‘Borrowing from the future’: What an Emerging Megadrought Means for the Southwest

PHOENIX – It’s the early 1990s, and Park Williams stands in the middle of Folsom Lake, at the base of the Sierra Nevada foothills in Northern California. He’s not walking on water; severe drought has exposed the lakebed.

“I remember being very impressed by the incredible variability of water in the West and how it’s very rare that we actually have just enough water,” said Williams, who went on to become a climate scientist at Columbia University. “It’s often the case there’s either too much or too little.”

Williams is the lead author on a report out this month in the journal Science detailing the extent of drought conditions in the American West.

The report found the period from 2000 through 2018 to be the driest 19-year span since the late 1500s, and the second driest since 800. In simpler terms, it’s an emerging megadrought, which is a drought that typically lasts decades.

“Drought conditions during the 2000s have actually been on average as severe as the driest on 20-year periods of the worst megadroughts of the last millennium,” Williams said in an interview with Cronkite News. “The cause is a combination of natural climate variability and human caused climate change.”

What sets this emerging megadrought apart from others, such as those recorded in the 1200s and 1500s, is that human activity is increasing the severity. Although past megadroughts had natural causes, the report found this natural phenomenon has been made worse by humans.

Nancy Selover, Arizona’s state climatologist since 2007, said there’s more to learn about the impact people have had on this recent drought, although she does classify Arizona as being in a megadrought now.

“I’m sure we’re contributing a little bit. I’m not sure how much we’re contributing,” Selover said. “It’s model output. And models are designed not to predict what’s going to happen, they’re designed for us to understand them and learn how the system works.”

It’s important to understand the difference between deserts and droughts, said Kathy Jacobs, the director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona.

“I think making a distinction between sort of living in a desert where it’s hot and dry, and understanding that we could be entering into decades long shortage situations that really throw all of our water supply projections for a loop is a really important distinction,” Jacobs said.

To make that distinction, Williams and his team employed methods first used in 1937 by researchers at the University of Arizona, who discovered the width of the annual growth rings in tree trunks corresponded to moisture availabilities, or soil moisture.

“Our measurement of drought is really a combination of tree ring records that come up to 1900,” Williams said. “And then that, stitched together with our climate derived estimates of soil moisture, brings us up to 2018.”

He said a megadrought isn’t a multidecade period in which every year is dry, but instead an extended period when the occasional wet years don’t come close to making up for the predominance of dry years.

If the concept of an emerging megadrought seems abstract, there’s a reason. Williams said people might not feel the immediate impact of water sources depleting due to groundwater pumping in California, Arizona and other states.

“We’ve been pulling out groundwater at a far faster rate than it actually gets replenished, and that has allowed us to get through this drought,” Williams said. “We’re basically borrowing from the future.”

Selover said it’s a future that’s likely to include more people in the Southwest.

“We now have more people here, so drought is a more significant issue than it ever was before,” she said. “We need to be very, very careful about how we deal with our water and how we deal with our temperature. Because those things going forward are going to be decreasing water and increasing temperature.”

The Colorado River is one example of decreasing water resources. Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico depend on the river for water, but the amount of water each state is promised has been consistently overallocated.

“Each state is actually guaranteed more acre feet of water out of the Colorado River every year than actually flows in the Colorado River in an average year,” Williams said. “We’ve had an unsustainable relationship with the Colorado River for the last century, independent of climate change.”

Jacobs said it’s a relationship that hasn’t been properly addressed, especially considering the cultural significance the Colorado has to many people in the Southwest.

“It’s really important to recognize both, tribal, and environmental uses of water in both the main stem (of the river) and the tributaries,” Jacobs said. “Letting the river actually be a river and flow is something that’s valued by some people. Whereas now, we have essentially dried the entire river out so it does not reach the sea.”

Williams suggests that water in the 1,450-mile-long Colorado be reallocated as one way to improve the river’s condition. That’s difficult when the demands for water are so high.

Last year, after years of negotiations, President Donald Trump approved the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan which outlines how much water the seven Colorado River Basin states can take from the river if reservoirs at Lake Powell and Lake Mead drop to critical levels. Despite the plan, Williams said the river still is in danger of drying up.

“The fact that the normal average year is actually getting drier and is projected to keep getting drier in the Colorado River means that we’re probably going to have to revise how much each state is allocated on the Colorado River substantially,” Williams said.

Beyond that, Jacobs stresses the need to elect representatives to the Arizona Legislature who care about the environment and to reach out to current legislators so they know how important tighter water regulations are to Arizonans and the state’s economy.

“Most of the people who come here for tourism are coming because they want to see the beautiful parts of the state,” Jacobs said. “Many of those beautiful parts are connected to rivers and water supplies. There are billions of dollars generated by the state’s economy by people who are here for ecotourism, and we could easily build that into a much more profitable path.”

At the end of the day, the spirit of continued water conservation efforts can be traced back to that image of a young Park Williams on Folsom Lake. The lesson learned, he said, is how precious water is.

