A look inside the systems that move and manage California’s dwindling water supply, and the debates over who and what needs water most.
The Shasta Bridge, now visible from top to bottom in California's fourth year of drought.
Image from Flickr user Tunnelbug.
By Venkat Srinivasan
Anyone who has spent anytime in California recently knows that at the slightest hint of a darkening sky, it is common to look up with hope, and sometimes, if one were in the company of others, to say with a mix of nostalgia and desperation, “We need the rain.”
Hope has an overarching presence. Most of the state’s rain falls between October and March. But as the state navigates its fourth consecutive drought year, it is hope that seems to hold water. For many, especially those of us who live in the privileged urban outreaches of the state’s water arteries, water just works. Turn the tap, and there it is. We kind of need the rain, we think.
But for some, especially those people who fish and farm and eventually feed the rest, the pain is more acute because their lives actually do fluctuate with the uncertainty of the rain. The uncertainty is heavy. There’s just not enough water in California these days, weeks, months, years, and likely going by recent research, this decade.
There are many ways of scrutinizing the drought. One is, of course, to discuss how intense it is.
There are images. Drought maps from the United States Drought Monitor show the steady spread of alarming red–an exceptional drought–across the state. Images of the state’s depleted reservoirs with record low levels of water reveal steep banks of barren soil, or, like it happened at the Folsom reservoir last year, remains of Mormon Island, a Gold Rush town that had been submerged since the 1950s. The poster child of reservoir drought images, Lake Mead in Nevada, where 10 percent of California’s water comes from, is so low that a white “bathtub ring” of old mineral deposits is visible above the water line.
There are research papers. Most scientists say that the direct reason for the state’s dry spell might be a ridge—an area of high atmospheric pressure—hovering over the northeastern Pacific Ocean. Called the Triple R–Ridiculously Resilient Ridge–this high pressure front stopped winter storms from hitting California the last couple of seasons. But the likelihood of this phenomenon increases with current greenhouse gas concentrations. Things are a little more complicated this following winter, due to strong predictions of an El Nino-aided rainfall.The El Nino is an irregular weather disruption over the equatorial Pacific Ocean roughly between the International Date Line and Peru. A combination of warm ocean waters and the right wind directions could result in more rain in California. Parts of southern California have already had an unusually cool and wet start to their summer. But to rely on one El Nino season to offset a statewide drought is to, yet again, rely on hope. Hot and dry is the best way to describe the long term weather pattern in the region. Of the past fourteen years, eleven have been drought years in the western part of America. It’s what scientists call a “megadrought” and attribute to human-induced global warming. In the second half of this century, there’s a 50 percent chance that there will be a megadrought that will last at least a decade, according to climate scientists from the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
In some regions of the Central Valley, pumps are already drawing on water that first trickled down into the ground 20,000 years ago.
There are statistics. Last January, for the first time in its recorded history, San Francisco did not get a single drop of rain all month. A study of tree rings showed that these might be the driest years since 1580, a little after the first European explorers navigated the California coast. Add to that some heat – these past few years have been the warmest in the state’s recorded history. The Sierra snowpack is at six percent of normal. Dry grass wilts where there should be five feet of snow high up in the Sierras. The hot and dry pattern pegs this drought as the worst in more than a millenium, according to researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. In April, the largest reservoir for the state was releasing water at half its average rate. Two reservoirs closest to the farmlands around Fresno are at a half and a third of their average capacity at this time of the year. The state has about a year of water left in its reservoirs, according to a March op-ed by James Famiglietti, the lead scientist at the University of California Center for Hydrologic Modeling. Which means everyone’s going to rely even more on groundwater—and in some regions of the Central Valley, pumps are already drawing on water that first trickled down into the ground 20,000 years ago.
And there are consequences. Overreliance on groundwater can be devastating. In just the last four years, the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins–the heart of the valleys that support California’s US$46 billion agriculture machinery–lost over 12 million acre-feet of water, half of it due to groundwater pumping. An acre-foot–or 326,000 gallons–is the amount of water a family of four might consume in a year. Twelve million acre-feet is more water than what all of California uses for domestic and municipal supplies in a year. As the groundwater is pumped away, the ground above it crumbles, and land has been subsiding by as much as a foot every year in some areas. In some places like East Porterville in southern California, where both the taps and wells are dry, the state is trucking drinking water for the town’s residents. The one thing that all Californians agree to is that this is a serious disaster.
