ENCINITAS, Calif. – The city of Encinitas used some giant scissors to cut a giant ribbon, to celebrate some giant piles of sand on Cardiff State Beach.
Sometimes giant piles of sand are just sand. But these piles are not. They’re engineered “living dunes” that have been five years in the making. And they’re part of an ongoing effort to save Cardiff from rising sea levels.
These super dunes may even provide a roadmap for saving other beaches that are susceptible to climate change, up and down California’s coast.
Erosion, Erosion, Erosion
When it comes to California’s beaches, erosion is normal. Our coastal landscapes are meant to change. However, rising sea levels and intense storms have exacerbated the dangers of erosion, and the fact that we’ve built homes and infrastructure right up against it means that it’s a huge concern.
In many places, we fight against erosion by “nourishing” beaches, which means adding a bunch of sand to increase their size, like at Zuma Beach in Malibu. We sometimes also line the beaches with giant rocks, especially along roads, the hope being that those rocks will absorb some of the energy put out by the powerful ocean, thus saving the infrastructure behind them.
That’s what officials were doing at Cardiff for years, in an effort to protect the beach and North Coast Highway 101, but it wasn’t working.
“[Cardiff] was already experiencing flooding during extreme high tide events and during extreme storms,” said Jayme Timberlake, Coastal Zone Program Administrator for the City of Encinitas.
Any sand that they used to nourish the beach was quickly washed away, shrinking its usable area. And the rocks that they used to protect the 101 were just being thrown up onto it.
“It did cause a lot of issues with access, access to the highway itself. The highway is pretty critical for daily commuters,” said Timberlake.
Recognizing that the problem wasn’t going to get any better as sea levels rose, the city decided to act, and over the course of five years designed and built a “living shoreline.”
While the process is similar to beach nourishment in that it uses a lot of sand, it’s completely different in that it’s meticulously engineered, offers tiers of protection and is designed to last a long time.
Like a Sandy Layer Cake
Beneath the piles of sand are rocks, or cobble, that are stacked at specific angles, and increase in size the further you get from the water. They’re buried about ten feet deep and are sitting on top of a thick fabric that’s designed to keep them from sinking.
“There’s science backing cobble at being pretty effective at shoreline protection. It stacks up more steeply and higher as waves attack it,” said Brian Leslie, Senior Coastal Scientist with GHD, a firm that the city contracted with on the project. “It’s … like this first line of defense for the dune, so the dune doesn’t get eroded right away when we start to get these big waves and tides.”
The city installed sand fences and planted native vegetation on top of the mounds to stop them from blowing away. There’s also the added benefit of building natural habitat for the adorable snowy plovers.
“This is a coastal strand that was formerly … a dune system, so it’s bringing back what used to be here and it’s meant to be a permanent feature,” said Leslie.
The dunes will erode so they’ll require nourishing, though it’s unclear how often.
A Big Experiment
“The Cardiff project is very unique. Nobody has really tried that before in California,” said Nick Sadrpour, Science, Research & Policy Specialist at the University of Southern California’s Sea Grant Program. “This burgeoning idea of living shorelines, of working with nature, of mimicking nature, is really exciting from a coastal resilience perspective.”
While living shorelines have had success on the East Coast, we don’t know how they’re going to work out here. There are a few places they’re being tested, including Santa Monica and Orange County.
Researchers from the SCRIPPS Institution of Oceanography and UCLA, as well as government groups like the California Coastal Commission and the State Coastal Conservancy, will all be keeping tabs on what goes on there.
They’ll be watching for changes in the growth and slope of the dunes, as well as the movement of cobble and sand migration.
“Success is the stabilization of the dunes,” said Timberlake. “While we try to discern the next steps in adapting to sea level rise, and to these larger sea level rise projections.”
If all goes well, similar projects could pop up all along the coast. However, they won’t be workable for every location, and it’s not like the project was exactly cheap.
These dunes cost between 2.5 to 3 million dollars, according to Timberlake.
And even if the dunes are successful, both Timberlake and Leslie acknowledge that they may only last 20 to 30 years before rising sea levels make them impractical, at least at Cardiff.
“Once we get to the three feet and over [range], it’s going to be tough to keep a dune system here,” said Leslie. “It’s a problem now and that problem’s going to get worse over time.”
