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Are Policy Makers Exacerbating Drought Scares? That's What It Looks Like in California

Like much of the West, the state has serious water issues, but Mother Nature is only partly to blame.
 
 
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Take shorter showers, wash only full loads of laundry, sweep instead of hose your driveway.

These are the messages that Californians are getting as part of the state's new "Save Our Water" campaign. Just weeks ago, 19 million Southern Californians were told they would be seeing mandatory restrictions, and at the same time, thousands of farmworkers marched to protest water cuts in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley in the central part of the state.

All this seems to fit with a February proclamation from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that California is facing a drought emergency that director of the Department of Water Resources Lester Snow compared at one point this winter to the worst drought in modern history of the state.

But not everyone is convinced about how dire the situation is and why. In a controversial story in the Stockton Record, columnist Michael Fitzgerald wrote, "California's 'drought' is overblown. The alarmists calling it a historic disaster are trying to pull a fast one."

Responding in kind, an op-ed from fisherman Dan Bacher began, "Lester Snow, the director of the state Department of Water Resources, tried to 'snow' the public by making false claims of a 'drought' scenario in California in an announcement on April 2."

So what gives? Are these guys fringe extremists, or is there any truth to their words?

According to the Department of Water Resources, the monthly readings for April showed that reservoirs were at 80 percent of their historic average. Statewide precipitation was also around 80 percent of average, and total runoff for the year is likely to be around 70 percent.

Critics, like Bacher and Fitzgerald contend that this doesn't hardly constitute an emergency. But DWR explains that the problem is compounded by this being the third dry year in a row for California.

"The last two years, we were riding around 70 percent of normal," for precipitation said Elissa Lynn of DWR.

Sounds bad, but not the makings for an emergency proclamation that are usually reserved for times of disaster -- like earthquakes, right? All this gets a little fuzzy because, according David Carle's seminal book, Introduction to Water in California, "No simple criteria define a drought."

But to give some context to the latest numbers, "The driest recorded water year spanned the winter of 1976 to 1977; statewide runoff was only 21 percent of average," wrote Carle. The most recent drought that Californians reference was from 1987 to 1992 when runoff was between 47 and 56 percent of average in different parts of the state.

So in light of these numbers, is there really reason to be concerned?

The answer is yes. But not for the exact reasons Snow or Schwarzenegger are announcing in their press releases. Regardless of how much precipitation the state got this year, the water situation in California is bad and will likely get worse.

But, Mother Nature is only one player. The real architects of the state -- the governor, various elected officials and big water users like wholesalers and agribusiness have a political agenda that many worry is being fast-tracked under the cover of a scary "drought emergency."

Just to be clear, Californians should be concerned about their water, but the amount of rain and snow received by California only tells part of the story of why the water situation should be ringing alarm bells.

How the water is managed and who is controlling its allocation is another factor.

But first, it helps to understand the complexity of the state's water system.

Where Has All the Water Gone?

California has been called one of the most hydrologically altered landmasses on the planet.

"California has remade its landscape on an unprecedented scale," reported the Water Education Foundation on its blog, Aquafornia. "There are reservoirs where there once was desert, desert where there once was cropland, and cropland where there once was a swampy marsh.

"Some rivers have been dried up; some rivers flow through mountains into other rivers' beds; and some rivers even flow backwards at times."

To achieve these feats, 1,200 major dams were built, two of the world's largest irrigation projects and some of the biggest reservoirs, WEF reports. There are also thousands of miles of canals and aqueducts.

One of the main reasons for the massive replumbing of California's hydrology is that 75 percent of the state's precipitation falls north of Sacramento, but the major population centers and agricultural areas are south of the capital.

Some of Southern California's water travels over 1,400 miles from the Colorado River, but much of it comes from Northern California's Sierra Nevada snowpack, and this runoff passes through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (also call the Bay-Delta), the largest estuary in the West.

California's water system is often likened to an hourglass, with the Bay-Delta being the skinny part in the middle where the water must pass through to the south (with the aid of pumping stations). This distribution happens through the State Water Project controlled by DWR, as well as the federally run Central Valley Project.

This might all work out just fine, but the delta is a ticking time bomb.