“The stakes for humans are higher than they’ve ever been before,” Williams said. “And as we change the climate, one of the things that is most predictable is that the distribution of water is going to change. Trying to figure that out before it really becomes a crisis, I think, is one of the most valuable things we can do.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

A Lot Of You Had Questions About Coronavirus In The Water. We Have Some Answers.

The coronavirus pandemic is so new to us that things that seemed so certain — like the safety of our water supply — are suddenly raising questions. Among the nearly 1,500 questions our newsroom has fielded since the outbreak of COVID-19, some have been about water. They usually go something like this:

Can a person get the coronavirus from their home or work water supply?

The simple answer is: not really. Although the coronavirus can live in drinking water and sewage, it’s not likely to come into contact with you; our systems for moving water around, treating it, and disposing of it all work very well.

That said, there are reasonable precautions you can take, and things you can do to help our public drinking water and wastewater systems best serve our collective health.

Here are answers to some common questions about drinking water:

What risk does coronavirus pose to our drinking water supply?

The risk is exceptionally low, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Our major public water providers say coronavirus is not present in the drinking water supply coming to your home or work. Those include the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power which supplies the city of L.A., and Metropolitan Water District, which supplies imported water to much of Southern California.

The water in your home or business in Southern California comes from local underground wells, and from aqueducts carrying it from Northern California or Colorado. Some water systems also have water that has been recycled. But in all cases the water coming out of your faucet has been treated to remove pathogens and disinfected with chlorine.

Some small residual of chlorine should still be in the water when it gets to your faucet.

Also, water in underground pipes and inside your home and workplace is under pressure, which helps keep contamination from getting into the water.

So, is it impossible for coronavirus to get into our tap water?

It’s unlikely but not impossible.

UC Riverside chemical engineering professor Haizhou Liu studies water treatment. He co-authored a paper calling for more research into how to remove coronavirus from public drinking and wastewater treatment systems. He says scientists recognize that coronavirus can live in both drinking water and sewage and that conventional treatments inactivate or kill the virus, but that more needs to be known about that process and how to improve it.

In drinking water systems, organic microorganisms can develop what’s called a biofilm on the interior of corroded pipes. The biofilm creates a kind of structure that viruses in the pipes can stick to and colonize, Liu said.

Under limited circumstances, the corrosion could flake loose from the interior of a pipe and cause the biofilm and its coronavirus colony to flow through the pipe to end users — that’s you — by way of a faucet, showerhead, garden hose, etc.. That could happen, for example, if a water utility changed the source of its water (like switching from well water to imported water, or from lake water to river water), causing a change in the chemical balance of the water, Liu said.

But this isn’t exactly cause for alarm. Los Angeles DWP General Manager Marty Adams said there is a very low risk that biofilms could carry coronavirus into our homes:

“If you were away for weeks at a time or starting a brand new water service for a house that had been unoccupied, you’d probably want to flush your lines really well first. That’s because that water could be sitting, which means that the chlorine in the line could have dissipated and maybe a biofilm started to form.”

If tap water’s safe, why are people stockpiling bottled water?

Back in March, when we were all told to stay home for several weeks, this was such a new situation, it seemed rational for people to buy up the one thing they consider essential. And it’s a generally good practice, here in earthquake country, to always have a supply that could keep you going for about two weeks. It shouldn’t take pandemic to get us to stock up, but that’s what happened.

Bottled water, or the filtered water you use to fill your jug at the water store generally does not have the same chlorine residual in it that purifies tap water, Adams said. Once your bottled water is unsealed, or your jug of water from the local water store is open, it’s important to keep it clean so it doesn’t become contaminated.

Can I get coronavirus from a faucet that an infected person recently used?

We know by now that the coronavirus is spread by person-to-person contact, and also by touching items that infected people have touched. So you might think that includes a kitchen or bathroom faucet.

Good handwashing (instructions here) means using soap all over your hands under running water for 20 seconds. Soap breaks down the envelope membrane surrounding the virus and renders it inactive. Soap also helps remove the oils on your hands the virus sticks to. The running water rinses it away. Use a towel to dry your hands and turn off the faucet.

If you’re living in a home with a person who is self-isolating because they have or might have the coronavirus, that person should be the only one using that restroom, if possible. If not, clean the high-touch surfaces in that restroom after every use.

What about steam from showers?

Liu’s paper said the novel coronavirus could colonize biofilms that line drinking water pipes, making showerheads a possible source of aerosolized transmission, meaning the water droplets make a fine spray that can carry the virus.

But, again, most water treatment routines and residual chlorine are thought to kill or remove coronaviruses effectively in tap water Liu said.

Pipes convey wastewater at Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant near Dockweiler Beach. (Phot by Dan Tuffs/KPCC+LAist)

Is coronavirus in wastewater?

Yes, if it’s in you, it’s going to get into the wastewater system through the kitchen, shower, washing machine and toilet. Wastewater moves in a closed system of underground pipes to regional wastewater treatment plants, it’s unlikely you would come in contact with it.

Those plants are where the coronavirus gets killed. The kind of wastewater treatment common in Southern California removes many pathogens that are actually more difficult to kill than the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, said Traci Minimide, chief operating officer for LA City Sanitation and Environment, which includes the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant near Dockweiler Beach.

