Category Archives: Conservation

California Drought: Overcoming History to Reduce SoCal Water Waste


The great news for California in the winter of 2015-2016 is that El Nino-generated storms are on the increase, right? Well , that’s good news for easing the California drought, but with caveats. It’s much greater news if even more rain (and snow) fall in Northern California than in Southern California. The north has more catchment systems than the south. In other words, the north catches, saves and provides more water than the south can.

Why? Northern areas have river systems and reservoirs that redirect water to the south (mainly) via aqueducts. Moisture falling in the south and running off land is more readily fed to the Pacific Ocean, because much of the system there, especially in Los Angeles itself, is allowed and even intended to drain into the Pacific to avoid catastrophic flooding and landslides, like those seen from major storms in the 1930s and later. In other words, the massive waste of freshwater was actually a safety measure. Law was adjusted by climate. Until recently, in fact, it was illegal to capture rain on your own roof in LA. The California Water Capture Act of 2012 eased that outdated policy.

And, fortunately, on Jan. 6 the California State Water Resources Control Board approved a broad plan to capture more rain, The Associated Press reported. About $200 million will fund projects to collect rain, as part of a $7.5 billion water bond voters approved in November 2014. Los Angeles expects to collect an additional 3.3 billion gallons a year from new projects, over the roughly 10 billion it says it collects now. But even that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what SoCal could do in wet years if rainwater collection were made a genuine priority.

Related posts:

Study Finds We Vastly Underestimate Water Management’ s Depletion of Groundwater

It’s Long Past Time to Police Big Agriculture’s Water Waste

Learn more:

Much of the torrential that fell on Southern California this week flowed right into the ocean – Associated Press

Rainwater harvesting regulations state by state – Enlight Inc. blog

Building Sponge City: Redesigning LA for Long-Term Drought – Cities Project, NPR

Report: Feeding Ourselves Thirsty: How the Food Sector Is Managing Global Water Risks – Ceres (full report)

The Untapped Potential of California’s Water SupplyPacific Institute and NRDC


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Filed under Climate Change, Conservation, Drought, Groundwater, Law, Natural Disasters, North America, Rivers and Watersheds, Sustainability, Water, Water Resources, Water Shortage

Study Finds We Vastly Underestimate Water Management’s Depletion of Freshwater


Here’s a frightening word of the day: “evapotranspiration.” It simply refers to water lost to the atmosphere by evaporation, or after being consumed and released into the air by plant life. It wasn’t so ominous last week, but it is this week because a new study in the journal Science puts it in a new context: unsustainable human use of freshwater.

Essentially, the study finds human have used 18 percent more of the planet’s freshwater than we previously thought, because we’ve underestimated the impact of our water-management systems, such as irrigation, dams and reservoirs. They cause more water to be lost to the atmosphere than would occur naturally, effecting precipitation patterns. Gather a lot of water in one place, like a reservoir, for instance, and more of it evaporates across the greater surface area exposed to air. The researchers studied the ratio of evapotranspiration to precipitation between 1901 and 2008, finding a significant increase in the latter half of the time period.

The additional 18 percent tips our water use into the unsustainable category given the increasing human population, the researchers warn. As Chelsea Harvey writes in her article about the study in The Washington Post, “The study highlights a critical need for better monitoring of our freshwater use and the ways our management techniques can affect the water cycle, as [study co-author Fernando] Jaramillo noted that the current effects of human water management ‘are even larger and more recognizable than the effects of atmospheric climate change.’”

Read more:

Alarming research finds humans are using up far more of Earth’s water than previously thought – The Washington Post

Local flow regulation and irrigation raise global human water consumption and footprint – Science

Related posts:

World Water Day: UN World Water Development Report Warns of Global Crisis by 2030

At the Point of ‘Peak Water,’ Our Foreseeable Future Grows Shorter

Mapping the World’s Most Water-Stressed Countries

Serious Water Conservation Demands Layered Approach and Emotional Commitment

Over-Salted: The Trouble(s) With Desalination

Study: Freshwater Shortage Will Double Climate Change’s Impact on Agriculture

Unchecked Emissions Will Drain Water Resources, Warns Leaked U.N. Report

Study Describes Vast Reserves of Water Under Ocean Floors

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Filed under Agriculture, Climate Change, Conservation, Dams and Hydropower, Drought, Environment, Groundwater, Rivers and Watersheds, Science, Sustainability, Water Resources, Water Shortage

In the Media: Big Agriculture’s Unsustainable Use of Groundwater


Thanks, Vice Media, for covering California agriculture and its massive and unsustainable use of groundwater during the state’s worst drought in, reportedly, 1,200 years. Watch the video. Or click on other posts, below.

