Water Education Foundation

Where does Southern California’s water come from?

Posted by: Aquafornia on April 29, 2008 at 8:16 am

indian-wells-sunrise-by-james-neeley.jpgCalifornia is a beautiful fraud; a magnificent put-on, an exquisitely lush illusion. From the farmlands of the Central Valley to the swimming pools, green lawns and flowering landscapes of Southern California, it is all a brilliantly engineered masterpiece, an extensive rearrangement of the existing natural order, created by the ingenuity and will of man, and costing billions of taxpayer dollars in the process. The palm trees, the tropical flora and fauna, as well as the millions of people, all of it does not belong here. Not any of it.

In the West, it is said that water flows uphill towards money, and nowhere else could that be truer than here in Southern California. About half of the water that flows freely from our taps started as snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and has traveled 444 miles from Northern California. It has leapt up 3000 feet to traverse the Tehachapi Mountains, and traveled through gigantic siphons, pumps and tunnels to reach us.

WATER DEVELOPMENT WAS KEY TO CALIFORNIA'S GROWTH

As early as 1900, Los Angeles had already outgrown its meager water supply, the Los Angeles River. William Mulholland found the water the growing city needed in the Owens Valley, and embarked on an ambitious project to bring it here. And ever since then, California has remade its landscape on an unprecedented scale. There are reservoirs where there once was desert, desert where there once was cropland, and cropland where there once was a swampy marsh. Some rivers have been dried up; some rivers flow through mountains into other rivers' beds; and some rivers even flow backwards at times.

Since the Gold Rush era, California has been transformed from a vast, sparsely populated area into one of the world's leading agricultural and food production regions. Much of this development is due to the development of the area's natural resources, most especially water. Water development, storage and distribution projects have transformed deserts into farmland and supported development of large cities and towns. These water projects have helped make California a leading agricultural producer, a major manufacturing center, the most populated state in the country, and the eighth largest economy in the world.

However, this rapid and intensive development has not been without its consequences. Fish populations have been depleted, wetlands have been drained, and dams and levees have altered natural water flow patterns. Native species of many plants have declined or become extinct, and water quality has been impaired by agricultural, mining and urban sources.

IT NEVER RAINS IN CALIFORNIA \”¦..

No other state has rearranged their environment to the same extent as California. The truth is, most of California is an arid semi-desert, with a climate similar to that of the North African Plain. Los Angeles is drier than Beirut. About 65 percent of the state receives less than 20 inches of rainfall per year, most of that in the winter months. While 70 percent of California’s runoff occurs north of Sacramento, 75 percent of California’s urban and agricultural demands are to the south.

The abundant sunshine and mild temperatures of Central and Southern California are ideal for agriculture; the only ingredient missing is the rain. California's rainfall is seasonal : dry during the hot summer months, and wet for only a few months in the winter. Still, California has more irrigated acreage than any other state, thanks to massive water projects started early in the twentieth century and still continuing today.

WATER PROJECTS AND THE STATE'S ECONOMY

california-water-projects-dwr-map.jpgWater development has three primary goals: flood control, water storage, and hydroelectric power generation. California is home to four massive water projects, plus numerous local projects. The map to the right shows the water projects located throughout the state. The Los Angeles Aqueduct brings water from the Owens Valley south to Los Angeles. The Colorado River Aqueduct brings water from the Colorado River to Southern California for urban uses, and the Imperial Irrigation District operates the Imperial Dam and All-American Canal, which supply water for irrigation in the Imperial Valley. The Central Valley Project irrigates farmland in the Central Valley and provides water to the Bay Area; the State Water Project brings water from the San Francisco Bay Delta and delivers it to farmers in the Central Valley, as well as providing water for urban uses in Southern California. In addition, the Hetch-Hetchy Aqueduct and the Mokelumne Aqueduct supply water to the Bay Area. Click on the map at the right to see it enlarged and to visit the DWR website.

Moving water around the state is an energy intensive process. Total energy used to pump and treat water accounts for at least 6.5% of total electricity used statewide. The State Water Project is the state’s largest single consumer of electricity, accounting for 2 to 3 percent of electrical energy use per year. Hydroelectric power does produce a portion of this energy back, but whether the project is a net user or net producer of energy depends upon the distance the water must be moved. In most cases, more energy is used than is produced by these projects.

Water fuels the economy of California, and managing it properly is of paramount importance. It has also been a source of decades-long political wars. Besides the satisfying the needs of a growing population, demands for more water also comes from the agricultural industry, businesses, manufacturers and developers. These needs must be balanced against demands for protecting water quality and for protecting fisheries, wildlife and recreational interests. The fundamental controversy is one of distribution, as conflicts between these competing interests continue to be exacerbated by continued population growth and periods of drought.

