Wednesday, June 16, 2010

California's Water Crisis

Similar to the overall situation and many issues associated with our critical national energy supply and demand situation, California has a looming complicated crisis with fresh water that is probably not well known to most of our state's 37 million residents. As with most of the issues I deal with in my posts, one or more books could be written about this. Since this is just a simple post, I will try to be relatively brief, provide some limited background, list some key problems, and advise what I think needs to be done.

As just about everyone knows very well, fresh water is the basic ingredient needed for life: water for drinking, water to grow food, water for washing and bathing, water for most industries, especially agriculture, water for much of our recreation, and water for wildlife and our environment. Much of California would be desert or otherwise relatively uninhabitable without water. We just can't do without it.

Precipitation in the form of rain and snow is the primary source of the state's water supplies and this source varies from place to place, season to season, and year to year. Most of the rain and snow fall in the mountains in the north and east, and most of the water is used in the central and southern valleys and along the coast, where the bulk of our population lives. In any year the state's water systems may face the threat of too little water to meet needs during droughts or the threat of too much water during floods. In 2009 California experienced a third consecutive year of drought resulting from below average precipitation and runoff which began in the fall of 2006.

A substantial part of the precipitation and runoff ends up in California's two largest rivers. The largest, the Sacramento River, flows from north to south, while the second largest, the San Joaquin River, which flows from south to north. The two meet in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Bay Delta, roughly between the cities of Sacramento and Stockton, and this delta is the hub of California's water system, channeling water to approximately 26 million people. A lot of this water goes to populous southern California through the California Aqueduct, parallel to much of Interstate #5, which aqueduct was built in the 1960's.

Supplementing this water route, southern California also gets a significant amount of its water from the Owens Valley south of Mono Lake through the Los Angeles Aqueduct and from the Colorado River through the All-American Canal, primarily providing water to San Diego and Imperial Counties in the very south of the state.

Critical elements of our California water system are the many water dams and reservoirs built and maintained since the early part of the previous century. Major among these would include Shasta Lake and Dam in the north, Hetch Hetchy near Yosemite, Folsom Lake and Dam not far from Sacramento, and Lake Oroville north of Sacramento.

The key California agency involved in managing our water supply is the California Department of Water Resources (DWR). On behalf of the state, the agency every 5 years updates the very bulky and technical California Water Plan, providing a framework for water managers, legislators and the public to consider options and make decisions regarding California's water future. DWR is also the state lead in preparing the environmental review for the important Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

What are my layman's view of the main problems leading to what virtually all the experts agree is a looming water crisis?

1. Current drought and unpredictable precipitation levels made worse over time by global warming concerns, aging infrastructure, and risks of a major earthquake which could very adversely affect supplies for an extended period.
2. Our large and growing population, with an estimated 7.3% thought to be illegal immigrants, significantly increasing water demand.
3. California's large and influential agricultural industry which now uses an estimated 80% of the state's developed water supply, but reportedly produces less than 2 1/2% of California's government income. (One crop, alfalfa, is the biggest water user of any crop, using about 25% of our irrigation water, but accounting for only 4% of state farming revenue. Perhaps worse, most of the alfalfa is used to feed dairy cows which generate a huge amount of waste reportedly threatening the quality of the drinking water of 65% of Californians!)
4. The Colorado River serves as an important provider of water to several states, besides California, including Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, plus the northern part of Mexico. These states are among the faster growing population states in the country and, with Mexico, are demanding more of the water from this key river. Assuming they are successful, which is likely, California's two southern counties will be much more exposed to water shortages.
5. Management of California's water is highly fragmented and decentralized, therefore most likely quite inefficient with DWR in Sacramento, the wholesale water distributors like the large Metropolitan Water District (MWD) based in Los Angeles, and literally several hundred smaller, independent and primarily retail water districts, each with their own management team and board of directors, throughout the state. This structure doesn't make sense in the present crisis environment.
6. From what I have seen, there has been very limited communication to the public about this crisis and what's available on various websites is generally out of date or difficult for most readers to understand well.

What should be done? Based on the problems outlined, the answers are fairly obvious. It seems to me we need to establish an independent, bipartisan water commission reporting to the Governor or State Senate to seriously review all relevant available information, have it professionally analyzed, and come up with a report (of 100 pages or less!) with specific recommendations, timelines and accountabilities, to be approved by the Legislature and Governor.

