Sunday, February 22

California's water mismanagement disaster UPDATED April 5, 2105

April 5, 2015 UPDATE
There's been so much interest in this old post I'll mention that starting in the spring of 2014 I began a series titled "Water Crises Gordian Knot."  After a hiatus of several months from water topics I returned to the fray in 2015 with so many posts on California's water shortages and shortages around the world that I've lost count. In these I've focused on illustrating the incredible scope and complexity of problems connected with the shortages, whether it's water toxicity, land subsidence, flooding, and so on -- and their sameness across the USA and around the world.  Talk about everyone being in the same leaky boat!

Here are my four latest water posts; all but the last are specific to California -- but again, all can apply to water problems across the USA and the world.

April 4
California Hydropolitics: Pure Poison
Waiting on the course of California hydropolitics

April 5
Easter Deluge in North California: File under Signs and Portents

Now to return to 2009,,,,,,

Best regards to all,
February 23, 2009 UPDATE
Kindly note the exchange in the comments section and the link I provide there to a New York Times article on California's drought. I'll be putting up a post that expands on the comments but for now: California's bout of plentiful rain does not mean the end to the drought there.
"[If] there's a third dry year, permanent crops such as orchards and vines are going to either be removed completely or kept barely alive..."

The situation for California, as it enters its third year consecutive year of drought, is grim, and with the additional burden of the financial crisis, nearing the brink of catastrophe.

In the 2005 post Another Kind of Darkness, I discussed the water wars that took place in 1900's California between the fledgling City of Los Angeles and the farmers of Owens Valley. The city won, and the megacity of Los Angeles was the result, but not without the cost of desertification in the valley.

It's a story that has been repeated countless times around the globe during the past century. But one would think that California's modern-day government had absorbed lessons from Owens Valley. It didn't.

After decades of California's inadequate water policies and studiously short-sighted hydropolitics (the politics of water and water resources) the only hope left this year is ample rain and snow. If the miracle doesn't materialize in a year expected to be dry, there's just simply not enough water to meet projected demands.

Will they ever learn? Let me put it this way. The drought could turn out to be for California what Hurricane Katrina was for the City of New Orleans.

Decade after decade thousands of people resided below sea level in that city, all the while knowing that it was certain death to stay there if a strong hurricane hit.

Decade after decade, Californians have surveyed their parched lawns during a drought and said, We really need to solve the water problem because one day there's gonna be a really bad drought.

The answer is of course they won't learn until they're forced to by a dust bowl covering much of the state. That's human nature; deal with it because you have no choice.

But here's a tip for Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the U.S. politicians who lecture about saving the planet from global warming: if you want to save the planet, why not try something new for a change? Start small and work up to the big stuff.

Learning to walk: practice. Learning to talk: practice. Saving the world: practice. But practice on your own neck of the woods before you inflict your half-baked ideas on the rest.

I do not want to hear that California's water crisis is the result of global warming. It's the result of human nature compounded by stupidity. And three guesses who'll have to pick up the tab for rescuing Californians from that much stupidity.

RBO's report, which I republish here, is a window on the latest California water 'war' and the state's hydropolitics:

The California Water v. Delta Smelt War
by Procrustes, February 21, 2009

Before we get to the nitty gritty of this post, let's contemplate a few bits of data first.
Water, like air, is a necessity of human life. It is also, according to Fortune magazine, 'One of the world's great business opportunities. It promises to be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th.'--CBC (Canada).

There are those in Iran who must abandon their homes due to lack of water; they are known commonly as 'water refugees'. In Gaza, less than 15 gallons of water a day are available to each Palestinian (opposed to each American who has 800 gallons of water available a day). If you think things couldn't get worse in the Middle East, look to the foreseeable future, when usable water will be far more precious than oil.--Susan Williams, Indiana University, October 12, 2002.

By 2015 nearly half the world's population—more than 3 billion people—will live in countries that are 'water-stressed'—have less than 1,700 cubic meters of water per capita per year—mostly in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and northern China. --"Global Trends 2015," CIA Report (2000).