"Since 1850, 95 percent of the estuary's wetlands and tidal marshes have been leveed and filled, with resulting loss of fish and wildlife habitat," reported the WEF. Farmland, marine shipping lanes, communities, railroads, and power transmission lines have filled in the space where marshland used to thrive. Additionally, huge pumps now suck 5.5 million acre-feet of water out of the delta each year to send south.

As a result, several fish in the delta, which environmentalists call key indicator species, are struggling for survival -- the delta smelt is listed as endangered, and the longfin smelt as threatened. Salmon populations are also in dire shape, and the state's salmon fishery is closed for the second year in a row.

The precarious future of these fish, and the delta itself, has resulted in restrictions on pumps that were sending water south to farming areas on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and all the way down to urban areas like Los Angeles via a large water wholesaler called the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

It's Not Just Mother Nature, It's Us, Too

Keeping the growing cities and suburbs of Southern California hydrated requires complicated juggling. In recent years, it has gotten even more challenging. Restrictions on water being pumped out of the delta has coincided with other limitations on water that was coming from the Colorado River and the Owens Valley.

So, securing a stable supply of delta water is seen as key for Southern California's water managers. The recent dry spell is therefore a big cause of concern for those in Southern California, but things are likely to get worse in the decades ahead.

Climate scientists predict that changes in precipitation and temperature may make snowpack in the Sierra 40 percent smaller by 2050, and Rocky Mountain runoff into the Colorado River, which helps quench six other thirsty states besides, may suffer a similar fate.

Robert Glennon, author of several books on water, including the recent, Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What We Can Do About It wrote:

We love to blame Mother Nature for every natural catastrophe, but a close look at recent droughts, in California this year and Georgia last year, shows that these droughts are not more severe than previous ones.

Why, then, is there such a crisis? Because Californians this year and Georgians last year have outgrown their states' water supplies. The margin for weathering a drought has shrunk. The rain and the drought are about the same. It's us who've changed.

Glennon goes on to write about California's unsustainable population growth ("California's population grows by one person per minute.") which, indeed is contributing to stress on water supplies. But that's not the whole story, either.

"I think it is as much true that we are mismanaging water as it that the dry conditions have created this emergency," said Mindy McIntyre, the water program manager for the Planning & Conservation League, which lobbies in Sacramento on behalf of the environment.

The problem, she contends, is water rights. "It was recently revealed that the state has over-allocated water rights by eight times the average water that we get in the state in a given year and four times the amount we've gotten in our wettest year on record, and that doesn't include necessary flows for the environment, because the environment doesn't hold water rights, and it doesn't include groundwater or illegal diverters, which there are quite a few," she said.

Essentially, the state has promised eight times more water water than it can actually give to water agencies or irrigation districts because there simply isn't enough in the rivers and reservoirs. "This delusion has been abetted by a series of governors from Southern California, misguided regulators and politicians caving to constituents," wrote Michael Fitzgerald in his Stockton Record story.

This means that farmers who are planning on water for crops, may not get it, urban customers may be forced to cut back on how much water they use, or natural systems will be short-changed to provide for human interests instead.

But this isn't a recent development, and those who are getting shortchanged shouldn't be surprised either, says Bill Jennings, the executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. It all has to do with the pecking order of water rights, where some folks have seniority over others.

Pumping restrictions on the delta have mostly affected the Westlands Water District, the largest water district on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, and the massive water wholesaler MWD, who are both junior water rights holders at the bottom of the water rights hierarchy.

"So people are talking about getting a reduced percentage of what they never could have gotten in the first place," said Jennings. They basically have rights to what is often referred to as "paper water" -- water that doesn't exist in reality but has been contractually allocated.

But it turns out that those at the bottom of the pecking order have organized some serious political clout and financial backing. And those folks aren't just talking, they're marching.

A few weeks ago, thousands from San Joaquin Valley farming communities organized rallies and a four-day march to protest news that they weren't going to be getting any water from the federal Central Valley Project and only 30 percent from the State Water Project.

The region is the largest agricultural producer in the country and has been hard hit by tough economic times and the drought. The California Farm Bureau reported that "income loss to the Central Valley could be as high as $2.2 billion with 80,000 jobs lost." Unemployment in the area ranges from a staggering 25 to 45 percent.

While many environmentalists and delta farmers and fishermen, angered by diversions of water out of the delta, have come down hard on Westlands agriculture, there is still sympathy for the people who live there, and many of the hardest hit are of course the poorest -- in this area, that often means the migrant farmworkers and immigrant communities.