Imagine you had a giant tank full of clean water, but it was running dangerously low. Imagine you knew it would take thousands of years, or more, to replenish that tank. How careful would you be with that faucet? Well, somebody’s leaving it running.

Related posts:

Curtailing Big Ag’s Water Use in California

It’s Long Past Time to Police Big Agriculture’s Water Waste

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Filed under Agriculture, Conservation, Drought, Groundwater

Understanding Water Crises: New Resources Added


The At the Waterline blog’s Water Resources page has been updated with 12 new additions in the past few weeks, for a total of 83 links to sources of information and action on issues related to freshwater scarcity.

Check out the new additions: the World’s Water Data Engine

The CEO Water Mandate

Ceres: Mobilising Business Leadership or a Sustainable World (Issues: Water Issues)

>>> Ceres: Feeding Ourselves Thirsty: How the Food Sector Is Managing Global Water Risks (full report)

FAN: Freshwater Action Network

The Guardian: Access to clean water and sanitation around the world – mapped

LLoyd’s 360 Risk Insight: Global Water Scarcity, Risks and Challenges for Business

Water Defense

The Solutions Project (U.S. state plans for 100% clean, renewable energy)

WaterLex: Publications*

World Health Organisation (WHO): Health Topics: Water

WHO Programmes: Water Sanitation Health

(*Note: The international public-interest development organization WaterLex employs me as its head of communications. )


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Filed under Blog Changes and Updates, Climate Change, Conservation, Human rights, Law, NGOs, Research, Science, Sustainability, Technology, United Nations, Water Resources

Curtailing Big Ag’s Water Use in California


When drought-struck California moved to curb consumers’ use of water, I wrote about agriculture’s massive and under-regulated use of water. On Friday the state moved to cut many farmers’ use of water, in terms of some of the older rights-holders who divert water from Central Valley rivers and streams. In spring, cuts were made to thousands of junior rights holders’ usage, including many growers. This is more than the state did when it curtailed Big Ag’s water use nearly 40 years ago, in 1977, the last time it made such a move. What it hasn’t done is to move strongly to curtail the industry’s waste of the water it’s allocated to use, which is to say …  it’s allowed to use most of it (about 80 percent).

Just for “fun,” here’s an annoyingly educational reminder that most Americans make the California drought worse by eating the food grown there. That’s not to say they should forego the glorious bounty and cramp the world’s 8th largest economy, but some would argue just that, more or less. Let’s say that some of Cali’s major crops — rice, almonds, avocados — should be grown where there is ample water because they need so damn much of it. Maybe not so much compared to raising beef, but still — a lot.

Another not-fun thing: Sucking up the groundwater is making the surface of California sink faster than ever before, and it’s going to cost a lot of money as infrastructure like bridges and roads suffers damage.

Related post:

It’s Long Past Time to Police Big Agriculture’s Water Waste

Read more:

Report: Feeding Ourselves Thirsty: How the Food Sector Is Managing Global Water Risks – Ceres (full report)

California Cuts Farmers’ Share of Scant Water – The New York Times

California Move to Restrict Water Pumping by Pre-1914 Rights HoldersLos Angeles Times

Drought-Ravaged California Orders Record Water Cuts on FarmersThe Guardian

The Untapped Potential of California’s Water SupplyPacific Institute and NRDC

California Is Literally Sinking Into the GroundMother Jones

Joseph Poland of the U.S. Geological Survey used a utility pole to document where a farmer would have been standing in 1925, 1955 and where Poland was then standing in 1977 after land in the San Joaquin Valley had sunk nearly 30 feet.

Joseph Poland of the U.S. Geological Survey used a utility pole to document where a farmer would have been standing in 1925, 1955 and where Poland was then standing in 1977 after land in the San Joaquin Valley had sunk nearly 30 feet. Image: U.S. Geological Survey

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Filed under Agriculture, Conservation, Drought, Groundwater, North America, Rivers and Watersheds, Water Shortage

World Water Day: UN World Water Development Report Warns of Global Crisis by 2030

Image: UN-Water

Image: UN-Water

The way water is managed now, or not managed as the case may be, will lead to a global crisis in 15 years, a new UN report warns, unless an array of sustainable water-management practices are adopted. Within that decade and a half, the report predicts a much larger human population will have only 60% of the freshwater it needs.

Many parts of the world are suffering water stress to varying degrees now; in 15 years the stress will be more severe and more widespread, amounting to a life-threatening crisis in water-poor regions. But, as outlined in the United Nations World Water Development Report 2015, released in advance of World Water Day (today, March 22), there is hope. Read the report: Water for a Sustainable World (The report was released by UNESCO on behalf of UN-Water, or which my employer, WaterLex, is a member.)

