California’s Water CrisisPosted by: Aquafornia on December 31, 2007 at 7:35 pm
California’s modern history is written in gold mining, railroads, and most recently, the development of water. Water irrigates millions of acres of farmland, making California the nation’s leading agricultural producer and exporter of agricultural goods. Water has made the development of Southern California and Bay Area cities possible.
However, California now faces monumental challenges in meeting the water demand of its current and projected population. Further compounding the problem is that the public remains largely unaware of the major issues confronting the state’s water supply.
While some agencies have built regional projects to increase local water supply and storage, California’s state and federal water systems have not seen any major upgrades since the State Water Project was completed in 1973, despite the addition of nearly 14 million residents.
According to population projections, the state’s total population will increase to 60 million people by the year 2050, an increase of over 56% from the 2000 census numbers. As the state’s population continues to grow, this is putting strain on our existing water supplies, as well as bringing into question the ability to accommodate this expected future growth.
At the same time, drought and climate change are reducing the snowpack California depends on to fill its reservoirs, and the Delta, critical hub of California’s water system, faces multiple risk factors to its fragile levees while continuing to experience ecosystem decline and plummeting native fish populations.
Continued population growth throughout the Southwest combined with a persistent drought in the Colorado River basin is putting increased pressure on the limited resources of the Colorado River. In addition, Indian reservations, left out of previous water rights agreements, have begun to exercise their long-held but unused water rights, putting further strain on the limited resources of the Colorado River.
Ensuring a water supply to meet the needs of California’s existing residents while providing for future population growth has become a major statewide issue as news stories and research reports highlight the challenges that lie ahead and legislators debate putting another multi-billion dollar bond measure in front of voters. More dams, increased conservation, water transfers, desalination and more – there are many possibilities, each with its benefits and drawbacks. There is no easy answer; unfortunately, no silver bullet.
To really understand the situation and the challenges ahead, we’ll look at some background information on California and water. Next we’ll take a look at the factors putting stress on California’s water resources. Then we’ll look at our options for meeting the challenges ahead. Lastly, we’ll look at what water agencies and the legislature are doing to prepare California for a drier future.
AGRICULTURAL WATER USE IN CALIFORNIA
California is the nation’s leading agricultural producer and has been for the last 60 years, contributing more than half of the nation’s fruit, nut and vegetable production. California is also the nation’s leading exporter of agricultural goods. Agriculture provides 1.1 million jobs, and generates $27.6 billion dollars in sales, plus another $100 billion more in related economic activity. Many counties in California rely primarily on agriculture for their economic survival. Being a leader in agricultural production takes a lot of water, and so not surprisingly, the biggest user of water in California is the agricultural industry.
Much of California’s vast water infrastructure was developed for agricultural purposes. With over 9.6 million acres under irrigation, agriculture uses 80% of California’s developed water supply. Decreasing agricultural water use is difficult, primarily because for most crops, applying less water will directly decrease crop yield. And, according to DWR, while there may be some farms with inefficient irrigation practices, most farms are already using water efficiently.
URBAN WATER USE
Urban use comprises the remaining 20% of developed water in California. The commercial, industrial and institutional sector accounts for about one-third of urban use. The remaining two-thirds of urban use is residential.The majority of residential water use occurs outdoors. Outdoor water use varies by season, with more water applied during the summer months. It also varies by location, with more water is used outdoors in the hotter, drier inland areas where single-family houses with larger lots dominate the landscape; less water is used outdoors in the coastal areas where the weather is more moderate, the lots are smaller and multi-family dwellings are more common.
The Pacific Institute’s report, “Waste Not, Want Not”: The Potential for Urban Water Conservation” determined that flushing toilets accounts for 33% of indoor water use, making it the largest use of water inside the home. Older models can use 3 to 5 gallons per flush, while more efficient models use less than 2 gallons. Showers account for 22% and faucets account for 18%, while washing machines use about 14%, and dishwashers only accounting for 1%. Perhaps most surprisingly, the Pacific Institute estimated that 12% of indoor water use was a result of leaks.
THE ISSUES FACING CALIFORNIA’S WATER SUPPLY
1. Population Growth. Most of the precipitation and snowmelt runoff occurs in the northern part of California, but the majority of the population lives in the drier central and southern portions of the state. This imbalance is not expected to change.
According to population estimates issued by California’s Department of Finance, four of the five Southern California counties will add more than 10 million people between now and 2050, an increase of 65% over year 2000 census numbers. Six central California counties are projected to grow by over 200%.
Los Angeles is expected to remain the most populated county in California, followed by Riverside County, San Diego County, Orange County and San Bernardino County. Overall, the state’s total population will increase to 60 million people by the year 2050, an increase of over 56% from the 2000 census numbers.
2. Drought. Historical precipitation records have shown the California’s climate has always been highly variable, and periods of droughts are certainly not unusual. In 2005, after nearly breaking the all-time precipitation record, just two years later, Southern California then experienced its driest year on record. Things weren’t any better up in Northern California where the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range was only 27% of normal. (Click on the picture to the right to see the most current drought monitor.)
