deficit budget spending. This bill is modeled on the successful Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) started by President Herbert Hoover and used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to build Hoover Dam and bring water and electricity to the Southwest. … ”  Read more from the Desert Sun here: Bring new water to the Colorado River, and a national infrastructure bank to finance it

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In regional water news this week …

New twist for Potter Valley Project

As PG&E prepares its plan for decommissioning the inter-basin water transfer hydropower project that diverts water from the Eel River to the Russian River, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, announced that it is considering reopening the license. That means that, although it granted PG&E an annual license in April, it’s thinking about adding requirements for a number of wildlife protection and habitat monitoring measures that were proposed in March by the National Marine Fisheries Service, another federal regulatory agency. PG&E argues that the decommissioning process will provide plenty of opportunity to review protective measures, and that there’s no evidence of harm to embattled salmon. But FERC appears to have taken notice of legal threats by environmental groups claiming the project violates the Endangered Species Act. … ”  Read more from the Redheaded Blackbelt here: New twist for Potter Valley Project

California drought poses more obstacles to young Russian River coho salmon

Drought is posing another threat to endangered native salmon in the Russian River by narrowing the window of time for young coho salmon to travel through to the ocean, which limits their feeding opportunities and threatens their chances of surviving to adulthood, new research indicates.  When their native streams run low and warm during drought, the young smolts or year-old baby salmon get a signal to leave earlier than usual for their migration to the wide ocean. They may also face obstacles along the way due to lower flows of water. Those two factors shrink their window of migration by over three weeks, according a study in the journal Ecosphere led by Brian Kastl, a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley. “The reason that’s so important is because salmon risk reaching the ocean at the wrong time, when food is scarce,” said Kastl, whose field research was funded by National Geographic. … ”  Read more from the San Francisco Chronicle (gift article): California drought poses more obstacles to young Russian River coho salmon

Rain offers hope the Monterey Peninsula can avoid water rationing, if it persists.

Even though it might be raining as you’re reading this, the prospect of water rationing for Cal Am ratepayers remains very much on the table. But before that were to happen, Cal Am ratepayer bills will likely spike even higher.  Presently, there are about 2,600 acre-feet of water in storage to serve the Monterey Peninsula – 1,400 from the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District’s aquifer storage and recovery project, in which excess Carmel River flows are pumped over the hill and injected into the Seaside Basin for storage, and another 1,200 Monterey One Water put into storage from its Pure Water Monterey recycled water project.  The Peninsula’s annual water demand is just under 10,000 acre-feet, but the total supply in Cal Am’s portfolio is about 1,000 to 1,200 short of that. That is because on Dec. 31 last year, a 1995 cease-and-desist order finally took effect, forcing Cal Am to reduce pumping of the Carmel River to the legal limit of the company’s water right – 3,376 acre-feet annually. … ”  Read more from Monterey Weekly here: Rain offers hope the Peninsula can avoid water rationing, if it persists.

Large herd of nutria recently trapped in Mendota wildlife area

The state has spent the past five years tracking a destructive pest to California agriculture.  The nutria is a big rodent that thrives in wetlands and wildlife areas.  Recently a big herd of nutria was detected in Fresno County.  The Mendota wildlife area is roughly 50 miles west of Fresno. Scientists knew there were nutria in the water but the amount they’ve trapped so far surprised them. … ”  Read more from KMPH here: Large herd of nutria recently trapped in Mendota wildlife area

Critical feature of Friant-Kern Canal repair completed

While the area continues to be – and expects to continue to be in a drought — just in case if the region receives a lot of rain this winter, a critical portion of the Friant-Kern Canal ongoing repairs has been completed which would allow the canal to handle that water.  In November, a major milestone was reached with the completion of the Deer Creek siphon that will ensure the canal can handle high flows of water running in Deer Creek during potential winter storms or flood events. The work completed is part of the ongoing Friant-Kern Canal Middle Reach Capacity Correction Project. … ”  Read more from the Porterville Recorder here: Critical feature of Friant-Kern Canal repair completed

Kern River “restoration” wells pumping but not to restore the river

An observant reader emailed SJV Water recently asking about a well he noticed near Calloway Drive that was pumping water into the brimful Cross Valley Canal just north of the dry Kern River “all summer long and beyond.”  He wondered if that was a well owned by the City of Bakersfield and, if so, where that water was going considering lakes in city parks were going dry.  That is not a city well. But it has a long, somewhat convoluted history with the city, as well as the Kern River. … ”  Read more from SJV Water here: Kern River “restoration” wells pumping but not to restore the river

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