Yesterday’s front-page headlines reported that six of seven states have agreed to a new framework to cut back on the amount of water they use from the Colorado River. Six is pretty good—
There’s this Kighlinger negotiator, he is a former Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District manager, he knows the score, he sees the writing on the wall, and is trying with all his might to get the Imperial Valley Irrigation District to face reality. That is no small feat when trying to negotiate with the grand pooh-bah of water rights holders.
Kighlinger is among the many that believe the priority system foisted upon the region more than a century ago can no longer be used as a model for how water is allocated. The heart of the matter— if you use 80% of the water, then you should be contributing close to the same 80% back in economic benefits, not at best a measly 5% return on the people’s water.
Alex Cardenas, the president of the board of directors of the Imperial Irrigation District, what he wants you to know is that he represents a group of farmers that hold water rights that go back so far in history that they predate the formation of the universe, they existed before the Big Bang, this isn’t just the before times, this is before the before times, this is all eternity— and they are not going to be pushed around by some uppity federal agency. Farmers in the Imperial Valley are hot under the collar, ready to brawl, won’t be surrendering their senior most status to some junior subordinated water rights holders that they believe are out to do the same thing they have been doing for the last 100 plus years. Water grabbers of the world unite!
Here, let’s listen to Mr. Cardenas explain, “We’re not going to wreck our local economy so that they can continue to grow their urban economy.”
This is how senior water rights holders speak, this is our nation’s Water Nobility, another way of saying this is that some farmers have come to believe that the water they use comes with zero strings attached, and not you and not nobody may ever question how they use the nation’s resources.
From my fictional perspective I feel my script towing reality’s line. I have been drawing up a screenplay and Mr. Cardenas not only plays the part I’ve imagined but he makes my work easy, I don’t even have to write the dialogue, his quotes write the script for me.
I’m still predicting the Bureau of Reclamation will keep its head low until after the President gives the State of the Union speech. In the next few weeks, I forecast the conflict to escalate, and by grow more tense I mean the stuff is going to hit the fan.
I’ll leave you with the wit and wisdom of this water professional and come on now let’s hear it for this brave soul who has had the brass to tell the truth and call out the madness about how they want to use all the water and return almost nothing to the economy in return. As this cool cat Kighlinger said— that’s a fucking disaster— that just can’t be our reality—
Water like whiskey even after a century is still worth fighting over—
All of Borrego Springs water comes from rain that falls to the west on the San Ysidro Mountains. In an average year 5000-acre feet of water from Coyote and Indian Creek, water you will seldom if ever see sinks into the aquifer beneath the Borrego Valley. That’s it, try as the good people living in this desert try there is no economically feasible way to get more water to the 3500 people living in this community. And don’t think that a few of the frisky rascals in this isolated desert community haven’t spitballed this problem, one plan included piping water north from Mexico’s Sea of Cortez to a mythical desalinization plant built on the Salton Sea. That almost affordable plan priced out at about $690 million dollars. This piping plan promised to produce some of the most spectacularly expensive grapefruit and knuckleheads in the world.
In the 1980’s the United States Geologic Survey estimated Borrego Springs was using 20,000-acre feet of water per year, a full 15,000-acre feet more than they are getting off the San Ysidro watershed. Pumping resulted in water wells having to be drilled deeper, until you, the devil, or the Army Corp of Engineers can’t go any further. Taking the chance of this lone isolated aquifer getting pumped dry means the town, farms, golf courses, it means the whole ecosystem collapses.
Up in Sacramento agriculture and industry have fought against legislation regulating the use of groundwater. The result of all this resistance is that for decades, the farms north of Borrego Springs pumped as much free unmetered water as they wanted and there wasn’t a thing anyone could do to stop them.
Wading into water politics is known as a thankless career ending task. Better to kick trouble into the courts, look the other way, change the subject, nothing good will come of getting in the middle of a dispute over water.
Then in 2014 under the gutsy aquatic jujitsu of Governor Jerry Brown the California State Legislature passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The new legislation wouldn’t take effect until 2019, first so that political careers could clear the area prior to the— all hands-on deck— to the barricades moment this new law would foment. Then, so as not to shock the state’s water system the law only gradually goes into effect year by year incrementally until 2040. Any faster and they’ll be issuing a warrant for your water thieving arrest.
The Borrego Springs aquifer depending upon who you talk to has never been better or as others worry is freaking close to collapse. California’s State Water Resources Board is concerned, there are about 150 aquifers across the state and Borrego Springs ranks as the number one worry. We are code red by one assessment and hunky dory by another. Expert hydrologists put Borrego Springs problems at the top of not just the state, but it is at the top of the nation’s list of endangered aquifers. Here is the poster child for a community that has literally been unable to do anything about the farmers north of town pumping the whole kit and caboodle into oblivion.