Less snow in the winter means less water draining down from the mountains to feed creeks, streams and rivers during the dry summer months.
Things looked better initially for the winter of 2007-2008, with snowpack being above 100% in much of the mountains at the end of February. But a record-breaking dry March and April reduced the snowpack to just 67% of normal by the end of the season.
Department of Water Resources director Lester Snow testified at a congressional hearing in July 2008 that Lake Oroville, the main reservoir of the State Water Project, was at 40% capacity, and expected to dip as low as 20% of capacity by December. Lake Shasta, main reservoir of the Central Valley Project, was only at 48% of capacity at the time.
Water has dipped so low in most reservoirs that officials say it would take more than one wet season to improve conditions. However, things aren’t looking much better for the next winter: climatologists see no El Nino or La Nina condition forming, and have no expectations for an unusually wet winter.
The Colorado River Basin has also been experiencing drought conditions for the last 8 years. However, last year, snowpack was as high as 122% of normal. This did improve conditions somewhat at Lake Powell and Lake Mead; however, after many years of drought conditions, it will take several years of above-average conditions to improve conditions at these reservoirs.
3. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. As the warm sun melts the snow in the Sierra Nevada in the spring time, the water rushes down the streams and creeks, eventually making its way to one of the five rivers which converge in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Much of the state’s runoff drains here in the 738,000-acre network of levees, waterways, farms and islands that comprise the Delta.
At the southern end, large pumps draw the fresh water through the Delta and ship it south to irrigate farms and quench the thirst of urban populations. Over two-thirds of the state’s population receives a portion of their drinking water from the Delta.
The Delta is also home to a multitude of fish, wildlife and migratory waterfowl. It is the largest estuary on the west coast, and an important stop on the Pacific Flyway. However, water project operations have impacted native fish populations, and the Delta smelt, once the most populous fish in the estuary, is now on the brink of extinction. Other species are threatened as well: in 2008, salmon fishing was closed as salmon populations plunged; while researchers cite a number of reasons including lack of food in the oceans, declining conditions in the Delta are also thought to have played a role.
In August of 2007, Judge Wanger, a federal court judge, ruled both the State Water Project and Central Valley Project were operating in violation of the Endangered Species Act, and ordered reductions in the amount of water exported from the Delta. He ruled again in August 2008 that project operations were jeopardizing the salmon. He did not order any further adjustments at the time, and the effect of this ruling has yet to be determined.
As Ellen Hanak of the Public Policy Institute of California pointed out, “Managing water supplies for human use is not always compatible with providing healthy conditions for the Delta ecosystem\” (Hanak, October 2007).
Besides being the hub of California’s water supply, the Delta serves many other uses. The Delta is a place where a lot of people live, and its population is expected to continue to grow. There is a lot of water traffic in the Delta, with ships headed into the ports at Sacramento & Stockton. Three state highways cross the Delta, connecting the Bay Area to the Central Valley. There are also power lines, oil and gas transmission lines, and railroads throughout the area. The Delta also has more than a half a million acres of incredibly productive farmland. All of this property and infrastructure is protected by an extensive network of aging levees.
Much of the network of levees through the Delta has been built only to 100-year flood standards, and levees have failed 162 times in the past 100 years. Some of these levees date as far back as the Gold Rush era days and are in danger of collapse in a flood or seismic event. A major levee failure would allow the salt water to mix with the fresh water, cutting off water deliveries for at least a year and costing the state billions of dollars.
Solving Delta issues has always been a challenge. Water agencies, farmers, environmentalists, recreational interests, residents and other Delta users have many competing objectives and desires for the Delta, which has resulted in continued studies and legislative paralysis with nothing ever really being accomplished. Most plans in the past have attempted to satisfy all stakeholders, with the end result that nobody is satisfied.
“There are many competing objectives, and trade-offs will be unavoidable. But a new course is essential. Business as usual in the Delta threatens the very survival of native species, the health of a unique ecological resource, and the state’s water supply system and other key services. (Hanak, October 2007).
4. Climate Change. According to climatologists, warmer temperatures will cause more precipitation to fall as rain, increasing the chances of flooding downstream. The increased flood flows, along with rising sea levels, will put more pressure on the aging Delta levees, as well as cause more flooding in the central part of the state.
The warmer temperatures mean bad news for the snowpack as well; scientists have projected that by 2050, the average snowpack in the Sierra’s will decrease by 25%. Some experts have even predicted the Sierra snowpack will be virtually gone by the end of the century.
Snow in the mountains in the wintertime provides runoff that feeds the streams and rivers in the drier summer months. Weather patterns are already becoming more variable, causing more flooding in the winter and spring, and longer, drier droughts. (For more information on the possible effects of climate change on California’s water supply, click here.)
5. Colorado River Basin. Increasing population in southern California and throughout the southwest has put increasing pressure on the diminishing supply of the Colorado River. More water has been allocated to water rights holders than the river is capable of providing, and California has been ordered to reduce its overuse of Colorado River water. This has resulted in a reduction of Metropolitan Water District’s imported supplies by nearly a quarter.
