Dammed Crazy: What Do California's Water Woes Teach Us?

California is schizophrenic when it comes to water.


In the past week, we Californians have been bombarded with news about our troubled water system, good and bad.

The most encouraging news comes from the northern part of the state, where a deal has finally been struck to remove four very destructive dams on the Klamath. The river once supported the state’s second biggest salmon run. This will be the world’s biggest dam-removal project.

Just days before, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on the brewing water war over the Governor’s plans to spend $3.7 billion to build new dams. California already has more than 1,000 dams, many of which – like those on the Klamath – are at the heart of our current problems with dying deltas, sinking land, costly levee repairs, and devastated fisheries.

Water conservation expert Peter Gleick says the proposed new dams will bring only a marginal improvement in water reliability, and aren’t worth the economic and environmental costs. His Pacific Institute has produced plans for saving large amounts of water in agriculture and cities, which would make the dams unnecessary.

Meanwhile, in an effort to resurrect California's second largest river system, the Feds will soon begin releasing more water out of the Friant Dam into the parched San Joaquin River and its dying delta. The project is an experiment in the new science of “environmental flows” from dams, and the goal here is to try to restore another major fishery that dried up 60 years ago. At the same time, in hearings described by the San Francisco Chronicle as resembling the water wars of the 1920s, Senator Dianne Feinstein called for a National Academy of Science study of federal water rulings aimed at saving the fisheries of the San Joaquin, and possibly suspending the Endangered Species Act during the current drought. 

It almost makes our national health care debate look reasoned. 

The world has long looked to California's massively engineered water system as "advanced" and worth emulating. "Where would you be without all your dams?" I was asked on my first trip to South Africa, which then was building a huge dam system to transfer water from its poor, landlocked neighbor of Lesotho. It's been a familiar refrain in my years of travel to various African nations for International Rivers, where we team up with people working to save their rivers and protect their communities from big dams.

It’s stating the obvious, but Africa isn't California. Its people are more dispersed, making huge, centralized systems for water and energy impractical. The overall poverty that afflicts the place makes a “command and control” water system based on costly big dams and canals out of reach.

Even if poor nations in Africa or elsewhere had the money to build massive water-engineering systems like California’s, the cost of pouring the concrete is just the beginning, as our tattered system shows. Embroiled in its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, California is now facing a $200 million bill for its share of the Klamath dam removal, and $4.5 billion to restore unsafe levees and flood-control systems  – not to mention the billions to build the new dams the governor wants. Losses to California’s commercial and recreational salmon fishery averaged $61 million a year in recent years; an unknown number of fishermen have permanently lost their livelihoods.

Lurking in a scary closet is the nightmare scenario: the unfathomable costs of a major dam failure in the event of a major earthquake of climate-induced “super flood.” With a huge portion of the state’s residents living in floodplains (many of which have sunk below sea level thanks to all those dams and levees, which hold back land-replenishing sediments), such a disaster could cost in the billions if not trillions.

California has better lessons to share with the world – lessons that are especially apt for droughty parts of the world, like Africa. Instead of building big new hydropower dams that squander our rivers, we’ve embraced energy efficiency in a big way, and have recently adopted the most ambitious efficiency plan in nation (we already rank as one of the world’s most efficient energy economies). And as the Klamath story shows, we’re soon to be a world leader in dam decommissioning as well.

We’ve also made big strides in implementing water conservation on farms and in cities, but have much more to do here. As many have pointed out, current plans for solving the water-supply crisis rely too much on outdated ideas. 

Poorer nations looking to the Golden State for ideas in dealing with vexing water problems should leapfrog over our tarnished, high-cost model of destroyed rivers, crumbling infrastructure, and contentious solutions to the mess. Instead, they should take the best of the California model: growing efficiency in water and energy use, removing the most destructive dams, and trying to bring back species from the brink. Developing countries will be better prepared for a changing climate if they look to the California Dream rather than the California Nightmare in planning their water-management futures.

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