After decades of fighting in court the various stakeholders have come together and created a Groundwater Sustainability Plan. That was the easiest part, coming up with a plan. Pointing fingers, blaming farmers, cursing golf courses, sharing your tender mercies for black tailed jack rabbits, demanding the miserable varmints from the local water board get there you know what over to the community hall hearing and without equivocation explain what in tarnation they plan to do about this hellacious mess.
What the plan does is spread the burden out among all the various water users. That spreading out and distribution ends up being a stiletto stabbed directly into the economic aspirations of the pumping happy farmers that have long had it going their way here.
Now the agriculture stakeholders are taking acreage out of production and investing in technologically enhanced irrigation equipment. This is the fig and the leaf, the head and fake, to a crisis of Noah’s Ark proportions.
Since the climate is getting warmer and dryer none of this is likely to make the golfers happy, the grass greener or water grabbing easier. Like a husband who has vowed, there is no alternative, at some point you must get by with less or come to the point where you can’t get by at all, because there is no more water and what remains of your love life depends upon a wife that imagines you to be strong as Hercules and as virtuous as Spartacus. If that doesn’t make any sense to you then you just haven’t been married enough.
Anza Borrego Springs State Park is California’s largest. Fully one fifth of San Diego County is comprised of this pristine place. As stakeholders go the park weighs in at 585,930 acres full of roadrunners and rattlesnakes. If the aquifer in Borrego Valley was to fail all bets are off. This is the nettlesome tangle to be found here. Nowhere does it make sense to give up on twenty percent of some of the most magnificent desertscape in the world. There are no pain free solutions for the biggest water users but there is certain agony for everyone if this doesn’t get fixed and fixed right.
At United Nation’s in 2018 the world’s leaders launched a Sustainable Development Plan. The Secretary General pointed to growing demands, poor management and climate change as having increased water stresses and scarcity of water. What our global leaders are saying is that over-pumping of the aquifer in Borrego Springs is a problem found across the world.
One of the peculiarities of the challenge’s modern-day civilization confronts is the sheer size, scale, and scope of our efforts to harmonize our use of the world’s natural resources. Our economic system exerts enormous pressure on people, politics, and nations. We fix one problem then find we’ve caused another one. I’m thinking about the hydropower systems on the Columbia River and the salmon runs that then were unable to make it back to their ancestral spawning grounds. Don’t even get me started on Fukushima.
For at least two centuries we relied upon fossil fuels to power our world only to learn we are now in a race against time to deploy a new energy system for a new century while there is still time, if there is still time at all, there’s a lot at stake, and everything to lose, like the whole planet.
Human beings are not wired up to dwell on what happens when a million-acre wildfire strikes, when a Rhode Island sized iceberg breaks off from Antarctica, or when a pristine piece of California desert is brought to the brink of collapse. What does that even mean? What can anyone do? Change the subject, gripe about the minimum wage, invade a country, fret about the stock market, become a vegan, or eat veal. Looking the other way only works so long, the time comes when action becomes necessary, and inaction would be suicidal. Borrego Springs is the poster child for a place where the time on the clock, the close shave, the near miss meets the last straw.
California is a mix of seashore and desertscape, a canvas where our doers and dreamers carve out their best lives. Our citizens imagine our world’s problems to be over there, someplace else, not here, how can the most prosperous state in the union even have so much difficulty?
We say this often but these two words bounce off, they glance but don’t penetrate, we can’t wrap our minds around what it means to be living through a climate emergency, we can’t imagine ourselves being caught up in a catastrophe that is forcing us to flee for our lives, to run from wildfires to move on from where we live because the wells have run dry. Then, one morning a volcano, Mount St. Helens ejects most of its mountaintop seven miles up into the atmosphere, a spectacular unimaginable event of outrageous scale.
Centuries long megadroughts seem inconceivable, massive climate change caused migrations are for someplace else, not here, they are for over there. This human caused climate crisis can’t be happening until we all get it through are thick skulls that anthropogenic climate change is the result of what human beings have been doing. That’s the hardest part of our journey, understanding that this is our world, this is our nature, this is what is happening, what the world is now going through, what we’re doing to the world, the world we don’t just walk on, but the world we are folded into.
