California has been delta tough situation
September 16, 2007 5:19 PM   Subscribe

"California has a decision to make. We either brace ourselves for long-term [water] cuts that threaten our economy and our very way of way of life, or we invest in a solution to fix the [San Francisco Bay] Delta and expand our water toolbox so we can meet future challenges head-on.”

Long Beach, California has become the first California city to ration water after a court decision last month (SFChron, SacBee) which may require Delta water pumping to be cut by one-third starting in December -- "the single largest court-ordered redirection of water in state history" -- to protect a tiny threatened fish called the delta smelt [resizes window]. (The court decision is not online. An earlier related decision is here.)

But the situation is more complex than "drinking water versus fish." Extensive previous efforts have not succeeded in addressing the problems of the Delta, where weak levies were already barely protecting the water supply for 23 million people, a key infrastructure pipeline [pdf], and more and more people's homes [pdf]. (More technical documents here.) Will current efforts be more successful? The many possible solutions each carry their own benefits and controversies. The decision to limit the pumps will certainly draw attention to the issues and give them new urgency. The situation is so complicated, interrelated, and ever-shifting that one artist's Delta primer portrays it as a giant game of chance [pdf].
posted by salvia (41 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I should note: I don't pretend to understand all this, I just turned up a bunch of links as I tried to figure it out.

Oh, and sorry if the SacBee articles require login. I managed to get past that login screen by changing the URL, but I don't know if that'll work for everyone.
posted by salvia at 5:22 PM on September 16, 2007

This explains why my two weeks ago new landlord announced -- literally right after we signed the lease -- that he was planning on ripping out our (modest) front lawn to have it tiled over. "We have to stop watering the lawn so we can save the smelt," he said mysteriously.

Of course, we don't live anywhere near Long Beach, but I guess he's just getting into the spirit of the thing.
posted by scody at 5:27 PM on September 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

god, I really can't proofread on the weekends. Sorry for mangled first sentence.
posted by scody at 5:27 PM on September 16, 2007

Good thing I never drink enough water, I guess.
posted by miss lynnster at 5:37 PM on September 16, 2007

I remember from my History of California course that California is, at it's heart, a "Hydraulic Civilization", like ancient Egypt, China or even Arrakis. California would never be able to support her 35 - 40 million population without access to cheap, easily available sources of drinking water. It just wouldn't be possible.

I miss California, but I don't miss the sense of impending doom that I always felt when I thought about our water troubles. It'll be interesting to see how this all works out.
posted by Avenger at 5:38 PM on September 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Salvia, there's a good article about this in Science magazine (here's the summary link), Science 27 July 2007: Vol. 317. no. 5837, pp. 442 - 445. The site is subscriber only, but your local library might carry the mag.
posted by Zinger at 5:40 PM on September 16, 2007

Clearly the solution is giant atom-powered desalination plants.
posted by delmoi at 5:52 PM on September 16, 2007

Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.
posted by dhammond at 5:58 PM on September 16, 2007 [5 favorites]

If you read the late Marc Reisner's A Dangerous Place: California's Unsettling Fate, it makes you aware that anyone who lives almost anywhere in the state is essentially taking a huge roll of the dice, whether it's the risk of earthquakes in the most highly-settled areas, the fire danger in the rural and suburban areas, or the water crisis mentioned in the links in the FPP.

I live at the edge of the Delta, so I'm probably rolling the dice more than most.
posted by blucevalo at 6:01 PM on September 16, 2007

The Long Beach water board has prohibited residents from watering their grass during the day, and limited it to only three times a week.

When they get serious about this they'll outlaw watering lawns all together.
posted by Mitheral at 6:06 PM on September 16, 2007

Or do what they did while I was growing up during the droughts of the 80's: spray paint their lawns green.

I love this ridiculous state.
posted by DaShiv at 6:27 PM on September 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

Why not use xeriscaping instead of tiling over the lawn? A nice cactii-and-gravel zen garden-style meditation area, instead of tile...
posted by five fresh fish at 6:41 PM on September 16, 2007

"California has a decision to make. We either brace ourselves for long-term [water] cuts that threaten our economy and our very way of way of life..."

Meanwhile the governors of the Great Lakes states start to circle like vultures hoping to lure water intensive industries, like chip fabrication, away from California.
posted by MikeMc at 6:54 PM on September 16, 2007

Where have I heard of this before?
posted by furtive at 6:56 PM on September 16, 2007

Salvia, this is a nice post. Thanks.
posted by maxwelton at 6:59 PM on September 16, 2007

Wouldn't Detroit make a good site for Intel fab plants? I think there's a lake nearby.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:05 PM on September 16, 2007

I'm a water owner in California, and I'm really getting a kick out of these replies....

