Executive Summary for May 19th

In this weekly roundup, we analyze key water developments around the West, including high flows on the Rio Grande and a milestone for wastewater recycling in San Diego. We also look at lessons learned by farmers during the long California drought.

Published on May 19, 2017 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Revival on the Rio Grande

After more than a decade of lean times caused by drought, the Rio Grande is roaring back.

The Rio Grande is one of America’s great rivers, winding through three states and marking more than a thousand miles of the border with Mexico.

Heavy winter snows in New Mexico and Colorado mean the river will have more runoff than in past years and further into the summer – good news for farms, recreation, urban water supplies and wildlife.

“This is a wonderful thing,” Garrett VeneKlasen, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, told the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Flooding is not expected on any parts of the Rio Grande, according to the National Weather Service. But conditions in many areas are dangerous, especially for people who haven’t seen flows like this in years.

Last week, an experienced rafter and kayaker died on the river near Taos when he fell off a raft and was pulled under.

San Diego Moves Forward With Sewage Recycling

San Diego, the U.S.’s eighth-largest city, will begin a massive wastewater recycling project following a crucial decision by the California Coastal Commission.

The unanimous decision allows San Diego to put off improvements at its existing sewage treatment plant to focus on the new Pure Water effluent recycling project instead. The decision frees up cash to begin the construction process.

The $3 billion Pure Water project will make San Diego one of the largest cities to undertake grand-scale recycling of sewage effluent into drinking water. If carried out fully, it calls for three recycling plants that would recycle 100 million gallons of wastewater annually into drinking water for the region’s 2.5 million residents. Officials expect to break ground next year.

It’s been a long road for the project, which faced strong resistance when first proposed in the 1990s. After lots of community education, polls indicate 70 percent of county residents support the project.

“For our members, the businesses in San Diego, they really do understand … the importance of water reliability and how important that is to the success of our region,” Sean Karafin, executive director of policy and economic research for the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, told the Union-Tribune newspaper.

Drought Lessons: What Farmers Learned

Farmers at the Association of California Water Agencies conference last week discussed how they were able to carry important lessons from California’s punishing five-year drought into the future.

During a panel discussion at the conference, Butte County rice grower Greg Johnson said technology made “a tremendous difference” during this drought. Among other things, farmers were able to employ zero-grade leveling of fields to use water more efficiently, and near real-time availability of water data led to better planning decisions.

“It made us stronger, it made us better, it made us more prepared for the next drought, which we know is going to happen,” said Jake Wenger, a nut grower in Stanislaus County.

There are big challenges ahead, including the ever-present problem of groundwater depletion, which worsened during the drought as farmers relied more heavily on aquifers. The Sacramento Bee reported that farmers pumped enough groundwater during the drought to fill Shasta Reservoir seven times. With a capacity of 4.5 million acre-feet, Shasta is the state’s largest reservoir.

“Pumping groundwater during a drought isn’t an unreasonable strategy,” said Dennis Lettenmaier, a UCLA professor of geography who led a new study on the subject. “The problem is: Do to you have a strategy to make it sustainable, which means putting it back in? As near as I can tell, the answer to that is ‘no.’”

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