Everything depends on the manipulation of water : capturing it behind dams, storing it in reservoirs, and rerouting it in concrete rivers over hundreds of miles. California has twelve hundred major dams, the two biggest irrigation projects on earth, and some of the biggest reservoirs in the country. Only about 25% is for urban use, the remainder is split between irrigation and environmental purposes.

AGRICULTURE IS IMPORTANT TO THE CALIFORNIA ECONOMY

One out of every six jobs in California is tied to agriculture in some way. California has the largest agricultural economy in the nation; half of the nation's fruits, nuts, and vegetables are grown here. About 20% of the nation's milk supply comes from California; 92% of all grapes grown in the United States are grown here. Cotton, foliage and flowers are also in the top 10 agricultural commodities produced in California. Fresno is the most productive county in the nation, with an agricultural worth of 3.5 billion dollars in 2000.

WHERE DOES SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA’S WATER COME FROM

Overall, Southern California gets it’s water from a variety of sources. Groundwater sources provide between 30 and 40 percent of supply, and the remainder is imported from the Owens Valley, the Colorado River, and the State Water Project. Where you live in Southern California determines where, exactly, your water comes from.

Metropolitan Water District is a regional wholesaler of groundwater and imported water from the Colorado River and the State Water Project, which it sells to it’s 26 member agencies. Each of these member agencies also has varying amounts of local resources of their own, so the extent of dependence upon imported water & Metropolitan Water District varies. The Colorado River Aqueduct supplies San Diego and the southern portion of Metropolitan Water District’s service area, while State Water Project generally serves the northern portion of MWD’s service area.

If you live within the DWP service area, your water comes from the Owens Valley Aqueduct, groundwater, and Metropolitan Water District.

You can find out more about where your water comes from by clicking here. You can also find out more information by consulting your agencies website, and reading their water plan.

THE LOS ANGELES AQUEDUCT

Owned and operated by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the Los Angeles Aqueduct supplies a portion of the water needed to supply the residents and businesses in it’s 465 square mile service area. The Los Angeles Aqueduct system includes 8 storage reservoirs along the aqueduct, and 99 reservoirs and tanks located within the city.

In the year 2005-2006, the Owens Valley supplied 48% of the water for DWP; Metropolitan Water District supplied 41%, groundwater sources provided 11%, and only 1% was recycled. About 72% of water use in DWP’s service area is for residential use; 25% is for commercial & goverment, and 3% is for industrial use. (Click here for DWP Fact sheet.)

The Los Angeles Aqueduct system brings water 338 miles from the Mono Basin and 233 miles from the Owens Valley by gravity to Los Angeles. The first Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed in 1913. It took five years to build at a cost of $23 million. Water from the Owens Valley travels through 24 miles of unlined open channel, 37 miles of lined open channels, 97 miles of concrete conduit, 43 miles of tunnels, 12 miles of steel and concrete pipe, 8 miles of reservoirs, 2 miles through the Haiwee bypass, and 10 miles through power tunnels and waterways to reach Los Angeles. The second Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed in 1970 at a cost of $89 million, and utilizes a mix of concrete conduit and steel pipelines.

In order to acquire the necessary water rights, the city purchased much of the land in the Owens Valley. DWP still remains the largest private land owner in the Owens Valley area. LADWP owns 314,000 acres, primarily on the Owens Valley floor. Of this, 260,000 acres are leased back to residents mostly for ranching, with a small portion for leased for commercial or recreational use. LADWP leases the land for ranching under strict guidelines designed for maximum protection of the watershed.

The dewatering of the Owens Valley has not been without it’s ill effects on the Owens Valley and on Mono Lake. The export of water south to Los Angeles decimated a thriving agricultural community, dried up Owens Lake, and turned parts of the Owens Valley into a desert. Environmental mitigation for the damage done has been litigated for decades, and currently, DWP is under court mandated obligation to keep water in the Lower Owens River and provide dust control on the dry Owens Lake bed. Furthermore, DWP is prevented from diverting water from the Mono Lake Basin until the lake level reaches a mandated elevation – which is a long way off. This has resulted in a reduction in the amount of water that DWP can export from the Owens Valley.

Some say that Los Angeles stole the water from the Owens Valley, and whether this is true or not is a subject of debate. Others say that the land management policies of the DWP have discouraged extensive urban development, and have thusly spared the Owens Valley the problems associated with increased urbanization. To this day, Inyo County remains one of California’s least populated counties. The area is also a popular recreation destination, offering camping, fishing, hiking, rock climbing, and many other outdoor activities. More on these issues in the Aquafornia article, California’s Water Crisis.

For more information on the Los Angeles Aqueduct System:

THE COLORADO RIVER

Shortly after completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, booming population growth and drought sent Mulholland and the City looking for additional water sources. In 1928, the Metropolitan Water District was organized as a public corporation, pursuant to special legislation enacted by the state legislature. The legislation provided a way for cities and smaller governmental entities to join together to develop a regional water supply. The 13 original members of the MWD are Anaheim, Beverly Hills, Burbank, Compton, Fullerton, Glendale, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Pasadena, San Marino, Santa Ana, Santa Monica, and Torrance. MWD has since added another thirteen members.