Not kidding, and I worked for quite a few years in ag, so the way water's distributed in California is moderately well known to me in a few counties at a farm-by-farm level.

Some facts about California agriculture: rice is grown in California. Not a little, a whole bunch(pdf). Growing rice alone takes up as much water as does urban usage in California. It is foolish to grow rice - a commodity, broad acreage crop that requires a lot of water - in a desert but that is pretty much what the center of California is. Compare this with the Pajaro Valley basin. This small basin produces high-value fruits and vegetables like broccoli, artichokes, and strawberries, using ground water. If you want to gain the most bang for the acre-foot of water you grow high-value crops, not rice.

As you'll have seen from the links, urban water use of all kinds is dwarfed by agricultural use; yet in my county and most counties within California, there's an effort to cut 20% of urban use now.

In California, what generally happens to urban water consumption during a drought is: 1) water companies ask for an X% reduction in use; 2) the consumers actually deliver an X+delta X% reduction; 3) the water companies increase their rates to compensate for lower water consumption. Evidently this time people are not having that, because in Santa Cruz county the requested 20% reduction has delivered an actual 3% decrease.

In short: there are, ahem, anomalies in the way California allocates water.

As for me? Yup, I really own water: riparian rights plus sub-surface rights. This March the artesian flow from my agricultural well failed for the first time in ten years. There is still a lot of water, but I planned in March for this: it's the first year I have grown no corn. I've never used the riparian flow to which I'm entitled, and that's good for the couple hundred people downstream who use it illegally.

It doesn't take a whole lot of imagination to appreciate what water management ought to be, nor does it take a whole lot of it to understand that water management in California is wildly unbalanced.
posted by jet_silver at 7:57 PM on September 16, 2007 [7 favorites]

Clearly the solution is giant atom-powered desalination plants.

I hope you're being serious, because, that is the clear solution. That, and sensible water policy.
posted by Kwantsar at 8:25 PM on September 16, 2007

I got my bachelor's degree in the mid 90's in hydrogeology because I knew it would be a huge issue in the future. I was ahead of my time and ended up working in I.T. but I still like to follow the issues around water resources.

Nice post Salvia.
posted by djeo at 8:28 PM on September 16, 2007

jet_silver: I went looking for documentation on how Cali allocates it's water and found this little document. "IN California, water use and supplies are controlled and managed under an intricate system of common law principles, constitutional provisions, State and federal statutes, court decisions, and contracts or agreements. All of these components constitute the in stitutional framework for the protection of public interests and their balance with private claims in Califrnia’s water allocation and management. "

Is how it starts.

I would like to attempt a translation "Everyone will always be suing everyone else over this the moment there's a contraction in supply"

I'm picturing Lord Humongus waving a sheaf of tattered and filthy documents at a besieged village with a well, screaming out passages from water use regulations, as the future of California somehow.
posted by Grimgrin at 8:29 PM on September 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

If global warming predictions play out as predicted* within 50 to 100 years the game is over. The whole southwest and west will dry up so much that it will make this issue seem frivolous.

*The proverbial cannery in the coal mine for global warming is the North and South pole where feedback effects amplify things - to get an idea if the predictions will come true in the lower 48, look to the poles today and see where things are trending. Doesn't look good.
posted by stbalbach at 8:33 PM on September 16, 2007

I was going to come in here and say something like what jet_silver said, only less well. Water politics are fascinating.
posted by cali at 8:34 PM on September 16, 2007

I find it fascinating that population control never comes up in issues like this. There are to many people walking around. That is the root problem. Everything that is done, besides convincing people to quit having so many babies is just a band-aid. Better to do that voluntarily now, than forcefully like China.
posted by Mr_Zero at 8:44 PM on September 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Hey, California?

Wait, strike that. Mostly.

Hey, transplants to California?

Your lush green lawns and shiny, freshly washed cars suck, a lot. Your hosed-off sidewalks, your pools, your dishwashers and your jacuzzis? Your motorhomes? They all suck.

I know you had a luscious green lawn back in Illinois or Indiana or whatever flat, earthquake-free turnpike-hamstrung place you came from. Yeah, water just falls from the sky there.

Well, this is California, and it's mostly desert. You don't need a bright green lawn, here.

You want a bright green lawn and big shade trees and live in a sprawling, car-friendly surburban megapolis? Move to Portland.
posted by loquacious at 9:12 PM on September 16, 2007

The pressure is on SoCal to find "new" sources of water, but a drought isn't a crisis. Lots of states have water problems – even the rain soaked Pacific Northwest has some water shortages (save the salmon!).

