California over the last century has issued water rights that amount to roughly five times the state’s average annual runoff, according to new research that underscores a chronic imbalance between supply and demand.

That there are more rights than water in most years is not news. But UC researchers say their study is the most comprehensive review to date of the enormous gap between natural surface flows and allocations.

Of 27 major California rivers, rights on 16 of them exceed natural runoff. Among the most over-allocated are the San Joaquin, Kern and Stanislaus rivers in the San Joaquin Valley and the Santa Ynez River in Southern California.

In theory, that difference is not necessarily a problem. It gives water agencies and irrigation districts with junior rights access to additional supplies during wet years, when runoff is above average and there is plenty to go around. But in reality, study co-author Joshua Viers said, it fosters unrealistic expectations for water that is often not available.

“It gives the public a false sense of water security,” said Viers, a UC Merced professor of water resources. For the most junior rights holders, he added, “It’s kind of like standing in line to get into a concert and they give you a ticket when they’re already at capacity. But you don’t know that you’ll never actually get in to see the show.”


If you’ve been to Lake Mead you’ve seen it. Prolonged drought in the West has driven the country’s largest reservoir to its lowest level in memory. But the true crisis lies below the Colorado Basin bedrock. More than 75% of the water lost in the last nine years came from groundwater supplies. And it may never come back. That’s water for 40 million Americans. Water for 4 million acres of farmland. Without drastic action, the water crisis may permanently change the Western way of life.

The main cause for such algal blooms is an overload of phosphorus, which washes into lakes from commercial fertiliser used by farming operations as well as urban water-treatment centres. Hotter and longer summers also promote the spread of the blue-green scum.

The US government banned phosphorus in laundry detergents in 1988. That stopped the algal blooms for some time. But they came back to the Great Lakes in force in 2011 – forming a green scum that covered 5,000 square kilometres (1,900 sq miles) of water at its biggest extent – in the worst algal bloom in recorded history.

Scientists attribute the comeback in large part to changes in farming practices, including larger farms and different fertiliser practices, which send heavier loads of phosphorus into the lakes.


Well water has kept losses in California’s agricultural industry relatively modest considering the severity of the ongoing drought, the report said. The researchers estimated $1 billion in lost revenue and $500 million in additional pumping costs this year. That’s a fraction of the $40 billion the industry rings up annually.

Still, there’s little optimism the industry can weather another year relying on so much groundwater without significant consequences.

By the end of 2014 alone, groundwater is expected to replace three-quarters of the 6.6 million acre-feet of surface water lost to drought this year — raising groundwater’s share of the state’s agricultural water supply from 31% to 53%, the UC Davis report said.

"If there’s no surface water available, farmers really have no choice but to use the groundwater and use it in a very big way," said Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech and a professor of Earth system science at UC Irvine. "The question is how long can we keep doing this before we hit rock bottom? … We are on a current path that is nearly the definition of unsustainable."

In an attempt to staunch the crisis, two bills have been proposed in the California Legislature to create the state’s first groundwater management system. There are currently no restrictions on how much water a landowner can pump from beneath his or her property.


Twenty years ago, before the alarm about Climate Change, the World Bank warned about upcoming wars — not over oil, but water. Now, the UN predicts that two thirds of the world will suffer shortages in the next ten years due to waste, pollution, and the growth of a global middle class. Some Fortune 500 companies are ahead of the game, conserving and cleaning up water to protect their profits, while the cost for the rest of us rises. There are technologies to create more fresh water, but they’re expensive. Is water a commercial product, or a basic human right?

The new study is the first to look at the role of groundwater in the parched region and has been carried out against a backdrop of a severe drought dating back to 2000.

A series of monthly measurements have shown that over nine years the Colorado River Basin lost nearly twice as much water as Lake Mead, Nevada - the country’s largest reservoir.

"We don’t know exactly how much groundwater we have left, so we don’t know when we’re going to run out," said Stephanie Castle, a water resources specialist at the University of California, Irvine.

"This is a lot of water to lose. We thought that the picture could be pretty bad, but this was shocking.”


Saying that it was time to increase conservation in the midst of one of the worst droughts in decades, the State Water Resources Control Board adopted drought regulations that give local agencies the authority to fine those who waste water up to $500 a day.

[…]

The emergency rules, expected to take effect Aug. 1, don’t order cities to slash water use by a certain amount. Rather they direct agencies to — at a minimum — ban wasteful practices such as allowing runoff from outdoor sprinklers, hosing down driveways and sidewalks and using drinking water in ornamental fountains that don’t recirculate.


California’s city dwellers will have to drop their hoses and shut off sprinklers before water meets pavement under a proposed regulation announced Wednesday, with individuals facing potential fines of up to $500 per day.

The State Water Resources Control Board will consider a suite of measures next Tuesday proposed under the authority of Gov. Jerry Brown’s April executive order. Urban water suppliers would have to move toward mandatory restrictions within 30 days, possibly limiting outdoor watering to two days a week — or face a $10,000 daily fine.

New rules would prohibit people from washing down driveways, washing cars in the street without a shutoff nozzle on your hose or creating runoff over pavement any other way.


It is a question being asked about children across India, where a long economic boom has done little to reduce the vast number of children who are malnourished and stunted, leaving them with mental and physical deficits that will haunt them their entire lives. Now, an emerging body of scientific studies suggest that Vivek and many of the 162 million children under the age of 5 in the world who are malnourished are suffering less a lack of food than poor sanitation.

