Left Coasting : Wars for water

The battle to control California’s water

By Rosalea Barker

California is known as The Golden State not because of the gold that was discovered here in the 1840s, but because of the tawny colour of the hills and valleys that greeted the first European settlers. So fond are Californians of their dry landscape, that celebrated San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen once wrote in the late twentieth century that he hated the “green scum” that covers the neighbouring hills during the short-lived rainy season when the grasses that survive most of the year without rain suddenly change colour.

Even the redwood forests of Northern California don’t rely on rainfall; the trees’ needles absorb moisture from the fog that comes in from the Pacific Ocean, limiting their habitat to a coastal strip only 5-35 miles wide. The northern part of Northern California gets about 100 inches of rain in an average year; Southern California gets less than 15. Recently the federal government announced it would grant aid to the northern counties because even up there, drought conditions exist.

Into the archives

On a warm, breezy, cloudless November day, brittle autumn leaves crackling underfoot, I make my way across the well-watered UC Berkeley campus, past the two bronze bears that recline outside the College of Engineering, to the California Water Resources Archive, a repository for anything to do with California water. And there is plenty of “to-do” about that subject these days, with the passage recently of legislation that will put a bond measure on the November 2010 ballot in hopes of raising money to fund a long wish list that includes drought relief, water supply reliability, and statewide water system operational improvements.

The archive’s director, Linda Vida, tells me that the number of students consulting the archive in recent months has increased, perhaps because of the impending legislation. Water issues touch many parts of California life and are pertinent to many disciplines from environmental and other laws, to agriculture and forestry, to economics, to politics.

Vida recounts some of the quirkier inquiries she’s had in the past—like, how viable would it be to tow an iceberg to California? (The answer is Not at all, when you take into consideration the likelihood of the iceberg tipping and the cost of the water at the other end.) We search the archive for a 2002 news article about a plan to fill huge bladders with fresh water from the rivers that drain out of the Mendocino coast in Northern California and tow them down to San Diego. Californians are nothing if not inventive.

I wonder if, now scientists have confirmed the presence of water on the moon, the scene in Roman Polanski’s classic movie Chinatown where Jack Nicholson is washed down a Los Angeles aqueduct prior to getting his nostril slit should be rewritten so he’s washed down a water transport tractor beam from the moon to Earth. (The reissued DVD of Chinatown includes images from the archive amongst its supplementary material.)

The big picture

In a way, the top shelf of my fridge is an illustration of the major pressures that California’s water supply is under. I keep my bottled hoard because the probability of a major earthquake on the nearby Hayward Fault is high and the likelihood of such an event disrupting Oakland’s water supply is near certain. When I turn on my kitchen tap, I get Sierra Nevada snowmelt from the headwaters of the Mokelumne River, thanks to the dam and reservoir 94 miles east of where I live. The pipelines that bring the water to me run east-west; the faultline runs north-south.

The re-used plastic bottles I store the water in themselves tell the story of the uses California’s water is put to: they originally contained fruit and vegetable juices or milk. The 35 percent of the state’s average annual water supply that doesn’t go into the Pacific Ocean consists of 7 percent used for drinking water and other urban uses and 28 percent used for irrigated agriculture—fruit, vegetables, rice, nuts, vines, dairy farms and other types of cattle ranching.

Of the 65 percent of California’s water that flows out to the ocean, since the 1970s almost half of that natural runoff has been dedicated to environmental needs: mainly for wild and scenic rivers and wetlands protected under federal and state laws, but with a significant percentage dedicated to maintaining and managing the availability and water quality of the most important outflow for all California—the waters of the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta, which is the largest and most modified estuary on the West Coast and an important habitat area for fish and wildlife.

Those two rivers are the source of the bulk of the water that is pumped throughout the state, particularly for irrigation in the Central Valley—America’s market garden—and to quench the thirsts, water the lawns and gardens, and wash the dishes, laundry, body and cars of those living in urban areas.

The Central Valley

According to the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to California, prior to the 1800s, the grasslands of the Central Valley were second in size in North America only to the Great Plains. The Central Valley runs north-south for most of the length of California in between the Coast Ranges to the west and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada to the east. Because it’s in the rain shadow of the Coast Ranges, the CV gets very little precipitation and would have remained a sparsely populated patchwork of cattle ranches were it not for the engineering feats that bring millions of gallons of water from the Delta to irrigate crops.

Although the numbers on this graphic (click to expand the image) from the 1990 Draft of The California Water Plan Update are now out of date, the thick blue line from the Sacramento River (SR) hydrologic region speaks volumes about the, well, volume of water that is pumped south to the Central Valley and as far as the South Coast region (SC), which includes Los Angeles. The first State Water Plan was published in 1931, and the Central Valley Project Act was passed two years later, but it wasn’t until 1937 that the Rivers and Harbors Act authorized construction of the initial CVP features by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

The significance of the job opportunities that the passage of that Depression-era legislation created will no doubt be a selling point used by promoters of the 2010 water bond.

The Cities

There is an excellent interactive graphic on the Water Education Foundation’s website showing where California’s cities and towns get their water from. Many of them use groundwater or local reservoirs, instead of or as well as water delivered via the Central Valley Project. Los Angeles, and the Imperial Valley to its east, famously gets much of its water from the Colorado River. Just tell any cab driver in Las Vegas, Nevada, that you come from Southern California and you’ll get first-hand experience of the anger that attends the granting of water rights across state borders: “You’re stealing our water!”