PHOENIX – Farmers in Pinal County are again pushing for an extra $20 million in the state budget for wells and other groundwater infrastructure. This would be in addition to the $9 million in general fund dollars and $5 million from Central Arizona Project taxpayers they received as part of the Drought Contingency Plan earlier this year.
Climate change and overuse have sapped the Colorado River’s two main reservoirs. That spurred water leaders from the seven Colorado River basin states to negotiate a plan for cutbacks in order to reduce the risk of dangerously low levels. That deal, the DCP, was finalized earlier this year and signed into law by President Trump in April.
Irrigation districts in Pinal County are facing the brunt of water reductions due to their place near the back of the line for Colorado River water delivered by the Central Arizona Project canal system. The districts exchanged higher priority water rights for debt relief and cheaper water prices as part of a deal from the early 2000s.
The DCP plans for a faster transition to groundwater for Pinal farming, moving irrigation districts to almost complete reliance on groundwater by 2025 or 2026, depending on river conditions. Farmers would also fallow 30 to 40 percent of their farmland. A healthy snowpack in 2019 may have put off significant CAP cutbacks for next year, but they are expected in future years.
The current budget request is due to uncertainty over U.S. Department of Agriculture funding. Federal programs may provide the $20 million, but the Pinal farmers want the state to allocate the money now and get federal reimbursement later. They argue the infrastructure work needs to begin soon, long before any USDA program makes its decision.
“If we don’t have the money now, money from the feds later would be a day late and a dollar short,” said Tiffany Shedd, a farmer and lawyer from Eloy.
Shedd and others argue farming is vital to the larger economy. Environmental groups say tax dollars shouldn’t facilitate groundwater pumping, and Arizona should move away from water-intensive crops like alfalfa and cotton.
Rep. David Cook (R-District 8), whose district includes much of Pinal County, said he had the support of budget negotiators.
“I have faith in the Governor’s Office and the leadership in the House and Senate to put together a budget that includes this money,” he said. Cook did not say he would withhold his vote from the budget if the money isn’t included, a strategy other state lawmakers have employed this year. Republicans hold slim majorities in both the House and Senate.
“I don’t withhold my vote, I never have,” said Rep. T.J. Shope (R-District 8), Cook’s seatmate and a member of House leadership. “I believe that the leadership that I’m a part of, obviously, in the House, is also supportive of it.”
LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power announced its latest snowpack measurement in the Eastern Sierra Monday and it’s at an encouraging 171% of what’s considered normal (compared to the state reading of 153%).
It’s a mark that matters because much of L.A.’s water supply comes from the snow that falls on the Eastern Sierra mountains, which is ferried south via the Los Angeles Aqueduct when it melts.
But a surplus snowpack can actually present a different kind of challenge for Los Angeles water managers, who are getting ready to grapple with a bumper supply of water.
Moving the Water
Think of the L.A. Aqueduct as a giant, 233-mile-long funnel capable of holding about 365,000 acre feet of water. That’s about 70% of L.A.’s overall water demand.
It’s not clear how much water this year’s snowpack will produce, but the record snowpack in 2017 produced about one million acre feet of water. That’s too much for a funnel only about one-third that size. That means that water managers have to figure out where to put the excess water as it melts off the mountains.
A similar water emergency declaration won’t be needed this year, Collins said. However they will duplicate some of the tactics of 2017 to deal with excess water.
For starters, DWP will route some of the water to spreading grounds in Mono and Inyo counties.
And some of the water will be used to recharge the water table in Los Angeles.
In 2017 the utility restored an old water tunnel called the Maclay High Line to move water from the end of the aqueduct near the I-5 in Sylmar to a flood control channel that feeds a water spreading ground in Pacoima. The tunnel has an interesting history, but had been taken out of service years ago.
Will My Water Bill Go Down?
Yes, bills will go down a bit.
More water in the aqueduct means DWP doesn’t have to buy as much imported water from the Metropolitan Water District. MWD has its own aqueducts that bring water from Northern California and the Colorado River.
During our drought years, purchased water from MWD has made up more than half the city water supply. But in this water-rich year, only about 30% of L.A.’s city water supply will be imported water purchased from Metropolitan this coming year, DWP spokeswoman Ellen Cheng said.
Less MWD water means a lower DWP bill. How much lower? The part of the bill that reflects purchased water will be about 25% lower, Cheng said.
DWP’s board had already set the upcoming July through December rates with the added runoff in mind, so customers will get some benefit.
