Reflowing the Sierra to the Sea

Reflowing the Sierra to the Sea

A fall flight over the Mexican coast where the Colorado River meets the Sea of Cortez offered me a gut-punching, eye-screwing, visual on the results of impaired flow. The semantics of ‘unimpaired’ and ‘impaired’ flow have laced the language of California water management debates since some engineer invented these politically ‘neutral’ terms long ago. The terms refer to our alteration of freshwater flows from snowmelt and runoff by dams and diversions. But whatever the labels, or whichever estuary you’re referring...
Read More

Estuary Partners Choose their Battles Coast to Coast

A boatload of estuary experts from around the country gathered on an early October day to tour the prettiest part of San Francisco Bay. They paid rather less attention to Alcatraz and the Golden Gate than to each other. In town for the National Estuary Program’s annual Tech Transfer Conference, they had come to compare notes and strategies from the 28 varied bays, bights, bayous, and river mouths that benefit from one of the nation’s most durable, and efficient, environmental...
Read More

Recent Milestones for the Twin Tunnels and WaterFix

Spring and summer 2018 saw frenzied activity around California WaterFix, the latest iteration of a decades-long, on-again-of-again effort to convey fresh water from the Sacramento River to the South Delta while bypassing the Delta itself. Governor Jerry Brown has made WaterFix a top priority, but the project – including twin tunnels comprising the largest infrastructure project in state history – still faces a raft of uncertainties.
Read More

Dioxins Are Sticking Around Nearshore and in Fish, RMP Reports

As the “Fish-SMART” signs on local piers warn, the tissues of fish reeled in from San Francisco Bay waters can contain mercury or PCBs, but a new RMP report reminds us of a third contaminant of concern to human health: dioxins. The report, due out in October 2018 and prepared by staff of the San Francisco Estuary Institute and the SF Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, confirms that while levels of this toxic contaminant in sediments nearshore have declined...
Read More

California’s groundwater faces widespread chromium contamination risk resulting from natural, rather than industrial sources.

Chromium’s toxic form, known as hexavalent chromium, is used in steel manufacturing, leather tanning, and wood treatment; its lethal effects were popularized in the 2000 movie Erin Brockovich. But today transformation of the benign form of chromium naturally found in soils poses the larger risk, according to a recent Stanford University study. Dr. Debra Hausladen and her colleagues used a statewide groundwater database to trace the origin of 90,000 chromium samples, and discovered toxic chromium from natural sources is affecting...
Read More

Innovative stormwater management strategies throughout California are pioneering new ways to capture and use stormwater to augment local water supplies and prepare for climate change, according to a new report.

“Stormwater has traditionally been considered a nuisance or danger in terms of flooding and water quality,” says the Pacific Institute’s Morgan Shimabuku, lead author of Stormwater Capture in California: Innovative Policies and Funding Opportunities, “But we’re starting to see it as more of a resource with potential for water supply.” Shimabuku notes that stormwater capture is also “a great strategy for adapting to climate change, alleviating the impact of high-intensity rainstorms and reducing dependence on other water sources in times...
Read More

The Quiet Go-To Guy: Carl Morrison

When Carl Morrison died in a crash of his small plane near Petaluma this past April, the press noted the loss of a family man, Civil Air Patrol commander, Marine Corps Veteran, and pious Mormon. The shock also reverberated through the world of Bay Area flood control and water agencies, for whom Morrison was indispensable. As his Bay Area business expanded, Morrison eased his commute by training as a pilot and acquiring a small plane. People marveled at how many...
Read More

All In for One Water

As climate change threatens to upend precipitation patterns and disrupt water supplies, agencies are increasingly searching for ways to wring more benefits out of every drop. The Santa Clara Valley Water District is seeking to take integrated water management planning to the next level through its One Water initiative. “The idea of One Water is to manage all water — treated water, groundwater, stormwater, flood water, water for habitat, species and Baylands — as one resource,” says the District’s Brian...
Read More

