High good, low bad: Mead in November 2012

Posted on | November 30, 2012 | No Comments

Groundwater storage projects and complex water trades look great in graphics and PowerPoints … until you ask to see the cold hard facts. Then you may be treated to a sheet of blank paper. A new report from the Public Policy Institute of California finds that of at least 89 California agencies involved in conjunctive use programs, “fewer than half” complied with state Department of Water Resources requests for quantitative data. “As a result,” write the authors, “the next update of the California Water Plan will be able to offer only broad estimates of banking operations, with incomplete information on key questions relating to the capacity and actual storage levels of the agencies.”

Regular readers of this blog will know that monthly checks on Lake Mead are often departure points. This post is shamelessly hurled with the intent of skipping across the surface of the largest storage reservoir in the US only to bounce onto mentions about groundwater projects where river waters may, improbably, be sunk while long buried aquifers are at the same time targeted for plunder.

At the close of November 2012, Lake Mead was at 51% full of impounded Colorado River water, its elevation roughly 1,117 feet. According to the federal Bureau of Reclamation, the greater Colorado River system is at roughly 56% capacity (down 9% from last year.)

Is this half empty or half full? Las Vegas water manager Pat Mulroy predicted “devastating” news when a  two-year study on increasing demands and decreasing supplies of the Colorado River was published this month, except the report is late. Shock and awe will have to wait until December. 

For water-watchers, the more interesting postponement at Interior may be the delay of the much-anticipated Record of Decision for the final Environmental Impact Statement reviewing Mrs Mulroy’s plan to run a pipeline 300 miles north of Las Vegas to mine groundwater from the valleys surrounding the Great Basin National Park. There are long ways to explain why pumping was permitted by the Nevada State Engineer, but the short one is: Vegas and its money run the state. Federal green-lighting for the laying of pipeline across scenic public land, thousands of square miles which stand to be dewatered for Vegas, was widely expected in October. There are long ways to explain why the Feds would allow this, but the short one is a title, a home state and a name: Senate Majority Leader Nevadan Harry Reid.

When the Interior Department’s Record of Decision failed to appear in October, news out of Utah suggested that Mulroy herself might have been the cause of the delay. As the FEIS approached certification by Interior, only four of the five valleys were shoo-ins for running pipe. The Utah-Nevada border runs through the fifth target basin, Snake Valley, and its groundwater may not be tapped by Vegas without Utah’s consent. With Reid in Mulroy’s corner, along with the most powerful energy and water lobbyist in Washington DC on contract for Las Vegas, the screws have been tightening on Utah to give up Snake Valley, presumably in return for some kind of congressional quid pro quo. As for stalling certification of her own project’s FEIS, how handy it would be for Mrs Mulroy if after years of resistance Utah suddenly caved and Interior could approve laying pipe to all five valleys.

Elsewhere in the West, the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences and Public Policy Institute of California this week issued an update of the efficacy of California’s water markets, many vis-à-vis groundwater banking programs. Reading “California’s Water Market, By the Numbers: Update 2012,” it’s hard not to share the authors’ enthusiasm for mechanisms that could bring immediate flexibility in getting water where it was needed in dry times while reducing pumping distances and increasing storage underground, thus reducing evaporative losses. But it’s even harder to reconcile the document’s assertions about the benefits of markets and underground water banks with its findings, which include sagging popularity of these projects. The update points to fish protections and county groundwater ordinances as among the hurdles faced by willing agencies while ignoring recent multi-million dollar boondoggles in the emerging world of “conjunctive use.” Unsavory examples that arguably deserved review in the PPIC update include massive cost over-runs, storage capacity exaggerations and environmental impacts on the Las Posas Basin Aquifer Storage and Recovery Project, and the bilking of California taxpayers by the Kern Water Bank as reported in 2009 by the Oakland Tribune. 

Surely agencies such as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which pulled out of the Las Posas deal, should be producing geological detailed follow up reports and cost benefit analyses of all their ASR/water banking projects. Without them, what do water managers have other than dazzling PowerPoints and sales pitches from CH2M Hill contractors salivating over the cost lines of construction contracts?

Very little, it seems. To its credit, the PPIC update reports that fewer than half of the California water contractors involved in conjunctive use projects deigned to share qualitative information with the state’s Department of Water Resources. From the update:

“DWR records indicate that at least 89 agencies within the state are currently engaging in conjunctive use programs, including 32 in the South Coast, 37 in the lower San Joaquin Valley (the Tulare Basin hydrologic region), and a handful each in several other hydrological regions (Department of Water Resources, 2012). However, the department’s own attempts to collect data on these operations for the 2013 update of the California Water Plan through written and phone surveys has met with limited success. DWR sought information on location, year developed, capital cost, annual cost, administrator, project capacity, source water, put/take capacity, recharge method, goals/objectives, and constraints. At best, only 52 agencies provided some of the information requested; fewer than half responded to the items requesting quantitative data. In some regions, the responses were provided on condition that the identifying information not be disclosed. As a result, the next update of the California Water Plan will be able to offer only broad estimates of banking operations, with incomplete information on key questions relating to the capacity and actual storage levels of the agencies.”




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