It is a truth globally known but rarely acknowledged that there are no natural disasters. What happens in nature is not a disaster, not til it starts to affect humans. A wildfire is not a disaster. A wildfire near a ranch is. Dry spells are not disasters. Dry taps because of inefficient use of water leading to empty reservoirs are.
The drought is a good time to revisit the geography and language of water. The northern part of the state receives most of the rain and snowfall, but most of the state’s residents live in the southern arid lands. The history of water engineering in the state has always acknowledged that it is a desert. This serious drought, then, is also a good time to come to terms with the language of water. For most of the time, in order for people to survive and the economy to grow, water doesn’t actually flow. It is moved.
Historically, the Sacramento river drained the wetlands of Sacramento Delta and flowed into the San Francisco Bay. Today, water is channeled from mountaintops to storage reservoirs. From there, it’s “released”, and what is moved into the delta is called inflow. Water is also “diverted” or “exported” to the municipal districts and to farmers who grow half the fruits for the country. This is “developed” or “managed” water. In times of need, water districts and individuals who have legal rights can “call on” and “take” water that was diverted to a distant reservoir.
Conservation groups and researchers help draft biological opinions to assess whether water diversions will harm the existence of a water species. These “bi-ops” suggest how much water can be pumped away from the delta, when the gates can be opened, and what effects the flow rate has on a species. Hydrologists weigh in on how much water is necessary to maintain a certain water quality–this water is a hydraulic barrier. To oversee inflow, diversions, exports, outflow, bi-ops, barriers, and all kinds of water rights, the State Water Resources Control Board has an Office of the Delta Watermaster. If this is starting to sound like a board game, try the California Water Crisis, an actual board game that educates people about the state’s water politics.
This glossary is important not just because it helps us navigate the waters but because it helps us understand how far we have come in our relation to the water, and how much that relation ties into the idea of a drought.
In the early 1800s, water laws in California were pretty loose and simple. If you had a river flowing near your home, you could use the water. These riparian rights still hold for those who have held onto their land. But with rapid development soon after the 1849 Gold Rush era, explorers diverted water for settlements, for hydraulically blasting off mountain sides, and for creating flow streams to move people and resources. Roughly, if you got to it first, you could divert the water and post a sign to grab those water rights. This, tellingly, is called appropriation. People who appropriated water before 1914 are ‘senior’ in rights compared to their junior post-1914 water rights holders, whose shares of water are called allocations, a rather deceptive word since it seems to imply that there is enough water in the system. And it’s clear there isn’t – researchers at UC Davis estimated that there are five times as many allocations as there is water in an average year. “The system creates expectations,” said Trent Orr, a lawyer at Earthjustice, a law firm that has fought court cases to preserve the flow of water through the delta into the bay. “A system that allocates more water than there is, is a recipe for disaster.”
Water through the pipes gush across flat valleys and up mountain ranges, like a human engineered river that flows against gravity.
California has always suffered from uneven water and its paths have been engineered to make the state livable and productive for the world. The Sierra snowpack feeds a network of gates, pipes, pumps and reservoirs to deliver water through two ambitious engineering projects. Starting at the high Shasta reservoir in northern California, the federal Central Valley Project can release six million acre-feet of water—when there’s enough water to start with—through a maze of twenty dams and 500 miles of canals down the length of the state, mostly for people and irrigation. Similarly, the State Water Project is a network of pipes that deliver an average of 2.5 million acre-feet of water. Water through the pipes gush across flat valleys and up mountain ranges, like a human engineered river that flows against gravity. At the base of the Tehachapi mountain range, for instance, gigantic pumps can funnel more than 33,000 gallons of water every second through 10 miles of tunnels and almost 2,000 feet up the mountain.
Both projects run through the Sacramento Delta, a labyrinth of artificial islands and channels to control the flow of water across the state. Operators at the Joint Operations Center in Sacramento push the buttons and turn the knobs that decide how much water is going to be released from the reservoirs on a given day. And in dry conditions, they have to push reservoir water from need to need. For instance, Central Valley Project water that is released from Shasta Lake could be sent to the fisheries and from there, it might be reused for navigational flow. The same water could then go down the delta where it offsets the salinity coming from the tidal flow of water from the bay. “We’re trying as hard as we can to get the most bang for the buck for every acre-foot of water released,” said Paul Fujitani, an operator for the Central Valley Project.
In some cases, instead of flowing through the water, fish are trucked from one location to another to increase their chance of survival.