The Colorado River basin has also been experiencing drought conditions for the last eight years. Experts conducting studies of tree ring data have determined that severe and prolonged droughts lasting up to 60 years or more have occurred in the past, and could likely occur again. As population continues to grow throughout the dry, desert southwest, the water levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead continue to drop, with each reservoir only about half-full. Some experts predict they may never be full again.
6. Indian Water Rights. Native Americans were promised water from the federal government when they were given reservations in the Southwest; these rights were affirmed in 1908 by a Supreme Court decision (known as the Winters decision). The Supreme Court officially recognized Indian water rights as established at the time the reservations were created. These rights were established and reserved for the tribes regardless of whether they were actually using the water or not. The Supreme Court decision also determined that these rights must be satisfied by the state in which the reservation is located.
In 1922, when drawing up the Colorado River Compact, most Native Americans at the time didn’t even speak the language, did not understand the ‘white man’s ways’ and so didn’t participate in the negotiations. Thus, the 1922 Colorado River Compact did not include any provision for Indian Water Rights. Instead, it only gave a token acknowledgment by saying, “Nothing in this compact shall be construed as affecting the obligations of the United States of America to Indian Tribes. And so by including that phrase, the writers of the compact effectively punted the issue into modern day.
Since water rights are considered established when the reservation was created, Indian water rights are considered “present-perfected\”, which means they would have the right to their full apportionment of water before those with junior water rights, which includes all seven of the Colorado Basin states, as well as the Metropolitan Water District.
Indian water rights must be quantified either by litigation or by congressional action before they can be used. Some tribes have already had their water rights settled. A 1963 Supreme Court case involving Arizona and California determined the exact water rights of Arizona, Nevada and California, as well as quantifying the water rights of five of the Indian reservations along the Colorado River. The Supreme Court granted enough water for all the practicably irrigable lands within reservation boundaries, with the water coming from the Lower Colorado Basin states’ allotment.
Over the past 25 years, more than 21 cases of Indian land and water rights have been settled; however, there is still much work to be done. There are many other tribes located along the Colorado River with rightful claims to water, many of those in Arizona. And the largest and a potentially huge claim is the Navajo Nation, whose 25,000 square-mile reservation is located entirely within the Colorado River Basin, and could affect the apportionment of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.
The Western Governor’s Association has long been concerned with satisfying these water rights, supporting negotiated, as opposed to litigated, water rights; however, they point out that it is the federal government’s responsibility to provide information, technical assistance and competent negotiators. It is also the federal government’s responsibility to fund their share of the infrastructure needed to deliver the water to the reservation, and to ensure that the settlements are implemented.
The National Congress of American Indians has stated that they believe “the settlement of tribal water and land claims is one of the most important aspects of the United States first obligations to Indians and is of vital important to the country as a whole\”.
7. Environmental Mitigation in the Owens Valley. From the day William Mulholland stood at the top of the aqueduct in 1913 and gave the signal to turn the knob and send Owens Valley water cascading down into the San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles has depended upon Owens Valley water to fuel its growth. However, this growth has come at the expense of the residents and the environment of the Owens Valley.
Once a productive agricultural area, the community was decimated as one by one, the owners finally sold to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and moved on. Owens Lake was dry by the 1930s as streams, springs, and the Lower Owens River feeding into it were dried up. Excessive groundwater pumping in the 1970s dropped the water table further, killing the native vegetation and turning much of the region into a dry, dusty desert.
These issues have been the subject of years of litigation, and as a result, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has had to spend millions of dollars in restoration and mitigation projects. These mandated projects have also reduced the amount of water DWP has been able to export to Los Angeles.
Due to court-ordered restoration of Mono Lake, and the Lower Owens River, as well as continuing dust mitigation on the dry Owens Lake bed, more water has stayed in the Owens Valley for “in-valley\” use than was exported to Los Angeles. This was the first time this has occurred since the aqueduct was completed. According to the DWP, the Owens Valley will supply just 17% of the water for DWP customers this year, considerably less than the previous year, when the valley supplied 62% of DWP’s needs. (Inyo County Register, 6/21/07).
WHAT ARE THE AVAILABLE ALTERNATIVES
1. Urban water conservation. Many studies have shown that California’s water needs could be met by increased conservation and efficiency efforts. The Pacific Institute’s Report, “Waste Not, Want Not : The Potential for Urban Water Conservation in California\”, concluded that “California’s urban water needs can be met into the foreseeable future by reducing water waste through cost-effective water saving technologies, revised economic policies, appropriate state and local regulations, and public education.
The Pacific Institute report studied residential water use, and estimated that 12% of indoor water use in California can be attributed to leaks. Since toilets use the most water indoors, replacing inefficient older toilets with newer, high-efficiency models would result in significant water savings. The report concluded that indoor water use could be reduced by 40% if everyone would fix their leaks, replace showerheads and inefficient toilets, washing machines and dishwashers.
