In early June, environmentalists and Delta water agencies sued the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the Kern County Water Agency (KCWA) over the validity of the transfer of the Kern Water Bank, a huge underground reservoir that supplies water to farms and cities locally and outside the area. The suit, which culminates a decade-long controversy involving multiple issues of state and local jurisdictional authority, has put the spotlight on groundwater banking – an important but controversial water management practice in many areas of California.
Every five years the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) releases an updated version of the California Water Plan – a comprehensive compilation of water data that, as its name implies, is the overarching guidance document for water policy in the nation’s most populous state.
“Let me state, clearly and finally, the Interior Department is fully and completely committed to the policy that no water which is needed in the Sacramento Valley will be sent out of it. There is no intent on the part of the Bureau of Reclamation ever to divert from the Sacramento Valley a single acre-foot of water which might be used in the valley now or later.” – J.A. Krug, Secretary of the Interior, Oct. 12, 1948, speech at Oroville, CA
It would be a vast understatement to say the package of water bills approved by the California Legislature and signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last November was anything but a significant achievement. During a time of fierce partisan battles and the state’s long-standing political gridlock with virtually all water policy, pundits at the beginning of 2009 would have given little chance to lawmakers being able to reach compromise on water legislation.
Diverting water for farms and cities, generating hydro-electric power, supplying an ever-growing urban population and protecting endangered species have all shaped the development and management of the Colorado River we know today. How to sustain the system and build a resilient future for what is known as the “lifeline of the Southwest” is the task facing the region and the river’s multiple users.
It’s no secret that providing water in a state with the size and climate of California costs money. The gamut of water-related infrastructure – from reservoirs like Lake Oroville to the pumps and pipes that deliver water to homes, businesses and farms – incurs initial and ongoing expenses. Throw in a new spate of possible mega-projects, such as those designed to rescue the ailing Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and the dollar amount grows exponentially to billion-dollar amounts that rival the entire gross national product of a small country.
It seems not a matter of if but when seawater desalination will fulfill the promise of providing parts of California with a reliable, drought-proof source of water. With a continuing drought and uncertain water deliveries, the state is in the grip of a full-on water crisis, and there are many people who see desalination as a way to provide some relief to areas struggling to maintain an adequate water supply.
Travel most anywhere in California and there is a river, creek or stream nearby. Some are highly noticeable and are an integral part of the community. Others are more obscure, with intermittent flows or enclosed by boxed concrete flood channels that conceal their true appearance. No matter the location, each area shares some common themes: cooperation and conflict regarding water allocations, greater water conservation, an awareness of environmental stewardship, and plans that ensure long-term sustainability.
The critical condition of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has prompted the question of how it can continue to serve as a source of water for 25 million people while remaining a viable ecosystem, agricultural community and growing residential center. Developing a “dual conveyance” system of continuing to use Delta waterways to convey water to the export pumps but also building a new pipeline or canal to move some water supplies around the Delta is an issue of great scrutiny.
California’s native salmon and trout are in trouble. Driven down by more than a century of adverse impacts caused by development coupled with a changing climate, salmon and trout populations have dwindled to a fraction of their historic numbers. The crash is evident in many areas, none more so than the collapse of the West Coast salmon fishery in 2008. With the fish plummeting to record low numbers, federal officials for the first time closed all commercial and sport fishing off the coast of California and most of Oregon.
Just before summer officially began in June, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger publicly proclaimed what many people already knew: California is in a drought. Consecutive years of sub par rainfall coupled with a 2008 snowpack that literally dried up and blew away before it could turn into runoff forced the issuance of the state’s first drought declaration since 1991.
One of the many intriguing questions in Western water issues is the fate of the Colorado River Delta. The subject of extensive consultation at the local, state, national and international levels, the Delta is a beguiling place that is either at the cusp of rejuvenation or teetering toward oblivion, depending on who’s consulted. Left forgotten for decades as Colorado River water was sent to farms and growing cities, the Delta today shows glimmers of its legacy – a promise of restoration that has spurred people in the United States and Mexico to seek a renewed vision of its future.
When a drought occurs as it has this year, the response is couched in the three Rs of the waste hierarchy: reduce, reuse and recycle.
The reduction part is well-known. State and local officials are urging people to use less water in everything they do, from landscape irrigation to shorter showers. Spurred by California’s difficulties, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on June 4 declared a statewide drought. On July 10, the governor and Sen. Dianne Feinstein announced their support of the Safe, Clean, Reliable Drinking Water Supply Act of 2008 – a $9.3 billion bond proposal that would allocate $250 million for water recycling projects.
They are located in urban areas and in some of the most rural parts of the state, but they have at least one thing in common: they provide water service to a very small group of people. In a state where water is managed and delivered by an organization as large as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, most small water systems exist in obscurity – financed by shoestring budgets and operated by personnel who wear many hats.
Consider the array of problems facing the Sacramento- San Joaquin Delta for too long and the effect can be nearly overwhelming. Permanently altered more than a century ago, the estuary – arguably the only one of its kind – is an enigma to those outside its realm, a region embroiled in difficulties that resist simple, ready-made solutions.
Perhaps no other issue has rocketed to prominence in such a short time as climate change. A decade ago, discussion about greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the connection to warming temperatures was but a fraction of the attention now given to the issue. From the United Nations to local communities, people are talking about climate change – its characteristics and what steps need to be taken to mitigate and adapt to the anticipated impacts.
Eighty-five years ago, representatives of the seven Colorado River Basin states joined then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover at The Bishop’s Lodge in Santa Fe, N.M., to negotiate an agreement to divide the Colorado River. The Colorado River Compact signed on Nov. 24, 1922, was a historic milestone. It was the first time more than three states negotiated an apportionment for the waters of a stream. It divided the watershed into the Upper and the Lower basins and allocated the water between them. It laid the groundwork for construction of Hoover Dam, whose construction changed the course of the Southwest.
Groundwater, out of sight and out of mind to most people, is taking on an increased role in California’s water future.
Often overlooked and misunderstood, groundwater’s profile is being elevated as various scenarios combine to cloud the water supply outlook. A dry 2006-2007 water year (downtown Los Angeles received a record low amount of rain), crisis conditions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the mounting evidence of climate change have invigorated efforts to further utilize aquifers as a reliable source of water supply.
A test injection well drilled 4,150 feet deep will send processed, salt-rich wastewater into the underground of California’s Central Valley. “The idea is to inject it down into a zone where it will be contained and stay in perpetuity,” said David Albright of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The federal agency reviewed the injection well plans by Hilmar Cheese, whose Merced County manufacturing site 100 miles east of San Jose now trucks 70,000 to 80,000 gallons of wastewater concentrate from the plant to the San Francisco Bay area daily for eventual discharge to the Pacific Ocean.
“In the West, when you touch water, you touch everything.” – Rep. Wayne Aspinall, D-Colorado, chair, House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, 1959-1973
Rapid population growth and chronic droughts could augur dramatic changes for communities along the lower Colorado River. In Arizona, California and Nevada, a robust economy is spurring communities to find enough water to sustain the steady pace of growth. Established cities such as Las Vegas and Phoenix continue their expansion but there is also activity in smaller, rural areas on Arizona’s northwest fringe where developers envision hundreds of thousands of new homes in the coming decades.