Goldman Prize Winners Reflect Energy, Water Concerns

2011 Prize winner Ursula Sladek (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

The 2011 Goldman Environmental Prize winners were honored in San Francisco last night. In a ceremony at the Opera House, they were each awarded $150,000 for their grassroots work addressing pressing environmental issues around the world.

Environmental degradation from energy production is a common theme in the work of at least half the winners: Dmitry Lisitsyn, who’s worked to protect the ecosystems of Sakhalin Island from rapid destruction caused by companies exploiting the region’s petroleum reserves; Hilton Kelley, for environmental justice work on the Texas Gulf Coast, a region plagued with air-quality-related health problems due to emissions from the major refineries and petrochemical plants in the area; and Ursula Sladek, who created Germany’s first cooperatively-owned renewable power company. Continue reading

What Will Your Water Cost?

Report: Big changes needed to avert “widespread environmental and economic losses” in California

Grand illusion? Water rushes over the spillway at Nicasio Reservoir in Marin County. (Photo: Craig Miller)

A high-profile team of experts is calling for a major overhaul of the way California manages its water. In a 500-page report from the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California, the authors say decades of well-intended water policies simply haven’t worked, leaving the state vulnerable to major crises, including water shortages, catastrophic floods, decline & extinction of native species, deteriorating water quality, and further decline of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

“Our system has been dying a death by a thousand cuts,” says co-author Ellen Hanak, an economist and policy analyst at the PPIC. Hanak says that the state’s water management efforts have been “incremental” and “piecemeal,” with little success to show for it. Continue reading

Beetlemania Creeping Into California

As if drought and wildfires weren’t enough, California’s coniferous forests face another climate-related threat

(Photo: Reed Galin/Lone Tree Productions)

In the last decade, tiny forest-dwelling beetles have wiped out pine trees on millions of acres in the Canadian and American West, including Southern California. The rest of the state has been largely spared, but forest ecologists say that’s likely to change.

Reporter Ilsa Setziol recently spent some time tracking these bugs with an entomologist from the US Forest Service. They found beetles at work in Jeffrey pines and coulter pines in the San Bernardino National Forest, east of Los Angeles. Continue reading

The Central Valley’s Giant Sucking Sound

Studies reveal huge water withdrawals from aquifers under California’s Central Valley

The New York Times this weekend published a story and useful graphic describing new findings on the intensity of groundwater pumping in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

One eye-opening note from Felicity Barringer’s article:

“…the total loss of groundwater from the Sacramento and San Joaquin River basins in California’s Central Valley from 2003 to 2010 was just under 16.5 million acre-feet — approximately the volume of the Lower Colorado River reservoir, Lake Mead, when it is full.”

Lake Mead is the nation’s largest man-made reservoir (and has not been full for some time).

The research, by scientists at a Massachusetts arm of the Stockholm Environment Institute, includes projections for water supply and demand in California and the Southwest. The article points out that about a third of Californians’ total water use is groundwater.

Soggy Mountain High: Big Start for Sierra Snowpack

Frank Gehrke conducting last year's first snow survey of the season. (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

All the wet weather that’s been drenching much of the state has left the Sierra Nevada with an extra-thick blanket of snow, which has water officials optimistic about the state’s water supply for 2011.

Using a combination of manual and electronic measurements, the state’s Department of Water Resources conducted its first snow survey of the season on Tuesday, and found the water content of the state’s snowpack at 198% of normal for this time of year.   Last year at this time, the statewide average was just 85% of normal.
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…And It’s Not Even Winter Yet

Snow drifts at Squaw Valley last winter. (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

Good news for cities, towns and farms across the state that rely on the State Water Project: Today California’s Department of Water Resources doubled its projected 2011 deliveries of water from its initial 25% estimate to 50% of amounts requested.

Fifty percent doesn’t sound like much but compared to last year, when the initial projection for 2010 was a record-breaking low of five percent, this year is off to a pretty soggy start.  These allocations tend to climb throughout the season, so the 25 million Californians who rely on this water could actually see much higher numbers as the winter progresses.  2010 ended up with a 50% allocation despite its conservative early estimates.

