Executive Summary for September 16th

For an overview of the latest news on the California drought, we’ve organized the most recent developments in a curated summary.

Published on Sep. 16, 2015 Read time Approx. 5 minutes

SoCal Plans to Buy Water from Las Vegas

What does it say about California’s drought that the state’s largest metropolitan region plans to buy water from one of the most chronically drought-starved cities in America?

On Thursday, the water agency that serves Las Vegas will vote to “lease” 150,000 acre-feet of water to the Metropolitan Water District of California. The price is a cool $44 million, or about $300 per acre-foot.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority has been banking the Colorado River water in Lake Mead in case of extreme need. The agency and its customers don’t need the water because of their long efforts to use water more frugally. The blazing-hot desert metropolis has come to be recognized as a leader in water conservation. The authority has been banking its excess Colorado River water since 2004, and it’s not expected to be needed for several years. Yet, as it sits in storage, the water is subject to evaporation losses of 3 percent annually, so the authority will be losing some of that water every year no matter what it does.

The deal is described as a “lease” of water partly because the authority is technically just moving the water from one water bank to another, and Met will draw what it needs over time. The authority will still be able to access whatever Met doesn’t take. It is also being called a “lease” to attain some political cover, because, of course, Vegas ratepayers and water buffaloes don’t want to actually give up any water.

The situation is somewhat ironic if we recall statements by Met’s leader in the early days of the California drought.

“We’ll have plenty of water in 2015,” Jeffrey Kightlinger, Metropolitan’s general manager, told the Sacramento Bee in January 2014. “And even if it’s still a drought, we’ll still have enough water in 2016.”

At the time of that quote, Met was proudly stating there was no need for water conservation or rationing in the L.A. region, because water supplies were allegedly ample.

So what happened? Well, the drought didn’t go away. And in fact, it got much worse than anyone could have imaged in January 2014. The winter snows simply didn’t come. And those agencies that dithered about rationing water ended up paying the price. In this case, a $44 million price.

What does the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s boss have to say about the water “lease”?

“What we’re doing is helping them make time to do things that can take a decade and cost billions of dollars,” general manager John Entsminger told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

‘Sweetheart Deal’ for Westlands Water District is Finalized

We wrote on Monday about details that emerged of a closely guarded agreement between the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Westlands Water District, a farm irrigation agency in the San Joaquin Valley. Now that agreement has been finalized.

Among other things, it relieves Westlands of a $350 million debt to federal taxpayers for construction of the Central Valley Project (CVP), the Reclamation-operated plumbing system that diverts Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water to Westlands farmers. As we noted before, this is expected to help Westlands take on more debt to build the giant Delta water diversion tunnels favored by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The Delta Independent Science Board, after an extensive review, recently said the tunnel project, in its new iteration, “falls short … as a basis for weight decisions about natural resources.”

The deal also does several other nice things for Westlands, the nation’s largest irrigation district:

  • It gives them an indefinite contract for CVP water, as opposed to one that must be renewed ever two years. Perhaps even more than debt relief, this provision will help Westlands finance the new diversion tunnels by providing something more akin to a water guarantee.
  • It also relieves Westlands of the federal requirement that farms must be no more than 960 acres in size to be eligible for CVP water. This requirement was a feeble legal measure meant to ensure that federal water projects would benefit only family farmers. In reality, it was easily avoided. But eliminating the requirement may allow some farms to operate more efficiently.

In return, Westlands agrees to resolve a longstanding problem of contaminated runoff from its lands, a result of naturally occurring selenium in the soil. And it agrees to cease irrigating 20 percent of its lands, which total some 614,000 acres.

In a statement, Westlands billed the deal as of benefit to the federal government, because it will be relieved of a potential $3.5 billion cost to clean up the tainted farm runoff. It doesn’t mention that there are cheaper cleanup options.

Environmental groups said they are “outraged” by the agreement, in part because it could increase water demand on the Delta, which is already in peril.

“It’s a sweetheart deal,” U.S. Rep. Jerry McNerney, who represents part of the Delta region, told the Associated Press. “There’s a lot of concern about what’s in the agreement.”

The Drought-Friendly Taco. Plus Other Food Ideas

In the latest installment of its ambitious “Future of Water” series, SoCal Public Radio station KPCC 89.3 F.M. addresses a subject many people are thinking about but don’t really want to discuss: the water cost of our food choices.

Nobody really wants to change their habits, especially when it comes to indulgences like those greasy, savory carne asada tacos so many of us love. But meat requires a lot of water, and it’s one of the big ways, collectively, that we could use less.

So KPCC brings us the drought-friendly taco. The tortillas are made from sweet potatoes, and the primary protein ingredients are two kinds of beans, which are among the planet’s most water-frugal protein sources. The tacos are filled out with a savory pile of grilled vegetables, including tomatoes, chilis, garlic and sage.

Readers are encouraged to share their own water-friendly recipes on Twitter using the hashtag #CAwater2040.

Top image: Lake Mead at Hoover Dam, shown on February 23, 2015. The “bathtub ring” caused by declining water levels at the massive reservoir is expected to increase by 1.5 to 2 feet as a result of a proposed water “lease” to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. (John Fleck)

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