But SoCal has been planning for water shortages for a long, long time. The water industry has spread the risk of a drought over several new projects, so all of our water eggs aren't in one basket.

SoCal's water managers built a brand new lake in the desert. They "bank" water anywhere they can. Of course we should turn seawater into drinking water. And the bold and beautiful people of the O.C. have started-up a micro-filtration/reverse osmosis facility to recycle water and recharge their aquifers (if you react with a yuck - remember if you’re drinking water from a big river, lake or stream - you too drink the diluted wastewater from cities and towns upstream of you.) Then again – we can always invade Canada and borrow their water from them.

Like many issues, SoCal goes to the brink of a water shortage, but always finds a way back. Since William Mulholland first said “There it is – take it” after finishing the Los Angeles Aqueduct we’ve never given up inventing, and paying for, new water projects.

And people learn – at an industry event last month I learned the City of Los Angeles treats the same amount of wastewater today as it did 15 years ago, despite our burgeoning population. Water conservation really did work.

Twain’s words come to mind, "In the West whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting."

Drink up!
posted by alejandrom at 9:15 PM on September 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

yet in my county and most counties within California, there's an effort to cut 20% of urban use now

Because in people vs. corporation, people always loses out.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:25 PM on September 16, 2007

Dammit, and I just started drinking water from the tap instead of importing bottled water from elsewhere. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Why am I destined to be part of the problem instead of part of the solution?
posted by davejay at 9:26 PM on September 16, 2007

That book/card set that you linked to (last link) is an endlessly fascinating look at the cultural landscape history of the Delta. My boyfriend and I have taken the book with us on a few drives through the Delta and it's really fascinating. Jane Wolff is very cool and I totally recommend her Delta Primer.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 9:26 PM on September 16, 2007

Hey, transplants to California? [rest of rant deleted]

I suppose I should take offense or something, but you do have a point there. Almost everything I hate about this town is because it's a desert and we're pretending it's not. You can't win the internet, but you may have actually tipped me off the fence over whether I'm going to stay here or move elsewhere, because suddenly I realize LA will NEVER resemble a city I love, even if it somehow developed good public transit, clouds and shade.

posted by davejay at 9:30 PM on September 16, 2007

"Wouldn't Detroit make a good site for Intel fab plants? I think there's a lake nearby."

As for Cali companies running away to the Great Lakes for the fabulous water, it's worth pointing out that portions of the Great Lakes are polluted with sewage, which from time to time threatens the drinking water of coastal cities. The dirty little secret of the Great Lakes is they're dirty. Those Midwesteners anxious for California industries need to spend more time, effort and money on cleaning up their wastewater treatment plants and combined sewage overflows
posted by alejandrom at 9:48 PM on September 16, 2007

I find it fascinating that population control never comes up in issues like this. There are to many people walking around. That is the root problem.

California's problem isn't a high birth rate. Its problems are a high rate of immigration, prior appropriation water laws, and a Mediterranean climate in its cities combined with a large expanse of fertile desert lands perfect for crops.

Its birth rate is about on par with the rest of the US (14.14), which itself has been in decline since the last boomlet in the early 1990s. Indeed, the US ranks #134 in birth rate -- ahead of most European countries and China, but well behind India, Nigeria, Brazil, Bangladesh, and Indonesia.
posted by dw at 9:51 PM on September 16, 2007

Nice post, it prompted me to finally watch Chinatown.
posted by aerotive at 9:54 PM on September 16, 2007

Grimgrin: for example, there is a water management district near but not encompassing my land. If that water management district attempted to meter the flow taken from ground water aquifers they would be promptly sued by everyone who used it, based on the (California) constitutional principle elucidated on page 1 of your link that you have the right to reasonable use of ground aquifers - such reasonable use not subject to the readings on a meter.

For another example: I would have to sue anyone who attempted to meddle with my riparian rights before they closed off the illegal use of surface water I alluded to. The "California Compromise" says water acquired under riparian right can't be stored, nor can it be used beneficially on land other than the land that has the riparian right. No one used to care about this, but I cross my heart when I say 75% of the landowners downstream of me (the stream first surfaces on my land) violate one or both of these prohibitions.

This business is in microcosm; now multiply it by six or so watersheds in my county, then multiply by fifty-eight counties, and you see a very large future business for lawyers versed in California water law.
posted by jet_silver at 9:56 PM on September 16, 2007

Great post; I love this stuff.

If you aren't an expert or farmer but still want to learn a crazy amount of western water law/lore in the most entertaining fashion, I'll be the second to mention the late Mark Reisner. His fat masterpiece "Cadillac Desert" is a very vivid history of how the arid and semi-arid Western U.S. was irrigated, farmed and populated.

