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Executive Summary for August 11th

In this weekly roundup, we analyze key water developments around the West, including opposition to tribal groundwater rights and a continued risk to water resources from marijuana production in California. We also look at the unexpected return of drought in Oregon.

Published on Aug. 11, 2017 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Western States Back California Agencies in Water Fight With Tribe

Two Southern California water agencies now have some powerful new allies in their battle against an American Indian tribe over precious groundwater: 10 state governments.

The Desert Sun newspaper reports that 10 states from Nevada to Texas have filed “friend of the court” briefs in support of the Desert Water Agency and Coachella Valley Water District.

The two water agencies in the Palm Springs area lost a case before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which found the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has a federally established right to groundwater dating to the creation of its reservation in the 1870s. Now the agencies are appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s the first federal court decision of its kind that clearly declares a tribal right to groundwater and not just surface water.

On Monday, the 10 states filed their brief in support of the water agencies, stating the circuit court decision “is literally a watershed opinion washing away the authority and control that states have traditionally exercised over groundwater resources.”

Nevada attorney general Adam Laxalt led the coalition of 10 states, which includes Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Wisconsin and Wyoming. California, which is not among them, has not formally taken a position on the case.

Marijuana, Legal and Otherwise, Continues to Tax California Water

New surveys of illegal marijuana farms on federal forest land in California show that fertilizers and toxic chemicals are a much bigger threat to water quality than just four years ago.

Ecologist Mourad Gabriel, who documents the issue for the U.S. Forest Service, estimates that California’s forests hold 41 times more solid fertilizers and 80 times more liquid pesticides than investigators found in 2013, according to a Reuters report.

Reuters states “If much of the pesticide and fertilizer were released into a single stream rather than scattered around the state in leaky containers, the volume would exceed the amount of chemicals spilled in 2014 into the Elk River in West Virginia, which left 300,000 residents without access to potable water.”

California’s recent legalization of recreational marijuana is partly designed to eliminate illegal, unregulated pot growing. It remains to be seen if this will be achieved. Regardless, there is clearly a large, dirty legacy of illegal pot growing that will continue to threaten water quality and public lands for some time to come.

Meanwhile, an Arizona company, American Green Inc., announced this week it is buying the entire town of Nipton, California – home to 20 or so people – to create the nation’s “first energy-independent, cannabis-friendly hospitality destination.” The reported price tag was about $5 million.

American Green said it will focus initially on bottling cannabis-infused water in the town, and that the production of marijuana edibles and the cultivation of cannabis will follow close behind in its 18-month development, which has a budget of $2.5 million.

The town of Nipton, close to the Nevada border, is about an hour’s drive from Las Vegas and over three hours from Los Angeles. It has a hotel, general store and schoolhouse.

Where will the water come from to support the company’s plans? And will it be enough? These questions have not been answered.

Hot Summer Brings Drought Roaring Back in Parts of Oregon

A wet winter was good news in Oregon, but exceptional summer heat has already dried up many streams prematurely, leaving some farmers without water for the rest of the summer.

The winter left a bountiful snowpack in the mountains, refilling reservoirs and raising hopes of ending the five-year drought that also afflicted California. However, these hopes have not been realized.

“Once again, here we are with this extended period of above-normal temperatures and it negates a lot of the positive influences that we have from that above-normal snowpack,” Scott Oviatt, snow survey supervisor with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, told KLCC public radio.

The northeast portion of the state, plus the Umatilla and John Day basins, all have reduced stream flows. Dry conditions have also been reported in Baker County.

Farmers who rely on small tributaries for their water diversions have been particularly hard hit as those streams have dried up prematurely.

Oviatt said it will take above-normal precipitation and cooler or near-normal temperatures before the state rebounds from drought.

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