Satellites Helping Save Water on California Farms

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

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

The Water That Fuels California’s Power Grid

How many gallons to run that microwave?

A natural gas power plant in Long Beach that uses "once-through" cooling.

We hear a lot about how green our energy is in California. Instead of using coal, the state runs on natural gas and increasingly, renewable power.

But there’s a hidden cost to our energy supply: water use. In fact, every time you turn on a light, it’s like turning on your faucet. It’s been calculated that it takes 1.5 gallons of water to run a 100-watt light bulb for 10 hours.

The way water and power work together is a lot like a tea kettle. Steam drives the power industry.

How Power Needs Water

You can see it at the Gateway Generating Station, a natural gas power plant in the northeast Bay Area. The plant looks complicated but making power is pretty simple. Step number one: burn natural gas. That produces a lot of heat.

“You’ve got 1,700-degree exhaust energy, or waste heat,” says Steve Royall of PG&E, who is giving me a tour through the maze of pipes and compartments. The heat hits pipes that are filled with water and the water is boiled off to create steam. That’s step number two: make steam to turn a steam turbine, which is attached to a generator. It’s the water that’s making the power.

Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Illustration by Andy Warner.

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La Niña on its Way Out, but so Is Winter

La Niña is weakening, but don’t hold your breath for a “March miracle”

This image shows La Niña conditions from last month, collected by NASA's Jason-2 satellite.

This has been a historically dry winter, dry enough that it’s likely to land a spot as one of the top ten driest since the Gold Rush. And even though La Niña is waning, that probably won’t make much of a difference, because there’s a delay between when ocean surface temperatures change, and when that change actually has an effect on our weather.

“March 20 is just around the corner, and that’s the first day of spring. Our winter — our snowpack and our rain — is essentially over,” NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory climatologist Bill Patzert told me. Though Patzert’s observation comes as three Pacific storms are poised to potentially bring a week of rain to Northern California, he said, “a weakening La Niña won’t necessarily give us a March miracle in terms of snowpack and rainfall.”

La Niña is caused by colder-than-average ocean surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific. It typically makes for warm, dry winters in California. But not always. Last year was also affected by La Niña, and it was historically wet.

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Next-Gen Snow Surveys: “Activate the Laser”

New technology could provide a much clearer picture for water forecasts

Frank Gehrke conducts a manual snow survey using a "Mt. Rose gauge," essentially a hollow aluminum tube shoved into the snow at predetermined locations.

In California, where most of our water comes from the mountains, being able to accurately measure the snow pack is vital. And it is in outlier years like this — very dry years, though the same goes for very wet ones — when water managers have the hardest time making accurate predictions.

“Knowing the water content of the snow in an entire watershed is the holy grail for snow scientists,” survey guru Frank Gehrke told me.

During the winter, Gehrke trudges into the woods on a monthly basis to do manual snow surveys for the state Department of Water Resources. DWR uses remote snow sensors, too. But even with all that data we don’t get an exact picture of the snow pack. So scientists from National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) are developing tools to measure snow with lasers. This new technology has the potential to be that holy grail that Gehrke’s looking for.

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Drought Gone, Less Support for California’s Water Bond?

By Lance Williams, California Watch

Post Peak Pass is a granite notch on the remote southern boundary of Yosemite National Park, altitude 10,700 feet.

On Saturday, its north face was partly covered with a 100-yard-long patch of crusted snow – a reminder of just how emphatically California’s three-year drought was broken by the wild winter of 2010-11.

Although California’s high peaks still are capped with last year’s snowpack and its reservoirs are brimming with runoff [PDF], voters will be asked next year to approve an $11.1 billion state water bond measure that was crafted in response to the crippling drought.

But with the drought a fading memory and the state’s finances in disarray, many believe the pricey package of dam-building and water conservation infrastructure has an even slimmer chance of passage today than in 2010, when then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger yanked it off the ballot and slated it instead for November 2012. Continue reading

Salazar: Risky Times for Western Water

Interior Chief to California: Don’t allow significant water supply and infrastructure projects be derailed

Demonstrators rally in 2006 for the removal of dams on the Klamath RIver.

