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Executive Summary for August 4th

In this weekly roundup, we analyze key water developments around the West, including new wetland protections in California and the latest court fight over a massive Nevada water pipeline. We also look at hopeful first steps on groundwater management in California.

Published on Aug. 4, 2017 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

California Poised to Step Up on Wetlands Where Trump Steps Out

A few days after the Trump administration officially proposed rolling back the “Waters of the U.S.” (WOTUS) rule, the California Water Resources Control Board proposed a new rule package that could present even tougher wetland protections.

The California rule package has been in the works for a couple of years, so the timing is mostly coincidental. But it can’t help looking like a slap in the face from a state that voted overwhelmingly against Trump, and whose leaders disagree with almost every one of the president’s federal policies.

California’s “Waters of the State” rule would protect a broad array of wetlands, including certain small streams and creeks, and a greater share of California’s vernal pools than the federal law covered.

The state water board already has broad authority under state law to protect wetlands, but often has deferred to the federal government. As the regulatory ground shifts in Washington, state officials say they want to be ready to step in depending on how far the Trump administration goes in loosening the rules.

“This policy is a critical opportunity for the state to step up and protect its own resources,” Rachel Zwillinger, water policy adviser for Defenders of Wildlife, told the Sacramento Bee.

The state water board plans a public hearing on its Waters of the State proposal Sept. 6 in Sacramento.

Judge Hears Arguments in Vegas Water Pipeline Fight

A plan to serve Las Vegas with ancient groundwater extracted from Northern Nevada aquifers was debated before a federal judge on Monday.

It’s just the latest battle in a long war pitting a wealthy metropolis against distant rural interests.

Local groups in White Pine and Lincoln counties warn that the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s pipeline project could literally dry up the rural grazing and farming economies they depend upon. They argued that the groundwater was accumulated during the Ice Age and is irreplaceable. They want the judge to order environmental studies on the project to be redone.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management in 2012 granted a right-of-way for the pipeline to cross 263 miles of federal land. But no Indian tribes in the area were properly consulted, and none signed off on the plan, Rovianne Leigh, attorney for the Goshutes tribe, said Monday.

She described tribal elders’ fears that a meadow wetland in Spring Valley will go dry. The site is revered and used in sacred ceremonies, and remembered as the site of massacres 150 years ago.

“When the water is gone, it is gone forever,” Leigh said, according to the Associated Press.

U.S. district judge Andrew Gordon said he expects to issue a written ruling in several weeks.

First Step in California Groundwater Law Successful

By June 30, the deadline for local regions to form “groundwater sustainability agencies” under a new law passed in 2014, 99 percent of the groundwater basins that fall under the law had successfully formed the new agencies.

This is an important first step under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which is designed to rein in runaway groundwater extraction. California was the last state in the West to pass a law requiring groundwater management.

“We’re very thrilled with how it’s turned out,” Erik Ekdahl, director for the Office of Research with the State Water Resources Control Board, told Capital Public Radio.

But the hard work is still to come. Forming the groundwater sustainability agencies was merely a procedural step. Now those agencies have to figure out how to avoid depleting their groundwater.

In many cases, this will require engineering ways to replenish aquifers, imposing strict conservation requirements or pumping limits. Or all of the above.

Ekdahl notes many agencies may also have to levy fees on groundwater users to pay for agency operations – a new water tax, in effect.

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