In California, the water problem is a perfect storm where environmental, infrastructure, social, and political factors make California’s water system fairly complex and now, very much in trouble.
So, where does the problem begin? More than 80 percent of the available water supply is already being used by farms, homes, businesses, and energy producers. It’s clear that even without drought, the state would be in trouble. “A complicated web of dams, aqueducts, and pipelines moves water across the state, drawing from 157 million acres of land spanning eight states. More than 400 local, state, and federal agencies manage water for the state’s food, energy, and municipalities, with each drawing from different sources. Farmers, in particular, have also tapped groundwater to compensate for surface water deficits.”
The bottom line is, due to the tight supply, any shift in the weather such as a drought for example, would automatically render the water supply inadequate. In addition, California is only one of seven states—as well as Mexico—that depends on the Colorado River Basin for water supplies. How much water California will receive from the Colorado River Basin depends upon a number of treaties, legislative acts and formal as well as informal agreements. The end result of these legalities will determine how much each of the seven states including California will receive of this water.
As the New York Times writes, “an estimated 38.8 million people live in California today, more than double the 15.7 million people who lived here in 1960, and the state’s labor force exploded to 18.9 million in 2013 from 6.4 million people in 1960.” So what we are looking at is more than double the population in 55 years and triple the labor force in the same amount of time.
Lifestyle is also a consideration in California, a place where the standard of living has always been valued from the days of the Gold Rush and great migration. Places like Palm Springs, in the middle of the desert, have a daily per capita water use of 201 gallons — more than double the state average. In this area you’ll notice fountains and the lush greenery. In contrast, in the heart of the agricultural Central Valley, unemployment is high and many people are left to travel 60 to 100 miles in search of employment.
One problem could be development. However, 80 percent of all surface water consumed is set aside for the agricultural sector. And agriculture is very important to this state. Millions of pounds of crops such as citrus fruits, tomatoes and almonds — all of which require a great deal of water — remain important to the California economy. Excess pumping by farmers, eager to save their crops and farms have caused a drop in the water tables of sometimes up to 50 feet or more causing the land surface to sink as much as a foot a year in spots and causing roads to buckle and bridges to crack. Shallow wells have run dry, depriving several poor communities of water.
Once aquifers are depleted, the state will have no backup supplies to surface water. Desalination could make up some of the difference, but can be expensive and is energy-intensive. Millions of people rely on water pumped from aquifers as their primary water source. This is known as groundwater, while the stuff that flows in the reservoirs, rivers and streams are called “ surface water”. The problem comes from the drought which depletes the supply of “surface” water making the pumping of “groundwater” necessary for crops and such. Then….. after pumping at a frenetic pace, the groundwater is depleted quickly because it does not have enough time to naturally re-fill itself.
So how does this become a political issue? Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina said Monday that California’s water crisis is the result of “liberal environmentalists” who are “willing to sacrifice other people’s lives and livelihoods at the altar of their ideology.”
“With different policies over the last 20 years, all of this could be avoided,” Fiorina said on Glenn Beck’s radio program. “Despite the fact that California has suffered from droughts for millennia, liberal environmentalists have prevented the building of a single new reservoir or a single new water conveyance system over decades during a period in which California’s population has doubled.”
Can this be true? Well, yes, because although at least one community in California recorded 8 inches of rain this past season, while 85 percent of water that falls in Southern California is wasted. This is one example of an argument between the environmentalists and the farmers:
> During that first year of drought, quarrels over water were mostly confined to farmers and environmentalists. Confident that stored surface water in mountain reservoirs would remain plentiful, the environmentalists felt that the state continue to divert reservoir water away from agricultural usage—at roughly the same rate as during pre-drought years—in order to replenish rivers. In practical terms, however, the diversions meant that substantial amounts of stored snowmelt were released from mountain dams and allowed to flow freely to the Pacific Ocean. Farmers called that wasted water; environmentalists called it a return to a “natural, preindustrial California.”
> San Francisco Bay environmentalists believed that vastly increased freshwater inflows would help oxygenate the San Francisco Delta, thereby enabling the survival of the Delta smelt, a three-inch baitfish, while ensuring that salmon could be reintroduced into the San Joaquin River. So why is this little fish symbolic of the problem?
As The Spectator writes, “In 2007, U.S. district judge Oliver Wanger ruled that the pumping that annually sent about 6 million acre-feet of water to Kern County and beyond was threatening the delta smelt’s existence by disrupting water flows for the fall spawning season. Citing the protections accorded by the Endangered Species Act, he ordered pumping for agricultural uses curtailed by one-third until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could evaluate the situation. After studying the issue for more than a year, the USFWS determined last December that pumping by the SWP and CVP “was likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the delta smelt and adversely modify its critical habitat.” The agency issued plans to keep Judge Wanger’s restrictions in place. According to Tulare County supervisor Allen Ishida, “California was forced to let 660,000 acre-feet of its freshwater supplies run out to the ocean. That was enough water to supply the entire Silicon Valley for two years.”
Farmers lost in the early battles, while the population of California is losing today. The environmentalists, however, won, especially if they don’t live in California. This is because the water is reintroduced to its natural habitat and the little smelt can survive on. And this is just a small portion of the problem.
Ms. Fiorina was correct in her assessment.