A level of concern

During a fourth year of exceptional drought in California, the crisis could panic and blind the state’s citizens. Or they might instead consider the historic connections between water and growth in a land where too much has never been enough. 

No simple criteria can define a drought, which may be declared whenever there is too little supply to meet demand. Today there are 33 million more thirsty Californians than there were during the extreme drought years of 1929 to 1934, which until now were the driest stretch since record-keeping began.    

This year was the driest ever. 

On April 1, the snowpack was 5 percent of average, the smallest ever measured. The four winters since 2012 have produced the most severe drought of the past 1,200 years, according to the American Geophysical Union.  

Comparisons to historic averages become less meaningful if the state’s climate is entering some kind of new normal, yet the California Department of Water Resources figures that 200 million acre-feet (MAF) of water fall onto the state in an average year. (One acre-foot, or AF, equals 325,851 gallons, enough to cover a football field one foot deep. An AF can serve the annual needs of five to 10 people.) Rain and snow evaporate, are used by plants, and can soak into the ground. What remains is surface runoff, which is most accessible to people and averages around 71 MAF a year. 

However, California’s water systems have contracts for water deliveries totaling more than five times the amount of surface water actually available on average. Though some water can be used multiple times, and wet cycles do happen, “normal” weather is almost never “average.” Hydrologic wishful thinking explains much of the state’s water dilemma.

NUMBER CRUNCH Roughly 75 percent of human thirst for water in California originates in the southern half of the state, while 75 percent of the rain and snow falls in the north. To create 21st-century California, a network of dams and long-distance aqueducts was engineered. Today’s enormous urban centers exist only by importing water to overcome local resource limits. Of 42 million acre-feet of developed water supply, about 80 percent irrigates farms and the rest supplies urban users. 

The California State Water Project (SWP) moves water from the Sacramento River watershed to southern cities. More than two-thirds of Californians receive some SWP water. A surreal circumstance shaping water policy is that the SWP cannot deliver its contracted allocations of 4.17 MAF of water a year. Deliveries between 2000 and 2014 were just 55 percent of that. 

“Paper water,” then, when viewed as an entitlement to the wet stuff itself, ignores the reality of overpromised contractual amounts, and that is a source of confusion sometimes used to manipulate the public debate. 

The federal Central Valley Project (CVP) was conceived to tame seasonal flooding and shift water southward to irrigate drier San Joaquin Valley farmlands and reduce overdrafting of groundwater. The CVP transformed the Central Valley into one of the most important agricultural regions on earth and can store about 17 percent of the state’s developed water. But rather than solving the groundwater overdraft problem, agriculture expanded onto new acreage with CVP water, and during droughts groundwater is still pumped at unsustainable rates – which explains why only 5 percent of the state’s farm acreage has been fallowed during this drought.

The Colorado River Aqueduct crosses the Mojave Desert to deliver 37 percent of Southern California’s urban water. Separate canals bring irrigation water to 900,000 acres of productive desert farmland. The past 15 years were the driest in the river’s watershed in a century. Multistate water withdrawals have drastically lowered its two massive reservoirs, Mead and Powell.  

The Los Angeles Aqueduct was the first major long-range water delivery project in California.  The city acquired Eastern Sierra water rights by purchasing 98 percent of the private land in the Owens Valley, 235 miles north. The imperialistic pressure exerted on unwilling landowners became an inglorious part of California’s water history.  With the aqueduct, the city’s population grew from 200,000 to nearly 4 million today. William Mulholland, who designed the audacious engineering feat, observed, “Whoever brings the water brings the people.” 

To address environmental and air-quality effects from its aqueduct, Los Angeles has reduced its reliance on Eastern Sierra water. Conservation and recycling allowed LA to grow by 30 percent in the past 40 years, yet see a 7 percent decrease in its total water use and a 15 percent drop in per-capita demand. Last October, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti directed that water imports be cut by 50 percent by 2024. 

DRY WELLS With 80 percent of the state’s developed surface water going to agriculture, farm efficiency becomes a major concern. Each of us consumes more than 4,500 gallons of water daily in food. California is the No. 1 agricultural state in the nation, with nine of the top 10 agricultural counties and some $50 billion in annual production. Fifty-five percent of the nation’s fruits, nuts and vegetables are grown there. California is the nearly exclusive source of almonds, walnuts, artichokes, dates, figs, olives and raisins. If urban communities are the backbone of the economy, farms can be considered its vital organs because food is essential for life.  

Whenever surface water declines, farmers increase their use of groundwater. Statewide, wells  historically pumped 500,000 to 1.5 million acre-feet of water a year. NASA’s satellite monitors show that as pumping accelerated during recent dry years, some groundwater levels dropped by more than 100 feet. The Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins lost over 12 MAF each year after 2012.  

Until recently, California had no statewide groundwater management laws. Land ownership brought the right to unregulated pumping from wells. The exceptional drought and the exceptional groundwater overdraft it engendered led to passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in September 2014.

Almost every farm organization stood staunchly opposed, concerned about property rights and land values. Other Californians lauded it as a long-overdue step toward rational groundwater management, although plans will not be implemented before 2040. Sustainability will wait on a whole new generation, should there be enough groundwater left to manage.