Indoor water use is important; however, the majority of residential water use is used outdoors for landscaping. The typical California lawn requires several times more water than native plants. Inefficient irrigation systems compound the problem by overwatering lawns, creating excess spillage. Besides wasting water, overwatering generates more polluted runoff, which damages the rivers, lakes, and beaches. The Pacific Institute determined that outdoor water use could be reduced by at least 32% by using better irrigation schedules, ‘smart’ irrigation controllers, and drip irrigation systems. Further significant reductions could be made by the use of drought-tolerant or California native plants for landscaping.
Many municipalities are beginning to consider landscape ordinances, restricting the amount of grass and type of landscaping for new developments. This is especially important in the fast growing Inland Empire, where single family homes are being built on larger lots. Water districts have also implemented rebate programs to encourage homeowners to change their outdoor landscaping to artificial turf or other drought-tolerant landscaping.
Both the Pacific Institute & PPIC reports determined that water pricing could be adjusted to encourage conservation. When water is not properly priced, it is frequently wasted. Flat rates and uniform pricing policies do not encourage conservation or efficiency investments. Pricing at appropriate levels can be an important conservation tool.
2. Agricultural Water Conservation. “Given that agriculture accounts for about 80% of Delta water consumption, no economic, environmental, or policy assessment can be complete without a serious examination of agricultural water withdrawals from the Delta,\” said Heather Cooley, senior research associate at the Pacific Institute, and in September 2008, the institute issued a report on agricultural water conservation, “More with Less: Agricultural Water Conservation and Efficiency in California : A Special Focus on the Delta\”.
The Pacific Institute determined that by changing to less thirsty crops and utilizing more efficient irrigation systems, the agricultural industry could save billions of gallons of water per year – enough to fill 3 to 20 dams. The researchers said policy changes were needed to help the process, including tax exemptions and rebates for farmers, applying water rights “more rationally and reasonably”, rigorous water measurement and monitoring, and by eliminating subsides that encourage water wastage.
The agricultural industry responded by saying efficient irrigation techniques were already being used, and that choosing crops solely based on water needs oversimplifies agricultural economics: “If you grew all cactus, I’m sure you could save some water, but it’s not economically feasible,” said a farmer in a recent Bakersfield Californian article.
California Secretary of Agriculture A.G. Kawamura agreed that farmers were already doing their part. “Over the last four decades, the amount of water used on California farms has remained relatively level while crop production has increased more than 85% in the same period,\” said. “In fact, California farms use water not just once but as many as eight times.
For more information:
- More with Less: Agricultural Water Conservation and Efficiency in California – A Special Focus on the Delta, from the Pacific Institute, September 2008.
- The Water Fact Book: California Agriculture and its Use of Water, by the California Farm Water Coalition.
3. Increase surface storage by building dams and reservoirs. The primary benefit of a dam or a reservoir is to store water for urban, industrial, and agricultural use. Dams also provide flood control by capturing high flows, protecting downstream areas, as well as provide hydroelectric power generation.
But dams are not without their drawbacks. In-stream dams which interrupt the flow of rivers can be devastating to native fisheries by blocking access to spawning areas and by altering the temperature of the water. Even with fish ladders, fish populations can be impacted. Dams also trap sediment carried in the river, and while this improves downstream water quality, it results in progressive loss of reservoir capacity. Sediment from rivers is also a main source of beach sand, causing deteriorating beaches at the coastline.
Off-stream reservoirs, such as Metropolitan Water District’s Diamond Valley Lake, are less destructive to the environment. Completed in 2000, Diamond Valley Lake is one of California’s newest reservoirs. The reservoir has nearly doubled Metropolitan Water District’s storage capacity, and is capable of storing a six-month supply of water, which can be delivered by gravity to most of Metropolitan’s service area.
While other water agencies have completed local surface storage projects, no major infrastructure or surface-storage improvements have been made to the State Water Project facilities since construction was completed in 1973, despite the addition of 20 million new residents.
Funding for dams has been a sticking point in getting a water bond measure passed, with the Governor and the Department of Water Resources favoring new surface storage to capture more runoff. The new dams have met with opposition from Democrats and environmentalists, who argue that dams are too expensive and would benefit only a few, and that the money would be better spent on improving conservation and other projects to increase regional self-sufficiency.
4. We must solve the Delta issues. The continued deterioration of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is of major concern to water officials, researchers, farmers, and environmentalists. The Delta supplies nearly two-thirds of Californians with at least a portion of their drinking water, and irrigates millions of acres of prime agricultural land. It is also home to a diverse array of fish and wildlife, and is the largest estuary on the West Coast. However, a crashing ecosystem, concerns for the fragile and aging levees and recent court decisions cast serious doubt on the future of the Delta as both an estuary and the hub of California’s water system. And recently, there has been much debate given to an old idea : the peripheral canal.