“The coronavirus is what they call an enveloped virus. And once that envelope is broken, then that basically inactivates the virus,” Minamide said. “And it’s much more fragile than other viruses.”

One of the big problems at wastewater plants right now is that people are flushing lots of things they shouldn’t. When toilet paper was hoarded during the panic purchasing of March, Angelenos started using other products that don’t disintegrate in the sewer system.

Paper towels and so-called flushable wipes can block some of the equipment at pump stations and treatment plants. So Minamide asked the public to flush only toilet paper and dispose of other products in the trash.

Is it safe to be in the ocean?

Some treated wastewater is discharged into the ocean from the Los Angeles city sanitation plant near Dockweiler beach. That water is not given a final disinfection with chlorine because it could harm ocean life. That already-treated water is discharged into the ocean using a pipe that is 5 miles long and 200 feet deep. It’s a very cold and salty environment. Minamide said local studies have shown that the discharged water does not return to the beach. So beachgoers or surfers should not be at risk from that water.

That said, surface runoff that might have virus in it does reach the ocean, so there is still a good reason to avoid the beach for now.

Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant, solid items like paper towels, sanitary supplies and “flushable” wipes being skimmed from raw sewage on Nov. 12, 2015. (Photo by Dan Tuffs/KPCC+LAist)

Groundwater Aquifers Can Expect A Boost From March Rains

March rain has left Salt River Project reservoirs as full as they’ve been in a decade. The company is discharging water to make room for the runoff, providing a boost to the underlying aquifers.

The utility says the Salt and Verde river systems are at a combined 94% of capacity, almost 20 points higher than last year. Theodore Roosevelt Lake holds about two-thirds of SRP’s stored water and is over 90 percent full.

The utility is sending discharge from the reservoirs, called “spillage,” down the Salt River.

“When these rivers flow, they basically have a direct link to the regional aquifer,” said SRP’s Charlie Ester. “And a flowing river in the desert southwest is the number one way to get water into the regional aquifer.”

A higher aquifer helps just about any user who taps into groundwater.

“We’re helping out the aquifer, but no one in particular can lay claim to it,” Ester said.

As of March 22, Phoenix has seen 1.94 inches of rain in March, according to preliminary data from the National Weather Service. The normal accumulation for that month is less than half that.

While it is possible the rain could reduce the strain on the Central Arizona Project, which supplies Colorado River water to users in Maricopa, Pinal, and Pima Counties, the system does not expect a change in orders this year.

“We did observe a reduction in customer orders in March, as compared to the original Annual Operating Plan schedule,” said Central Arizona Project spokesperson DeEtte Person. “We also adjusted our operations at Waddell Pump Generating Plant to accommodate additional runoff into Lake Pleasant from the Agua Fria River watershed. However, as temperatures increase, we anticipate that demand will pick up, resulting in customers likely still taking delivery of their full water order by the end of the year.”

Any period of wet weather does not mean the area is out of a long-term drought.

Ester said that droughts have wet years and wet periods have dry years, although he is wondering if things are starting to change.

“Three of the last four years now have been wet,” he said. “Maybe the [drought] that we’ve been in since 1996 is beginning to end, and we might be in the process of transitioning to the next wet cycle.”

Whatever goes on in the Central Arizona watershed, however, does not allow conclusions to be drawn about the entire Colorado River basin. That’s partly because the Upper Colorado River basin is much more susceptible to the impacts of climate change.

“We get most of our runoff during the winter when the sun angle is very low, so there’s very little transpiration and evaporation,” Ester said. “What water we get is available to runoff. In the Upper Colorado, their runoff season is in the middle part of the summer. Plants are growing. The sun angle is high. They suffer a lot more losses during runoff because of that than we do.”

Plants, Animals Share Similar Relationships To Climate Niches

It seems plants and animals should react differently to changes in their climate niches, the temperature and precipitation conditions under which they live.

After all, animals can move to find food, water or shade, while plants mostly must sit and take what comes.

But a new study of more than 2,000 plant and animal species in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution suggests flora and fauna actually share similar responses.

Co-author John J. Wiens, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona, said the results mirror current patterns caused by climate change.

“We’ve seen a pattern of local extinctions from the climate change that’s happened already, and the frequencies of local extinctions are actually similar for both plants and animals,” he said.

Wiens and his colleagues tested 10 predictions relating plants and animals to their climate niches.

Members of the 19 plant groups and 17 vertebrate groups followed similar patterns in all 10 cases.

A few examples: Plants and animals tolerate a similar range of conditions; they both adapt at similar rates to changes in their environments; and both can adjust much more quickly to cooler and wetter conditions than to heating or drying trends.

The findings suggest general rules of climatic-niche evolution might hold true for both flora and fauna.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Why Palo Verde, the country’s largest nuclear plant, is cutting its wastewater use

PHOENIX – There’s something in the Buckeye groundwater – a high mineral and salt content – that makes it hard to use, but the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station wants to tap into that source to reduce the amount of more valuable wastewater it now uses to cool the plant’s three reactors.

