While the reins of political power may periodically shift, the challenges surrounding water in the West remain, impervious to the circumstances that put Democrats or Republicans in the forefront of decision making.
So it stands in the wake of political upheaval in Washington and a newly inaugurated state Legislature in California that the matter of dealing with the most vital resource demands attention. As with nearly all things taken up by state and federal lawmakers, water management is marked by ideological struggles as well as collaboration and compromise.
The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is faced with many major challenges: land subsidence, deteriorating levees and flood risks, agricultural sustainability, increasing urbanization, water supply reliability, ecosystem health, sea level rise, climate change, and water quality. Confronted with the question of how to sustain the multiple values/uses of the Delta, federal, state and local officials, Delta residents, environmentalists, water agencies and others are working to craft a vision of the Delta 100 years from today.
For most people in the United States, clean, safe drinking water is a given – a part of daily life that is assumed to be a constant, readily accessible commodity. Underpinning that fact are the vast, mostly unheralded efforts of the many people throughout the country who work everyday to take the raw source water from the environment and turn it into the safe drinking water that makes life possible.
The inimitable Yogi Berra once proclaimed, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” While the Hall of Fame baseball player was not referring to the weather, his words are no less prophetic when it comes to the discussion of a changing climate and its potential impacts on water resources in the West.
Chances are that deep within the ground beneath you as you read this is a vast network of infrastructure that is busy providing the necessary services that enable life to proceed at the pace it does in the 21st century. Electricity zips through cables to power lights and computers while other conduits move infinite amounts of information that light up computer screens and phone lines.
The Delta has been in the spotlight recently, with a cascade of tumultuous events that have spotlighted the importance and fragility of a unique resource that is mostly out of sight and out of mind to most Californians. Issues of sustainability, governance, water quality, ecosystem health and levee stability have reached the forefront in recent months, punctuated by congressional inquiries and even discussion of revisiting the proposed peripheral canal that was trumped at the polls more than 20 years ago.
There may be no other substance in nature as vexing as selenium. The naturally occurring trace element gained notoriety more than 20 years ago as it wreaked havoc among birds at the Kesterson Reservoir in California’s Central Valley. The discovery of dead and deformed birds sparked a widespread investigation that revealed the pervasiveness of selenium throughout much of the West; woven into the soil and rock of the landscape.
More than 80 years have passed since representatives of the seven Colorado River Basin states crafted a historic compact dividing the river’s waters. Following five of the driest years on record since the 1930s Dust Bowl, present-day negotiators recently reached a sweeping new proposed agreement on how to manage the river to reduce the potential for future shortages. The seven-state framework forwarded to Interior Secretary Gale Norton Feb. 3 includes a proposal for coordinated operation of Lake Mead and Lake Powell and tiered triggers in Lake Mead’s elevation tied to Lower Basin shortage declarations. It also includes a long list of new programs and projects designed to augment the river’s flow and help meet long-term water supplies for growing cities.
Is the devastating flooding that occurred in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast an ominous warning to California? That’s the question policymakers are facing as they consider how to best protect lives, property and the integrity of the state’s water supply from the forces of raging floodwaters.
The vital importance of water in the West is a given. It is the basis upon which everything moves forward – the burgeoning subdivisions, the seemingly limitless acreage of fruits and vegetables and the remaining stretches of wilderness that support fish, fowl and wildlife. In addition to its life-sustaining properties, water, more specifically the force of moving water, plays a significant part of the nation’s power system by providing an inexpensive, reliable and renewable generation source.
With interstate discussions of critical Colorado River issues seemingly headed for stalemate, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton stepped in May 2 to defuse, or at least defer, a potentially divisive debate over water releases from Lake Powell. In a letter to governors of the seven Colorado River Basin states, Norton preserved the status quo of river operations for five months, giving states and stakeholders a chance to move back from the edge before positions had hardened on two key issues: (1) shortage guidelines for the Lower Basin and (2) Upper Basin/ Lower Basin reservoir operations, particularly at Lake Powell. But Norton served notice that she wants discussions on those two issues to continue, possibly outside of the annual operation plan (AOP) consultation process, which at least one observer described as unwieldy.
Despite a winter during which much of California was drenched with plentiful rain and snow, there is no escaping the need for the continued wise use of water, no matter what the change of seasons brings.
The issues surrounding the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento- San Joaquin River Delta are as complex and varied as the ecology of the estuary. Start with the fact that water is a valuable resource in California that more often than not is in short supply for the many competing demands. Combine that with a growing urban sector and the need to maintain an agricultural industry that is a significant part of the state’s economic engine. Finally, recognize the environmental impacts from the development of California, including the diversion of water, and the obligations to preserve species diversity and water quality.
They are remnants of another time. A time when the Southwest’s climate was much cooler and probably wetter, and large lakes covered vast tracts of land in Nevada, Utah, southeastern Oregon and California’s Eastern Sierra. Beginning some 14,000 years ago, the region’s climate grew warmer and drier, shrinking these lakes’ shorelines and leaving behind an arid landscape dotted with isolated bodies of water including Pyramid Lake, Mono Lake and the Great Salt Lake.
The San Joaquin River provides the water that enables farms up and down the San Joaquin Valley’s eastern side to produce a substantial agricultural bounty. For more than 50 years, the majority of the river has been halted at Friant Dam and diverted north and south for use by farms and homes throughout parts of five counties, in the process making that part of the valley the most productive agricultural region in the world.
Some time in the next month or two, slight, temporal changes in the upper atmosphere will augur the beginning of the rainy portion of California’s Mediterranean climate. The high pressure and sunny days should gradually give way to rain and snow, replenishing the vast reservoir that is the state’s precious water supply.
Most people take for granted the quality of their drinking water and for good reason. Coinciding with America’s rapid urbanization last century was the development of an extensive infrastructure for the storage, treatment and delivery of water for generations to come. The improvement in the quality of water provided by water agencies has been so phenomenal that some of the best tasting water in the world comes not from a plastic bottle, but from the tap.
The Gold Rush was a seminal moment in California’s history. The discovery of a few flakes of “color” in John Sutter’s millrace at Coloma set off a migration that transformed the nascent state’s frontier from a sleepy, remote outpost into a magnet that drew fortune-seekers from around the globe. Over the course of decades, intense efforts were focused on washing and prying gold from the hills of the Sierra Nevada – along the way, hardly a stone was left unturned in the pursuit of the hidden riches. Mercury was an essential commodity of gold mining, as it greatly increased the recovery efficiency of primitive mining technology. Mercury, which by fortuitous coincidence was available in plentiful quantity from deposits in the nearby Coast Range, acts as a magnet of sorts, drawing gold to it in a ready-made, easily recoverable amalgam from rock, gravel or soil. Once gathered, miners heated the amalgam to separate the two metals.
Legal and physical ties link the seven states, two countries and many stakeholder groups that share the Colorado River, known as “the lifeline of the Southwest.” Within this vast 250,000 square-mile basin, change has become the watchword of the day as the Basin grows more urbanized. The increasing demands upon a river already over-allocated, suffering from four years of severe drought, have increased interest in finding new ways to manage the river and share the resource.
The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta has been described as the “switching yard” of California ’s water delivery system, moving billions of gallons that supply the drinking water and irrigation for millions of people. When stakeholders signed the 1994 Bay-Delta Accord, it was a dual-purpose deal designed to preserve, protect and restore the ecosystem and increase water supply reliability.