Monday, March 1, 2010

Running on Empty II

It was announced on Friday by the California Department of Water Resources that customers who buy water from the state water project will get 15 percent of the water they have requested; that is up from an estimate in November of just five percent. In addition, also on Friday the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said agricultural customers in the Central Valley would receive 30 percent of the water requested; up from the 10 percent they got last year. These actions have resulted in Senator Diane Feinstein placing her proposed amendment to the fast track jobs bill on hold.

The heavy rains and snow in the Sierras this winter allowed the Shasta Lake reservoir to reach 72% capacity before the snow melt for the first time in three years. Oroville reservoir is still at 38% but is expected to improve with the snow melt in the spring. This is certainly a respite, but in no way begins to address the water problems of the state. The truth is that California has been using more water than is renewably available to support the population, businesses and agriculture of the state for years. It looks as if the current three year drought has come to an end. Only in drought years is the true stress on the water supply system obvious. Precipitation varies widely from year to year in California where the system of reservoirs, canals, by passes and diversion was developed over decades to address the variability of muti-year droughts and flooding and provide more reliable water supplies year-round. The original intent to smooth the variations in annual precipitation was corrupted to divert water to the most powerful. There simply is not enough water. According to the USGS in non drought years California continues to mine its groundwater, but that problem remains predominately invisible because the groundwater basins are not monitored.

The rains have brought a small reprieve from the current crisis, but do not solve the problem of not enough water supplies. California local water agencies have invested in water recycling, conservation, groundwater storage and other strategies to stretch supplies, but the demand exceeds supply as evidenced by the groundwater usage. Year round agriculture has been made possible by the ample supply of water used for irrigation. The limit to California’s agricultural is water availability. Water available is a combination of surface water diversions and groundwater pumping. In 2006 before the beginning of the current drought, California used almost 31 billion gallons of water a day for irrigation. This is 351 gallons of water a day for each agricultural dollar earned each year and represents 80% of the water used in the state each year. While a portion of irrigated water is recharged to groundwater and surface water, some is lost and the real problem is that there is inadequate water flow in the state to support this level of irrigation. Period. California does not have enough water available annually to keep up this usage level and the largest user of water in the state is agriculture. In order to continue to supply water to the rest of the state, California needs to reduce the agricultural water usage in the state. In 2007 the USGS estimated the California the surface water agricultural deliveries of 13,000 cubic feet per second while groundwater irrigation deliveries were at 5,900 cubic feet per second.

The agricultural demand for water is too large for the state to carry and cannot continue. California can wait until the groundwater resources of the state have been depleted. The wealth of the giant agricultural ranches in California is based on the cheap water for irrigation and this agribusiness will fight to keep their wealth and the majority of the annual water flow of the state. The time has arrived for California to create a real water budget for the future. Pricing water at its true cost could push farmers towards more efficient use of the water. Unfortunately, the state has demonstrated that it is incapable of living within it means.

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