Global water consumption has risen almost tenfold since 1900, and many parts of the world are now reaching the limits of their supply. World population is expected to increase by 45% in the next thirty years, whilst freshwater runoff is expected to increase by 10%. UNESCO has predicted that by 2020 water shortage will be a serious worldwide problem.

One third of the world's population are already facing problems due to both water shortage and poor drinking water quality. Effects include massive outbreaks of disease, malnourishment and crop failure. Furthermore, excessive use of water has seen the degradation of the environment costing the world billions of
This is not a very pretty picture. Fortune magazine got it right. Keep in mind. Inhabitants on our big blue marble could manage to survive without oil and natural gas but nothing will survive without water, which is a diminishing natural resource.

This takes us to the reason for this post, an article published December 17, 2008, in The Bakersfield Californian. Staff writer Courtenay Edelhart reported on a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision regarding water districts that "rely on the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta (left) for much of their water supply" and that "could potentially hike water rates for consumers and hurt farmers already smarting from a drought."
In 2007, a federal judge ruled state and federal pumps sending some 6 million acre-feet of delta water south to Kern County and other users each year could wipe out the endangered smelt, a tiny silver fish. The court ruled pumping had to be curtailed by about a third until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could weigh in on the problem.

On Monday, the federal agency submitted a 400-page "biological opinion" to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on the effects of pumping by the Federal Central Valley Project and the California State Water Project. The agency concluded pumping was "likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the delta smelt (right) and adversely modify its critical habitat," and offered a plan to mitigate damage.

The plan would keep current restrictions in place, and even more limits could kick in under certain conditions. Further cuts would be triggered in a variety of scenarios, including limited rainfall during key periods in the fish's spawning cycle.
Robber's Roost, Kern Co., Calif.

Jim Beck, general manager of the Kern County Water Agency, which contracts for water on behalf of agricultural, municipal and industrial water districts in Kern, said "Implementing the plan would reduce water supplies from San Diego to San Jose by 20 to 30 percent on average, but up to 50 percent in some years."
As always, this is not the end of the story. Other water districts, which "have long argued that pumping isn't the real culprit in the smelt's demise," are "gearing up for a fight."
Invasive species, pollution and greater municipal and industrial uses of delta water are important factors that have not been given enough attention, said Robert Kunde, assistant engineer manager for the Wheeler Ridge-Maricopa Water Storage District.

"There are a number of good reasons to believe that even if State Water Project pumps were cut entirely, the delta smelt may very well go extinct," Kunde said.

Al Donner, assistant field supervisor for the Sacramento field office of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said all that has been looked at, but pumping cannot be discounted.

"The indices that track the smelt show the last couple of years, they've been at their lowest numbers ever," he said. "The species clearly is in trouble."
Back in June 2008, the Bakersfield paper reported on the second year of drought problems for farmers who once grew such products as cotton, pistachios, almonds and alfalfa.
Faced with too little rain and restricted pumping to protect an endangered fish, farmers and ranchers in and around Kern County are facing tough choices. In a typical year, 850,000 acres are irrigated, according to the Kern County Water Agency.

This year, about 45,000 of them will be idle at a cost of $46 million. In addition, 100,000 acres will be "underirrigated," causing a $59 million loss.
Also in June 2008, the Bakersfield paper reported that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was "further shrinking the amount of water allocated to farmers subject to the Central Valley Project contract, which regulates water use on many farms in the Kern County area."

"It's not a pretty year," said Fred Starrh of Starrh and Starrh Farms, ... "There's just not a lot of water around. It's almost like gasoline for us. The price of water has almost tripled."
A mile high plume of dust over Bakersfield, Calif., December 1977
In October 2008, the Bakersfield paper reported on "plans to cut water allocations to cities and farms to the second lowest level since it began making deliveries in 1962, which local growers said could push farmland out of production and boost already soaring grocery prices higher."
The California Department of Water Resources says that after two consecutive dry years and court-ordered restrictions on pumping from the environmentally sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the State Water Project will deliver just 15 percent of the water that water agencies across the state have requested for next year.

