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Executive Summary for May 12th

In this weekly roundup, we analyze key water developments in California, including aftereffects of the drought on water rates and salmon. We also look at a new federal court ruling that affects public access to groundwater data.

Published on May 12, 2017 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Drought Is Over … and Here Come the Water Rate Hikes

Californians are still adjusting to life after the long five-year drought. For many, this will include adjusting to pricier water. Some water agencies held back on rate increases during the drought, fearing it would be viewed as a kind of punishment for customers who worked hard to conserve water. In reality, conservation means less revenue for water agencies, which have essentially fixed costs to treat and deliver water.

Many water agencies have also fallen behind on system maintenance, leading to aging pipes, pumps and valves that are more prone to failure.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District is one of the largest water agencies to roll out a post-drought rate increase. The district serves 1.4 million people in two Bay Area counties who cut their water use 20 percent during the drought. Now they could see a 19 percent rate increase over two years to replace aging infrastructure and cover district revenue losses caused by reduced water sales. It also plans a separate 10 percent increase in sewer rates for a subset of customers.

Other agencies planning water or sewer rate changes include San Mateo (a 36 percent increase), Whittier (6 percent), San Lorenzo Valley (undetermined), and San Diego County (6 percent).

“We appreciate our customers’ conservation efforts,” EBMUD spokeswoman Jenesse Miller said, “but reducing your water use doesn’t always mean your bill is doing to go down.”

Drought Hardships Still Weigh Heavily on Salmon Fishing

The three- to four-year spawning cycle of California’s native salmon runs means that population impacts on these fish from low river flows is only being felt now. As a result, Klamath River Chinook salmon are expected to see their lowest numbers ever recorded, while endangered Sacramento River winter-run Chinook face a high risk of population losses if they end up being harvested in the ocean as part of the commercial fishery for fall-run Chinook.

To protect these species, the Pacific Fishery Management Council in April voted to close ocean salmon fishing entirely in the vicinity of the Klamath River to protect those resident salmon. Further south, it limited the length of the ocean fishing season to protect winter-run salmon.

Thousands of commercial and recreational fishermen and related businesses depend on the salmon runs. But reduced fishing opportunity may have the sharpest impact on Klamath River Indian tribes, which depend on salmon for sustenance and a variety of cultural practices.

“Take away the fish, and our social fabric starts to unravel,” says Amy Cordalis, a Yurok commercial fisherwoman and attorney for the tribe.

Several state and federal politicians are calling for a fishery disaster declaration, which would free up federal funds to ease the pain.

Commercial Interest in Oil Trumps Public Interest in Water

A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., ruled this week that crucial information about groundwater wells is exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Although the ruling dealt with a California case, it will likely affect many other FOIA requests for groundwater information around the country.

The California group Aqualliance challenged the Bureau of Reclamation’s move to redact crucial information about industrial-scale transfers of groundwater for agricultural irrigation. Reclamation argued that information on well completions, construction and physical location could be withheld under a FOIA exemption.

The court agreed, saying FOIA language meant to protect commercially sensitive data about oil and gas resources applies to groundwater as well.

Special Note …

Be sure and tune into Water Deeply next week as we expand our coverage to encompass the broader Western United States. Starting Monday, we’ll be bringing you in-depth coverage of water issues in 11 Western states. We will continue to offer news and analysis from California. Now you’ll also get the same insightful coverage of water challenges and solutions in the Pacific Northwest and all the Colorado River Basin states.

Communities in the West have a lot in common when it comes to water. We hope our expanded coverage helps nurture the best ideas to protect and manage our most precious natural resource.

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