Cold Curtain

Cold water, essential for the life cycle of Chinook salmon, is all too often in short supply along the Sacramento River. A primary cause: California’s massive water conveyance system, using reservoirs, dams, and hydroelectric plants to divert water and deliver power to farms and cities. “When we started releasing water in spring, we let cold water out too early. None was left by fall, when salmon really needed it,” says USBR hydraulic engineer Tracy Vermeyen. Two clever innovations have been...
Read More
Bridges - public shore

Drought Contingency

Motivated by the recent drought, local water agencies have formed an unprecedented partnership aimed at reducing the impact of future dry spells. The Bay Area Regional Reliability partnership consists of eight of the region’s larger water districts. “For the first time in the history of water deliver in the Bay Area, the water utilities are talking about how to assist each other when there is a shortage.”
Read More

Choice Mountain Parcels Help Protect Bay

John Muir Land Trust announces one of its largest-ever purchases, the 604-acre Carr Ranch located squarely within San Leandro Creek’s 50 square-mile watershed. Similar conservation targets exist across the Bay Area, particularly on the outskirts: Sprawling, undeveloped, privately owned parcels whose protection sends a variety of benefits cascading downhill towards the bay.
Read More

EBMUD Experiments With Pipe Replacement

On average, underground water distribution pipes can last about 100 years. The East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) owns and maintains roughly 4,200 miles of them. And it replaces about ten miles per year. At that rate it would take four centuries to replace the whole system: an approach one could charitably call unsustainable even if all the pipes were brand-new today. But parts of EBMUD’s system, cast-iron pipes inherited from forgotten, now-defunct water agencies, date to the late 1800s.
Read More

Keeping the Salt Field at Bay II

After four of California’s driest years on record, the rain we’ve gotten this winter is hardly a drought buster. But it’s still a relief. Just a year ago, our “wet” season was so dry that state water officials panicked. Major reservoirs were drawn way down, and record-low snowpack would limit replenishment to a trickle. Water managers worried about the hot, dry months. Would reservoirs still hold enough for freshwater releases to keep saltwater from pushing deep into the Sacramento-San Joaquin...
Read More

Pivot or Pirouette?

Droughts and water shortages, dry creeks, heat waves, snowpack loss, sea level rise, bigger floods, species at risk, scarcer funding for public works and restoration projects, and California’s ever-growing population—as Jeff Mount put it in The New York Times recently, it’s a frightening, uncertain new world. How are Bay-Delta resource managers responding to these changes? Are we pivoting away from old institutional and decision-making structures that need to change or dancing in circles?
Read More

No Scapefish in Drought Wars

According to the Biblical book of Leviticus, the ancient Israelites designated a goat to bear the weight of their sins. Nowadays, the scapegoat is not required to be a goat. When it comes to assessing blame for the worsening California drought, a scapefish will suffice. Some media outlets, notably the Wall Street Journal in a recent op-ed piece, point to the hapless Delta smelt as a culprit in the state’s water crisis, as well as a prime example of the...
Read More

Filling Up on Empty

“We are sucking our aquifers dry,” the headline reads. Could this be a good thing? The bad effects of declining groundwater levels are known: land subsidence, the cost of pumping from deeper wells, the drying up of surface springs and streams. But there is a potential gain as well. Using up one resource, the water stored under the ground, we are creating another: storage space far greater than any conceivable new dam could provide. “Historical overdraft,” writes engineer Jay Lund,...
Read More

Shifts in Selenium Spikes

USGS scientists headed up river this June to see whether two Asian clams had also headed upstream with the drought. When there’s less fresh water flowing out to sea, salty ocean water intrudes inland, and changes the distribution of these pesky invertebrates. Potamocorbula like it saltier than Corbicula, and usually hang out in the Suisun Bay region. But scientists suspect drought conditions may have changed all that, and with it, how and when the contaminant selenium gets cycled through the...
Read More

Keeping the Salt Field at Bay

As the dry, warm days went on and on and on this winter, two guys intimate with California’s Sacramento San Joaquin River delta shifted gears. One reassigned staff from flood to drought response, and the other lay awake at night imagining barriers across various slough openings. By early February, some Sierra reservoirs were so low, and so close to “dead pool” level, that the water projects stopped pumping and delivering. Farmers had to retrench, communities realized they might only have...
Read More