That's down from 35 percent delivered this year, and so low that officials warned some cities may be forced to ration and make voluntary conservation efforts mandatory. [...]

Without court-ordered restrictions to protect the threatened Delta smelt from pumping, the state's water allocation would have been 20 percent, 5 percent more than what's been predicted.
Additionally --
Kern County Water Agency general manager Jim Beck said between the smelt and explosive Central Valley population growth, there is far more demand for water today than during the last major drought of 1988 to 1992.

That means farmers are going to have to add to the 20,000 acres left fallow this year for lack of water. Beck estimates 90,000 acres in Kern County will be affected next year, including 50,000 not planted at all, and 40,000 acres of permanent crops watered enough to stay alive but not enough to bear fruit. [...]

Also, the drought has mostly affected annual crops, which are much easier to take out of production for a season or two. But if there's a third dry year, permanent crops such as orchards and vines are going to either be removed completely or kept barely alive...
Now, you ask, what makes this a "water war"?

Would it interest you to know that as recently as October 2005 "agriculture" had finally "won" a 50-year water war in this same part of California -- with the Bush administration "driving the trend?"
Central Valley irrigation districts are signing federal contracts that assure their farms ample water for the next 25 to 50 years. [...]

In the western San Joaquin Valley, a desert is blooming with cotton and produce, all sustained with water from California's northern rivers.

But in the places where this water once flowed -- the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, the Trinity River in the far north state -- fisheries have declined drastically. That's a direct result, biologists say, of water diversions to the south.

First among the winners of the water wars is the Westlands Water District (right, 2001) southeast of Fresno -- the nation's largest irrigation district.

Pancake flat, this 600,000 acres of arid alkali dirt is one of California's most desolate regions.

Yet Westlands is growing riotously: not in homes or shopping malls, but in melons, tomatoes, almonds, cotton and myriad other crops. Its fields produced about $1 billion in food and fiber last year.
And there's more:

Westlands gets its water from the federal Central Valley Project, which supplies water to a third of California's cropland and about 50 cities, including Sacramento, San Jose and several in the East Bay and on the Peninsula.

The district's annual allotment of about 1.15 million acre feet -- enough to supply about 2.3 million families -- dwarfs those of all other project participants. The next biggest, the Contra Costa Water District's, is only 185,000 acre feet.

An acre foot is the amount of water that covers an acre a foot deep.

Now, Westlands and other districts are successfully renewing their long-term contracts at current levels and at prices far below those paid by the state's growing cities, despite protests that pumping large volumes of water south is killing Northern California's fisheries.

Westlands is singled out for particular criticism because of its size and the amount of water it receives, but also because the irrigation of its fields produces toxic drain water, threatening state waterways. Some critics say much of its acreage should be taken out of production.

So far, about 200 contracts have been approved, and 80 more are pending, including Westlands'. About 6 million acre feet of annual water deliveries is at stake.

Farmers who get federal water are generally charged a fraction of the free-market rate.
Then along comes a two-year drought and the tiny silvery endangered delta smelt that sends up a red flag about the whole thing.

On July 10, 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service changed the status of the "critically imperiled delta smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus) from threatened to endangered" under the federal Endangered Species Act. However, the Bay Institute, Center for Biological Diversity, and Natural Resources Defense Council had "petitioned the Service in 2006 requesting a change in the federal listing. The finding is 25 months late, and a final listing determination is already 13 months overdue."
"We are seeing a cascading series of crashing Delta fish populations – delta smelt, longfin smelt, chinook salmon, steelhead trout, green sturgeon, Sacramento splittail, striped bass – the warning bells are ringing loud and clear," said Jeff Miller with the Center for Biological Diversity. "The ecological collapse of the Delta threatens more than just our native fish since millions of people depend on the Delta for drinking water, agriculture, and fishing."

