CIRS Blog about Rural California

California’s Changing Water Ethos

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The Yankees are a wonderful people - wonderful! Wherever they go, they make improvements. If they were to emigrate in large numbers to hell itself, they would irrigate it, plant trees and flower gardens, build reservoirs and fountains, and make everything beautiful and pleasant, so that by the time we get there, we can sit down at a marble-topped table and eat ice cream.  

—General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, 1863

 

Nature provides a free lunch, but only if we control our appetites.

—William Ruckelshaus, first EPA Administrator, 1990

 

California’s drought is in its fourth year, with no end in sight and the dry season upon us. The situation is dire: water supply is dwindling in reservoirs and aquifers, and the snowpack is at the lowest level on record. More than 10 percent of the state’s irrigated lands have been fallowed since early 2014 due to reduced water deliveries from state and federal programs. The Colorado River Basin is in the midst of a severe drought as well, adding another layer of instability for southern California contractors that are reliant on water from the state’s allotment. The western United States has experienced a combined water loss of at least 62 trillion gallons during the current drought, causing a measurable uplift in the land surface of the entire region, with the greatest effects (up to a .5 inch rise) occurring in California’s mountain ranges. Simply put: when we use too much water for too long, valleys subside and mountains rise.

 

Mandatory water conservation measures to cut urban water use by 25 percent are now in effect, with the State Water Board and Governor Brown warning that more restrictions will come, potentially even affecting previously untouched senior water rights holders.  In addition to building awareness and ramping up enforcement of the “low-hanging fruit” of water conservation—lawn watering, car washing, etc.—the state also announced $1 billion in drought relief funding. Reality is increasingly setting in: Californians must conserve water, and we must do it now.

 

State lawmakers have already taken critical steps toward improved water management. Last year, Californians approved a long-debated water bond that will help to fund emergency drought measures as well as increased water storage and future improvements and maintenance to the state’s water systems. The first-ever statewide groundwater protection law became effective in January, but full implementation will take decades. Senator Fran Pavley, who sponsored the groundwater bill, is calling for expedited enforcement of key measures, e.g. access to well log data, that would help water officials to understand and address excessive groundwater withdrawals in drought-stricken basins.

 

Longer term, the transformation that needs to happen (and is happening to some extent, in some places more than others) is grounded in several principles in water resource management, including: (1) climate change will likely lead to increasingly warm and dry conditions in many parts of the state as well as rising ocean levels and acidification of ocean water, (2) groundwater and surface water are inextricably linked and should be co-managed, (3) healthy ecosystems provide more essential services to humans than unhealthy ecosystems, and (4) diversified water portfolios managed at the local level are most resilient, but local water management requires effective oversight by state and federal authorities.

 

Desalination is getting more and more attention lately due to its potential for increasing available water supplies during dry times. But desal is an extraordinarily expensive, energy-intensive, and complicated process that produces its own waste streams and ecosystem impacts. On May 5, the State Water Board will consider amending the 2012 Water Quality Control Plan for the Ocean Waters of California to address the environmental impacts of desalination facilities, e.g. from brine discharges and water intakes. Debate over Governor Brown’s controversial Bay Delta Conservation Plan also continues. The Delta is at the heart of California’s water systems, providing water exports for 25 million people and 3 million acres of farmland. UC-Davis’s Peter Moyle warns that the delta smelt is on the brink of extinction due to the long-term habitat impacts of water diversions combined with shorter-term impacts of drought.

 

Meanwhile, new methods are being deployed to restore waterways and associated habitats for native fish by updating and removing aging infrastructure. A few decades ago, dam removal was widely viewed as economically prohibitive and politically impractical, but this perception has changed drastically. Major dam removals completed in recent years have demonstrated that riparian ecosystems are often capable of rebounding quickly after waterways are unblocked. The largest dam removal in California’s history is currently underway on the Carmel River, and several more are planned. Major dams will likely remain in place due to the critical benefits they provide to the public, but many other aging dams and reservoirs exist to provide for private irrigation and other uses that benefit very few, while wreaking havoc on shared ecosystems. UC-Davis released a detailed report last fall on “high-priority” dams that lack sufficient (and legally required) measures to protect downstream fish, noting a century-long pattern in California of not enforcing applicable laws and regulations to protect fisheries impacted by dams.

 

Overall, the conversation about managing rivers and water resources has shifted substantially—from the “conquer and control” approach of the 19th and 20th centuries, to a “restore and manage” approach for the 21st. In addition to restoring waterways and associated ecosystems, practices like wetlands restoration and groundwater banking increase landscape resiliency during wet and dry times alike.

 

Certain troubling aspects of the state’s water policy remain unchanged, and equity is often the elephant in the room. California’s archaic water rights system is complicated and tiered, with a few thousand senior water rights holders and many more junior water rights holders. The two biggest problems with the water rights system are that state officials are not able to track or measure how much water is actually being used among senior water rights holders, and available water supplies are drastically over-allocated. Last year, around 5,000 water rights were curtailed. This year, many more will be affected, particularly in the Sacramento and San Joaquin watersheds.

 

Increased awareness in California is leading to a changing water ethos in the state. A recent poll of 801 California voters showed that more than four in five of the respondents support water conservation in general (without regard to drought conditions), and nine in 10 indicated that they would be willing to make “significant changes” to their own water use to help the state meet its goal to reduce water usage by 20 percent by 2020. The overwhelming approval of the 2014 water bond should also be taken as a strong mandate for bold reforms that address the roots of California’s current water woes, rather than just the symptoms.

 

This presents an enormous opportunity for California’s leaders to address controversial issues related to the state’s water systems—issues that have been politically impossible, or at least impractical, in the past. By addressing inequitable and over-allocated water rights, groundwater overdraft, antiquated and inefficient water infrastructure, unsustainable development and water waste, state leaders can put California on a path toward increased water security and climate resiliency. As Governor Brown recently put it: “It’s not a partisan problem—the drought is a real problem, a hydrological challenge […and] it’s long overdue that we get at some very long-term solutions.”

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Annie Beaman is an independent consultant working on water issues and sustainable agriculture in California. In addition to researching, writing, strategizing, and campaigning about issues that impact vulnerable ecosystems and communities, she is an avid gardener and baker. Annie is a stewardship-obsessed member of a multi-generational farming family, and a longtime advocate for environmental protection and social justice. Follow her on Twitter @anniebeaman.

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