The plant uses millions of gallons of treated wastewater, with much of it coming from Phoenix’s 91st Avenue Wastewater Treatment Plant. Heat from nuclear reactions boils water into steam, which turns the turbines that generate electricity. The steam then must be cooled and condensed. Palo Verde is looking for additional water sources to reduce its wastewater use by 20%.

“Water sources that we’ve been looking at are poor-quality groundwater sources that come from the Buckeye waterlogged area,” said Jeffrey Brown, senior consulting engineer for Arizona Public Service, which operates the plant. “We are able to use some of that water instead of effluent (wastewater) because of the tertiary treatment system that we have here at Palo Verde” to remove the salts and minerals.

Water is vital for the generating station because it’s in the desert, about an hour’s drive west of Phoenix. Despite being nowhere near a large body of water, Palo Verde, which is owned in part by Arizona Public Service, is the largest nuclear generating station in the country by net generation. The scale of the production shows in the amount of water used every minute.

Video by Madison Staten/ Cronkite News

“In the winter, we can use up to 40,000 gallons per minute, and that makes up for the evaporation rate of the cooling towers at the nuclear plant. In the summer it’s more, it’s up to 60,000 gallons per minute,” said Rick Lange, the plant manager of Palo Verde Water Resources.

Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, believes the real issue isn’t the source of the water but the volume of water the plant uses.

“The utilities say, ‘Wow, OK, we are using the treated wastewater,’ like somehow it’s not a big deal that it’s using so much water,” she said. “Treated wastewater can be used for all kinds of other things, including habitat restoration. So it is water that is not available for other use.”

Now, Palo Verde is looking for additional water sources to cut down on increasing costs for wastewater and to conserve water.

“It’s increasing our power costs,” Brown said. “Our objective was to come up with programs that we could run to replace that effluent with more affordable water sources.”

The idea to use even dirtier water stems from a partnership with Sandia National Labs, a national nuclear research and development laboratory in New Mexico. Researchers at the lab have created models that identify areas of improvement for Palo Verde.

This waterfall moves treated wastewater into one of two reservoirs at a rate of 50,000 gallons per minute to supply water to cool the nuclear reactors at Palo Verde. (Photo by Alicia Moser/Cronkite News)

“We created the partnership because of objectives that we had regarding the production and cooling costs for power operation here in Palo Verde,” Brown said. “One of the things that increases disproportionately is the cost of cooling, which is related to the water that we use.”

The facility wants to implement the use of this dirtier water within the year.

“We already have funding and sightings for the wells,” Lange said. “We just need approval from the state, and we’re working with the state and the farmers in the area to work through issues and get that in place. We plan on this year being able to start pumping water and that will test all these systems.”

Palo Verde plans to continue conservation efforts through the development of additional cooling technology and its continued exploration of other water options.

“You’re going to come back five years from now and work you’re going to say, ‘Wow, you’re using a lot less of that sewage water because you’re being more efficient and you’re coming up with worse, worse sources of water that can meet your needs,’” Lange said.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Verde River watershed gets a grade of C+, but that ‘actually is very good’

CAMP VERDE — The Verde River stretches more than 170 miles from north-central Arizona and down through metro Phoenix, bringing life to the landscape, people and wildlife. This month, the river was rated a C+ in the first Verde Watershed Report Card.

The report, released Feb. 18, took into account the quality of the habitat, the community and the water in and along the river.

“What we see in the Watershed Report Card is kind of the impacts of drought and climate change, but also of that increasing human population,” said Kimberly Schonek, the Verde River project manager for The Nature Conservancy.

The Nature Conservancy and Friends of the Verde River produced the report card in conjunction with stakeholders, the U.S. Forest Service and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

The Verde River, which flows more than 170 miles, starts in north-central Arizona and winds down into the Phoenix Valley. The Verde River Watershed Report Card, released earlier this month, addresses habitat, community and water conditions. (Photo by Michael Hannan/Cronkite News)

Nancy Steele, the executive director of Friends of the River Verde, said a C+ grade does not mean the Verde is close to failing.

“Now a lot of people are saying, well, C’s not a great grade, but it actually is very good,” Steele said. “There’s a lot of river systems around the world that are doing much, much worse. We’ve got a healthy river system here.”

Keeping the river healthy is a priority for rancher Jeni O’Callaghan, whose ranch includes a stretch of the Verde.

“We feed our beef, and they’re mostly grass-fed. And so we need grass, and grass doesn’t grow without water,” O’Callaghan said. “We have been irrigating our fields for some time. Currently, we’re in a project with Nature Conservancy to put in irrigation sprinklers as opposed to a flood irrigation.”

The Nature Conservancy is seeking to ensure that others follow O’Callaghan’s example of diverting water responsibly. Schonek said this is especially important because of the decline of the base flow in the Verde River over the past 20 years. The base flow, or the amount of water in the river before rainfall, was a key finding in the report.

Kimberly Schonek, the Verde River project manager for The Nature Conservancy, has worked for over 11 years to improve the quality of the watershed. (Photo by Michael Hannan/Cronkite News)

“That’s probably the most concerning score; we got a D on that,” Schonek said. “We really need to think about that, because that’s being impacted by drought. The amount of water going into the aquifer, and then by the amount of water being taken out by things like groundwater pumping, and surface water diversions.”

