“This spot can be given preference in everything, in soil, water and trees, for the purpose of becoming, in time, a very large plenteous mission.” – Father Juan Crespí, Spanish expedition diarist, describing the Los Angeles River in 1769.
According to political debate and the popular press, the purpose of adding surface water storage reservoirs to California’s existing system is to provide water for urban growth and agricultural crops. But that viewpoint touches only the surface of a more complex policy and operations issue spelled out in the CALFED Record of Decision (ROD): the need to expand storage capacity to increase the existing system’s flexibility, improve water quality and provide water for fish, as well as meet the needs of a growing population.
When you drink the water, remember the spring. – Chinese proverb
Water is everywhere. Viewed from outer space, the Earth radiates a blue glow from the oceans that dominate its surface. Atop the sea and land, huge clouds of water vapor swirl around the globe, propelling the weather system that sustains life. Along the way, water, which an ancient sage called “the noblest of elements,” transforms from vapor to liquid and to solid form as it falls from the atmosphere to the surface, trickles below ground and ultimately returns skyward.
There’s danger lurking underground. The threat cannot be seen, heard or felt immediately, but there it resides – in shallow pockets of groundwater and deep, cold subterranean aquifers situated hundreds of feet below the surface. The danger manifests itself through the most vital human activity next to breathing, the consumption of water. Experts know there is no such thing as pure water. Microscopic bits of a host of elements that surround us are present in the water we drink. They exist at levels that are harmless, and in fact some of the constituents found in tap water are beneficial to human health.
Like a bad hangover, Californians awoke to unsettling news on New Year’s Day 2003: the state had failed to resolve its ongoing Colorado River dilemma. Despite the haze about why the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA) fell through, the implications were clear: California would suffer a sizable cut in the amount of water it had become reliant on over the years, threatening the political and economic stability of the entire state. But indications are that the last nail is not in the coffin yet.
“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
For time immemorial, the seas of the Earth have been seen as an enticing but unreachable source of fresh water. Separating the salt from ocean water was always a cost prohibitive process, primarily reserved to wealthy Middle Eastern nations and small-scale operations such as ocean-bound vessels and small islands. Otherwise, through the evolution of modern civilization, man has depended upon lakes, rivers and groundwater – a supply that comprises less than 3 percent of the planet’s total water.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of one of the most significant environmental laws in American history, the Clean Water Act (CWA). The law that emerged from the consensus and compromise that characterizes the legislative process has had remarkable success, reversing years of neglect and outright abuse of the nation’s waters.
The Bay-Delta comprises just 1 percent of California’s total area, yet is at the heart of the state’s water supply system and controversies. The CALFED Bay-Delta Program was formed in an effort to replace conflict and controversy with a common vision and a plan to “fix” the Delta. For the past two years, CALFED agencies and stakeholders have begun to initiate many studies and implement many projects and programs called for in the 2000 Record of Decision and Framework Agreement.
Two events that transformed the West, population growth and the dominance of agriculture, are inextricable parts of the battles fought over its most vital resource, water. Throughout the 19th century, as settlers sought to tame the rugged landscape, momentum built behind the notion of a comprehensive, federally financed waterworks plan that would provide the agrarian society envisioned by Thomas Jefferson. The Reclamation Act of 1902, which could arguably be described as a progression of the credo, Manifest Destiny, transformed the West into an economic powerhouse while putting an exclamation mark to the tide of American migration.
Water is the true wealth in a dry land – Wallace Stegner
One hundred years ago, President Theodore Roosevelt signed legislation that changed the course of American history and permanently altered the landscape of the western United States. The West of today retains some of the vestiges of the land that brought the explorers, entrepreneurs and dreamers hundreds of years ago. Despite the surge in population, vast tracts of wilderness remain – forests thick with evergreen trees and seemingly unending open spaces where human inhabitants are few and far between.
The situation is true anywhere: when resources are stretched, tensions rise. In the arid Southwestern United States, this resource is water and tensions over it have been ever present since the westward migration in the 18th Century. Nowhere in this region has the competition for water been fiercer than in the Colorado River Basin. Whether it is more water for agriculture, more water for cities, more water for American Indian tribes or more water for the environment – there is a continuous quest by parties to obtain additional supplies of this “liquid gold” from the Colorado River. Sometimes the avenue chosen to acquire this desert wealth is the court system, as exemplified by the landmark Arizona v. California dispute that stretched for over 30 years.
Americans living in the West awoke to a strange sight as they switched on their television sets the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Poised to hear the latest news or traffic reports, viewers were instead presented with the surreal image of New York’s World Trade Center towers engulfed in thick black smoke. Many immediately thought the buildings had been involved in some kind of horrific accident with an aircraft that had gone astray. But when the cameras suddenly switched to the blazing wreckage at the Pentagon, and later, in western Pennsylvania, the grim reality of the morning became frightfully clear: the United States was under attack.
Water from the Colorado River transformed the sagebrush and desert sands of the Imperial, Coachella and Palo Verde valleys into lush, green agricultural fields. The growing season is year-round, the water plentiful and the local economies are based almost entirely on farming. As the waters of the Colorado River allowed the deserts to bloom, they allowed southern California cities like Los Angeles and San Diego to boom. Suburbs, jobs and people followed, and the population within the six counties served by Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) grew from 2.8 million in 1930 to more than 17 million today.
Those on the California water insider track know all too well the fine line the state walks with regard to maintaining its water supply. Hydrologic conditions put California at the mercy of the weather and some are predicting this year could be the start of a dry cycle not just for the state, but the Southwest as a whole. Combine that with a regional dry spell in the Northwest and California’s power woes, and a potential recipe for disaster begins to solidify.
Traditionally treated as two separate resources, surface water and groundwater are increasingly linked in California as water leaders search for a way to close the gap between water demand and water supply. Although some water districts have coordinated use of surface water and groundwater for years, conjunctive use has become the catchphrase when it comes to developing additional water supply for the 21st century.
The arrival of each storm brings more than rain and snow to thirsty California. From the coastal redwoods to the streets of Los Angeles, water flowing from hillsides and paved surfaces carries with it a host of pollutants that befoul tributaries, streams and rivers. The toll on the environment is measured in closed beaches, reduced fish populations and, in some cases, a lower quality of available water for human use. The sources of pollution are sometimes easy to control with existing technology. But in other cases, the ubiquitous nature of contaminants has left regulators in a quandary over how to solve the problem.
In California, everyone needs water. Farms, cities, industry and the environment all rely on this essential element for life. But sometimes there is not enough water to go around. Geography limits supply. Drought limits supply. Environmental restrictions limit supply. Growth limits supply. Wasteful or unreasonable use limits supply. Court decisions can limit supply.
Drinking water is the ultimate recycled resource. It is recycled over years, centuries and millenniums. The water we use today is the same supply with which civilization began. The water that once coursed down the Ganges River or splashed into Julius Caesar’s bathing pool may end up running from the tap in your home.
When one thinks of Colorado River water allocations, conflict comes first to mind. But compromise as much as conflict shaped division of this river’s vital water resources, with conflict often serving as the catalyst for a compromise.
Priority: the right to precedence over others in obtaining, buying, or doing something – Webster’s New World College Dictionary
First in time, first in right has long served as one guiding principle of water law in California. Simply put, this priority system generally holds that the first person to claim water and use it has a right superior to subsequent claims. In times of shortage, it is the most junior of water rights holders who must cut back use first.