Executive Summary for April 29th

In this weekly roundup, we analyze key developments in the California drought including a battle over Colorado River water. We also look at new findings about an increase in almond acreage.

Published on April 29, 2016 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Battle Over the Colorado Continues

There is a new interstate battle brewing over the waters of the Colorado River between California, Arizona and Nevada as levels in Lake Mead have been falling for 16 years.

The Colorado River Compact, which divvied up the waters of the Colorado River, was signed in 1922 and established upper and lower basins. Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming were upper basin states and Arizona, California and Nevada were lower basin states. Each basin was responsible for distributing its share of 7.5 million acre-feet (9.25 billion cubic meters) a year among each other. Later agreements also allocated a portion of the flow to Mexico.

Lower basin states spent decades wrangling over their allocations and the work is not yet done. And thanks to drought and overallocation of the water, lower basin states are negotiating a part of their agreement that determines new allocations for times of shortage. Currently, California receives 4.4 million acre-feet, (5.4 billion cubic meters), Arizona 2.8 million acre-feet (3.5 billion cubic meters) and Nevada, 300,000 acre-feet (3.7 million cubic meters).

The issue is far from settled, but Tony Davis at the Arizona Daily Star reported on some potential agreements. The Central Arizona Project could receive gradual cuts of up to 40 percent. California would lose far less, perhaps 8 percent of its allocation, but it’s a departure from a 1968 agreement that was to give California priority over the Central Arizona Project in times of shortage. Nevada would also take a cut, but very small, considering its allocation. And the Bureau of Reclamation would be ordered to improve efficiencies in the system and save another 100,000 acre-feet.

Putting Fines to Good Use

The seriousness of California’s drought last year spurred a statewide conservation mandate that resulted in some water districts being fined. But the money generated from those fines is being put to good use.

One of the areas that had the hardest time complying with Gov. Jerry Brown’s conservation mandate were inland desert communities, which have high water usage – much of which goes to irrigation.

Ian James at the Desert Sun reported that four water agencies in the region were fined $61,000 by the State Water Resources Control Board. Two of the agencies, however, are getting that money back.

“The Coachella Valley Water District and the Indio Water Authority have reached deals with the state that will allow them to use the money locally to promote water conservation,” James reported. “The Coachella Valley Water District plans to use its $61,000 to start a certification course for landscapers focused on promoting efficient water use.”

The Indio Water Authority will use its $61,000 to help support its water conservation programs, including a rebate program, and will create a website where water users can track their usage in real time.

The Almond Party Continues

Despite another year of drought in California and drastic surface water cutbacks to the Central Valley, the amount of acreage being planted with almond trees is still going up.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service reported that in 2015, the number of acres of almonds planted in California grew by 6 percent to a total of more than 1.1 million acres (4.5 billion square meters).

As Capital Press reports, this “continues a trend in which acreage has doubled in the last 20 years, according to government and industry statistics.”

Since farmers planting thirsty almonds have come under much scrutiny during the drought, the Almond Board of California is responding to critics by saying that most of the new acreage being planted with almonds was already irrigation agriculture.

“Almonds take up about 14 percent of the state’s irrigated farmland, but use 9.5 percent of California’s agricultural water, less than a proportionate share,” said Almond Board of California president and CEO, Richard Waycott. “Because of the industry’s commitment to research and efficiency, growers use 33 percent less water to grow a pound of almonds than they did two decades ago.”

But another perspective on the issue came from the On the Public Record blog. “This acreage, planted in Drought Year Four, commits about 180,000 acre-feet [7.3 million square meters] a year to those trees, a constant burden on groundwater basins and our political system for every one of the next 25 years,” the blog reported. “Had the Brown administration banned new permanent crops in basins with declining groundwater levels, that demand might be in annual crops, flexible in times of high climate variability.”

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