Related posts: 

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Filed under Climate Change, Conservation, Drought, Environment, Groundwater

It’s Long Past Time to Police Big Agriculture’s Water Waste

furrow_irrigation (1)

When you observe water-stressed and drought-stricken areas around the world, you hear the same question being asked again and again: Who uses the most water? A common assumption leads people to blame the general population for its wasteful ways, heedlessly watering their lawns and washing their cars despite a water shortage. But the real answer, in most cases, is agriculture — and not by a small measure. It often accounts for 70% to 80% of total water use, and sometimes more.

Irrigation and other water uses in agriculture, especially where it is a major industry for domestic and export food production, such as California’s Central Valley, make other water uses look like drops in a bucket. According to a 2012 study by the Pacific Institute, the Golden State’s 38 million people use just 4% of its water, while agriculture, including the raising of both crops and livestock, uses 93%.

The reason this matters so much is that Big Agriculture wastes epic amounts of water and often fights efficiency measures on the basis of cost. California, to stick with that example, uses much less drip irrigation than other arid farming regions of the world. Generally, efficiency standards and enforcement are not in place, which allows massive amounts of water to leak out of systems. And much of the water used simply evaporates because it is not recaptured. This goes on while agricultural users pump out deep aquifers’ groundwater far faster than it can be restored naturally, especially in times of drought.

The types of agriculture matter for the scale of water usage, as well. California rice growers flood the fields, whereas another crop might need only sips of water, relatively speaking. Beef producers use about 2,500 gallons of water per pound (as opposed to 100 gallons of water per pound of grain).  Although costly, relocating water-intensive agriculture from water-stressed regions to places where water is most abundant would make sense. In the U.S., that might mean moving some practices from the Southwest to the Southeast. In China, it would mean moving farms  from the arid north to the wet south. But in many countries, business and political interests would keep it from happening as long as possible, and in the end, severe water shortage and escalating costs would force the issue.

Where you have a massive industry, you have a wealthy lobby with a lot of political power to influence government spending. Critics of California’s $7.5 billion drought bond known as Proposition 1, to be voted on in statewide elections on Tuesday (4 November; update — it passed by a two-to-one margin), note that it provides for new dams and water-storage measures that will benefit agriculture. But it’s not yet clear what might be asked in return. About $50 million of the $7.5 billion appears to be earmarked for agricultural efficiency. Will future measures mandate adequate technology and standards of efficiency? Ultimately, the nine-member California Water Commission will decide how funds from the Prop. 1  bond measure, if passed, will be spent.  They should know that the industries using nine-tenths of the state’s water should be doing a lot more to help ease the region’s water crisis.

Read more:

UPDATE: California Propositions 1 and 2 Sail to Resounding VictoriesSan Jose Mercury News

Prop 1: Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014 – Ballotpedia

Prop. 1, a False Framing of California’s Water CrisisSanta Barbara Independent

New Report Provides Insight to California’s Proposition 1 – Pacific Institute

Prop. 1 Aims to Relieve Drought — But Not This One – Los Angeles Times

Cows, Rice Fields and Big Agriculture Consumes Well Over 90% of California’s Water – AlterNet

Report Targets Waste, Inefficiency in Agricultural Water UseLos Angeles Times


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Filed under Agriculture, Conservation, Dams and Hydropower, Drought, Groundwater, Law, North America, Sustainability, Water Resources, Water Shortage

California Finally Moves to (Eventually) Limit Groundwater Pumping


Here’s a bulletin from the “isn’t-it-too-little-too-late?” department: Despite its history of drought, including the extreme dryness of the past three years, California has been the only state in the U.S. without a groundwater management plan — until now. This week Gov. Jerry Brown signed a package of legislation that will limit how much water can be pumped from underground aquifers … eventually. The changes will begin to take effect in the 2020s, and the last piece becomes active in 2040.

In a nutshell, Senate Bill 1168 directs local water districts to create sustainable groundwater management plans; Assembly Bill 1739 says state government will step in if local management falls short; and Senate Bill 1319 delays state oversight by several years, to appease farmers who complain that regulation will hurt their businesses. Agriculture is by far the biggest user of water, and no more so than in the Golden State, which grows and sells hundreds of crops under what some would call lax regulation.

Implementation of a plan is good news, though it seems too gradual a move for such a parched state. Because of the drought, the aquifers are depleting more quickly than usual, without “recharge” (a process that takes a lot of time and precipitation even in wet periods). Anything that gives nature more of a chance to catch up is a good thing.