Ultimately this is a head trip, all dreamed up by the turning wheels inside our minds. It is cognitive, born of imagination while failing to fully appreciate the implications, that our ability to accomplish certain things can result in blowback, that what we do isn’t just dangerous, it can be outright deadly. And once we know better, once we understand what we are doing to ourselves, and then being unable to stop because we don’t want to, it is inconvenient, we’ll lose money, go broke, our lives will have to change, even if our behavior triggers a massive extinction event, even then if we can’t stop the harm we are causing, when we’ve reached that fork in the road we have to reckon morally with the likely cognitive design flaws we’ve inherited as a species.
Borrego Springs is a mirror that’s forcing us to look fearlessly heart and soul into the abyss.
Last summer’s monsoons in the Southwest last went missing . Last weeks Southern Colorado-Northern New Mexico snowfall in the headwaters to the Rio Grande while welcomed offered little relief. Most of New Mexico is in severe drought.
Reservoirs in Marin County, California are so low water agencies are within a week of enacting mandatory conservation orders similar to those caused by the drought in 2013-2017.
On March 23rd California State Water Resources Control Board mailed — “warning notices to agricultural water rights holders urging them to plan for potential shortages by reducing water use and adopting practical conservation measures.”
Utah’s governor is urging residential water users to begin conservation measures. From Ogden to St. George the region has been hit hard by a lack of rain and snow.
Lake Powell is less than 38% full with its water level down by 129 feet.
Napa Valley California’s premier winegrowing region rainfall totals are off for a second year. The last time the region was hit with a two year below normal rainfall season the Valley Fire of 2015 erupted and became one of the state’s most destructive wildfires in history.
Our dry winter has impacted water wells too. The United States Geological Survey has released a study that warns of 200,000 water wells in California were tested and that scientists found increased levels of arsenic that exceed Federal safety standards. Arsenic increases risk of cancer.
Colorado’s Front Range got clobbered two weeks ago by an epic winter snowstorm that has moved the states drought status from severe to water customers now expecting that there will be no water restrictions.
There is no such luck for Colorado’s Western Slope where ranchers and farmers near Grand Junction remain in desperate straits.
Up and down the line circumstances are dire. An estimated 75% of the land in eleven states here in the American West, a vast geographic area encompassing almost half of the nation’s landmass is facing the driest spring in the last seven years. Electricity produced by hydropower is being cut back, vast tracts of agricultural lands will be forced out of production, fish populations will be damaged, and this year’s fire season has the potential to eclipse last years record setter.
California’s economy is diverse. Agriculture in the state accounts for 3% of the gross domestic product while using 50-70% of the states water. Agriculture dependent Modesto, Manteca, Merced, Fresno and Bakersfield will all take a huge hit to their local economies.
As the pandemic winds down, as the virus is brought to heel the damage caused by water scarcity will destabilize California’s economic, social and political outlook.
Arizona, Nevada and Utah continue to attract new residents just as a once in every 1000-year megadrought bares down on the region.
Water rights awarded a century ago in the midst of above average rainfall years have been over allocated. Governments at all levels have maintained a hands-off approach, the politics of the situation is fraught, worse still when there have been subsidies made available for water and crops those incentives have proven misguided.
Water interests in the seven states near the Colorado River are tangled in tense ongoing negotiations with a deadline of 2025. The drought, wildfires and climate emergency only complicate matters that much more.
Water regulators in Marin County have called for a halt to permitting new water hookups for residential housing. California already faced with a shortage of affordable real estate can ill afford to worsen the situation, but in Marin County reservoir capacity is limited and mandatory water rationing is expected to begin soon.
Water needed for a growing residential population continues to expand exponentially across the region. Las Vegas and Phoenix in the last three decades have increased threefold, each from one million to three million. Southern Utah is bursting with new residents. Colorado’s Front Range sprawling expansion has favorite Rocky Mountain destination resorts jammed to the hilt.
Because of the climate emergency the American West is at an inflection point. “Tucson Water Director Tim Thomure. He still oversees the utility as interim assistant city manager.” Addressing the loss of Colorado River water Thomure claims Tucson’s water resources remain sufficient. Assistant city managers have a job to do and elected official to keep in office. His assessment is an outlier.
Tucson and Las Vegas will be forced to seek funding to build desalination plants. This is my opinion, my informed guess, there is not enough water in the Southwest. Expensive purified desalinated water will force residents to put in place stringent water conservation measures. Water pipelines will route across the desert to tap sea water from the Sea of Cortez and Pacific Ocean.
High priced water will force rural grass crop growers out of business. Food crop planting will increase. To conserve water fields will be laser leveled and drip irrigated. Moisture sensors plugged into nut trees sending signals back to software enhanced computers will turn water on and off automatically based upon moisture content measured by remote instruments.