The Owens Valley water wars fictionally depicted in "Chinatown" are especially well told.

It's also worth repeating that people aren't the problem in California. There's plenty enough water for the people, although not necessarily where the people have chosen to live, thanks to artificial water supplies in the southwestern corner of the state.

Native landscaping is rapidly becoming popular in the Southwest, for many reasons, but one thing you quickly learn is that replacing a big old hunk of lawn with native low-water landscaping is expensive. It would be great if you could just abandon the lawn and go native, but if you've ever seen a vacant house around these parts you know all a dead lawn coverts to is sunbaked starved earth, dead clumps of crab grass and whatever hardy invasive weeds drop out of a crow's ass.
posted by kenlayne at 11:47 PM on September 16, 2007

Mr Zero: In the past, California has exercised population control in some areas, by limiting housing development. I wouldn't know, but perhaps economic pressures put an end to that, as demand drove up prices, pressure on politicians would increase as well.

I knew that most water out there was going to ag. I had not known that rice was being grown. It's funny in a way, all the noise about crazy Californians in the cities, when the real loonies are ones propping up rice farmers.
posted by Goofyy at 1:21 AM on September 17, 2007

It's also worth repeating that people aren't the problem in California.

Ditto. Agriculture uses 75-80% of developed water sources. jet_silver mentioned rice, and I'll add alfalfa, which uses 20% of state water alone ("harvested mostly for hay to feed dairy livestock, generates ~0.1% of the state's economy, about 26 percent is grown in the state's parched southern deserts, and despite ...water-saving methods... most California growers use inefficient irrigation techniques such as flooding.") Of course, cheap alfalfa means cheap milk, so no solution is without tradeoffs and costs.

Here are some numbers: The Delta decision would cut pumping by 1-2 million acre-feet. In total, the Delta supplies about 6.2 million acre-feet. The Pacific Institute finds that 2-2.3 million acre-feet of water could be saved from urban uses alone. If you account for population growth but plan for efficiency measures in both agriculture and urban areas (even assuming no change in crops), by 2030, California could cut water use by 8.5 million acre-feet. I wonder how the costs of doing that compare to the costs of other solutions.
posted by salvia at 1:35 AM on September 17, 2007

I knew that most water out there was going to ag. I had not known that rice was being grown.

Really? Calrose is a big export to Asia, and it's usually cheaper in Seattle grocery stores than Arkansas long-grain.
posted by dw at 8:18 AM on September 17, 2007

A good companion to "Cadillac Desert" is Mike Davis' "Ecology of Fear", which doesn't cover the water issue in great detail but deals more generally with the full-spectrum insanity of SoCal from an urban design point of view, alluded to by blucevalo above.
posted by dinsdale at 12:09 PM on September 17, 2007

The California water laws are pretty interesting as a result of the underhanded way the Owens Valley was turned into a desert so that El Lay could have water for growth.

The agriculture versus people thing is interesting. I'd like to see the comparative economic impacts. Yes, agriculture uses a lot of water, and could be managed differently, but California is also an important producer of food for the country. I live in another arid area now, and the water wars for growth are interesting, with farmers having well heads locked because of calls by more senior water rights purchased by cities. Agriculture here at this time cannot afford to purchase water rights with the demand of growth by communities. The money that can be made selling water for urban growth makes farming a lifestyle choice rather than an economic one here.

As for the Delta and it's ecosystem, it's not just one small fish that's being affected. The whole ecosystem is diminishing drastically. In the 80's, when I was in college at U. C. Davis, I took part in an ongoing survey of Delta fish populations, and populations of all types of fish at that time were dropping significantly. (I'm not aware of results since I left college, or if any gains have been made due to management of the system). The ecosystem of the Bay itself is affected as well, since much of it is dependent on a healthy Delta system. Sturgeon populations were dropping and so on.
posted by Eekacat at 12:51 PM on September 17, 2007

The solution to the California water problem already exists. It is the desalinization technology from Energy Recovery Inc.. They were named environmental exporter of the year, last year, for a good reason. Very, very exciting stuff. And it is based in Hayward, California . . .

posted by lamarguerite at 8:48 AM on October 1, 2007

For people interested in fish or water quality, I don't think desal is a magic bullet solution. Google "desalination 'impingement and entrainment'" or see p. 6 here [pdf]. Most directly, as water is sucked in, fish can get sucked in, too. Other problems are also outlined in that report. (The report is by the Pacific Institute, and its co-founder Dr. Peter Gleick won a Macarthur Fellowship a few years back.)
posted by salvia at 12:00 PM on October 1, 2007

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