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Understanding and Shaping California's Water Legacy

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California’s drought has moved far beyond “severe,” and is making national and international headlines because of its far-reaching impacts. Most areas of the state are officially in “extreme” drought, with key coastal regions and agricultural areas in the Central Valley experiencing “exceptional” drought conditions. Political leaders scrambled to pass legislative relief packages as it became clear that the state would have another unusually dry winter. State and local officials have asked residents to reduce water use in homes and businesses. Meanwhile, major state and federal water projects have completely shut off water deliveries to already parched urban areas and agricultural agencies due to inadequate supply.

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Long-term impacts of the current drought are difficult to predict, but in the short-term, it is clear that there will be suffering. Major economic losses are likely in the agricultural industry and related sectors. Farmworkers are especially vulnerable to job loss because some farmers will plant fewer acres. In low-wage rural areas, increased poverty will quickly follow job loss. Food insecurity and negative health effects could occur especially if communities lack access to safe and sufficient water for extended periods of time. Each of these factors—job insecurity, poverty, food and water insecurity and health impacts—influences and exacerbates the others, especially in disadvantaged and marginalized populations.

Ecological harm affects communities and industries in multiple ways as well. Although most native plants and animals are adapted to California’s natural drought cycles, the exceptional nature of current conditions has already impacted several vulnerable species and sensitive landscape areas. Biodiversity and ecosystems can be further harmed by increased wildfires, which are a common phenomenon during droughts. During every drought, alarmist politicians and media personalities emphasize a false paradigm of “fish vs. people.” In reality, resilient, healthy ecosystems are among the most important factors supporting human prosperity, and this is particularly true with regard to extreme weather events and climate change. 

For example, human populations and developers have often disdained wetlands because they can be muddy, smelly, and inaccessible for some forms of recreation. However, wetlands play an essential part in retaining, recharging, and filtering water, and they also provide key habitat for migratory birds and other species. Wetlands serve as important buffers against the effects of droughts, floods, and extreme weather. In the past two centuries, California has lost over 90% of its natural wetlands largely to land development and water diversion infrastructure. The ecological services provided by these areas—functions that benefit humans and wildlife alike by making our shared ecosystems more resilient—are also diminished.

It is important to understand the basics of California’s water system and historical approaches to water management during droughts as a starting point. How and why did previous generations of Californians create the infrastructure and systems that we have in place today? How can current generations build upon and improve water systems moving forward?

California’s Climate, Hydrology, and Water Infrastructure

Perhaps the most important factor in shaping the state’s water systems is the fact that the majority of freshwater resources are not naturally located in the most populated and agriculturally productive areas. Precipitation is heaviest in the Sierra Nevada and northern Coast Ranges, where snow falls from clouds that are heavy with evaporated water from the ocean. On average, the northern third of the state receives roughly two-thirds of overall precipitation via winter rains and snowmelt. At the same time, roughly two-thirds of California’s growing population resides in the drier parts of the state further south. A north/south division in natural precipitation levels also exists in the Central Valley. These natural background conditions must be considered together with engineered water storage and distribution systems, which have had a huge impact on water especially by diverting flows, reducing wetland acreage, and impounding waterways.

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Traditional Approaches to Water Management

Since the 1800s, California has created and expanded infrastructure for diverting, storing, and distributing water throughout the state. For generations, water experts promoted dam and reservoir construction as the best option for maximizing the benefits of water (e.g. drinking, hydroelectric power). The underlying philosophy of this approach was related to popular notions of conquering and controlling nature. The dust bowl and droughts of the early 1900s inspired even more interest (and federal support) in building monumental water infrastructure like dams and conveyance systems.

During the second half of the 1900s, environmentalists and experts alike began to realize that these constructed systems can be both ecologically harmful and extraordinarily expensive to maintain. But maintenance expenses tend to be less than demolition and construction costs, so it has often been easier to maintain the status quo by improving and building upon existing water facilities.

The 21st century has ushered in an amazing array of new technologies for water management, as well as philosophical changes with regard to ecosystem stewardship that are based on many decades of scientific study. There is an increasing scientific consensus that ecosystems provide more services to humans at more critical times when they are sustainably managed, and this holds true for terrestrial systems as well as marine environments. Many scientists and farmers are convinced that sustainable management of natural resources is the only good option for maintaining human health and prosperity in the face of global climate change and projected increases in extreme weather events.

Emerging Technologies and Opportunities for Improved Water Management

Policy makers are currently debating important updates to state water infrastructure. Any changes to California’s water system, including through the Governor’s Bay Delta Plan, will have long-term implications for commerce, agriculture, and communities. Proponents of increasing California’s heavy-duty water infrastructure face impassioned and growing opposition. Due to the severity of current conditions and the perceived failures of existing water systems, even some of the most basic philosophies underlying California’s historical water management and policy decisions are being regularly questioned in political arenas, mainstream media, and other venues.

Conservation is still among the most important ways to preserve and protect water resources. Most people can find ways to reduce their domestic water use, and certain industries can make enormous improvements in water management. The energy sector is a good example of an extremely water-dependent industry with ample opportunity to conserve. Agricultural irrigators have room to improve water management as well, as is often emphasized during droughts, but many California farms are already leading innovators of water monitoring and conservation. In some water monitoring pilot projects, farmers have found that certain crops thrive and even increase yield with conservative watering through drip irrigation. It is important to recognize that unlike other water-dependent sectors—like golf courses—agriculture water use results in a major public benefit: producing and distributing food. California is the leading state for food production in the US.

Technologies including “smart monitoring” systems will play an increasingly important role in managing water in the future, and will continue to improve systematic efficiency. Certain technologies aim to address the problem of water scarcity, by creating new and improved methods for creating potable, drinkable water, including projects that demonstrate the potential for solar-powered desalination.

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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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