Natural Perspectives: Winter snows crucial to our water supply

Thursday is Groundhog Day. According to legend, if a groundhog comes out of hibernation and sees its shadow on this day, we will have six more weeks of winter.

We sure could use more winter. Since California, like most of the United States, hasn't had much of real winter yet, our only chance for a good snow in the mountains lies ahead of us. It's been so warm that some pundits were calling the past month "Junuary."

Let's hope that Mr. Groundhog doesn't see his shadow, because we sure need the snow.

There is a very good reason for us to care about snow in the mountains, and it has nothing to do with skiing. Mountain snowpack is where much of our drinking water comes from. Not only is mountain snowpack crucial to our drinking water supply, it is essential to California agriculture.

Farmers in the Central Valley and Imperial Valley grow much of our nation's food supply, especially fresh winter produce. They use water from the Sierras and Rockies, respectively, to wrest edibles from the soil.

So far this year, it hasn't snowed much in either the Rocky Mountains, which supply water to the Colorado River, or the Sierras, which supply water to the California Aqueduct. That bodes ill for farmers and urban dwellers alike.

On Jan. 26, Vic and I attended a lecture and slide show at the Newport Beach Public Library. Photographer and author Peter McBride was promoting his new book, "The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict."

As I expected, his photography was stunning. Many of the photos were aerial shots, providing a unique perspective on the river and its surroundings. What I hadn't expected was such thought-provoking text.

To gather material and photographs for this book, McBride and his co-author, Jonathan Waterman, traveled the Colorado River from its headwaters in Colorado to its end at the Sea of Cortez in Mexico.

A series of dams along the 1,450-mile length of the river helps accumulate water in years of high flow, and generate electricity. But we are in a period of drought, warming climate, and low flow.

As a result, reservoirs all along the river are dropping in water level. If the water level in Lake Mead drops below 1,050 feet, the hydroelectric turbines of Hoover Dam that supply power to 29 million people will become inoperable. In late 2010, levels had dipped to only 1,081 feet, a mere 31 feet away from power production failure.

One of the most dramatic portions of McBride's talk, and of the book, covered the last section of the river. A hundred years ago, the Colorado River flowed free and unfettered all the way to the Sea of Cortez.

No more.

The river stopped running to the sea in the late 1990s. We've used up all of the water in the river and it no longer ends its run at the ocean. It dries up miles before it reaches the sea.

Before the river soaks into the soil and disappears, it changes from a free-running torrent to a sluggish, trash-filled trickle. The surface is coated with a thick layer of foamy mousse, the result of pollution at its worst.

Waterman made the mistake of putting his feet in the water when the river became too shallow to paddle, and was hobbled with infected feet for the last 60 miles of his journey.

The Imperial Valley is one of the many areas that uses Colorado River water for irrigation. Farmers there have installed drainage tiles under the soil to prevent salt buildup. By the time the river reaches the Imperial Valley, it has been used over and over, and has collected a load of salts and minerals.

There are two series of canals or ditches throughout the Imperial Valley. One series brings in water from the Colorado River to irrigate the agricultural fields. The other collects water that has soaked through the soil of the farmers' fields and dumps it into the Salton Sea.

In 2003, during the George W. Bush administration, a pact between the Imperial Valley Irrigation District and the County of San Diego transferred water from the farmers to urban dwellers in San Diego. The agreement was touted as the largest transfer in the nation of water from agriculture to cities.

The loss of water to the farmers meant not only that fields would lie fallow, but also that the used irrigation water would no longer be flowing into Salton Sea. Even though that water was polluted with pesticides and salts, it kept the water level of the sea at a steady level. Now, that the sea is receiving less runoff, water is receding further and further from the shoreline.

Vic and I were at Salton Sea this past weekend, where Vic led a Sea and Sage Audubon birding trip. We saw that the shoreline at Red Hill Marina has receded many hundreds of feet since last year, and almost an equal amount the year before that.

The dried lake bed is now covered with a salty crust just like at Owens Lake below the Eastern Sierras. The desiccation of Owens Lake has resulted in clouds of toxic dust when winds blow.

The Salton Sea is already so saline that tilapia is the only species of fish that is still reproducing. If the sea gets much saltier, even the tilapia will fail to reproduce. The result will be a literally dead sea.

More than 300 species of birds live at least part of the year at the Salton Sea, and a million eared grebes winter there. The sight of hundreds of thousands of birds sets the hearts of bird watchers aflutter.

Last weekend, we saw an estimated 5,000 snow geese, 2,000 white pelicans, 1,000 Northern pintails and 1,000 white-faced ibis. But if the sea becomes too salty to support the tilapia or the pileworms that they feed upon, the sea will cease to be a refuge for those throngs of birds. The sea needs water from the Colorado River to survive.

The human population of the Southwest continues to grow. But at a time when we need more water from the Colorado River, its bounty is diminishing. Global climate change has brought less snow to the mountains, and that means less water.

We sure hope that groundhog sees his shadow.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at

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