The peripheral canal would route water around the Delta instead of through it. Termed ‘conveyance’ by the Governor, the idea of a peripheral canal has been highly controversial ever since it was defeated by voters in 1982 in a divisive ballot initiative battle which pitted Northern Californians against Southern Californians. The canal was seen as a Southern California water grab by the northerners, who feared the Delta would be ‘sucked dry’ in order to water the lawns and fill the swimming pools of Southern California. Many Northern Californians today still believe that if such a canal were to be built, it would remove too much freshwater from the Delta, ruining the water quality and rendering it useless for farming and recreational purposes. They also fear that if the Delta was no longer needed by the state, funding for needed levee repairs and ecosystem improvements would dry up.
In July 2008, the Public Policy Institute released the report, Comparing Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which determined that “a peripheral canal \”¦ should be part of a long-term strategy for the Delta to serve both water supply and environmental objectives. The PPIC report concluded that the Delta as it is today is unsustainable and is headed for major change as expected changes in precipitation patterns due to climate change, sea level rise, earthquakes, and subsiding land put pressure on the Delta’s aging and fragile levees. Fundamental changes are inevitable, they say, and we need to prepare for those changes.
Within 50 years, many of the Delta islands will become flooded, and maintaining the 1,115-mile levee system as it exists today will be costly, eventually exceeding all available bond funds and the likely public’s willingness to continue to pay for repairs. The researchers recommend investing in those Delta levees that protect high-value lands, critical infrastructure, ecosystem goals and those islands that support export water quality objectives, and let other lower-value islands flood and return to aquatic habitat. Some Delta landowners will need to be compensated as a result.
New and different governance and regulatory arrangements that recognize these forces will be needed to deal with the Delta of the future. The ecosystem will change as climate change, rising sea levels, permanent levee failures and invasive species exert their influences. Rigidly negotiated habitat plans are likely to fail, and adaptation to changing conditions will be necessary.
- Comparing Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a PPIC Report
But not everyone agrees. Many environmental groups say increased water exports from the Delta have spurred California’s development, sustaining its cities and agricultural industry, but at a steep cost to wildlife and the environment. Excessive and increased water exports are to blame for the crashing ecosystem, they contend, and a peripheral canal won’t fix the problems; it will only deprive the Delta of the precious fresh water it so desperately needs. These groups advocate for restoring more natural flow conditions by reducing water diversions in and upstream of the Delta, and offsetting the reduced water exports by making greater conservation efforts and promoting more regional self-sufficiency.
Links to environmental groups involved with the Delta and water planning/management:
- The Bay Institute
- Planning and Conservation League, water policy program
- Environmental Defense, Rivers and Deltas, California Delta section
Currently, there are several planning processes underway trying to determine how best to deal with the challenges facing the Delta. These include the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Find out more about these Delta planning processes by clicking here.
There are many different interest groups with oftentimes incompatible objectives. Water agencies who depend on the water from the Delta list reliability as their prime objective. Delta farmers who irrigate their fields directly from the Delta channels want to continue to be able to do so, and environmentalists want to protect the ecosystem. While everyone pretty much agrees that current policies are not working, it has proven nearly impossible to reach a consensus that satisfies all stakeholders.
“Pursuit of a grand consensus solution for the Delta’s many issues is likely to continue the deteriorating status quo\”, the PPIC report predicts.
5. Water Recycling. Water recycling is reusing treated wastewater for landscape and agricultural irrigation, industrial processes, and toilet flushing. The most controversial aspect of recycled water is using it to replenish groundwater basins or to augment reservoirs, sometimes referred to as “toilet to tap\”.
Most often, recycled water is delivered in separate purple-colored pipes to major water users and newer developments for use in non-potable applications.The amount and type of treatment needed for processing of recycled water depends primarily on the potential for human exposure, and the water quality required beyond health considerations. Most recycled water that has undergone secondary treatment is used for nonpotable purposes, such as landscape irrigation of parks, golf courses and freeway medians, cooling water for power plants and oil refineries, industrial process water, toilet flushing, concrete mixing, and construction activities.
Recycled water can undergo further treatment, called ‘tertiary treatment’. This treatment produces water that exceeds drinking water quality standards. This ultra purified water is then allowed to percolate into an aquifer to replenish it, or potentially could be added to a reservoir. This controversial use of recycled water is sometimes dubbed ‘toilet-to-tap’.
Due to water recycling’s unpopularity, major cities, such as San Diego and Los Angeles, allow their treated wastewater to flow to the ocean, unused. However, sandwiched in between these two cities is one area which has been recharging its aquifer with recycled water since the 1970s. Orange County recently completed its Groundwater Replenishment System, a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant that utilizes filtering, screening, chemical processing and ultraviolet radiation to ultra-purify wastewater. Half of this water is then injected into the coastal aquifers to prevent sea water intrusion, and the other half is allowed to sink into the ground and replenish the groundwater basin. Orange County officials have overcome the obstacle of public opinion in part by an aggressive public education program.
While “toilet-to-tap\” systems can generate much controversy, it is important to note that most treated wastewater is reused in unplanned ways. Many municipalities discharge their treated wastewater into a river where it then becomes part of the flow that heads downstream to other farms and cities. This happens numerous times over along the length of the Colorado River, and a state report determined that 90% of the wastewater discharged into the San Joaquin River is reused in this way.