Not all agriculture is the same, explains McIntyre. "You have small family farms, you have sustainable systems, and then you have large corporate agriculture that survives off of subsidies and cheap water and what amounts to a subsidy in that we ignore the pollution they put into aquifers and waterways which cost all Californians quite a bit of money."

And Westlands has often been put in that last category.

"The Westland Water District membership is made up mostly of absentee-owner corporate farms," contends Pietro Parravano, Zeke Grader and Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations -- a group often at odds with farmers over water. "But they do wield a mighty checkbook, and if they don't have public sentiment going for them, they do have political friends in Washington," like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, they wrote.

"The Westlands problem is compounded by the fact that irrigating the lands where it is located results in a toxic wastewater mix. The irrigation water leeches selenium from these soils and, combined with the pesticides and fertilizers used by the growers, results in toxic runoff," they contended.

The environmental impacts from farming in the area threaten not just the ecological health of the area, but could also threaten human health McIntyre warns.

"The question is, are we going to continue to use precious water to irrigate degraded lands that shouldn't have experienced a plow in the first place and, through irrigation, release toxic waste into the environment?" asks Jennings.

His answer to this question is no. Jennings believes the water pressures in California will come down to choosing between agriculture in the delta or agriculture around Westlands, and he's for the delta, which he calls, "a half a million acres of some of the most productive farmland in the country."

"They built their lives around it and mortgaged their futures based on paper water," said Jennings. "I have sympathy for them, like I have sympathy for victims of mortgage crisis. But how do we get out of this? California's water has been managed like a giant Ponzi scheme. It puts Bernie Madoff to shame. How long can we continue to ignore the disparity between promises and real water?"

The Makings of a Water Grab?

It's likely the delta's water issues can't continue to limp on much longer, but many fear that the governor's proposed solution, which he got a chance to plug at the recent farmer rallies, may be even worse.

He also gave a tour to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who seemed concerned enough to steer federal money to the state, but hasn't yet been swayed to the governor's plan.

CNBC reported:

Schwarzenegger, for his part, reiterated his call to build more dams and urged state lawmakers to place a water bond on next year's ballot. He also favors building a canal to pipe river water around the delta, an idea rejected by voters in 1982.

Salazar declined to endorse building new dams or a canal. He did rule out suspending federal environmental laws, as some members of California's Republican congressional delegation have suggested in an attempt to funnel more water to farmers."

The governor's canal plans trigger concern for many in Northern California, and his drought-emergency proclamation is only contributing to the fear. Jennings flat out states, "The drought is being used as a straw man to divert attention and to justify the replumbing of the delta for the vast peripheral canal."

And others are worried, too.

"The governor has powers under the emergency declaration to invoke certain things -- this particular drought proclamation went further than others have in terms of emergency proclamations in the state," explained McIntyre. "For instance, he is relaxing water-quality laws, clean-water-act laws and the California Environmental Quality Act, under his drought proclamation.

"Because we don't know what will signal the end of this emergency, and what kinds of projects might be eligible to receive these kind of exemptions, for instance there is some concern that the exemption could be used to build a desalination facility, which will take years to build and will not help this particular drought.

"The things that would help now, like water conservation and to some extent, one-year water transfers, don't require CEQA, so some of us in the enviro community are concerned and are curious as to why the administration has chosen to exempt these particular laws when they aren't needed to address the drought."

So, is the governor politically motivated in his drought-emergency declaration? Is he trying to squeeze in more water transfers from north to south and help get his $9 billion pet project of new dams and the extremely controversial peripheral canal into the works?

There are definitely some who think so.

Water researcher and writer Rachel Olivieri wrote:

Cloaked as a restoration project, should the central delta be bypassed diverting the Sacramento directly to canals and off-stream storage reservoirs, the central valley and southland water boosters will be well positioned for an ultimate water grab to fuel economic determinism and contrived population growth projections down to the last drop.

Environmentalists like McIntyre are concerned not just with the canal idea, but with other water transfers, including the state's "drought water bank," which asks Northern California farmers to sell their water to Southern California.

"We are already seeing projects being exempted," said McIntyre. "For instance, involving the drought water bank, which is a group of large-scale water transfers from Northern California to the San Joaquin Valley in the south. DWR has filed for an exemption under the California Environmental Quality Act and has asked for a relaxation of water-quality standards in the delta in order to move that water."

