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Executive Summary for September 15th

In this weekly roundup, we analyze key water developments around the West, including agreement on a Colorado River treaty, progress on California’s declaration of a ‘human right’ to clean water, and a novel wastewater treatment project at a Washington dairy.

Published on Sep. 15, 2017 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

U.S., Mexico Ready to Sign Colorado River Treaty Update

Officials in the U.S. and Mexico have set September 26 as the date for a signing ceremony to update a longstanding international treaty governing many important river-sharing details over the next decade.

The agreement reflects the nations’ need to continue cooperating on water, even though tensions remain over President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and his plans to build a new wall along the border. A key piece that still needs completion is a long-pending drought contingency plan, intended to minimize conflict should Lake Mead continue dropping due to ongoing drought conditions.

“This is important to both countries, and will now allow the states and our federal partners to refocus back to drought contingency planning,” Bart Fisher, chair of California’s Colorado River Board, told the Desert Sun newspaper.

The new accord – known as Minute No. 323 to the 1944 Mexican Water Treaty – outlines a series of measures that build on the countries’ current five-year agreement, which expires at the end of this year.

The deal continues to allow Mexico to store water in Lake Mead and provides for Mexico’s continued sharing of shortages and surpluses through 2026. It also allows for a potentially larger drought response partnership with U.S. water users through the development of the Basin states’ drought contingency plan and Mexico’s binational water scarcity contingency plan. Additional components include binational conservation projects, environmental programs, salinity management efforts and the opportunity for additional conservation and desalination in Mexico.

Some $31.5 million in U.S. funding is authorized through the deal for pilot water conservation programs in Mexico that would generate 229,100 acre-feet of conservation. About 70,000 acre-feet of this conservation is designated for Mexican environmental purposes, 50,000 acre-feet will benefit the Colorado River system and 27,275 acre-feet will be assigned to each of four partnering U.S. water agencies (Imperial Irrigation District, Southern Nevada Water Authority, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District).

California Begins to Deliver on Clean-Water-for-All Promise

A 2012 law made California the first U.S. state to declare access to clean water a “human right.” Five years on, the law is beginning to pay dividends by driving substantial changes in state policy and producing new programs that prioritize clean water.

“There’s been a sea change in how the state thinks about water – which is saying something in a state in which water is highly politicized and low-income communities are on the short end of the stick for access,” Britton Schwartz, a fellow at the Environmental Law Clinic at U.C. Berkeley, told Circle of Blue.

The law helped consolidate authority for clean water within the State Water Resources Control Board. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been set aside from state ballot measures and the state budget to fund clean water projects. Poor communities also have a bigger voice in the water process.

But while the process has been improved, much work lies ahead to actually deliver clean water. It’s estimated there are at least a million people in California who lack access to clean drinking water on a regular basis. Only a few hundred thousand have benefited from clean drinking water solutions so far.

“The statute is only just now starting to unspool in a way that might affect change,” said Mike Antos, senior watershed manager at the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority.

At Washington Dairy, Worms Clean the Wastewater

A dairy farm in Washington State’s Yakima County is trying a new process to treat the wastewater generated by its 7,000 cows: earthworms.

First, the effluent is sprayed into giant boxes filled with earthworms, then the worms, together with a casserole of microbes, consume the nasties in the wastewater, leaving behind water clean enough to irrigate crops.

The system was developed by the Chilean firm BioFiltro as a simple and sustainable way to clean industrial wastewater. It’s already been used successfully at wineries in California.

At the Royal Dairy near Othello, Washington State, three large boxes hold a dense layer of soil permeated with worms – an average of 1,000 worms per cubic foot. Underneath is a layer of wood shavings, and at the bottom is a layer of river cobble. Worm feces, when mixed with other microbes, including bacteria, produces a sticky “biofilm” that adheres to the wood chips and rocks. Nitrates and other contaminants in the wastewater stick to the biofilm as water percolates through.

After just four hours, the now-cleaner water drips into drainage basins under the beds, ready to be used for irrigation. The system encompasses 81,000 square feet and treats 200,000 gallons of wastewater each day.

Not only is this a cost-effective way to remove nitrates – which often contaminate groundwater – from wastewater, it also eliminates the need for those ubiquitous wastewater storage ponds at dairies, which emit greenhouse gases as well as noxious odors.

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