POTTER VALLEY, Calif. – More than a century ago, the people of Mendocino County in California needed electricity to fit into the industrialized world. So engineers generated power by building two dams and reconfiguring two rivers. For decades thereafter, people fashioned steadily improving lives around the new landscapes. At the same time, beset by environmental insults, the annual runs of salmonids in the Eel River withered.
Inevitably, priorities changed. As building the dams and creating the 9.2-megawatt Potter Valley project solved the need for electricity, a new need developed: irrigation. Tens of thousands of acre-feet of Eel River water were diverted to supply the power station at the headwaters of the Russian River’s East Branch. Then it flowed on, supplying cities and farmers and nurturing Mendocino and Sonoma County’s expanding agriculture – once pears and hops, now dominated by wine grapes.
The current need: repair the harm caused by the dams. That will cost so many tens of millions of dollars that the project’s owner, Pacific Gas & Electric – already losing money on it – is cutting its losses. It will not seek a new federal license.
This decision mimics PG&E’s recent moves away from other small hydroelectric projects, like the 12-megawatt Narrows project on the Yuba River in Nevada County, which PG&E sold last year to a local water agency. It also echoes decisions by the northwestern utility PacifiCorp, which, at a cost of $37 million, breached its 14.7 megawatt Condit Dam on the White Salmon River in Washington.
The Potter Valley Project: More Than Just a Dam
Choices Ahead for Owners of Small Hydroelectric Projects Across the West
Dam by dam, owners of smaller hydroelectric projects around the West look at them with a cold eye as relicensing looms. Created with optimism a century ago, dams are now seen as fish-killers and river-distorters. New energy sources are getting cheaper. After decades of operation, owners approach relicensing knowing that, if they are to continue generating a single watt of electricity, they must fix the problems.
Tens of millions of dollars are often at stake. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licenses hydroelectric projects for up to 50 years, but sometimes just one year at a time to ensure problems are resolved. Limited revenue from electricity may not justify expensive remediation. Before it was sold off, a financial analysis of the Narrows project showed costs would have outweighed profits by more than $12 million over the first five years.
Depending on how it finally turns out, the narrative of the Potter Valley project could be a cautionary tale for other dam owners whose stakeholders are at odds. Or it could be a roadmap to reconciling competing interests. Whatever the lesson, the project is part of a larger transformation in how people understand debts owed to the environment. And how they are repaid. “[The Potter Valley project] is a subset of a much larger body of problems,” said Scott Greacen, conservation director at Friends of the Eel River, a conservation organization that is seeking to restore natural streamflows. Over the decades, “we took a lot of capital out of natural systems. Now the bills are coming due.”
Fighting climate change is another urgent need. One way is by creating carbon-free electricity – what dams do. The historian Heather Lee Miller, a staffer at Historical Research Associates in Washington, believes that if all governments classify small hydroelectric projects’ energy as renewable, subsidies could change the financial picture.
“Certainly some of the dams are in terrible places,” she said. Others, like PacifiCorp’s 1.1-megawatt project at Wallowa Falls in Oregon, are being relicensed. “There’s a backlog of dams that aren’t in the right spot,” she said, but added that, as the climate changes, it would be wrong to think small hydro-electric projects have no future.
What is the difference between projects like Wallowa Falls being relicensed and those, like Potter Valley, being abandoned by big electric companies? Economics are central. Relicensing the Potter Valley project promised to be daunting even before PG&E, facing hundreds of millions of dollars of wildfire liabilities, declared bankruptcy. “It now looks like PG&E’s overall incentive structure has shifted,” Greacen said. “They have given up.”
Who Decides the Future? A Stakeholder Group Struggles to Find Compromise
The federal government determines the terms of PG&E’s exit. FERC will solicit interest from others to run it. If no one comes forward, it will order PG&E to develop a decommissioning plan that may or may not include removing facilities.
PG&E’s finances are private, but the economic analysis done for the Narrows project on the Yuba River offers guidance.
Jeff Bodington of San Francisco, the financial analyst who did it, said, “these projects made sense at the time they were built and perhaps for decades thereafter. Many still make sense.” But “some may make sense day in and day out, but when a license expires, relicensing can be very costly. A small project cannot absorb big relicensing costs. For each relicensing, he said, “these questions get asked. Are there fish impacts? Recreational impacts? Other impacts?”
The Potter Valley project had many impacts. The region’s congressman, Jared Huffman, created a working group of all stakeholders — water agencies, local and county governments, tribes, federal and state wildlife specialists and environmental groups – to hash out what the project should become and what happens to the dams.