Statewide, remote sensing indicates the mountain snowpack is 122% of normal for this date. As of Wednesday, the northern Sierra had already received nearly half its “normal” precipitation for the entire water year, which runs from October 1 to September 30, according to DWR.

And it looks like more of the same for the near future.  Meteorologists are predicting up to 15 feet of new snow for parts of the Northern Sierra by the middle of next week.

Tahoe Forecast: Shrinking Snow, Longer Walk to the Water

Lake Tahoe's water level could drop within the century. (Photo: Lauren Sommer)

The average snowpack in the Tahoe Basin could decline 40 to 60% by 2100 and some years could see all rain and no snow. That’s according to climate change forecasts released this week by the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center.

The decrease in snowpack would be driven by two processes, according to study author Geoffrey Schladow. With warmer temperatures, more precipitation will fall as rain during the winter, instead of snow. And as any skier knows, when rain falls on snow, it melts the snowpack in what scientists call “rain-on-snow” events.

These findings are a concern since the Sierra Nevada snowpack is often called California’s “frozen reservoir.”  That reservoir is critical to the state’s water supply — and it’s free. “What the snowpack affords us is a way to very economically store water,” said Schladow. “If the water is falling as rain, rather than snow, then we have to build more dams and reservoirs to catch it, which is expensive.” Continue reading

Running Dry? California Water Supply at Risk

View of Lake Mead on 9/9/10 (Original image courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center. This version produced by Tom Yulsman of CEJournal)

Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the country.  It’s located on the Colorado River, which provides water for about 27 million people in seven states, including millions of Californians.  In fact, California gets more than a trillion gallons of water from the Colorado River each year, directly from Lake Mead via the Colorado River Aqueduct which snakes across the desert.  Eighteen million people in Southern California are dependent on the Colorado for 40% of their water.  And for some agricultural operations, that percentage is more like 100.  Needless to say, it’s a critical source of water.

The thing is, after 11 years of dry conditions in the region, Lake Mead dropped to its lowest level ever in October.  And so far, it’s stayed there.  Since Hoover Dam was completed in the 1937 the water level has never been so low.  As of today, it’s at 38% of capacity.  And it’s not just Lake Mead that’s low.  The whole Colorado River storage system is at just 55% of capacity, so forget just filling it up with water from upstream.  Of course, winter’s on it’s way, and with that, precipitation, so the lake shouldn’t stay quite so low for long.  And, thanks to a wet year, Northern California’s reservoirs are doing well. Continue reading

Water Bond Shelved Until 2012

(Photo: Amanda Dyer)

From KQED’s  The California Report:

The $11 billion water bond was the product of a tough political compromise last year. Lately, it’s been the focus of a lot of criticism — detractors say it is too filled with pet projects, and it contains too much borrowing for a state in fiscal chaos.

Last night, the Legislature pushed the bond onto the ballot two years from now, a plan to pay for new dams, water conservation, and some changes in the fragile Delta ecosystem. Supporters say the delay isn’t likely to hurt the state’s water needs. But no one can say whether a two-year postponement will allow the proposal to be fine-tuned or killed by its many opponents.

Today’s San Francisco Chronicle has more on the fate of the bond measure, which had been scheduled to appear on this November’s state ballot.

For more on California’s water issues, including an interactive map of where the $11 billion in this bond measure was proposed to go, visit California’s Water.

California Counties Face Water Crunch

More than eight out of ten California counties will face frequent water shortages within 40 years. That’s the conclusion of a report released this week by Tetra Tech for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

See complete map of California, below. (Image: NRDC)

“This report is a real eye opener,” says Theo Spencer, senior advocate for the NRDC’s Climate Center. “It shows the toll climate change will take on the water resources in the U.S.”

Tetra Tech projects that climate change will exacerbate water problems in more than a third of counties across the US. In California, the outlook is worse. Forty-eight counties (83%) will be at risk by 2050, and 19 counties are on the critical list, those the report describes as under “extreme risk.” Only ten counties, mostly at the northern end of the state, were assigned to the low-risk category.

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