Thursday, September 3, 2009

California Water Crisis Deepens

One of the most important elements of the ecosystem is potable water. Without water there can be no life. As populations grow water is needed for drinking, bathing, to support irrigated agriculture, industry and maintain the ecology of the earth. Worldwide resources of accessible potable water are decreasing, due in a large part to overuse or pollution. The balance between demand (consumption) and supply (resource) is becoming unstable in many locations which we think we have nothing in common with. More than 30 countries suffer from serious chronic water shortage, but now that has become the fate of California. As I sit in California writing this I am afraid that time’s up for California.

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. In many cases, water in this system is sold to communities by the federal government. The price for this water is not based on its value or scarcity, but on price controls and rationing. Limited resources that are price controlled and rationed are allocated by the state and federal governments according to political goals. Without this extensive management system California’s limited water resources could not supply as much of the demand. 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.

Last December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued what is known as a "biological opinion" imposing water reductions on the San Joaquin Valley and surrounding area to safeguard the federally protected delta smelt which has been endangered by shrinkage of its habitat. To a large extent those environmental problems have been caused by water diversions, invasive species and loss of habitat to development. We seem to have reached the breaking point for the state despite the fact that California reservoirs have received 80% of their normal amount of water and precipitation in the northern Sierras has been 95% of its yearly average this year. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife are restricting water diversions from the rivers to maintaining the flow of the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta’s into the ocean and preserve the habitat of the smelt.

As a result, tens of billions of gallons of water from mountains east and north of Sacramento have been channeled away from farmers and into the ocean, hundreds of thousands of acres of arable land is left fallow or scorched. Remembering that practically all water in California is channeled to or from somewhere, this decision was made under the endangered species act and through that act Congress has chosen to ignore farmers, without consideration of the overall economic and human consequences of this decision. The full balance of life in California was not considered. Yes, the delta smelt is a protected species, but the people and farms should also be protected.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has said that he "doesn't have the authority to turn on the pumps" that would supply the farmers with water, and that is true. However, the Governor failed to request intervention from the Department of Interior in the decision of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to protect the endangered delta smelt. Under a provision added to the Endangered Species Act in 1978, a panel of seven cabinet officials is able to intercede in economic emergencies, such as the one now parching California farmers. Despite a petition, Mr. Schwarzenegger has refused that remedy. The authority of the panel of seven should be expanded to ameliorate more than economic emergencies. Water supply thought variable from year to year is finite. In order to maintain the delta smelt and its habitat, California needs to reduce the number of acres that are irrigated and the population. There is only so much water.

In June, the White House denied the Governor Schwarzenegger's request to designate California a federal disaster area as a result of the drought conditions, which U.S. Drought Monitor currently lists as a "severe drought" in 43% of the state. However, the Governor still failed to call for intervention from the Department of the Interior, but Senator Dianne Feinstein has pledged to press the issue with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. The price of water is very dear, the results of price controls and rationing has prevented the kinds of changes and advances in technology and farming techniques to alleviate the problem before the current emergency. Vast water work projects will not materially increase the total water available to the state.

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