Asked if the Potter Valley project is an electrical project or a water distribution project, Congressman Jared Huffman said simply. “Yes.” He added, “The question is, whether it can be both of those things and a fish recovery project.”
Dams a Mortal Threat to Fish Runs, Scientific and Regulatory Consensus Holds
In the past two decades, the federal government agreed with scientists that salmon and steelhead runs in the Eel River are threatened. A 2010 report from the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis, concluded, “coho salmon, Chinook salmon and steelhead are on a trajectory to extinction in the Eel River basin.”
The culprits listed in that report include early 20th-century commercial fishing and mechanized logging whose clear-cuts on the hillsides caused erosion that silted up the river. Floods in 1955 and 1964 added silt and changed the river’s course. All that hampered fish passage, but not as much as Scott Dam, built in 1922. It blocks dozens of miles of spawning areas. The report said, “the loss of salmonid habitat upstream of Scott Dam means there are fewer areas to serve as refuges for salmonid and steelhead… during environmentally unfriendly periods such as extended droughts.”
Eel River Diversions Were Slashed in 2006… But Then Russian River Fish Suffered
In 2004, the Federal Energy Regulatory commission ordered the diversions cut back from what was then 160,000 acre-feet annually. Now they average 72,000 acre-feet. These inter-basin diversions help fish in the Russian River. The Eel River water flows through a mile-long tunnel to generate electricity at a powerhouse on the banks of the East Fork of the Russian River. The water not used by the Potter Valley Irrigation District and other local diverters ends up behind the Coyote Valley dam in Lake Mendocino and is released periodically into the Russian River.
The state Water Resources Control Board requires the Sonoma County Water Agency to keep minimum stream flows on the Russian River to maintain fish spawning and migration and support recreation. The Eel River water transfers help them do that, according to Don Seymour, a principal engineer at the Sonoma County Water Agency.
The agency has had difficulty meeting its minimum instream flow requirements while not depleting Lake Mendocino. It won’t be easy to serve its urban, industrial and agricultural customers and help its endangered fish recover if there is less water in Lake Mendocino.
Help for Spawning Fish Could Cost Tens of Millions of Dollars – or Hundreds
Joshua Fuller, the National Marine Fisheries Service’s expert on salmonid runs in the Eel River, agrees that the Russian River fish do benefit from the Eel River water — but says access to the upper Eel River is crucial for reviving its salmonids.
Different strategies give fish access to spawning grounds. These include dam removal, a fish ladder, or hauling fish in trucks. Fuller heads one of two working groups in Congressman Huffman’s ad hoc committee weighing Potter Valley’s future. His group on fish passage is about to pick the two best of available solutions.
Good fish ladders are expensive. In August, the Lost Coast Outpost reported that a 2017 engineering report prepared for PG&E “found that constructing a functional fish ladder at Scott Dam would likely cost between $55 million and $93 million.” It would be “challenging to build, complicated to operate, very costly, and would have uncertain effectiveness.” Removing Scott Dam would be at least as expensive. Increasing the size of Coyote Valley dam, which holds back the Russian River, could cost $300 million.
Where could the money come from? As Congressman Huffman said, “If you look around at any stakeholder in either basin, none of them has the capacity to solve this problem and pay for it on their own. The only way to do this is to come together and unlock state and federal money.” His stakeholders group could sign a legal agreement giving the project a way forward without litigation.
PG&E’s January 25 announcement that it wanted out of Potter Valley complicates the plans being developed in the ad hoc committee. Huffman said that the glue binding potentially antagonistic stakeholders “is the fact that everybody’s at risk. There are really lousy solutions” possible “for everyone, no matter what their perspective.”
As Hydropower Profits Dwindle, Paying off Environmental Debt Gets Harder. But Renewable Energy Mandate May Help
The details of the project’s role in two different water basins are unique, but it has one thing in common with others: its owners are disinclined to pay environmental debts. “There’s the broader context of what’s going on in electricity markets,” said an energy consultant who would not speak for attribution. “With historically low wholesale energy prices, utilities, not surprisingly, will operate their lowest-cost units. Particularly if you have old infrastructure.”