Protecting the river for the public is of high interest to the Forest Service, which provided funding for the report card.

“Keeping the the watersheds healthy through the scorecard, increasing awareness of the public, of the health of those watersheds, ultimately furthers both what the (Phoenix) Valley needs in terms of its water supply, as well as what the Forest Service is aiming for, which is to protect the water supply for our public,” said Kelly Mott Lacroix, a Tonto National Forest hydrologist and watershed program manager.

The Forest Service provided funding to mark the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 2018. Sections of the Verde River are protected under the act, making it one of only two Arizona rivers to have that distinction.

“We’re thinking about what that wild and scenic river needs,” Schonek said. “It needs good water quality. It needs to continue to flow. We need fish. We need the uplands in our watershed to be healthy.”

The Nature Conservancy and Friends of the Verde River are working to ensure those needs will continue to be met in the future.

The Verde River Watershed received a C+ grade overall. However, Friends of the Verde River Executive Director Nancy Steele says this is not a negative finding, and the river is doing quite well. (Photo by Michael Hannan/Cronkite News)

“We have spent so much time over the last 10 years creating priorities around preserving this habitat, around removing invasive non-native species,” Steele said.

Steele said they are now working to plant cottonwood trees, a species native to the area, near the river to increase healthy places for wildlife to live. She believes the life this river brings is not limited to the ecosystem.

“I’ve always felt that connection, especially to our desert rivers, that there’s something magical about a desert river,” she said. “And the Verde is that way, too. I come upon it, and it’s magic. You just feel, you know, you’re in a place that’s a ribbon of life.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Four Corners Drought Intensified By Human-Induced Warming

The Four Corners drought of 2017 and 2018 caused $3 billion in losses and led the Navajo Nation to issue an emergency drought declaration.

Now, new research in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society suggests a sizable portion of the drought’s impacts stemmed from human-induced climate change.

“We’re going to keep seeing temperature rise, meaning we’re going to keep seeing these extreme events, these impacts occurring, and that makes it really important to start thinking about adaptation,” said co-author Emily Williams, a doctoral student at University of California, Santa Barbara.

In addition to UC Santa Barbara colleagues Chris Funk and Shraddhanand Shukla, Daniel McEvoy of the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno, Nevada, contributed to the research.

The Four Corners drought was intensified by the hottest regional temperatures on record, and occurred during a severe meteorological drought.

Unusually high temperatures worsen droughts in the Southwest by reducing snowpack and causing snow to melt earlier, depriving affected areas of seasonal river flows.

They also increase the amount of water the atmosphere can hold, making air “thirstier” and causing it to pull moisture from plants and soil.

According to model simulations, human-induced warming added 2.3 to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (1.3 to 2.0 C) to that heat—parching soil and shrinking plant coverage by 18–30 percent and making poor rangeland conditions worse.
It also drained away 20 percent of potential snowpack meltwater.

Williams said events like these reveal climate change already at work.

“And this drought, which hurt so much of the interior of the U.S., is one of those examples of what climate change looks like in the here and now,” she said.

As available water is exhausted, an additional feedback between land and water can occur: As evaporation, which absorbs latent heat and cools the area, becomes impossible, sensible heat can climb even higher.

“If this is happening in a really dry environment and there’s no more moisture in the soil that will then lead to even greater temperature rise,” said Williams.

Because the study did not model such effects, its results likely reflect a conservative estimate of the impacts of human-induced warming.

Snowbirds: Why are white pelicans wintering in Arizona?

PHOENIX – American white pelicans breed in Canada and the upper Midwest, and they typically winter near the Gulf of Mexico and coastal Southern California. However, more of these enormous wetland birds are wintering in Arizona because of the state’s prime living conditions.

Dropping water levels in their natural habitats make the pelicans easy prey for predators, so the birds have found refuge when they migrate south for the winter, settling in the Sonoran Desert’s man-made lakes for imported fish and balmy weather.

“Right now when these birds nest at the Great Salt Lake, their nesting island used to have water all around it and it was free of any predators like coyotes,” said Tice Supplee, director of bird conservation at Audubon Arizona. “Well, now it’s connected to the mainland, and coyotes can come out to where they nest.”

White pelicans are dependent on wetlands for survival. The carnivores forage in shallow, open water, and when they’re vulnerable to hunters, their migration course shifts. Fortunately, Arizona’s reservoirs, community lakes and ponds have an assortment of imported fish to feast upon.

“The fish here (in Arizona) are not native,” Supplee said. “They’re tilapia and were put in here to manage the weeds. The pelicans have found great winter restaurants.”

White pelicans aren’t the only breed of pelicans seen in Arizona. Brown pelicans, which dive-bomb to feed and tend to stay near coastal waters, are known to head to Arizona to escape coastal storms, but wildlife specialists historically had them transported out of the state because of lack of suitable habitats. But with the abundance of large lakes, ponds and reservoirs across the state, brown and white pelicans are staying longer during our cooler winter months.

“North American pelicans are very different from your brown pelican, which are on the coasts,” said Peggy Coleman of Birding-Arizona, a bird photography and advocacy group. “North American pelicans are more inland on lakes and ponds and whatnot.”