Meanwhile, 1,700 household wells went dry in California during 2014, mostly due to deep drilling by nearby farms that could afford to chase the declining water level. 

According to the Pacific Institute, 600,000 acre-feet of agricultural water per year could be saved by smarter irrigation scheduling on just 30 percent of the state’s vegetables and orchards, converting 20 percent of Central Valley vegetables and 10 percent of orchards and vineyards to drip and sprinkler irrigation, and practicing “regulated deficit irrigation” on 20 percent of almond and pistachio orchards. Deficit irrigation focuses watering on sensitive growing stages; extending efficiencies could free 6 MAF per year.  

TUNNEL VISION “Farmers vs. fish” and “regulatory drought” accusations have added to a cacophony of drought news coverage.

Severe declines have occurred in fish species that require river water to connect to the sea.  Years of increased pumping from the West Coast’s largest estuary to serve southward-flowing aqueducts coincide, tellingly, with the most recent fish declines. In the 1990s, the average pumped from the delta was 4.6 MAF, but extractions increased to 6 MAF from 2000 through 2007.  

Courts ordered temporary shutdowns to stop the killing of endangered delta smelt during months when they mass near aqueduct pumps. Fishing seasons were canceled when Chinook salmon runs plummeted. Declines have been documented all the way down the food chain, to plankton that support all life in the estuary ecosystem.

Water users south of the delta, hoping to keep pumps operating, embraced a state proposal to construct two tunnels, each 35 miles long and 40 feet in diameter, beneath the delta. Tunnels would isolate fresh Sacramento River water from salty tidewater, reduce pumping from the current problematic locations and, with habitat restoration, increase reliability of water deliveries. This would be the most expensive public works project in U.S. history, costing over $50 billion when interest is included.  

There are concerns that once high-capacity tunnels are built, powerful interests might overcome promised limitations and take even more water from the delta. Otherwise, leery opponents ask, “Why build on such a scale?” 

Water users themselves, who are required to cover construction costs, wonder if their benefits are adequate when less water is likely to come their way. 

Characterizing the conflict as “fish vs. farmers” ignores many truths. Concern for a tiny smelt is belittled by some who ignore that species’ role in the broader ecosystem. The flowing estuary is salmon water, too. Water moving out to sea is not wasted; as it serves anadromous fish, it also holds back intruding tides. The aqueduct intakes must not be contaminated by saltwater, and many farmers on islands within the delta depend on the flowing channels.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency criticized details in the project’s environmental documentation, so the state decided last spring to uncouple habitat restoration elements in order to move ahead with tunnel construction. The future of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan is uncertain. 

DESAL DREAMS It seems insane to harvest water hundreds of miles away, expend energy to pump it over mountains, clean and treat it, use it just once (mostly to flush toilets and irrigate lawns), sanitize it again and then dump it out to sea. Yet that has been the fate of 3.5 MAF each year in Southern California. Urban water can instead be recycled and reused again and again.

Successes in wastewater recycling in Orange County serve as models for cities like Long Beach, Santa Monica, the West Basin Municipal Water District and Santa Clara, which are weaning themselves from imported water and are better prepared to deal with droughts.

All of Earth’s water is recycled. Wastewater is just a temporary status until natural processes of the water cycle clean and distill it. Today’s recycling goes far beyond standard wastewater treatment, using reverse osmosis filtering, microfiltration and ultraviolet radiation to yield a product akin to distilled water. Full treatment removes medical wastes and drugs. When injected underground, recycled water goes through further natural filtration and cleansing by soil organisms. 

In California, 60 percent of domestic water goes to landscaping. Earlier this year Gov. Jerry Brown called for rebates for removing 50 million square feet of lawn. Cities and water agencies have already been paying $2 to $4 per square foot to homeowners who replace grass with landscaping more appropriate to the climate.

The available sites for massive dams in California’s river canyons have been developed; the state has 1,400 dams today. Last November, voters approved a state bond measure that includes $2.7 billion for new storage. A Stanford University think tank concluded that if those funds are spent on groundwater storage, 8.4 MAF of new capacity could result – six times more than the capacity of new dams being considered. Yet projects underground, out of sight, seem less appealing to many people. 

Tapping into the Pacific Ocean feeds dreams of making water limits irrelevant. Desalinated water still costs double the price of water from new reservoirs or recycling wastewater, and at least four times the cost from conservation methods. The desal process impacts ocean life, as plankton is sucked in and concentrated brine waste returned to the sea. 

In 2016, the San Diego County Water Authority will begin using desalinated ocean water from what will be the largest desal plant in the nation. Forcing 100 million gallons of seawater a day through filters will require enough electricity to power 28,500 homes. Sixty-six acres of restored wetlands in San Diego Bay will offset some environmental harm, and brine waste will be blended with seawater before being flushed back to sea. San Diego County expects this new local water supply to serve 7 percent of its domestic needs.  

If seawater desalination turns out to be feasible, the next question to answer is this: does overcrowded California really want the unlimited growth that could be accommodated with “unlimited” water? Perhaps it is time instead to embrace the reality of water limits, step away from the state’s history of frenzied growth and seek a sustainable future.  


David Carle worked as a California State Parks ranger for 27 years. He and his wife, Janet, are the authors of “Traveling the 38th Parallel: A Water Line Around the World” and other books.