Recycled water has the potential to meet the household demands of 30 to 50 percent of the growing population by 2030, but more investment in infrastructure will be needed. (Role & Potential of Water Recycling) The use of recycled water, either by distribution through a separate set of purple pipes or by controversial toilet-to-tap programs, is bound to be a part of California’s water future.
6. Clean up and protect groundwater resources. Groundwater, tucked away beneath our feet, already plays an important role in California’s water supply, and will likely play a much larger role in future water supply planning. Groundwater resources account for about 30% of California’s water supply needs, more so in drier years. Some regions are more dependent on groundwater than others.
“While the history of the state’s water supply infrastructure has been primarily dams and canals, the future of California’s water supply planning will place a great deal more emphasis on groundwater basin operations through artificial recharge and aquifer storage and recovery projects,\” said Tom Mohr, president of the Groundwater Resources Association. (Pitzer, 2007).
Aquifers and groundwater basins are replenished naturally by stormwater runoff and snow melt that percolates through the ground and back into the aquifer. When more water is pumped out than is replenished, overdraft occurs. If the overdraft continues, it can result in increased pumping costs, land subsidence (sinking land), and degraded water quality.
The San Fernando Valley, San Gabriel Valley and Orange County all sit atop productive groundwater basins, although some parts of the aquifers have become polluted from industrial manufacturing processes in earlier years. Metropolitan Water District and local water agencies are working to secure funding for cleanup programs. These programs have the potential to add significantly to Southern California water supplies.
Groundwater banking refers to the process of actively recharging aquifers with the intent to withdraw the water at a later time. Aquifers which have been previously overdrafted can easily provide the underground storage space. Many groundwater banks are operating in the southern San Joaquin Valley, and several southern California water agencies have water stored there.
Groundwater banking projects are easier to implement than surface storage projects, do not suffer losses from evaporation, and are generally considered more environmentally-friendly. However, there are still potential issues to be resolved. There are those who might be concerned with environmental impacts, the effects of having standing water around, or whether groundwater withdrawals will affect neighboring wells.
Groundwater storage is destined to be a part of future water planning, and might be most effective when combined with new surface water supplies. “They are not necessarily exclusive of each other; Lester Snow has said surface storage ought to be the forebay for groundwater storage,\” said John Rossi with the Western Municipal Water District\”. (Pitzer, 2007).
7. Agricultural to Urban Water Transfers. California’s $33 billion agricultural industry remains by far the largest user of the state’s developed water supply. In recent years, water markets have developed where those with water rights, mainly farmers, transfer the water to other users willing to pay for it, generally urban water agencies. In anticipation of another dry year, many Southern California water agencies have already purchased options from some irrigation districts for water transfers.
Water is obtained for transfer in numerous ways: farmers may agree to fallow or idle land, shift to crops that consume less water, or to utilize groundwater pumping for irrigation.
However, water transfers are not without controversy. The farmers who purchase water from federal agencies purchase the water at rates which are heavily subsidized by the taxpayers, and at much lower rates than urban water agencies pay. There are those that do not feel farmers should be making a profit off of selling their taxpayer subsidized water.
The reduction can also impact the small community whose main economic focus is farming. When farmers do not plant, the local economy can suffer a loss of jobs, related economic activity, and tax revenues. Some California counties have passed ordinances restricting such transfers.
In 2003, the largest ever agricultural to urban water transfer deal, called the QSA, was signed by the Imperial Irrigation District, San Diego County Water Authority & Metropolitan Water District. The agreement basically calls for Imperial Valley farmers to make efficiency and conservation improvements, with the conserved water then transferred to San Diego. In consideration for this, SDCWA will pay for conservation and efficiency improvements, plus provide mitigation funds to help with the economic losses. As part of the agreement, the state has agreed to bear responsibility for the restoration of the Salton Sea.
In 2004, Metropolitan Water District entered into a 35-year agreement with the Palo Verde Irrigation District. For $3,170 per acre, Palo Verde farmers have agreed not to irrigate between 7 to 28% of their land at Metropolitan’s request. The water saved is then made available to urban Southern California. This provides Metropolitan Water District with 29,500 to 118,000 acre-feet per year.
Many smaller water transfer agreements have been executed by smaller water agencies as well. Water transfers are an emerging tool to help urban water agencies deal with shortages, and with the looming possibility of more water shortages in the future, such agreements are likely to become more commonplace.
8. Desalination. With over 21 desalination plants proposed for the California coast, many are looking to the ocean as the ultimate drought-proof water source for California. However, producing desalinated water on the scale needed to support a large population would take many more facilities than are currently being planned. According to the Pacific Institute, if the eight desalination plants for Southern California were to be built as proposed, they would only supply 7% of the region’s water needs.
Even with today’s technology, desalination remains an energy-intensive process. Energy costs comprise nearly half of the product cost, making it vulnerable to rising energy prices. In addition, the use of large amounts of electricity contributes to global warming and statewide energy shortages.