A lawsuit has followed as a result. The Butte Environmental Council, along with the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and the California Water Impact Network contend:

The California Department of Water Resources and Gov. Schwarzenegger have prepared to launch a water-transfer program that will devastate the northern Sacramento Valley and continue the destruction of the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta.

But just how devastating depends on how much water actually gets transferred. If Northern California farmers decide to use more groundwater and sell their river water to San Joaquin farmers, there could be ecological consequences. There are already parts of the San Joaquin Valley where the land has dropped 30 feet because the groundwater underneath was pulled out.

But friends in high places may come in handy for southern farmers. Feinstein seems to be behind the effort, according to a letter of hers published in the Central Valley Business Times after a meeting "by the senator to bring together the major stakeholders -- farmers, ranchers and state and federal water and wildlife officials -- to discuss possible solutions for the drought, including the need to move water south of the delta."

Is it Good for California?

So, is all the talk from the governor and his administration about a new canal and a drought water bank really their earnest answer to solving the state's water problems? If so, it seems they may only end up creating more problems.

Robert Glennon writes, "In California, Gov. Schwarzenegger hopes water will come from new dams. Environmentalists point out, however, that new dams don't add water to the system. Why, they ask, build or enlarge new dams when the existing ones don't fill up?

"In America, we traditionally solve water shortages though engineering fixes: dams, canals, diversions and wells. Seldom do we turn inward and ask whether conservation, reuse or reallocation would provide easier, cheaper, more environmentally friendly solutions to current shortages."

The governor's big infrastructure plans have made many in California's north nervous. The Water Education Foundation reported:

Northern Californians today are worried that if the peripheral canal were built, delta water quality would stagnate without fresh water flows to dilute the farm runoff and municipal discharges into the estuary. This would damage delta fisheries and threaten the fresh water supply for communities and farmers who draw their water directly from the delta.

They are also worried that if the peripheral canal were built and the state no longer dependent upon the delta to channel water to the pumps, the delta would be abandoned, and the fragile levees will crumble as a result of neglect and inadequate funding.

Many leading researchers, like the Pacific Institute's Peter Gleick, and residents alike contend that the age of big infrastructure is over.

So, either the governor has bad science advisers, or he's catering to political interests, which leaves Californians in a bit of a pickle.

Right now, they're all getting an earful about conserving water (which is a good thing). And depending on where in the state they live they may also see restrictions on their usage or rate increases (which is also likely a good thing).

The governor is calling for a conservation plan that aims to cut per capita water use by 20 percent by 2020, which is a step in the right direction, although the biggest water consumer is not urban and suburban dwellers, but agriculture, which uses 80 percent of the state's developed water, according to DWR.

The state's massive plumbing problems and the over-allocation of water are serious issues that need to be addressed by legislators and regulators, but a reminder that we are pushing up against the limits of nature and working conservation practices into the routines of Californians every day -- and not just when there are officially sanctioned water shortages -- would do the state well.

And so would a shift in conversation about the solutions to California's problems. Instead of talking about how to conserve more and use water more efficiently, most legislators seem focused on figuring out how much money can be spent on new dams and canals.

"As we face these challenges, our leaders tend to rely on the same type of solutions that are causing the problems -- so we aren't going to get a different result," said McIntyre.

The Pacific Institute has studied how the state can get all the water it needs without massive construction projects.

"The good news is that California can meet the needs of farmers, businesses and a growing population well into the future without massive, and destructive, infrastructure projects -- if we take a smarter, more efficient approach to water management," said Gleick.

Areas like Orange County are setting a leading example of how to recycle water and thereby cut down on imported water -- a lesson that could go a long way in the state, especially in Southern California. Each day they treat 70 million gallons of waste water that is pumped back into the aquifer.

In reality, California's water pressures could help push it toward being a leader in the kind of water-management practices that will be essential in the 21st century. But that will require rethinking water distribution and the balance of power associated with it.

"The real solution," wrote Rachel Olivieri, "reducing and relocating vulnerable population centers, reducing consumer demand, developing local water sustainability and restoring watersheds is simply unthinkable -- and the unthinkable is the only solution."

Tara Lohan is a managing editor at AlterNet.