Scarcity will force agriculture to make hard choices, crops will be rationalized, there are sure to be other regions of the state or nation better suited for growing specific crops.
Another dryer warmer winter has come and gone, spring rains are deficient our water deficit is large and the water in our reservoirs is low. California is 50% of normal for rainfall, about 60% for snowpack. With no water to irrigate many crops will go unplanted. Other fields with grapevines or orchard crops will use what water that is allocated to keep their root stock alive until next year.
There is a agriculture lobby group, California Water Alliance that has been behind efforts to ship more water from the delta near Sacramento south into the San Joaquin Valley’s colossus Westland’s Water District. The more water diverted the more fish die, the more salt intrudes into the domestic drinking water reservoirs. The only constituents for these diversions are the enterprises that could use the water for their private profit. Big urban citizens, sizable majority’s don’t want the fish killed off or salty drinking water coming out of their faucets.
In California there are still twenty million acres that haven’t burned in over a century or more, they are dangerously dry and overgrown, one mistake, one lightning strike and the American West will burn on and on.
Groundwater will in the next few years start to be regulated and pumping is scheduled to be cut back. The Colorado River is flowing at a historically much lower rate while the needs of a growing population that depends on this resource continues to grow. Push has come to shove, bullet biting never popular is here and the unavoidable tight spot has arrived.
I can tick off a dozen moves our water managers are going to be forced into this year.
Hotter and drier conditions in Napa Valley are disadvantaging the famous Cabernet Sauvignon grape that is ripening too quick, concentrating sugars that are too high, making the wine too sweet to tame. Winegrowers are planting further north in the higher latitudes.
Interesting times are here. Putting things off won’t do, we are short of water and out of time, we meet the moment by making difficult decisions. The meek will not inherit this hotter and drier earth.
Cedar City Utah’s, Central Iron County Water Conservancy District Pine Valley Water Supply and Conservation Project is worth our thinking about before we go out and cause all kinds of irreversible natural world hell. Southern Utah is one of the fastest growing regions of the United States and I mean horizontal suburban sprawling housing projects that are being thrown up just as fast as a hammer swinging beer drinking football fan can manage. Water is a vital, scarce, hard to come by necessity out here, every squirrel, rattlesnake and icemaking machine from the Mexican border to the Boise, Idaho needs more water.
To be on a planning commission, supervisory board, or to become mayor means you have got to talk fast and find answers to impossible problems. You can’t win without support, and you can’t win support promising to shutdown businesses, slow down growth, and throw your voters out of work. Until now there has been enough water for Cedar City to get into the mess they are in today.
Backwaters of Baker, Nevada
Iron County Water Conservancy is doing its dead level best, but push has come to shove. Seventy miles northwest is located Pine Valley. I been through this region, land is owned by the Federal Government. A proposal to pump groundwater from Pine Valley back to Cedar City is under consideration. That’s all you need to know is that otherwise good civil servants in cahoots with real estate developers want to go from Iron County up to Beaver County and grab the water from a pristine untouched immaculately conceived ancient aquifer. I’m am nothing if not objective, fair and balanced and through and through unbiased.
Let’s wrap our heads around other solutions. Before we begin you should understand taking another track could come back to bite or sting a politician right in the butt end of the ballot box. Best we understand reality before casting about for solutions.
I haven’t crunched the numbers but by aerial photographic investigation it is plain as day that there are a few thousand farms that are going to need to surrender their rights back to Cedar City for the common good.
Water Rights Reassigned
Rescinding a farmer’s water rights is like coming home drunk, lipstick on your collar, a night out two-stepping at the local honky tonk, knowing full well that there are no undiscovered artesian gushers or marriages that can’t end in divorce.
First thing we might want to try is just conserving what water we use now. That rankles contemporary Americans, “I ain’t sacrificing one single inch of my entitled ass for you and that stink eye you are trying to water shame me with.”
That’s one vote losing suggestion right there. Second, every means of water conservation is going to be required to be fully exhausted to slowdown the flow of water from every home and business in or near Cedar City. Low flow showerheads, low volume toilets, drought tolerant landscaping, condemning golf courses, and installing recycled water commercial carwash facilities. That all sounds like some kind of nightmare liberal utopian gateway to socialism. I know, I know, but time has come.
Mule, Jeep or on horseback
Baker, Nevada is a town of 56 good souls. Men and women from this community sit at the foot of Wheeler Peak home to the Great Basin National Park. Not that you are supposed to know or even understand how underground aquifers can all be interconnected, but now that you do know you might just be wondering if Cedar City pumping water out of Pine Valley might potentially cause harm just ever so slightly west to the aquifer beneath Snake Valley? Look at that, just like that, those Cedar City water grabbers have put at risk all that is right and mighty in White Pine County, Nevada.