Desalination facilities have environmental impacts as well. There is concern about the ocean water intakes, which trap and kill small fish and microscopic organisms. The byproduct of the process is salty brine, which contains not only the concentrated salt, but also the dead aquatic life that passed through the screens and the concentrated contaminants from urban runoff. The brine also contains the chemicals used in the desalination process. This brine is released back into the ocean environment; potentially impacting aquatic life and the environment in ways that have not been fully studied.
Recently, the California Coastal Commission approved Poseidon Resources’ application to build a $300 million desalination plant in Carlsbad. The plant will be capable of producing 56,000 acre-feet per year. Poseidon Resources hopes to be delivering desalinated water by 2010.
With many more desalination plants in the planning process, the success of desalination in California remains to be seen. While recent advances in membrane technology, nanotechnology, and wave-powered desalination show great promise for the future, none of these technologies are ready for the market today.
9. Capture and retain stormwater and urban runoff. Municipal codes in the past have directed that developed areas direct stormwater and urban runoff into storm drains. These drains are designed to drain areas quickly and prevent flooding by directing the runoff to the nearest stream or river and eventually the ocean. Water directed into these drains picks up trash, pesticides, fertilizers, heavy metals, bacteria and construction waste on its way downstream to the ocean. Polluted urban runoff is now the singled largest pollution source in many cases, contaminating local waterways and closing beaches in its wake.
Studies have shown that in an undeveloped area, half of the rainfall will seep into aquifers with as little as 10 percent making its way to local waterways. However, as more impervious surface is added by development, about 55% of the water will end up in local waterways, while the amount that percolates into the aquifer to replenish it is reduced to as little as 5%.
Just one inch of rain falling over a paved area one acre in size produces 27,000 gallons of water. It is estimated that in Southern California, over 500,000 acre-feet per year of rain water and urban runoff flows out to the ocean. By finding ways to retain this water and allow it to infiltrate into local aquifers, a ‘new’ source of water can be developed and utilized.
“Low Impact Development\” methods work to infiltrate, filter and store storm water by creating bioretention facilities : areas of soil, grasses, shrubs and small trees where runoff from impervious surfaces is collected and allowed to undergo natural treatment. This also creates an opportunity to create wildlife habitats while preventing downstream pollution of waterways and beaches. Permeable pavement, cisterns, green roofs, and vegetated swales can also be used to reduce urban runoff.
Even though much of Southern California is intensely developed, with nearly all the storm drains and rivers now paved concrete conduits flowing straight to the ocean, innovative projects such as the Augustus Hawkins Nature Park and the Tujunga Wash Greenway project are redirecting storm water and urban runoff into created natural areas that recharge local aquifers and reduce the amount of water dumped into local waterways. They also serve as valuable wildlife habitat as well as creating park-like areas the local communities can enjoy.
The Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council said in its 2005 Report: “On average, over 500,000 acre-feet of runoff flow to the ocean from the Los Angeles County basin each year. If some portion of this water can be captured for reuse, the pressure on supplies in northern and central California may be moderated\”.
For more information:
- L.A. Basin Water Augmentation Study, the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council
- Rainwater as a Resource, a comprehensive report by TreePeople
WHAT ARE OUR WATER AGENCIES DOING
California has been working to improve its statewide management systems. Across the state, there are over 1,200 state, federal and local reservoirs, as well as a myriad of canals, treatment plants and levees. Many of these systems are interconnected, and the operation of one system can oftentimes depend on the smooth operation of another. Statewide management systems contribute to the better operation of these systems. Other statewide programs include water quality standards, monitoring programs, economic incentives, water pricing policies and efficiency programs such as appliance standards, labeling, and education.
However, due to the wide variety of geographic and hydrologic conditions throughout the state, as well as the myriad of institutions involved, a statewide approach to water management and planning is not effective for California. Recognizing this, the state of California has encouraged integrated regional management programs to meet the diverse needs and goals of each region. Integrated regional management is intended to help communities and regions incorporate sustainable actions into their water management efforts by fostering regional partnerships, developing and implementing regional water management plans, and diversifying a region’s water portfolio.
By encouraging the various stakeholders within a region to work together to solve regional issues, plans are developed that contain the best mix of strategies to solve each region’s particular problems, conditions, and goals. And by water suppliers forming partnerships with other entities, they can accomplish more projects and provide more benefits that no single agency would be able to do on their own.
“Given the projected population increases and strain that new development can impose on ecosystems, an integrated, regional approach throughout California is the best approach to protect the environment and manage urban growth. (California Water Plan 2005)
For more on Integrated Regional Management Programs:
- California Water Plan 2005, A Framework for Action (pdf download)
Since the last major drought in the early 1990s, Southern California water agencies have worked to build diverse water portfolios with the objective of providing high quality, reliable and affordable water and reducing the region’s reliance on imported water. Many additional surface storage and water transmission facilities have been built and a variety of regional programs have been implemented, such as groundwater remediation, watershed management, and conservation programs; many more are planned.
