Water

Potentially the biggest climate impact on life in California

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Satellites Helping Save Water on California Farms

Researchers at CSU have teamed up with NASA to test water-saving technology on California crops

Craig Miller

Watering fields in the Sacramento Valley: traditional irrigation methods have required a lot of guess-work.

By Vinnee Tong

Near the Central Valley town of Los Banos, Anthony Pereira opens a tap to send water into the fields at his family’s farm. Pereira grows cotton, alfalfa and tomatoes. And he is constantly deciding how much water is the right amount to use.

“Water savings is always an issue,” he says. “That’s why we’re going drip here on this ranch. We gotta try to save what we can now for the years to come.”

Thanks to some new technology, that might get a little easier. To help farmers like Pereira, engineers at NASA and CSU Monterey Bay are developing an online tool that can estimate how much water a field might need. Here’s how it works: satellites orbiting the earth take high-resolution pictures — so detailed that you can zoom in to a quarter of an acre.

“The satellite data is allowing us to get a measurement of how the crop is developing,” says CSUMB scientist Forrest Melton, the lead researcher on the project. “We’re actually measuring the fraction of the field that’s covered by green, growing vegetation.” Continue reading

Rising Sea Levels Threaten Toxic Sites

Contaminated areas along the San Francisco Bay could be inundated

Quest/KQED

The Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard is one of the EPA's Superfund sites in the Bay Area.

As water levels rise, old landfills, shipyards and industrial sites that line the San Francisco Bay are at risk of being submerged, exposed to higher storm surges and inundated by groundwater. Toxic substances, including arsenic, lead, petroleum products, asbestos and DDT that have been sealed off could leech into groundwater or into the Bay.

While the agencies that have a hand in keeping the Bay clean consider sea level rise in new clean-up projects, they can’t necessarily revisit every old one, according to reporter Nate Seltenrich, who wrote about the problem in this week’s East Bay Express. Continue reading

After Two Years of La Niña, El Niño May Be on the Way

The climate pattern usually causes wetter weather in California

By Andrew Freedman

Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

In 2010, a series of strong storms linked to El Niño caused major flooding in Southern California.

If you thought the first six months of the year were chock full of weird weather events, just wait — according to climate scientists there is an increasing likelihood that El Niño conditions will soon develop in the tropical Pacific Ocean. El Niño events, which are characterized by an area of unusually warm sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean, can have a huge influence on global weather patterns. Its effects on the U.S. tend to peak during the winter.

The U.S. has already had a record warm January-to-June period, and has already had two extremely rare heat waves this year, one in March and the other in mid-June to early July. Entering mid-summer, drought conditions are covering 56 percent of the lower 48 states, a record drought extent in the 21st century. Continue reading

Vote on $11 Billion Water Bond Delayed Another Two Years

The massive bond, which would have been on this year’s ballot, will now go to voters in 2014

California Department of Water Resources

The water bond would help fund restoration projects in the Delta.

The California legislature voted in favor of postponing the state’s water bond on Thursday. The bond, which would provide funds for water supply, environmental restoration and groundwater protection projects, was originally scheduled to be on the November, 2010 ballot. Then, the legislature voted to delay until this year, when they pushed it back, again.

“The ballot was too crowded and people had a lot of other things on their mind,” Senator Jean Fuller told me before the vote. “People are much more concerned about financial issues.”

Governor Jerry Brown’s tax measure is on this November’s ballot. He had previously asked for the water bond to be delayed, because he also didn’t want the competition.

An analysis by the Pacific Institute found that the bond is the largest since the one that funded the State Water Project in the 1960′s. Continue reading

Heat Wave Adds to Colorado Wildfire Woes

Record-breaking heat combined with drought create ideal conditions for wildfire

So far this summer, California has been spared from massive wildfires like the ones raging in Colorado. You can keep tabs on fires in California on CalFire’s statewide map.

By Andrew Freedman

U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan/Flickr

The Waldo Canyon fire burns off the southern border of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

Blistering and desiccating heat across the West and High Plains helped aggravate an already dangerous wildfire situation in Colorado and several other states, and now the heat is moving eastward toward the Midwest, South Central states, and eventually the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast.

Denver endured a record fifth straight day of 100-degree temperatures on Tuesday, and the high temperature of 105°F tied the city’s all-time record high, a milestone that reached just a day earlier. Colorado Springs also hit an all-time mark on Tuesday, with a high of 101°F.

At least 23 daily high temperature records were broken or tied in Colorado alone on Tuesday. Continue reading

Why is Hydropower Relicensing So Complicated?