With central Arizona a magnet for pelicans, birders and nature lovers have more chances to photograph these unexpected guests.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

The Disproportionate Impact of Climate Change on Indigenous Communities

Now more than ever, the topic of climate change has been receiving national attention and is at the forefront of many conversations. In addition to altering environments, it also has a social impact. Extreme weather events have been happening more than ever in recorded history, disrupting both ecosystems and livelihoods for people across the globe. However, marginalized communities, including Indigenous groups, are often the people most affected by devastating storms, flooding, or fires. Recent environmental changes brought on by climate change uniquely impact Indigenous people, especially because of their relationships with the land, ocean, and natural resources. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs articulately states, “Climate change poses threats and dangers to the survival of Indigenous communities worldwide, even though Indigenous peoples contribute the least to greenhouse gas emissions.”

In the words of Survival International, an organization championing tribal peoples around the world, “Indigenous people are on the front line of climate change.” When community worldviews are deeply tied to the environment, what happens when that environment starts to change rapidly? Or when ancestral homelands that communities have lived in for thousands of years start to disappear? A few of the direct consequences of changing environmental conditions include loss of natural resources, restricted access to traditional gathering areas for food and medicine, and forced displacement or relocation. Despite these challenges, many Indigenous communities are adapting traditional lifeways and advocating for change.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is an essential part of the climate conversation. In California, tribes across the state are actively involved in climate change-related planning and adaptation. The Karuk tribe in northern California recently completed a Climate Adaptation Plan that leans on Traditional Ecological Knowledge to protect their culture, according to Bill Tripp, deputy director of the Karuk Natural Resources Department. The tribe is currently implementing indigenous burning practices to reduce the buildup of forest fuels and help prevent high-severity wildfires. Many other tribal communities, including the North Fork Mono and Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, are also engaged in prescribed burning. The Coast Miwok are currently working with the National Park Service at Point Reyes to help protect cultural sites that are disappearing due to erosion and flooding. The organization Climate Science Alliance is supporting the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians to create a climate adaption plan. These projects and partnerships are just a few of the many climate change initiatives currently led by California tribal communities.

Tending Nature S2 E1: Rethinking the Coast with the Ti’at Society showcases the monumental greeting between the Tongva community and the Polynesian Voyaging Society, who sailed a traditional voyaging canoe from Hawai’i to California to attend the Global Climate Action Summit.

These climate-related impacts extend beyond California. Climate change affects Indigenous communities across the globe who live in or are connected to a broad diversity of natural environments. The Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea are the first place in the world to require population relocations specifically due to climate change. However, Papua New Guinea was also the first country to submit a formal climate action plan under the Paris Agreement, just one of many examples of community action and response. In Australia, which is currently facing drought, increased wildfires, rising sea levels, and coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advocating for policy change within the Australian government for climate change planning, which includes actions like reducing carbon emissions and building emergency sea walls.

Aerial view of the Carteret Islands. (Photo Courtesy of NASA)

Many Pacific Islander communities are also building new infrastructure and creating relocation plans. Native Hawaiian people — whose lifeways have long been linked with the ocean — are some of the global leaders in climate change policy, planning, and adaptation. In 2018, the Hawai’i legislature passed two bills pledging to make the state carbon neutral by 2045.

Tending Nature S2 E1: Rethinking the Coast with the Ti’at Society showcases the monumental greeting between the Tongva community and the Polynesian Voyaging Society, who sailed a traditional voyaging canoe from Hawai’i to California to attend the Global Climate Action Summit.

Fishing continues to be an important part of life in Hawai’i, as a source of food and trade. For thousands of years, Native Hawaiians built fish ponds in coastal estuaries to produce millions of pounds of fish as a staple food source. Rising temperatures are now drying up these ancestral ponds. Community members today are moving nets, installing aeration systems, and using flexible harvest strategies in these ponds to adapt to warming ocean temperatures.

Many Native Alaskan tribes, which include Yupik, Inuit, Iñupiat, and Aleut communities, have lived in ancestral villages along the coast for thousands of years, relying on fishing and subsistence hunting of marine mammals such as seals and walrus for survival. Due to rapid sea ice melt, approximately 87% of Native Alaskan villages are experiencing erosion, and many are being forced to move. Hunters have also turned to new methods, including flying drones over ancestral hunting grounds, to track sea ice and walrus populations.

Traditional Native Alaskan seal hunting, circa 1911. (Photo Public Domain)

When changing environmental conditions result in habitat loss, this can offset the balance between humans and important wildlife species. In Papua New Guinea, the crocodile and the cassowary bird — two culturally significant species — are losing habitat due to rising river levels. One of the creation stories from the Iatmul community in Papua New Guinea describes a world engulfed by water. An ancestral crocodile came and scooped part of the submerged land onto its back, lifting it to the surface. Ironically, thousands of years later, this prophetic creation story seems all too real. The cassowary, a critically endangered bird species, is seen as kin, and the use of their bones and feathers in material culture signifies relationships with ancestors.

A canoe prow carved into the shape of a crocodile from the Iatmul Community in Papua New Guinea, collection of the Global Museum, San Francisco State University. (Photo Courtesy of the Global Museum.)