Today at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar weighed in on three major water projects in the state and called on Californians to “stand firm” and defend the “hard-gained agreements and settlements” built in past decades.

“Never before have water agreements that provide safety and certainty for Westerners been so at risk,” said Salazar, referring to debates over the future of the San Joaquin River, the California Bay Delta, and the Klamath River.

Salazar argued that the state, and the country, should not back away from the 2006 San Joaquin River Restoration Program settlement, which, he said enabled the river to run from its headwaters to the ocean this year for the first time in half a century. He lobbied for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, calling it a “comprehensive approach that includes new habitat for endangered fish species, coordinated measures to attack toxics that are fouling delta waters, and improvements to the state’s water infrastructure.” Continue reading

California Cities Confront Water Challenges

Scientists and planners expect the Bay Area to face a host of water-related threats in the coming decades due to climate change, including flooding due to rising seas and summer water shortages due to warmer temperatures and a shrinking Sierra snowpack.

A new analysis released Tuesday from the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council catalogs these threats, for San Francisco, and for 11 other American cities, including Los Angeles. The study also looks at how prepared the cities are to adapt to these climate challenges. It finds, in general, that San Francisco is leading the way when it comes to being prepared. Continue reading

Forget this Winter: Western Snowpack Shrinking

By Alyson Kenward

A new study finds large losses of springtime snow cover in the West in recent years, raising concerns about water supplies.

Spring snowpack in the West is an essential water resource, particularly in Southwestern states that are prone to summer drought, like California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. (Credit: Wolfgang Staudt on Flickr)

This spring, from the Pacific Northwest and Sierra Nevada, to the Northern Rockies, western mountain ranges were more than just snow-capped – they were buried in the white stuff. In fact, many locations still have more spring snowpack than has been seen in decades.

Head south across the 40th parallel, however, and things are dramatically different. While there is still above average snow throughout the Sierra, a relatively snow-less winter and spring has left much of the Southwest in a drought that has fostered record wildfires. Already local officials are worried there won’t be enough water to get through the summer months ahead. Continue reading

Running Drier: The Colorado 50 Years Out

A new federal study says the Colorado River may carry 9% less water by 2060.

Lake Mead, the Colorado River's largest reservoir in May, 2010 (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

The Colorado River is a critical source of water for more than 30 million people throughout the western United States. California alone gets more than a trillion gallons of water each year from the Colorado. But over the years, recurring droughts and the growing demands of urban populations have stressed the river system, which the Bureau of Reclamation now characterizes as “over-allocated.”  In efforts to plan for the region’s future water needs, the agency, in collaboration with Western states, has undertaken a two-year study to look at what lies ahead for the river and the cities, farms, and families that rely on it.

On Monday, the agency released the first interim report of the “Colorado River Basin Water Supply & Demand Study,” which projects changes in the river’s flow under four different scenarios. A model that incorporates predicted impacts of climate change shows a nine percent reduction in the Colorado’s flow within 50 years.  The study also projects more frequent and more severe droughts throughout the system. Continue reading

Sierra Snow Survey: Lots of Water but No Records

Snowy trees in Truckee, in February. (Photo: Lauren Sommer)

Surveyors from the Department of Water Resources strapped on their skis today and headed out to measure the status of the Sierra snowpack for the fifth and final time this season.  As expected, they reported good news for the state’s water supply.

It’s been a big year for the snowpack – the biggest since 1995 – and the snow’s water content is about 180% of what’s “normal” for early May. The spring melt has already begun, so there’s less snow than there was month ago.  Historically, early April is when the snowpack is at its peak, as it was this year.  And yet, the current water content of the snowpack is still 50% higher than the historic average for April first.

All this water has prompted officials to project water deliveries of 80% of requests from farms and towns served by the State Water Project this year.  That’s the highest percentage since 2006. Last year just 50% was delivered.

And yet when I asked DWR snow survey master Frank Gehrke if this year’s snowpack was record breaking, he chuckled a little and said, “Not even close.” Continue reading