The Swimming Mule and Other Agendas 1.
Those who argue, on the other hand, that mankind has no chance of surviving the end but still has a chance to avert it, by getting rid of nuclear weapons, devising less wasteful technologies, and adopting a less wasteful way of life, rightly refuse to console themselves with the fantasy of a new life after the apocalypse, -- Christopher Lasch, The Minimal Self, Norton (1984), p. 86.
Recently, after a day spent trying to catch up with what the press was saying about California water -- drought/no drought, city vs. agribusiness, North vs. South, the Delta and the Deep Blue Sea -- I leaned back in my chair, closed my eyes and dozed for a few minutes.
I must have had a short dream because I sat up suddenly, distressed, the image of a mule swimming for its life caught in the raging current of what was normally the placid, almost stagnant creek below our home. The creek, a small tributary swollen by severe Christmas storms that had caused the rivers with headwaters in the Sierra to flood, had reclaimed its flood plain, flooded homes below ours and was lapping at our fence posts.
The mule, the only animal to float by that was still alive, was flapping his ears wildly back and forth as his neck strained to keep his head above water. He passed rapidly about 20 feet above the park where we struggled to learn the fundamentals of baseball and football, and soon he disappeared around a bend where the bed of the stream narrowed and the current increased speed.
I had imagined the mule's journey without much hope because I knew the course of the creek to its confluence with the Tuolumne River and couldn't imagine any place where he could have escaped. In fact, our garden might have been has last, best option if he could have gotten out of the current. From us forward there was a lot of dense willow brush and steep sides.
I think someone in the group watching him said he was doomed. I remember thinking that you never quite know how such things work out, but the mule's odds weren't good.
At such times, people tend to recall other disasters. One of the neighborhood grannies said the flood weren't nothin' compared to tornadoes in Kansas that she had seen. And then there were the stories of the Dust Bowl, never too far from the memories of some of our neighbors. However, I visited a cement house built right beside the creek that had been flooded up to its second story. I found the lady of the house sweeping out her livingroom. She was cheerful. She said floods happened every once in awhile but that they would never move because they loved living by the old creek.
You never know what gets lodged in the subconscious that might get broken loose but just the right current. But I had to wonder why I was dreaming about floods while reading about all the strategies -- scientific, engineering, political and economic, not to mention "environmental" -- for dealing with drought and its aftermath.
So, I picked up my mouse again and began to backtrack until I found the article that had derailed the logical train of my afternoon's research into California water.
It was a piece posted by a new outfit on the scene, something called "News Deeply.com," which has a "water deeply" section, and by an author I'd never heard of. This is a little unusual because I have been reading a daily California-water clipping service for 18 years.
And I was impressed because the author promised to tell us "What Lake Mead's record low means for California."
But he didn't. He quoted the usual suspects that water from the Delta and its contributing rivers would not be used to compensate for the loss of Colorado River water to Southern California.
I guess the image of that mule swimming through the middle of Modesto CA was my subconscious reminding me that, despite the astounding journalistic credentials of the author and his online publisher, there must still be such a thing as history. For example, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has been known to lie about such things. And, where else will they get the water as the Colorado Plateau Drought of the 21st Century keeps on going on?
Water Deeply is acting as stenographers for all the usual suspects and they haven't made enough sense out of the history to make sense yet. Perhaps they will improve. They seem to have the ambition to stake a claim on the riverbank. Meanwhile, doubts about media coverage of the California water situation is giving some of us bad dreams.
What Lake Mead's record low means for California
After 16 years of drought in the Colorado River Basin, Lake Mead has hit its lowest point ever. Here’s a look at what impact this will have on the 19 million Californians who depend on the water supply.
WHEN THE U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced last month that the country’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead, had fallen to its lowest-ever level at 1,074ft (327m), the question many asked was: How will it affect one of California’s primary drinking sources?
After all, some 19 million Californians, nearly half the state’s population, receive some part of their water from the Colorado River, which flows into the 80-year-old reservoir created by Hoover Dam outside Las Vegas.