Plants can also serve as indicators of climate change. Even subtle differences in weather patterns can lead to a decrease in biodiversity. Indigenous communities are having to adapt agricultural practices, which often serve as the main food source for a region, and are losing the ability to gather medicinal plants that they rely on for healing. As temperatures continue to increase, some species that live in delicate microclimates, such as cloud forests and rainforest biomes, may no longer be able to survive.

For example, Indigenous communities in the Amazon Basin, which is home to over 80,000 plant species, have long relied on plants for medicinal purposes, many of which are also used in modern pharmaceuticals. Deforestation and land exploitation have made it more difficult to gather these species. Indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin regions of Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador are actively fighting to protect their ancestral territories from oil development and deforestation, frequently resulting in deadly consequences. Community members today often use cultural items such as headdresses and face paint for protests and political action in addition to traditional use.

Headdress worn by Chief Raoni Metuktire, collection of the Global Museum, San Francisco State University. (Photo Courtesy of the Global Museum.)

As these case studies show, environmental changes can have major impacts on Indigenous people. Climate change impacts communities not only from an environmental standpoint but also at a cultural level. There are multiple Indigenous environmental groups, grassroots organizations, and guardians who are working together to combat these issues. As powerfully stated by Raoni Metuktire, Indigenous activist and chief of the Kayapó community in Brazil: “We all breathe this one air, we all drink the same water. We all live on this one planet. We need to protect the Earth. If we don’t, the big winds will come and destroy the forest. Then you will feel the fear that we feel.”

The Dam Nobody Wants Just Won’t Go Away

Ventura, Calif.—It’s a flawless sunny day in Ventura, California. In the coastal city, north of Los Angeles, surfers bob on boards watching the swells for the ideal wave. If you want a long ride, here at Surfers’ Point, where the Ventura River meets the ocean, is the place you want to be. It’s a classic California point break that creates waves surfers gravitate to up and the down the coast.

It’s a favorite spot for Paul Jenkin, who’s been surfing this break for over 30 years. But today he’s not here waiting for the perfect wave; he’s waiting for a better beach—or at least the beach that used to be here.

Jenkin is the campaign coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on the protection and enhancement of the world’s oceans, waves, and beaches. For 20 years he’s been working to restore the natural supply of sand and gravel to this cobbled beach that’s seen its parking lot and bike path crumble into the ocean. He says one of the concerns at Surfrider is that with sea level rise, recreational beaches are going to disappear. “We’re going to lose our surf spots and lose a place just to put a towel down on the sand.”

Rising sea levels along with coastal development are some of the threats to Surfers’ Point, but the real culprit is some 16 miles away in a mountain canyon far above the city—the Matilija Dam.

Matilija Dam

Matilija Dam was built in 1947, driven by farmers and ranchers in the nearby Ojai Valley, who wanted it for flood control and water supply. Peter Sheydeyi, deputy director of Ventura County Watershed Protection District, the agency that owns the dam, says Matilija originally had 7,000 acre-feet of storage. But over the last 70 years it has completely filled with sediment—some 8 million cubic yards of sand and gravel—enough to fill 800,000 dump trucks—that no longer flows to the beach.

Matilija Reservoir has filled with sediment, allowing grasses to grow on its surface. (Photo by Paul Jenkin)

Matilija Dam had bad juju right from the start. The Army Corps of Engineers warned the Ventura County Flood Control District not to build it, saying the surrounding steep landscape of coastal sage scrub and oak woodland was highly erodible and would fill the reservoir with sediment.

Then, during its construction, it was discovered the concrete used in the dam had a condition that would weaken over time. The original structure was 198 feet tall but was notched down in the 1960s and ’70s to 168 feet due to safety concerns. Those safety concerns continue to this day because this is California, where earthquakes are always a possibility. In 2018, Matilija Dam received a “poor” rating for seismic risk in a review by state’s Division of Safety of Dams (DSOD).

Lastly, before Matilija Dam was built, the Southern California steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) would come upriver to spawn. But because the fish can no longer migrate to their historic freshwater habitats to reproduce to maintain or grow their populations, the trout has been listed as endangered. Sheydeyi, who’s managing the Matilija Dam Ecosystem Restoration Project for the county says if the dam were removed it’s believed that a good population of the fish would return to the upstream watershed.

Cut Here to Empty Contents

Given the numerous downsides—impeded fish migration, beach erosion, and seismic risk—not to mention that it provides no water supply—Matilija Dam has been slated for removal, and among the graffiti painted all around the dam is a dashed line with a giant pair of scissors suggesting, “cut here” to empty its contents. The artwork has become iconic in the movement to remove obsolete dams and was featured in the documentary DamNation.

Matilija Dam (Photo by J. Clifton)

But unleashing sediment that’s accrued for over 70 years is not something you can do without a lot of planning, studies—and money. In 2000, Jenkin formed the Matilija Coalition to bring together the many non-governmental organizations interested in removing the dam, such as CalTrout and Friends of the River, two statewide organizations that were focused on restoring native steelhead. The outdoor retailer Patagonia, which is headquartered along the Ventura River in the city, has been a huge backer of the effort. Also, the Open Rivers Fund (a program of Resources Legacy Fund with support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation that aids local community efforts to remove obsolete dams, modernize infrastructure, and restore rivers across the western United States) stepped in to help.