Wheeler Peak, Nevada 13,065 Above Sea Level
Water grabbing is a big, tangled mess, makes Los Angeles freeway gridlock seem like an almost solvable problem compared to this venomous pit of Great Basin water moccasins. Men, real estate developers and ranch hands are wanton creatures and know more about a 12-gauge shotgun than they do about modern-day birth control.
Drought has the Southwest by the neck. Our swelling population, all the booming communities have arrived just in time for a climate emergency civilization changing reckoning. Business friendly politicians are about to leap into rhetorical obfuscation and pretzel misshaped solutions even the dirtiest devils will regard as even harder to scrub off than a tattoo.
Downtown Baker on a busy day
Timidity will buy time, but it won’t get you what you don’t have. Crystalline materials, powders called metal organic frameworks, can now harvest water vapor from the air. This device comes from Yaghi Laboratory at UC Berkeley. This new solar-powered device can pull water straight from the desert air, and enough water each day to supply each and every happy home in Cedar City.
Lithium mines, geothermal electrical generating stations, Gigfactories, and for the love of God and all of creation you mean to tell me that there is a thing called a solar powered residential water maker in our future? I know it’s hard, but this is where our struggle to coexist with the finite resources found on earth have brought us to. So, dear Cedar City water grabbers, deal with it.
It may well be a mistake to read The Sixth Extinction. I’m susceptible to dour outlooks. Rather prefer a cheery point of view. Once in my Haight-Ashbury days my cosmic optimism came psychedelically amplified.
Replacing countercultural adventurism for this four decade long experiment in neoliberal economics is morphing into a rolling planetary disaster.
Case in point is the Loon Star State of Texas going bat crap crazy. Detention centers in abandoned Walmart Stores? People in Texas if you are going to be deluded do it Texas style and go King Sized.
Last Tuesday’s election Alberta, Canada tosses out their 44 year old rightwing for some newfangled progressive adventure. No wonder Texas is frightened and I’m tickled ‘commi-pink’.
Then, last night David Cameron and the City of London have got Scotland so worked up by their rapacious behavior that they birthed a full-on secessionist impulse among people that were once known for manufacturing fuddy-duddy woolen products and barrel aged booze. Good going boys. The Torres (conservatives) may well rule in Britain, but it may turn out to be a vastly diminished kingdom that they are left to despoil.
California’s drought has got everyone’s attention. With 400 different water boards scattered chaotically across the state the overlapping contradictory allocations of water rights deeded and lawfully recorded has been done in such a byzantine convoluted manner that no one and nobody can make heads or tails of it all. And you got to remember this is over water that did not fall and has not fallen for four years now. It is turning water rights into a theoretical conundrum.
Big multinational conglomerates have descended upon Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake Counties. Like lumber barons of the past they plant vines like Douglas Fir- cheek to jowl- while praying for rain and pumping groundwater at homo-ignoramus rates.
Not to be outdone by the states antiquated water board’s the various county supervisors have bent over backwards to embrace the overdevelopment of the wine growing region. You take a deeded absolute right to the water, toss in a multinational corporation, add a bought and paid for county supervisor and out of their mouths pops things like, “this is still a free country” and these businesses have an “absolute right” to the water deeded to them. For Christ’s sake we are talking about the ‘blessed sacrament’ itself. Christianity could learn a thing or two about capitalism and faith.
Big agriculture in Northern California is driving its inhabitants to the nuthouse. You’d think that water from the Russian River was meant for the people that live there. Where in the name of Wall Street did you ever get that idea from? Huge flows of capital are rushing in sucking every last drop of water on a crop they are exporting to markets overseas. They take the water, ship the crop and pocket the money into an account in the Cayman Islands. This is God’s good work, capitalism at its very best. Tax breaks for everyone!
Who the hell has time to do anything about climate change? I was standing 40 feet above sea level in the heart of the Napa Valley in the hamlet of Rutherford a month back. Forty feet sounds pretty good don’t you think?
For the moment the San Francisco Bay extends north beyond Vallejo and spreads out upon a magnificent wetlands system that comes right up to the edge of Napa. Antarctica is now melting at a rate faster than ever measured. And you know where that water ends up? Oh come on… forty feet of sea level rise? That isn’t even possible is it? Not in our lifetimes.
And that my friend’s is the beauty of the neoliberal economic model. You don’t worry about tomorrow you keep your eye on today. That’s all there is to it. Sometimes we can be so oblivious to the economic benefits of free trade.