The Central Valley Project and State Water Project were built to divert water away from the ocean toward two needs: farms and people. They were not initially designed to protect the Delta itself. But with the environmental activism of the 1960s came an interest in preserving the delta, which in the early 1800s, was part of one of the densest estuaries on the west coast. The 1970 National Environmental Policy Act required environmental needs to be included when diverting water away from the ocean. A third need – water quality and survival of various fish species and elk – found representation along with farms and people. Aubrey Bettencourt, Executive Director at the California Water Alliance, calls that the era that changed society’s consciousness and how we viewed the state’s limited water. “We popped a third straw into the system,” she said.
Since the 1970s, the fight over the state’s water has involved not just agriculture lobby groups who want water for farms, and water administrators who want water for municipalities, but also lawyers and activists responding to the environmental needs. Farmers in the Central Valley who call this a Congress-created drought say too much water is being diverted to save the fish with little to show for its benefits. Fisheries and conservation agencies say too little water is flowing to save the fish. The decline of aquatic species in the Delta has gotten so bad that federal funds are now routinely available to refrigerate water in a fish hatchery; in some cases, instead of flowing through the water, fish are trucked from one location to another to increase their chance of survival in the water.
At first glance, it doesn’t seem like a big problem. One way of looking at the situation is to simply let species fade into extinction. But that isn’t a very sound strategy. When Paul Ehrlich wrote about the extinction of species, he made an analogy using an airplane to represent the natural ecological system. Like losing a couple of rivets on an airplane, we might not miss a few extinct species. But there may well come a point when perhaps a “key species involved in the cycling of nitrogen, could lead to a serious accident.” That final rivet-popping is what makes the system collapse.
In a drought, there just isn’t enough freshwater flowing toward the bay. Instead, salty tidal waters flow into the delta and degrade its quality. So, water is used to push against the salty tide water from the bay. In other words, even water needs water.
Besides, a deeper look at the numbers in the water custody battle shows something else that is often overlooked. In a drought, there just isn’t enough freshwater flowing toward the bay. Instead, salty tidal waters flow into the delta and degrade its quality. So, water is used to push against the salty tide water from the bay. In other words, even water needs water.
In 2014, that was three million acre-feet of water, about half the water available. Parceling out a chunk of water to offset the salt intrusions from the bay and protecting the quality of freshwater is critical not just for the environment but also for all the people who rely on the water systems for their survival. And there isn’t enough out there. “We don’t have enough water to keep the salinity out of the delta,” said Jon Burau, the hydrodynamics project chief at USGS.
A drought, thus, brings to the forefront a truism, that everything, really, everything needs water. And everything gets argued against. It is almost besides the point that an almond needs a gallon of water, a walnut needs five, and a head of lettuce soaks up 3-4 gallons. We need dairy products; cows need alfalfa hay; alfalfa needs water, and lots of it (more than five million acre-feet every year for all of the state’s alfalfa feeds). Efficiency helps, but it won’t erase the fact that food needs water, and so, we, who crave the fruits, salads and nuts, need that water. The closer we get to food in the backdrop of a drought, the more we realize that water makes itself invisible in more ways than one.
Which is a problem because the dust may never quite settle. In the ever more hot and dry, the key is whether the current demands on the system are sustainable in the long term. As Dr. Abdul Khan, a hydrologist at the Department of Water Resources, said, the key is “whether the supply we have can support the demand we have created.”
And that question may be the biggest benefit of a drought. There is no ignoring the need for water for people, fish, farms and food. And all those needs are here to stay. But if there in hope in this oft-discussed, oft-tweeted drought, it is that crisis forces conversation.
And so, what will we do next? The state has ordered an average of 25 percent reductions in water use across 400 water districts. Many farmers in the Central Valley with junior rights are getting no water through the Central Valley Project and about 20 percent of what they requested through the State Water Project. And some are taking classes offered by the Department of Agriculture on how to efficiently shift to drought-resistant crops and drip irrigate fields. Cities are offering rebates to replace lawns with native landscaping in a state where outdoor water use takes up half of all urban water use. Stores report stronger sales of plumbing as people replace leaky faucets and hoses. A 2014 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pacific Institute estimated that the state could save about 14 million acre-feet per year–more than the total municipal consumption across the state–through rigorous water reuse, efficiency and innovative capture: crisis forces conversation, and perhaps, conservation.
The drought could make us rethink what to grow, where to grow, whom to feed, how to water. It precipitates scrutiny and belt-tightening. With some luck, it might just make us re-evaluate what will make us happy.
Venkat Srinivasan is a writer and researcher based in San Francisco. He tweets @vns2.