But a new reality is emerging. Climate change puts a different perspective on the future of some small projects: states like California mandate a largely, or entirely carbon-free electric portfolio 25 years hence. “Resources that are 100 percent renewable are the new black,” he said. “That creates an opportunity for resources that have been ugly ducklings.” Todd Olson, a spokesman for PacifiCorp, which relicensed the Wallowa dam in 2017, said, “We went through the whole analysis many times over. We ultimately kept it because it is renewable, and there are other community values.”
Residents of Lake, Mendocino, and Sonoma Counties feel the Potter Valley project is crucial to them. “We’re talking about legacies now,” said Fuller of the fisheries service. “This project has been going on so long, cultures, families and generations are built around it. Say the project goes away: life is going to change for people.”
Data doesn’t yet show a clear trend of small hydropower projects’ owners walking away from them, although Mr. Bodington did say, “The trend is more getting taken down than put up.” Dozens of licenses are due for renewal in the next decade. Studies begin years before a license expires; the Potter Valley project’s license expires in 2022.
Whether or not Scott Dam is removed, and whether or not that decision is part of a wider trend, Mr. Huffman does see attitudes on dam removal changing. “Each time there’s a successful dam removal, it is demystified a little bit,” he said. “You should naturally see things get little bit easier, where dam removal makes sense going forward. But it’s always going to be case by case.”
GILA RIVER INDIAN COMMUNITY – The Gila River Indian Community unveiled a new groundwater infrastructure project on Friday. The tribe hopes it will provide for members when surface water becomes more scarce.
The “Managed Aquifer Recharge” project, one of at least two planned for the reservation, has a canal system and an open basin where water will seep down into the aquifer. Water then pumped from the aquifer will irrigate crops.
The basin also supports a riparian habitat in the Gila River pathway. The birds and plants are coming back after upstream users diverted the tribe’s water after the Civil War.
Tribal member Kandi Howard said it’s nice to not have to leave the reservation to enjoy nature like this. “And to [have our] water rights back,” she said, referring to the historic 2004 Arizona Water Settlement.
Of the riparian area, she said, “it’s coming along. And I didn’t think our kids would be able to see it, but they are. Like, gradually.”
The governor of the Gila River Indian Community, Stephen Roe Lewis, said the pace of building increased once Drought Contingency Plan talks started in 2016.
“It became clear that drought was a reality for all of us,” he told a crowd of Community members, water leaders and politicians. “And that the community needed to accelerate its reduction of CAP water deliveries and increase its reliance on groundwater supplies.”
The tribe said the project allows it to take less Central Arizona Project (CAP) water and make agreements to help prop up Lake Mead.
The GRIC played an important role in Arizona’s intrastate agreement that helped the state get on board with a Colorado River basin-wide DCP plan. It also signed a separate agreement with the groundwater replenishment arm of the Central Arizona Project, providing more water for development in Central Arizona.
PICACHO, Ariz. – About 80 million tons of asphalt are recycled every year throughout the U.S., but the Arizona Department of Transportation is using old pavement from Interstate 10 to build new eastbound lanes near this unincorporated community. In the process, an ADOT spokesman says the department is saving money and time, and decreasing its environmental impact.
Usually during construction, ADOT moves materials over a mile away from the construction site, but on this project, material from a torn-up 4-mile stretch of highway from Eloy to Picacho was moved only 200 yards offsite. ADOT uses pointed cylinders and other tools to break up the old asphalt, concrete and dirt, then mixes it together for use as a foundation for the new lanes.
Spokesman Tom Herrmann said ADOT is using the old material for the new eastbound lanes “to create a base so that we can pave on there. We’re saving time. We’re saving money, and we’re not adding any materials to any landfills. It’s been very important for us to preserve the beauty that is Arizona.”
The department also is recycling the 30,000 feet of guard rails from the Picacho site and reusing the rails that are in good condition on other projects around the state.
This stretch of Interstate 10 was built in the mid-1960s.
“This is really an unusual case,” Hermann said. “We’re out here in the middle of the desert in central Arizona. We have an opportunity here to do something special.”
Kamil Kaloush, a professor at Arizona State’s School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, said recycled materials can be effective.
“If it is designed correctly and added at the proper percentage, it will be just as good as the version material or the new construction,” Kaloush said.
Recycling materials onsite not only saves money and time, it helps the environment, he said.
“Saving in money, saving in energy, cost, fuel and, of course, the impact on the environment, the CO₂ emissions, the global warming and climate change and everything else,” Kaloush said.
ADOT replaced the westbound lanes last year. Construction on the eastbound lanes is expected to wrap up in the fall.