Unraveling the knot of hydropower development on the Yuba River

Molly Samuel/KQED

Englebright Dam is not part of any of the hydro projects on the Yuba River, but it's surrounded by them.

When most of the dams in California were built, there were few, if any, safety or environmental regulations governing how they operated. Now most hydropower projects, whether they’re owned by local agencies or power companies, need licenses from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC. (Federal projects don’t require FERC licenses.) Licenses are good for 30 to 50 years, and licensees don’t have to keep up with, for instance, environmental laws passed in the intervening years. So when a hydropower project does come up for relicensing, there’s a lot to catch up on.

I described some of the relicensing process in a radio story for The California Report for Climate Watch’s “Water and Power” series. Dennis Smith, the Hydropower Relicensing Manager for Region 5 for the Forest Service, gave me a taste of how complicated relicensing is when he showed me a flow chart [PDF] of how the process works. It has 39 boxes on it, each a discrete step. A typical application takes at least five years to complete. Some take much longer.

“You could have a child and he would be in the first grade by the time you got a license for a dam,” Smith said. Continue reading

Sea Level Rise Will Hit Calif. Harder Than Rest of the West

New study zeroes in on sea level rise on the West Coast, finds variation based on location

Scorpions and Centaurs/Flickr

San Francisco International Airport could be underwater within the next few decades.

By 2030, sea levels on most of California’s coast will be five inches higher than ten years ago. By 2100, three feet higher. That’s according to a new report by the National Research Council. The study arrived at numbers that aren’t far from previous projections of sea level rise, but other research has been on a global scale, and this one focused specifically on the West Coast.

“What was surprising to me was Oregon and Washington being so different,” Robert Dalrymple told me; he’s a professor of civil engineering at Johns Hopkins University and chair of the Committee on Sea Level Rise in California, Oregon, and Washington, which wrote the report.

Sea level rise happens at different rates at different places. Continue reading

Is Hydroelectric Power a ‘Renewable’ Energy Source?

Most California hydro doesn’t count toward utilities’ renewable energy mandates. Should it?

Craig Miller

Tricky waters: a kayaker navigates the surge at the outlet of the Oxbow Powerhouse on the upper American River.

It’s a fair question and one that a reader posed during our recent series on “Water and Power” in California. Hydro has its virtues. It’s clean, once it’s built; producing hydropower creates no significant greenhouse gas or other emissions. And it’s certainly “renewable” as long as the water flows. But it’s not without its environmental impacts, especially where large “terminal” dams are involved (the kind that fish can’t get past).

In fact, state regulators divide the resource into “large” and “small” hydro, the latter being defined as anything producing 30 megawatts of power or less. Utilities can count small hydro toward their mandated Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) but not the bigger operations. But why? Continue reading

Water From Above and Below Likely Culprit in SoCal Landslide

Rain, irrigation and residential development contributed to November’s San Pedro Slide

USGS & Don Knabbe

Options for fixing the San Pedro Slide in southwestern Los Angeles range from several million to 62 million dollars.

It’s a long and inconclusive list of usual suspects that appear in the final draft report [PDF] released by the City of Los Angeles this week. The Department of Public Works tapped the Glendale geotechnical consulting firm Shannon and Wilson to investigate the slide that sent a 600-foot section of seaside roadway toward the Pacific last November.

My radio report and blog post back in April explained the slippery mix of water and soft sediment that permeates the Palos Verdes Peninsula, and what happens when too much water gets between those unstable layers of earth.

Shannon and Wilson’s report lists the following as “contributors” to the slide: irrigation — both residential and watering done inside the White Point Nature Preserve adjacent to the slide — coastal bluff erosion, precipitation, road construction and underground utilities. Just above the Preserve is a 13.2-acre complex of U.S. Air Force housing, and watering from those homes could be “influencing groundwater” near the slide. Continue reading

Rethinking Hydropower

The bureaucratic, expensive and often contentious world of hydropower relicensing

This post is part of Climate Watch’s series, “Water and Power.”

Just so we all start on the same page: there are a lot of dams in California. People have been building dams here since the Gold Rush, and though the dam building boom of the first half of the 20th century is long-over, the dams are still here.

This animation shows all the dams in California. To see a breakdown of which ones are connected to hydropower projects (and which rivers in California remain undammed), explore the Water and Power map. Graphics produced by Don Clyde. Research by Lisa Pickoff-White.

When people began building dams in California, they probably were probably mostly thinking about gold. Later, they had more lofty ideals: controlling floods, supplying water to cities and farms, generating electricity.

One thing they probably weren’t thinking much about: pond turtles. Until recently. Continue reading