By inching below the 1,075ft threshold, the lake’s historic low provoked a Level 1 Water Shortage declaration, signaling the start of potential water cuts to Arizona and Nevada. If Lake Mead sinks to 1,025ft (312m), the Department of Interior will seize control of its management and water allocation, and if it falls to 900ft (274m) it will be considered “deadpool,” meaning that water is no longer passing through the turbines. Falling water levels are the result of a drought in the Colorado River Basin that has dragged on for 16 years and counting.
For Glen MacDonald, the John Muir memorial chair in geography and former director of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles, the May pronouncement was “the line in the sand.”
“According to the laws, [California] wouldn’t have to take a cut. But they’re worried if this goes down to 1,045ft, and then 1,025ft, it’s going to be really problematic,” said MacDonald. Like most state water experts, he doesn’t think shortages will be triggered next year, but he isn’t ruling out water cuts in 2018 and beyond. The Bureau of Reclamation reports a 64 percent chance that Lake Mead, with its 60 million acre-foot (74 billion cubic-meter) capacity, will fall below the 1,025ft threshold by 2019, requiring an emergency federal response. Given the unknowns, he said, “this is the best over-the-horizon look we can get.”
The legislation MacDonald referred to, the Colorado River Compact of 1922, handed California senior rights over the river and stipulated that Nevada and Arizona must be the first to make cuts in times of shortage. But if bad turns to worse in the region’s persistent drought, officials are already discussing the possibility of new negotiations taking shape.
“Cuts to California? Not anytime soon,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which distributes 4 million acre-feet (4.9 billion cubic meters) of water – most of it from Lake Mead – to 19 million customers each year. The crucial period, he said, is between 1,075ft and 1,020ft, because “we have no rules lower than 1,020, so everyone has to talk about next levels of action. The expectation is, at some point, California would likely be sharing the pain as well. [So] while California is not willing to put water on the table, we also agree that we shouldn’t wait until 1,020ft – we should be having the conversation earlier.”
Unofficial proposals that are being floated include eventual Colorado River cuts to California in the range of 300,000–350,000 acre-feet (370–430 million cubic meters) – a little less than 10 percent of the 4.4 million acre-feet the state currently draws from the river. “Losing 10 percent of your water portfolio would be tough,” said MacDonald, who suggested California negotiators may sit down sooner to hammer out a deal, mitigating to avoid the more precarious political impacts of a water crisis engulfing the West.
On the upside, increased rainfall this winter enabled California’s Department of Water Resources to announce in April that it is boosting water delivery to meet 60 percent of requests through the 2016 calendar year – up from 20 percent last year and 5 percent in 2014. (The last time 100 percent of water requests were allocated was 2006.)
Heavy rains brought on by El Niño helped fill key reservoirs in northern California, including Lake Oroville (now at 92 percent capacity), Shasta (90 percent capacity) and Folsom (83 percent). More than two-fifths of California still remains in what the U.S. Drought Monitor calls “extreme drought,” but the State Water Resources Control Board responded to the wet winter by loosening restrictions on water use.
Yet despite the significant relief to the north, that’s not likely to translate into additional water moving south from the Delta to compensate for the eventual shortages caused by a shrinking Lake Mead – not least because of the tenuous recovery and preservation efforts of the Delta’s fragile fisheries. “The allocations are already set from the Delta. There’s not going to be any more allocated,” said Shane Hunt, public affairs officer at the Bureau of Reclamation for the Mid-Pacific region. “We are still dealing with the drought. Just because two of our reservoirs, Shasta and Folsom, are above average doesn’t mean the rest of them are. We’re having a lot of problems delivering to customers.”
MacDonald said it’s physically conceivable, but politically improbable, that more Bay-Delta water will be sent south to offset future demands of Metropolitan. “In a perfect world, if we had cuts in the Colorado River, and we had surplus capacity up in the San Joaquin Valley, you would offset the amount of water needed,” he said. “But nobody here is counting on being able to do that. No rational person is thinking that we’re going to get a lot more water out of the Delta for L.A.”
