California has the largest water storage and transportation system in the world. With 1,200 miles of canals and nearly 50 reservoirs, the system captures enough water to irrigate about four million acres and provide water to 23 million people. Without this extensive management system California’s limited water resources could not supply as much of the demand as they do today. However, there are limits to the water supply; California has been diverting large quantities of water to supply the ever growing demand of cities and farmers and the demand from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service "biological opinion" imposing water reductions to protect an endangered species. Californian are facing the failure their water- network, due to age, changes in population and demand, unsustainable use of the groundwater, unsustainable diversions of water, the current drought and the potentially far-reaching effects of climate change.
As a potential solution to this crisis, the farmers in the Central Valley and the Governor are supporting the expansion of the dam and reservoir system, though there appears to be no way that an expansion of dams will correct the water use imbalance and certainly will not improve the state’s budget problems. In the Central Valley many farmers are convinced that new, man-made lakes will help offset dry spells and ease the Fish and Wildlife Service ordered reductions to the water pumped through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The California Farm Bureau and others support three big projects they believe would not inflict the environmental harm of past dams and provide relief to the drought problems. The projects are: The expansion of Los Vaqueros Reservoir in Contra Costa County, the Temperance Flat dam on the San Joaquin River above Friant Dam, and Sites Reservoir, which would flood the Antelope Valley in Colusa County.
The Sites project alone is estimated to cost $3.8 billion and proposes that a dam create an off-stream reservoir that does not obstruct the Sacramento River. Through canals connected to the Sacramento River, water would be pumped into the lake where it would be used to supplement flows into the delta or allow deeper, colder reservoirs to hold back water for critical salmon runs. There are major unanswered questions of the impact of diversion on groundwater recharge and how much additional supply of water will result from this expenditure. Dams do not create water they just control flow and have a long history of supplying less water than promised and costing more than projected. Why would there be such support for dam construction? Reducing water use through conservation efficiencies and recycling will increase available water at significantly less cost than constructing new storage dams and reservoirs according to Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation.
The Pacific Institute in Oakland points out Farmers in the Central Valley have been the poster children for water diversions, but, official data shows that the major Central Valley districts will use at least 75% of their average water use by depleting stored groundwater reserves, participating in water transfers, etc. By combining resources the Westland’s Water District will irrigate with at least 86% of their “normal” water supply. The San Joaquin Valley wildlife refuges will get 75% of its promised water, less than many of the agricultural districts once the groundwater use is taken into account. Some farmers get less than others in dry years because of their junior water rights which have allocated water in California and the western states in an archaic and out dated fashion since the 19th century.
According to the Pacific Institute, the unemployment problem in the Central Valley is a result of a global and national recession. Unemployment increased more in non-farm industries than in farm workers. In Fresno County, unemployment today is substantially lower than it was just five and ten years ago and during that period farm employment grew; non-farm employment shrunk. In some of the hardest hit areas, unemployment is and has always been much higher. As has appeared in several newspapers, unemployment rates in Mendota are above 30%. What is not often published is that nine years ago, unemployment in Mendota was 30%. Six years ago, it was 36%. The problem in Mendota isn't just the current drought. Employment or rather unemployment has been a long term problem of the Central Valley. Is it possible that the dam’s projects are thinly disguised employment projects?
It appears unlikely that the dam projects are the answer to any of the problems facing California. However, it is time to spend money on determining what the sustainable water supply in California actually is and in readdressing the archaic water right and allocation that have developed in California over time. California is on an unsustainable path they need to plot a new one. This is a dangerous thing to suggest in the west where water rights have been fiercely guarded and fought over since the 19th century, but the method and logic of the allocation of water in California will determine its future viability.