Las Vegas is one of the fastest-growing cities in the US and much of the water it needs to accommodate that growth is promised to California under federal law. But in 2003, the US Secretary of the Interior limited California’s Colorado River allocation to 4.4 million acre-feet. Then, in 2007, the federal government stepped in again to get the seven states that are allocated water from the Colorado to agree to interim shortage guidelines for operation of the river’s reservoirs under drought conditions.

However, state rivalries are just one part of the picture. Nearly 600 California cities and local agencies provide water through locally developed projects and imported supplies, and they are often at odds not just with each other, but with the local, state and federal agencies that operate flood management projects, and the municipal authorities responsible for wastewater treatment. Not to mention electricity providers using dams to generate hydroelectric power.

And let’s not forget local recreational fishers and boaters, environmental groups, land owners claiming riparian rights along the waterways, and individual water users who don’t want to see a rise in what they’re charged for water usage, nor any reduction in the quantity and quality of their supply.

The Bay Delta

If there truly are just three armies—farmers, cities, conservationists—engaged in the California water battle, as suggested by an AP story published in The Economist on October 22, they are each a rag-tag army as much at odds within their own ranks as with the other armies. A recent article in the Environmental Law Journal, for example, slams Westlands—one of the major interest groups—for representing the interests of agribusiness rather than those of small landowners.

And there is a fourth army—commercial fishermen. Perhaps the most heated debates about California’s water supply revolve around the Bay Delta, the aquatic anteroom to the gap between the northern and southern Coastal Ranges where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers drain into San Francisco Bay and out to sea. Those rivers are part of the spawning grounds of salmon.

In 2006—perhaps using a different species as a way of also protecting the salmon fishery—a coalition of fishing groups sued California’s Department of Water Resources, alleging the agency never obtained legal authority to kill endangered fish while exporting water to Southern California. And in 2007, a federal judge shut down pumping operations to protect the endangered delta smelt, angering farmers in the Central Valley who depend on that pumped water for irrigation.

Of the $11.14 billion dollars that is being sought in the 2010 bond issue, $2.25 billion is specifically targeted for “Delta Sustainability,” and includes among its lofty goals a reduction of the conflict between water management and environmental protection. The desired outcomes of this big spend will be derived from the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan, which came out of a Blue Ribbon Delta Vision Task Force the Governor set up in 2007.

Karla Nemeth, of the California Natural Resources Agency—just one of many state agencies involved in California’s water issues—says that the BDCP “is not a silver bullet.” As it stands, “the plan seeks to stabilize the water supply that’s pumped through the system at present.” Other parts of the legislation just passed, Nemeth points out, focus on water recycling and different approaches to storage in order to lessen the state’s dependence on moving large volumes of water hundreds of miles through aqueducts and canals. (Eight percent of California’s electricity usage goes to moving water around.)

Nor is the plan a silver bullet for species health and recovery. Smelt are part of the food chain for many fish, including salmon, and the salmon fisheries have been decimated in recent years. But some research suggests that ocean conditions out in the Pacific are also contributing to the salmons’ demise, and that research is outside the purview of the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan. Nonetheless, Nemeth says, the BDCP “is a new approach for California, in that it’s primarily aquatic-species based.”

The Central Coast

Just south of San Francisco Bay, stretching as far south as Santa Barbara—in fact, pretty much coinciding with the CA Senate District that Schwarzenegger’s nominee for Lieutenant Governor, Abel Maldonado, represents—is the Central Coast. Like the Central Valley, it too is largely agricultural, but is “virtually off the grid” for California water distribution, according to UC Santa Cruz researcher Andrew Fischer.

Instead, the CC gets 83 percent of its water from groundwater, taking so much of it that saltwater is now intruding inland at a rate of 100-250 feet per year, forcing many farmers to shut off their wells because the water is now too saline for agricultural use. In fact, California leads the nation in groundwater withdrawals, which make up 40 percent of its water supply in a normal year and 60 percent in a dry one.

The catchword of the groundwater world is “recharge” and its three R’s are Replenish, Recover, Restore.

One way of getting water back into underground aquifers is something called a recharge pond, but their downside is that the water they collect and then let seep into the ground tends to be high in nitrates because of the agricultural chemicals that seep into the recharge ponds themselves. NZ’s University of Canterbury, among other institutions, is researching the use of materials such as woodchips, which remove nitrogen, as pond lining.

Such ponds are far cheaper to create than dams, but since they’re not large, scenic expanses of water like reservoirs are, and don’t have the attendant “sexiness” of a grand engineering feat, which can be named after a Governor (like the Pardee Dam that controls my water supply), recharge ponds generally get very little attention in the debate over California water. In other words, don’t hold your breath waiting for the ceremonial opening of the Schwarzenegger Pond.

The Four L’s

As with anything in this state, California’s water issues all come down to the four L’s: lawsuits, lobbying, legislation, and—above all—lolly. It might not be possible to print water, but the new legislation’s allocation of funds (much of it from earlier water-related propositions) will be a licence to print money for some. No sooner had the passage of the water legislation been announced in early November, than the outcries began about all the earmarks the bills contained.

It remains to be seen whether the bond itself will pass, but the other four bills dealing with Delta governance, groundwater monitoring, statewide water conservation, and the monitoring of water diversion and use have already been signed into law.

Let the litigation begin!