The issues to be looked at should include, among others, infrastructure updating needs, desalinization opportunities to expand supply, appropriate conservation measures (such as several cities are already experimenting with), satisfactory ways to increase use of recycled water for such as golf courses and parks, greater use of water efficient showers and toilets, removal of federal and state subsidies for agriculture, measures to discourage farmers to grow crops that require a lot of irrigation, and consolidating the hundreds of water districts into a much smaller number to save a great deal of overhead that can pay for any needed research and money to pay for the report and its distribution.

Though potentially controversial, the commission should also consider what can be done to slow down our population growth, including reducing the number of illegals, perhaps with the introduction of a viable guest worker program, and also limiting opportunities for immigrants to come here legally. The report should be condensed into a 2-3 page, easy to read summary to be circulated to the media and available on the internet to the general public.


Laer said...

Any analysis of California' water situation that does not consider the environmental condition of the San Joaquin Sacramento Delta, the litigation over fish populations and the resulting impacts on deliveries is seriously wanting.

We don't need another commission to study this; it's all very well known. We need to invest in the Delta to restore its ecosystem so it is capable of water transport without species jeopardy, and we need to invest in conservation infrastructure. In other words, we need to pass the water bond. Then, we need to build an alternative conveyance, a canal, funded by SoCal and ag users of the conveyed water.

Viking Views said...

I don't disagree with Laer's first sentence, but I don't agree with everything said in the second paragraph. I don't think everything involved with our water crisis is definitely already "very well known." For example, how much are all the infrastructure investments called for going to cost, and can we really afford it all, given the state's precarious financial condition? Specifically, what conservation measures are warranted to help reduce usage? Can we afford having our population continuing to grow at a fairly high level, given limited water supply and expected needs of a larger population? Should water pricing to consumers increase to contain demand? What about all these hundreds of water districts with their own management team and boards? Does it not make clear sense to consolidate a great many of these to reduce bureaucracy and overhead costs? What about the future role of desal projects as at least a back-up to our regular water supply? What might these cost and who should invest in these? These and many other issues seem to me to be obvious for inclusion in any thorough analysis, not just the ones Laer mentioned. My suspicion is we don't have reliable answers to these questions.

wondarwie said...

For a good understanding of this issue, I recommend a weekly visit to For an understanding of the importance of the bay-delta-conservation-plan, this archive is a must:

Viking Views is right when he casts doubt on whether everything is known about this issue. Some people claim that the $11 billion water bond issue we are voting on in November is really a new cash cow for billionaire corporate farmers who run vast stretches of the state, exploiting migrant workers and costing taxpayers billions of dollars in water subsidies every year. The bond issue would allow private corporations to own, operate and profit from dams and other water storage projects built with taxpayer dollars. That is just flat out crazy and gives support to critics who claim this bond issue is all about making billionaires richer. Legislators are pleading they didn't notice this provision of the bond issue, but when these kind of people say they "overlooked" this part of their legislation, I become skeptical of the whole thing. It is also more than an $11 billion bond issue. The numbers show that it will actually cost us $24 billion over 30 years to build the dams in the proposal. This basically subsidizes corporate agribusiness, whose water bills are already subsidized by California taxpayers. I am all for an alternative conveyance, such as an agricanal, but it should be funded by the private corporations that stand to benefit from the canal and not taxpayers.

Viking Views said...

Thanks to Wondarwie for his suggestion that readers check the Aquafornia site and his other very good points. With a critical resource and issue like water, those of us interested in an objective pragmatic approach must keep in mind that there are many different groups who have a right and need to be heard: taxpayers, environmentalists, agribusiness industry, private corporations involved in the industry, water districts, federal and state and local government officials, and all users of water, among others.

Not only the politicians, farmers, environmentalists, and special corporate interests should be OK with what's in the California water bond issue to be voted on in November. All of us voters and taxpayers should be as well. If we're not OK, we should let our legislators and the media know. It may not induce needed changes, but it can't hurt. It might really help, especially if enough people take action and considering the historically relatively low turnout at many of our elections.