Read more:

Amid Drought, New California Law Will Limit Groundwater Pumping for First TimeNational Geographic

California Drought 2014: Gov. Brown Signs Landmark Groundwater Regulations To Protect State’s Dwindling Water SuppliesInternational Business Times

California Drought Crisis 2014: Massive Groundwater Loss In US West Is Causing Earth’s Crust To Lift Like An ‘Uncoiled Spring’ – IBT

Brown Signs Bill to Regulate Pumping of Underground WaterLos Angeles Times

Drought-Plagued California Stops Treating Groundwater Like Private Property – BloombergBusinessweek

California Groundwater Problems and Prospects – California Water Blog

How Ground Water Occurs – USGS

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Filed under Agriculture, Conservation, Drought, Groundwater, Law

California Dreaming: New Study Pushes Massive Water-Conservation Effort

Image courtesy of Calif. Dept. of Water Resources

Image courtesy of Calif. Dept. of Water Resources

If California really tried, it could keep a reserve amounting to as much water all of its cities use in a year — about 14 million acre feet. That’s according to a new analysis conducted by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Pacific Institute. It’s the “trying” that could prove difficult for the drought-ridden state, because it would take an aggressive, across-the-board effort to save water, reuse water, and capture lost stormwater. Widespread use of available but underused efficiency methods would have to be implemented in the state’s massive agricultural industry, which uses about 80% of allocated water, and throughout urban areas, which use about 20%. That will take strong political will, a lot of cooperation, and financial investment. But it’s worth it, because it will make a huge difference, and you can’t just keep throwing new plans for billion-dollar desalination plants at the problem.

Read more:

Issue Brief: The Untapped Potential of California’s Water Supply: Efficiency, Reuse, and Stormwater – NRDC and Pacific Institute

California Water Security Attainable, Study SuggestsThe Desert Sun

Related posts:

Past, Present and Future: California’s Epic Struggle With Water

Serious Water Conservation Requires Layered Approach and Emotional Commitment

California’s State-of-the-State Address: Brown’s Drought Plan in Broad Strokes

Civilization Lost? California’s 500-Year Drought Potential

To the Rescue in California? Solar-Powered Desalination

Over-Salted: The Trouble(s) With Desalination

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Filed under Climate Change, Conservation, Desalination, Drought, North America, Technology, Water Resources, Water Shortage

Water’s Place Among Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals



I attended the recent briefing, “Targeting water in the post-2015 development agenda,” at the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. Co-organized by UN-Water, the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), and the Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operation, the event hosted international mission staff as well as members of the press, academics and others. It focused on how water issues are being addressed within the evolving debate on potential sustainable-development goals (aka SDGs), in the framework of the post-2015 development agenda. The briefing’s documents and presentations are now available online.

The idea that water should have its own complex SDG, rather than being dispersed among other goals, seemed to be widely held and agreed upon at the event. Incorporating water issues into other goals without having a separate item for it could result in water-related issues evaporating in the mix.

“Because water is  everywhere, water ends up being nowhere,” said panelist Jack Moss, senior water advisor at AquaFed: The International Federation of Private Water Operators. Water’s fearsome power in nature is not reflected in its (lack of) strength as a factor in economies, he added.

Panelists agreed that water is too often taken for granted, and not often-enough planned for in proactive and constructive ways. In other words, you consider it separately to help ensure it gets paid for.

“Any time an issue is cross-cutting, like water, you can be sure that some of your targets will be lost in other targets,” said Lesha Witmer, a steering committee member and co-coordinator of The Butterfly Effect coalition of NGOs. “If you have a dedicated goal, it can’t *not* be represented in a country’s national budget.”

The UN-Water paper “A Post-2015 Global Goal for Water: Synthesis of key findings and recommendations from UN-Water” was also presented during the event. In the 41-page report, you can see the goal taking shape. The goal, “securing sustainable water for all,” becomes mightily complex when put in the context of the world, its growing human population, economic development, pollution, climate change, public health and myriad other factors.

The Swiss government has taken a leading role on water issues, and its Swiss Position Paper on Water in the Post-2015 Agenda advocating for an explicit water goal was also presented at the briefing.

See documents and presentations from the briefing.

Related posts:

At the Point of ‘Peak Water,’ Our Foreseeable Future Grows Shorter

UNICEF Says Put Down Your Cell Phone for a Few Minutes to Help Kids Get Water

Mapping the World’s Most Water-Stressed Countries

Unchecked Emissions Will Drain Water Resources, Warns Leaked UN Report

The Intersection of Environmental Issues and Human Rights


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Filed under Africa, Asia, Caribbean, Climate Change, Conservation, Environment, Europe, Events, Human rights, Middle East, NGOs, North America, Oceania, Research, South America, Sustainability, United Nations, Water Resources