And now—20 years, several studies, and over $20 million later—they might finally have a solution. The current proposal is to drill two 12-foot holes at the base of the dam, and then, during a moderately sized rain event open them up to flush the fine sediments downriver. The county would then—potentially the following summer—dismantle the dam once the pressure load was released. Of the 8 million cubic yards in the reservoir it’s estimated that only 2 million cubic yards would move downstream. The rest would be stabilized in place and be restored with native vegetation that would become a permanent part of the landscape. Sheydeyi hopes that after the dam is gone the area will be a recreational destination with trails, which will allow people “to enjoy the cool waters during the late summer months at Matilija Creek.”

But before the flushing event happens however, improvements downstream would be needed. It’s estimated that the river would rise two to six feet in elevation once the dam is removed, so that will require two new bridges and two new levees—something that will likely take at least a decade and somewhere in the neighborhood of $150 million to complete. Then, they wait for rain, which given California’s recent drought cycles could be a while.

A Lesson for Other Dams

What ultimately happens at Matilija might be a lesson for the hundreds of other California dams, sitting on creeks and streams that drain to the ocean. A study done by Cope M. Willis and Gary B. Griggs at the University of California, Santa Cruz, found that statewide about 25 percent of sand that would have been delivered to the coast is now blocked by dams. In Southern California, where beaches are a huge part of the economy, it’s 50 percent.

All that trapped sediment also means reservoir capacity is shrinking. Toby Minear, a researcher at that Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado, Boulder, estimated in a 2009 paper that statewide, reservoirs have likely filled with 2.1 billion cubic meters of sediment, decreasing total reservoir capacity by 4.5 percent. About 200 reservoirs have likely lost more than half their initial capacity to sedimentation.

Climate Change

Surfers’ Point Bike Path, January 2019 (Photo by Paul Jenkin)

As the number of wildfires and extreme storms increase with climate change it will likely cause more sediment to move into reservoirs, further shrinking their capacity. Sediment transport in this fire-flood scenario is accelerated because burnt material is highly erodible and ready to be swept down hillsides with heavy rains. Sheydeyi says the 2017 Thomas Fire caused another influx of sediment and led to the growth bulrushes and grasses growing on the reservoir’s surface.

Phase 1 of the Managed Shoreline Retreat project at Surfers’ Point

The lack of sediment moving downriver combined with sea level rise will exacerbate problems already occurring along the coast such as flooding, cliff erosion, and threats to infrastructure. Beaches may seem static—that the sand just stays put—but it’s always in motion due to waves, wind, and tides. Winter waves have high energy that pulls sand offshore, making beaches narrower. In the summer, sand is carried back onto beaches, widening them again.

But this cycle only continues when there is a steady supply of sand. As sea levels rise a deficit of protective sand will expose cliffs and development to further erosion and flooding. Additionally, overbuilt shorelines mean that beaches lack the room to migrate inland to accommodate higher water. It’s in this context that, in 2011, a working group, including Surfrider, city planners, the California Coastal Conservancy, the State Coastal Commission, the Ventura County Fairgrounds, and others completed the first phase of what they call the first “managed shoreline retreat” project in the state of California, where infrastructure is moved back out of harm’s way in lieu of armoring the shore with seawalls and rock revetments.

In phase 1 of the Surfers’ Point Managed Shoreline Retreat a 70- to 100-foot-wide stretch of sand dunes was engineered, underneath which rests an 8-foot-thick layer of imported river cobble. On the surface native plants and driftwood anchor the dunes in place. The project has gained recognition for coastal management in response to climate change, has been featured in numerous case studies, and serves as a model of sustainable shoreline management in the era of rising seas, according to the California Coastal Conservancy.

Surfers’ Point Managed Shoreline Retreat (Photo by Frani Halperin/H2O Media, Ltd.)

An Epic Ride

If the various stakeholders involved in the Matilija Dam removal are able to raise the needed funds, the necessary infrastructure is completed, and a series of drenching storms hit the area—just how much sand would replenish the beach?

Jenkin says the initial assessment was that around 30 percent more sediment would come out of the river during each storm event, but they are currently completing studies to confirm that estimate. The fly in the ointment, he says, is that when the project was built they were predicting perhaps a foot-and-a-half of sea level rise by 2100. Now that could happen within the next decade or so. “Once we get four to five feet of sea level rise the whole California coast is going to dramatically change,” he says, adding that the dunes they’re constructing “are perhaps just buying time.”

Until then, he’s looking forward to a different experience at Surfers’ Point once the dam is removed, noting aerial photos taken back in the 1960s show that after big storm events a large sandbar forms at the river’s mouth. So, he says brightly, “we would anticipate—hopefully—a couple of epic days out here.”

This is the second story in H2O Radio’s series about sedimentation. Listen to the first story: “Damned from the Start—Many U.S. Reservoirs Could Be Rendered Useless—And That Was Part of the Plan”