When 2017 started, California was still mired in a five-year drought, but things quickly swung from drought to deluge as it became a record-breaking year for precipitation in parts of the state. So much precipitation fell that Oroville, the state’s second largest dam, nearly came apart at the seams in February. The drought was officially declared to be over in April by Gov. Jerry Brown as substantial snowpack extended the Sierra Nevada ski season into the summer and the runoff refilled reservoirs.
Despite the wet weather, groundwater remains overdrafted in many parts of the state, although help is (very slowly) on the way. June 30 marked the first major deadline for California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act as counties and regional water managers were required to form “groundwater sustainability agencies” (GSAs). These GSAs will eventually be tasked with developing their own sustainable groundwater plans.
In July, the State Water Resources Control Board unanimously voted to adopt a drinking water standard for regulating 1,2,3-trichloropropane (TCP), a man-made chemical the state designated as a carcinogen a quarter-century ago.
Throughout the year, the regulatory process for California WaterFix inched forward with continued water rights hearings at the State Water Resources Control Board. But financial uncertainty grew in the fall as key water districts, including agricultural powerbroker Westlands and the Santa Clara Valley Water Agency, balked at the buy-in price for the $17 billion project.
And then, just as the new “water year” was beginning on October 1 and Californians were anticipating the return of the wet season, a series of deadly wildfires overtook North Bay wine country counties, including Napa and Sonoma, causing more than 40 fatalities and over $1 billion in damages. In December, when the state saw virtually no precipitation, more wildfires took off in Southern California. The Thomas fire grew to be one of the biggest in the state’s history as it moved from Ventura to Santa Barbara County, putting a flaming exclamation point on the end of California’s most destructive year for wildfires.
Throughout the year, California was focused on water storage, as the Water Commission accepted applications from projects looking for a share of the 2014 water bond’s $2.7 billion that will be doled out for new water storage projects next year.
But elsewhere in the West, the focus has been on pipelines.
Southern Nevada Water Authority is still pursuing its hope of building a 250-mile pipeline to bring rural groundwater to the Las Vegas area. In New Mexico, a similar project would send rural groundwater 150 miles to Albuquerque. And in Utah, a 140-mile pipeline could tap Lake Powell to quench the growing thirst of the St. George area in Washington County.
Utah has also floated plans for a dam (or several) on the Bear River, the largest tributary of the (shrinking) Great Salt Lake. And Colorado has designs of its own to divert Colorado River water for the $400 million Chimney Hollow dam and reservoir to grow the water supply for Front Range communities north of Denver.
In other Colorado River news, lower basin states Arizona, Nevada and California continue to discuss (but not finalize) a drought contingency plan to avoid shortages in Lake Mead. But a significant step forward was taken on September 27 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, when the much-anticipated Minute 323 – an agreement between the U.S. and Mexico over Colorado River water – was signed. It will invest millions in conservation projects and gives Mexico rights to store water in Lake Mead, which will help boost lake levels.
Popular Water Deeply Reads
This year, some of our most popular stories covered water infrastructure – particularly dams. The most-read story of the year was about efforts to remove the Matilija Dam in Ojai, California, which, if completed, would be the biggest dam removal project in the state’s history.
Some other dam important stories were:
- Key Oroville Drain Plugged as Heavy Storms Pounded the Reservoir
- Two Years After California’s Biggest Dam Removal, Fish Rebound
- Oroville Dam in Miniature: Scale Model Helps Repair Damaged Spillway
Readers also dug into our multimedia series, Toxic Taps, which explored communities in California that continue to lack access to safe drinking water and what’s being done (or not) to fix these chronic problems. Here are a few from that series:
- The California Drought Isn’t Over, It Just Went Underground
- Why It’s Legal to Pump Untreated Canal Water Into Californians’ Homes
- Why California’s Nitrate Problem Will Take Decades to Fix
Our Colorado River coverage also connected California to the wider West with stories about dams, water transfers and how states are planning for a water-constrained future. Here are some of the top reads:
- Calls to Rethink the Colorado River’s Iconic Dams Grow Louder
- Reckoning Ahead for Arizona as Water Imbalance Grows on Colorado River
- How the Colorado River’s Future Depends on the Salton Sea
Key Media Coverage
The media landscape was rich this year in coverage of important western water issues – from the Desert Sun’s Salton Sea series to the Sacramento Bee’s Oroville Dam coverage – so we asked a few water experts which ones caught their eye.
Jay Lund is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at University of California, Davis, and one of the key stories he found this year was Decline of the World’s Saline Lakes, published in Nature. The study found that saline lakes in the Western U.S., including the Great Salt Lake, are declining thanks to diversions, mostly for agriculture.
“Although this piece focuses on saline lakes globally, it illustrates a common specific problem in the western U.S. and a broader water policy problem in the U.S. (and globally) about how the most direct and likely explanation has been buried in obfuscation for decades,” says Lund.
“The paper nicely points out that no solution will be easy, and that not addressing the problem is not easy either. There is no way to conveniently solve this problem, other than denying its cause or hoping that a solution will appear spontaneously (paid for by someone else),” Lund added. “This is common for water policy problems generally in the western U.S. and globally.”
Tara Moran, program lead for sustainable groundwater at Stanford University’s Water in the West program, picked out a Capital Public Radio story, First Step in Implementing California Groundwater Law Successful.
“While it isn’t the sexiest story out there, this is my favorite story from 2017 because it represents a huge step forward for water management in California and is an early indication that agencies are taking groundwater management in California seriously,” says Moran. “The formation of these agencies was the first legislative deadline: The fact that 99 percent of the groundwater basins that were required to do so under the law met the legislative deadline and that nearly half of them chose to work collaboratively to do so is incredibly encouraging. This is the first step in securing California’s sustainable water future.”
Max Gomberg, climate and conservation manager for the California State Water Resources Control Board, looked to the Great Lakes to get some perspective on California water.
Same Lake, Unequal Rights for the Chicago Tribune investigated why black and poor communities pay more for water. This was the most important story of 2017 for him “because it shows how dramatically structural inequalities and institutional racism affect water systems,” he says. “In California we have made implementation of the Human Right to Water a priority, but we still have a lot of work to do to make sure that disadvantaged communities have safe, accessible and affordable water. As the toxic politics of the Trump administration further exacerbate inequality, it is imperative that California’s water managers, at the state and local levels, redouble our efforts to make diversity, equity and justice core to our work.”
The Year Ahead
As 2017 comes to an end, all eyes are on weather forecasts, snowpack measurements and reservoir elevations (and still-burning wildfires). Many key decisions in the coming year will focus on how much precipitation the West can tally in the next few months, but regardless there will still be ongoing, structural water issues of key importance. We’ll lay out some of those soon in our 2018 outlook and we welcome your feedback and participation in helping to shape what stories we’ll cover in the coming year. Let us know what’s on your radar.
Happy New Year!