Kightlinger of Metropolitan agrees. “We don’t see a Delta impact in the near future. Our game plan is that we’ll be making up [the shortage] with more conservation and more recycling,” a process that currently reuses about 400,000 acre-feet (490 million cubic meters), or 10 percent of the region’s water each year, he said. “We expect to have some losses, but to stem our losses best we can. We don’t expect to get more imported water from either the Colorado or northern California.”
So, returning to the original question of how Lake Mead’s historic low will impact California’s crucial drinking source, the best answer may be: in the near term not a whole lot, but in the long term, quite a bit. Still, UCLA’s MacDonald strikes a note of optimism. “This is manageable right now by taking strong action in terms of conservation and infrastructure,” he said, suggesting that if Southern California increases stormwater capture to 300,000 acre-feet by 2025, it could offset the potential 10 percent cut from the Colorado River. But time is of the essence.
“This is it. We’ve seen our vulnerabilities,” said MacDonald. “In a sense, we should take advantage of the drought: If we can learn some lessons, we can put into place some strategies that will get us through this century.”
Michael got his start in journalism covering the Water War in Bolivia in 2000, reporting and editing for the La Paz English-language newspaper Bolivian Times. He was founding editor of The Prague Literary Review in 2003. He later reported for the Associated Press in Puerto Rico and covered immigration issues as a freelancer in Barcelona.
From 2005-2009 Michael worked in Berlin as a correspondent writing about culture, politics, environment and everything in between. His reporting has taken him to China, India, East Africa, Latin America and across Europe. Publications include Time, Newsweek, Los Angeles Times, Financial Times, Daily Telegraph, Forbes, Slate, Times Literary Review, International Herald Tribune,San Francisco Public Press, Truthout, Forward, Grist, and the newspaper he helped start in September of 2011, the Occupied Wall Street Journal.
Michael graduated from UC Santa Cruz and holds a Masters degree from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. He lives in northern California.
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We were especially impressed by Ms. Setrakian's status: a Young Global Leader with the World Economic Form and a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. However, to more "Deeply" (TM?) understand Ms. Setrakian's philosophy of journalism we suggest you check out this lecture she gave to a crowd of Germans in Berlin about real bigshot journalism these days. re:publica2014: Redesigning News, Deeply. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RW31Zw-XGho
It leaves little doubt who journalism is really all about. -- blj
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About Water Deeply
Water Deeply is an independent digital media project dedicated to covering California’s water crisis. Our team, a mix of journalists and technologists, aims to build a better user experience of the story by providing news and analysis in an easily accessible platform. Our hope is to add greater clarity, deeper understanding and more sustained public engagement at a critical moment in water policy.
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Water Deeply staff
Tara Lohan, Managing Editor
Tara Lohan is managing editor of Water Deeply. She’s been writing about the confluence of water and energy issues for more than 15 years and spent seven years as a managing editor at AlterNet. She’s the editor of two books on the global water crisis and her work has been published by the Nation, Salon, the American Prospect and others. She holds a bachelor’s in environmental studies from Middlebury College and a master’s in narrative journalism from the University of Oregon. She tweets from @TaraLohan and lives in San Francisco.
Matt Weiser, Contributing Editor
Matt Weiser is a contributing editor at Water Deeply and helped launch the organization as its first managing editor in June 2015. He has covered environmental issues in California for 30 years as a reporter, editor and freelance writer. From 2005 to 2015, he covered water, flood control and natural resources at The Sacramento Bee newspaper, where he earned numerous awards for his reporting.
Chris Bowman, Contributing Editor
Chris is one of the nation’s most experienced environmental journalists, having worked many sides of the beat in his 24 years at The Sacramento Bee. Several of his investigative stories have led to state and federal reforms. He is the first U.S. journalist to be appointed Environmental Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, awarding him a year of study in 1994-95. More recently, Chris immersed himself in the California drought as communications director with the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California – Davis. When he’s not deep into water, he skims its surface as a competitive oarsman with the River City Rowing Club in West Sacramento.