[…]

Two years ago, Unicef, the World Health Organization and the World Bank released a major report on child malnutrition that focused entirely on a lack of food. Sanitation was not mentioned. Now, Unicef officials and those from other major charitable organizations said in interviews that they believe that poor sanitation may cause more than half of the world’s stunting problem.

“Our realization about the connection between stunting and sanitation is just emerging,” said Sue Coates, chief of water, sanitation and hygiene at Unicef India. “At this point, it is still just an hypothesis, but it is an incredibly exciting and important one because of its potential impact.”

This research has quietly swept through many of the world’s nutrition and donor organizations in part because it resolves a great mystery: Why are Indian children so much more malnourished than their poorer counterparts in sub-Saharan Africa?


In five months since the drought emergency was declared, Californians have cut their water consumption only 5 percent compared with recent years, according to state officials — a far cry from the 20 percent that Gov. Jerry Brown called for in January.

So, faced with apparent indifference to stern warnings from state leaders and media alarms, cities across California have encouraged residents to tattle on their neighbors for wasting water — and the residents have responded in droves. Sacramento, for instance, has received more than 6,000 reports of water waste this year, up twentyfold from last year.

Loretta Franzi has called the Sacramento water-waste hotline “a number of times” in recent months.

“You can hear people running their sprinklers when it’s dark because they don’t want to get caught watering when they’re not supposed to be — it’s maddening,” said Ms. Franzi, 61, a retiree. “You can tell the people who are conserving because their lawns are brown. The lawns that are really green, there’s something wrong.”


What will be necessary is a fundamental reconsideration of 100 years of water-appropriation practices and patterns. Farmers, whose claims on Colorado river water are senior to all others, may have to give up, or sell off, some of their rights. Strict legal provisions that would turn whole swaths of the inhabited Southwest back into desert to slake the thirst of California cities will have to be reconsidered.

"Nineteenth century water law is meeting 20th century infrastructure and 21st century climate change," says Bradley Udall, a senior fellow at the University of Colorado Law School, "and it leads to a nonsensical outcome."

If the Western drought continues, Arizona would have to bear almost the entire brunt of water shortages before California gives up a drop of its appropriation from the river. Few observers of Western water affairs believe that’s politically practical, but few have offered practical alternatives.


With 1.3 million citizens, Ulaanbaatar is home to around 40 percent of Mongolia’s total population and represents its natural economic hub, producing more than a half of its national GDP. Water use has grown hand in hand with the demographic and economic boom the city has experienced over the last 20 years. Today, Usug distributes some 160,000 cubic meters a day of water for domestic use. The company estimates that another 130,000 cubic meters a day are drained from the aquifer by private wells run by industries and individuals. At around 300,000 cubic meters a day, the city uses twice as much water as it did 20 years ago, and that thirst looks set to continue to grow.

As many as 746,766 citizens living in the poorer ger districts lack direct access to water and sanitation. Their domestic water use barely reaches 10 liters per day, way below the 50 to 100 liters per day the World Health Organization (WHO) identifies as the threshold to ensure that most basic needs are met. As the government develops its plans to improve water infrastructure in the ger districts and move some of the dwellers to modern housing, water domestic usage will rise: owners of modern apartments in Ulaanbaatar currently use more than 200 liters per day, according to 2010 Usug figures. At the same time, additional water will be needed to cater to the city’s growing industrial and economic activities. Total water usage is set to double by 2030 and triple by 2040, according to estimates by the Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA).

Decreasing recharge levels due to the Tuul River’s shrinking water flow, which researchers largely trace back to climate change phenomena, as noted by Davaa Gombo, head of the hydrology unit at Mongolia’s Institute for Meteorology and Environment monitoring (IMH), and increasing withdrawals pose a serious threat to the equilibrium of Ulaanbaatar’s aquifer.


San Joaquin is part of California’s central valley, one of the most productive farm regions in the US. That productivity is based on access to ground water, extracted and pumped to irrigate crops.

So great is the demand that scientists estimate twice as much water is being consumed as is being returned through rain and snow.

All this extraction is having a significant impact on the shape of the Earth. The floors of the valleys are subsiding, the researchers found, while the surrounding mountains are on the rise.

"We are removing a weight from the Earth’s crust and it is responding by flexing upwards and literally moving mountains," lead author Dr Colin Amos told BBC News.

"It seems as though these small stress changes that happen on a yearly basis, are causing more small earthquakes to occur on portions of the fault."



A coastal desalination plant planned for east of Beijing could provide a large portion of the drinking water for the parched Chinese capital by 2019, the state news media quoted officials as saying on Tuesday. The reports indicated that the government and state enterprises were investing heavily in desalination projects to alleviate a dire water shortage in northern China.

The reports, citing officials who spoke over the weekend and on Monday, said that the proposed plant, to be located in the city of Tangshan in Hebei Province, had already been approved by a provincial development agency. The plan is to complete construction of the plant by 2019 and for it to supply one million tons of fresh water each day, which could account for one-third of the water consumption of Beijing, a city of more than 22 million people, officials said. A headline on an article published by Global Times, a populist state-run newspaper, said, “Seawater to Supply Beijing in 2019.”

The plant would be the core of one of the biggest desalination projects in China. It is the second phase of a desalination project that is run by Aqbewg, a joint venture company formed by Aqualyng, a Norwegian company, and Beijing Enterprises Water Group, which is headquartered in Hong Kong and is a subsidiary of a large state-owned company.