Monday, September 1, 2014

Whose Water ?

On Saturday, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation began releasing 25,000 acre feet of water from Trinity Lake in Northern California part of the federally-owned Central Valley Project (CVP). The water will be released for two weeks from August 30th until September 14th. The water is being released to protect the Chinook salmon in the Klamath River from an anticipated fish kill like the one experienced in 2002, another severe drought year. The Central Valley farmers have had their water allocation cut to zero this year because of the drought. The Westlands Water District, the largest supplier of irrigation water in the U.S., and its water supply company, the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority filed a petition to have the U.S. District Judge in Fresno, CA, Lawrence J. O’Neill halt the release to preserve the water.

Last Wednesday Judge O’Neill denied their request to stop the water releases ordered by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. In his decision the Judge noted that the potential harm to the water district and water authority from the potential loss of 25,000 acre feet of Flow Augmentation Releases (FAR) water from the potential water supply for 2015 did not outweigh the potentially catastrophic damage that seemed certain to occur to this year's salmon runs in the absence of the 2014 FAR. In his decision, Judge O'Neill cited a report from the tribal fisheries consultant that the extra water was needed to prevent an outbreak of disease from a parasite known as ICH, short for Ichthyophthirius multifiliis that attacks fish crowded together in drought conditions. The parasite was the prime killer of salmon in the 2002 drought.

The Bureau of Reclamation ordered the emergency releases after native Tribes that depend on the salmon for subsistence, ceremonial and commercial fisheries pressed the bureau to reverse an earlier decision to only release more water after a significant numbers of fish began to die. The Bureau of Reclamation has not been consistent with their standards for environmental Flow Augmentation Releases and has yet to develop a clear standard. There is the impression that the Bureau of Reclamation has not been consistent or entirely fair in their determinations. The FAR would likely mean less water stored for next year if the drought continues. The Hoopa Valley Tribe has for decades led the fight for ecologically-sufficient water releases from Central Valley Project (CVP) dams located on the Trinity River. Farmers are enraged by the release when their pleas for more water have gone unheeded. This is just the latest chapter in California’s long history of battles (often carried out in court and back rooms) over water.

Today the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) “owns” for the California state-owned State Water Project (SWP) just as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation “owns” the federally-owned Central Valley Project (CVP) water. Together they form the largest water storage and transportation system in the world with 1,200 miles of canals and nearly 50 reservoirs. About 15 years ago the California Public Utilities Commission described the scope of the size of the system as capturing enough water to irrigate about four million acres and provide water to 23 million people. However, since then the population has grown and agriculture has expanded. Today there are reported to be more reported to be 9 million acres of prime irrigated land (though irrigating efficiency has improved greatly) and there are 38 million people and therein lies the problem.

The amount of precipitation that falls on California has not changed significantly over the last two hundred or so years. The average annual rain and snow fall produces approximately 200 million acre –feet of water (326,000 gallons per acre foot). In addition, the approximately 450 groundwater aquifers are thought to store about 800 million acre feet of water only a fraction of which is readily usable as a water supply. However, it is a mistake to think of California in terms of averages and regular cycles of precipitation. Since 1960 almost 40% of years have been drought years. The evidence from modern records and tree rings indicate alternating cycles of severe drought and heavy precipitation. The tree-ring studies indicate one 61 year drought from 1760-1820. Right now California is experiencing the most severe drought in the past century. This may be the result of a changing climate, the beginning of a long period of drought or just extreme weather. No one really knows, but the presiding belief is that California is facing a dryer future.

There has never been enough rain in California for there to be agriculture without irrigation. Even the native Californian Indian populations in the Owens Valley and the lower Colorado River used dams and earthen canals to divert water to irrigate fields, though in the Colorado River basin they relied on periodic floods rather than canals. Irrigated agriculture is believed to have evolved in California about a thousand years ago when the climate became drier. In the time of the native Californians the king salmon once could be found in abundance in the 650 miles of uninterrupted California waterways. In the age before massive dams and aqueducts, California’s rivers flowed uninterrupted into valleys, marshes, bays and the ocean. Two hundred years ago the central valley had year round streams, lakes and marshlands that expanded and contracted with the season and drought cycle.

Today, between the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project almost 80% of California’s developed water supply is used for agriculture. Of the total water supply, agriculture uses more than 52% of the total water supply in the state in a dry year, but 29 %: of the total water supply in a wet year. Agriculture cannot compete economically with the urban/industrial sector for water. Agriculture uses a large amount of water per unit of production (grapes, almonds, oranges, tomatoes, etc.) Food is cheap in the United States in part because of the invisible subsidy of cheap water for agriculture. Farmers pay much lower water rates for the same water as cities.

furrow irrigation with water
However, what California does about their water crisis will impact the rest of the United States. The economy of California based on control of the water and the allocation is based on regulatory decisions. The water supply has failed to match the demand for a product with no real price. According to University of California at Davis the drought will cost the state $2.2 billion lost from to the agricultural economy of the state. While a large number it is but a small fraction of the almost $2 trillion California State economy.
furrow irrigated fields without water
The demand for and use of water must be reduced or the supply increased. There are limited choices: Reduce the acreage of cultivated land by buying out farmers and their water rights and allocations. With water restrictions on cities, it is not really appropriate for California farmers to essentially export subsidized water contained in almonds, apples, alfalfa, etc. to Asia. The agricultural economy  in California needs to shrink, according to work done at U.C. Davis increasing irrigation efficiency alone future water needs of the urban, commercial/industrial and environmental sectors.  If California cannot find the political will to reduce the acreage under cultivation, they could reduce the population of the state, fewer people use less water. Ration water to all citizens and businesses. Reduce the flow allocations to maintain the environment. Or find the resources to build desalination plants (the one in Carlsbad that is to be completed in 2016 is costing $1 billion). None of these are easy solutions, but neither is going from crisis to crisis.

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