These projects are designed to maximize Southern California’s use of water, but will never be able to replace the need to import water into the region. “For [these programs] to work, though, we need a backbone of supply that we can rely upon, because if we don’t have the water in the first place, then there’s nothing to conserve or recycle,\” said Jeff Kightlinger of the Metropolitan Water District. “The estimates are that we’re going to add another seven million people to Southern California by 2030, and our plan is to accommodate all that growth through greater water efficiency, not by increasing water imports\” (California Planning Report, 10/2007)
WHAT ARE OUR LEGISLATORS DOING
In 2007, Governor Schwarzenegger made water infrastructure his top priority, campaigning hard along with Republican State Senator Cogdill for a comprehensive $9 billion water infrastructure package that included funding for three new dams, also known as surface storage. Democrats and State Senator Perata responded by proposing a $5 billion plan that included funding for water conservation and regional programs, but did not include money for dams.
Dams remained a sticking point and pretty much a partisan issue with Republicans vowing not to vote for any water infrastructure package that did not include money for more dams, and Democrats vowing not to vote for any package that did. Responding to the stalemate, a coalition of business and agricultural interests filed to promote their own ballot initiative, which was very similar to Schwarzenegger’s plan, but withdrew their plans when a compromise seemed likely.
But that compromise was not to come, and in spite of a special session called to address water and health care issues, the legislative session closed with the stalemate firmly in place as another year floated by without any further progress.
In 2008, despite the dry spring and the effects and impacts of drought being felt statewide, water issues were not given a priority. In July, Governor Schwarzenegger again introduced a $9.3 billion comprehensive water package that included funding for water storage, improved conveyance, Delta restoration, and increased water conservation programs. Response was tepid, at best.
In August, U. S. Senator Feinstein expressed her dismay at the lack of progress and urged state legislative leaders to put aside their differences and pass an initiative in time to make the November ballot. “We have to deal with an infrastructure that doesn’t meet Californian’s needs,\” she said. “I have never seen (California) in this condition, with the dryness, the fires, the deteriorating snowpack. The reservoirs are low. It’s (showing) every overt danger signal that our water infrastructure is inadequate.
The sticking point this year is the allocation of funds for dams and other projects, with Democrats wanting an ‘annual allocation’ (meaning every year, the Legislature must approve the funds), and Republicans wanting only regulatory oversight on spending once the project is approved.
However, with a substantial budget deficit looming over the Capitol and the inability to pass a budget by the end of August, the deadline for getting a ballot initiative on the November ballot passed. Even though many legislators see the need for public investment in meeting California’s water needs, legislators seem unable and/or unwilling to compromise, and so hope for putting a package in front of the voters dried up as no further progress was made.
Metropolitan Water District’s Jeff Kightlinger says that the partisan debate has derailed the ability to solve any Delta issues. “It’s been unfortunate because, for some peculiar reason, surface storage has become Republican and groundwater storage has become Democrat. They are all just tools : they’re good tools when you mix them both \”¦ They complement each other\” (California Planning Report, 10/2007).He continues, “ The real question ought to be, what makes the most fiscal sense What delivers the most bang for the buck, and what’s the timing for building certain projects That is an analytical standpoint, not a partisan one. (California Planning Report, 10/2007).
WHAT CAN YOU DO
Easy. Conserve water. Fix your leaks, replace old toilets and appliances, and consider drought tolerant landscaping. Truth is, there is no magic silver bullet that’s going to allow us to continue using our water as we please, growing grass in the desert where it clearly doesn’t belong. Our water supply is not going to increase; we have tapped it out as much as we can. There is the very real possibility there is going to be less water in the future. More population means less per capita resources, so whether we build more dams or not, conservation has to be part of our future.
California faces challenges in providing a reliable water supply for current and future residents, but we are not without options. Finding the right combination that provides some real solutions while simultaneously satisfying all stakeholders will be the biggest challenge. The path we are on now is not sustainable, and trade-offs will be likely, perhaps even inevitable. However, to do nothing is to sit back and watch California’s future literally dry up.
The Department of the Interior’s study, Water 2025, called water the “lifeblood\” of the American West. The report recognizes the importance of the economic, social and environmental health of the West is important to the entire nation. The report concluded that “if we do not act soon, water supply-related crises will affect economies and resources of national and international importance.
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FOR MORE INFORMATION, CHECK OUT THE OTHER SECTIONS ON THE AQUAFORNIA INFORMATION DESK:
- Learn about how and where Southern California’s water comes from: Southern California and Water – An Introduction.
- Find out more about the Delta and the critical issues are facing this tiny but vital region: Why the Delta is Important
- Saving water is something you can do today. Get an extensive list of things you can do to conserve water: Aquafornia’s Water Conservation Tips
- Check out the wide variety of resources and materials on California’s water issues at the Water Education Foundation website.
- For links to reports and other websites: Other Resources.
- Also, look down the right hand column for the categorized archive of news stories and an extensive blogroll of water-related blogs and websites.