Delta smelt are an indicator of the health of the San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem, and the smelt population has plummeted since 1993 when it was listed as threatened. Smelt abundance this summer is the fourth lowest on record since surveys began in 1959. Federal and state agencies have allowed record levels of water diversions from the Delta in recent years, leaving insufficient fresh water to sustain native fish and the Delta ecosystem.
Not only that, the situation was further threatened by the Governator:
"The governor's proposal to build more dams, as well as regulatory efforts to continue to allow record freshwater diversions from the Delta when most of our native fish species are struggling to survive, makes no sense," said Miller. "The state and federal water projects need to change their operations to eliminate reverse flows in Delta channels and prevent further losses of fish at the pumps."
So, this is the end of the story, right? Nope. Time for a lawsuit.

On December 9, 2008, State Water Contractors, a statewide organization of 27 public water agencies, filed a lawsuit
...against the California Fish & Game Commission and the California Department of Fish & Game challenging the Commission's recent decision to potentially impose substantial cuts in State Water Project (SWP) water deliveries to much of the San Francisco Bay Area, the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California in an effort to protect the longfin smelt. The lawsuit asserts that the Commission's November 14, 2008 decision opens the door for dramatic new restrictions on SWP and Central Valley Project (CVP) water pumping operations out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (Delta) without any significant corresponding benefit to the fish species and, in so doing, violates key elements of the California Endangered Species Act. Last month, the Commission approved these regulations as a precautionary measure in its desire to protect the longfin smelt, a fish species found in estuaries from Monterey Bay to Alaska.
Bottom line? In addition to current drought conditions, decrepit infrastructure, invasive species, and the water quality itself at risk, that is? Reduced water deliveries and negative "economic impact" to the SWP and U.S.-operated CVP. M-O-N-E-Y.

This is only one little piece of a country - and worldwide iceberg but a good illustration of what lies ahead.

There is a new administration in Washington, with many departments and policies yet to be determined. The reign of the Governator is in peril. So much can change in a very short time -- much like the weather.

As the Bakersfield newspaper articles indicate, there has been a 50-year plus battle in this one part of our country, one which is a major source of our food supply.

Stay tuned. This is one of the most important issues facing us. There'll be more to come.


Anonymous said...

That is one huge post. I visited this subject much more briefly the other day. As a weather buff, I can assure you ample rain and snow will fix California's short term problem in the next two months. It's pouring in many places right now. But the larger systemic problem remains, and it will get worse, until the voters become better informed.

Pundita said...

Yes it is huge; when Procrustes (the author of RBO blog) decides to report on a subject, she does it up right. And she finds the greatest pictures to illustrate.

Thank you for your weather update, which I'll pass along to Procrustes. But FYI the New York Times reported on very grim predictions for California for this year. I'll find the link in a few minutes and post it here.

Pundita said...

Allan, here's the NYT February 22, 2009 report titled "Drought Adds Hardship to California"

Here are a few notable quotes from the report. There is rain, there is snow, but not enough of either.

"Even as rains have washed across some of the state this month, greening some arid rangeland, agriculture officials say the lack of rain and the prospect of minimal state and federal water supplies have already led many farmers to fallow fields and retreat into survival mode with low-maintenance and low-labor crops. [...]

One of the hardest hit areas is the farmland served by the Westlands Water District, which receives water exclusively from the Central Valley Project and distributes it to 600,000 acres in Fresno and Kings Counties. Sarah Woolf, a spokeswoman for the district, said that her 700 members expected to leave 300,000 to 400,000 acres fallow and that some might not come back to farm at all.

“Everyone’s trying to go down fighting,” Ms. Woolf said. “But there will be significant companies that will go out of business, as well as families that have been farming for generations, if it doesn’t get better.”

The outlook for things getting better quickly is dim, despite forecasts of rain this week. Last month, California officials estimated the snowpack in the Sierra, a primary source of water for the state when it melts in the spring, at 61 percent of normal. On Friday, the State Department of Water Resources said it would deliver just 15 percent of its promised contracts, a level it was able to maintain only because of the recent spate of rain. “It’s pathetic,” said Lester A. Snow, the department’s director.

Lynette Wirth, a spokeswoman for the United States Bureau of Reclamation, said water levels in all federally managed reservoirs in California were well below normal, with “abysmal” carryover from the previous year.

“There’s been no meaningful precipitation since last March,” Ms. Wirth said.

Jerad Bettencourt said...