Today,the Metropolitan Water District is by far the largest water agency in California, if not the entire United States. MWD serves 18 million customers over 5200 square miles, a service area extending from Ventura County down to San Diego.

The Metropolitan Water District manages the 242-mile long Colorado River Aqueduct, which extends from Parker Dam at Lake Havasu, Arizona, to Lake Matthews, near Riverside. The Colorado River Aqueduct’s capacity is 1.3 million acre-feet annually. The water travels through 63 miles of canals, 92 miles of tunnels, 55 miles of conduit, and 144 underground siphons. Metropolitan’s water system includes 5 pumping plants, 9 water treatment plants, and 9 reservoirs, with a total capacity of 1,972,000 acre-feet of water storage.

The Colorado River is the principal water resource for seven states & parts of Mexico. Spanning 1,440 miles from Wyoming to the Gulf of California, the Colorado River is the most litigated river in the entire world. Water in the river is governed by a complex set of interstate compacts, international treaties, Supreme Court decrees, federal laws, state laws, water contracts, and administrative decisions which together have become known as “The Law of the River”.

The Law of the River includes the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which apportions water use among the seven states, and outlines a priority system for use of the water. A 1944 U.S.-Mexico treaty allocated 1.5 MAF to Mexico. California’s basic apportionment from the Colorado River is 4.4 million acre-feet, plus surplus water if available. The U.S. Secretary of the Interior is the designated “water master” for the Colorado River, and has authority to declare when surplus or shortage conditions exist.

California’s annual use of the Colorado River water has varied between 4.5 to 5.2 million acre-feet of water over the last ten years. The additional water over the California’s basic allocation has come from surplus conditions and unused apportionments of water by Arizona. However, these surplus conditions aren’t likely to continue much farther into the future, with persistent drought conditions in the Colorado River basin and with Arizona approaching full use of it’s apportionment.

Of California’s 4.4 million acre-feet apportionment from the Colorado River, 3.8 million acre-feet or 86% of that water goes mostly to the Imperial Valley, and to a much lesser extent, the Palo Verde Irrigation District near Blythe, the Yuma Project, and the Coachella Valley Irrigation District. The water rights held by these irrigation districts predate the 1922 Colorado River Compact. These “present perfected” water rights entitle them to receive their water allocation in all years – dry or wet – over other lower priority users. Metropolitan holds a fourth priority right to 550,000 acre-feet of water, and a fifth priority right to another 662,000 acre-feet.

Increasing use of the Colorado River by Arizona and other states of their previously unused apportionments, along with diminished supplies due to persistent drought conditions and climate change could eventually reduce the amount of water available to Metropolitan to only its fourth priority right of 550,000 million acre-feet, plus what water could be made available from conservation programs with the Imperial Irrigation District and other agricultural-to-urban water transfers.

For more information on the Colorado River:

  • From the Metropolitan Water District website, The Colorado River – click here.
  • From the Metropolitan Water District website, California’s Colorado River Allocation – click here.
  • From the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center, “Sharing Colorado River Water: History, Public Policy and the Colorado River Compact – click here.

THE STATE WATER PROJECT

The California Department of Water Resources designed, built, and operates the State Water Project. It is the largest state-built water and power project in the United States. The State Water Project begins at Lake Davis in Northern California, and spans 600 miles south to Southern California. It includes 34 storage facilities, 20 pumping plants, four pumping-generating plants, 5 hydroelectric power plants, and about 700 miles of canals, tunnels and pipelines. The State Water Project provides drinking water for 23 million people and irrigation water for 750,000 acres of farmland.

The 29 water agencies that buy SWP water have contracted for long-term deliveries of nearly 4 million acre-feet of water. About 70% of water delivered by the State Water Project is for urban use; the remaining 30% is for agricultural use. The Metropolitan Water District’s entitlement is for 2,011,500 million acre-feet, or about 47% of the total water delivered by the SWP. The Kern County Water Agency’s entitlement is for 1,153,400 million acre-feet, or about 27% of the total. The remaining 26% of the water is split between the remaining 27 water agencies.

Although contractors hold entitlements to 4.2 million acre-feet of water, rarely is the water project able to deliver that much. On average, the State Water Project delivers between 2.5 million & 3.5 million acre-feet of water. The lowest amount of water ever delivered was 0.55 million acre-feet during the drought of 1991. For more background information on the State Water Project:

  • History of the State Water Project – click here.
  • Aquafornia Exclusive: Photo Tour of the State Water Project – click here.

THE DELTA : THE HUB AND THE CRITICAL LINK OF THE CALIFORNIA’S WATER SYSTEM

Nearly two-thirds of the state's population and millions of acres of farmland receive their water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta area, also known as the Bay-Delta. The Delta is located where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers converge and flow into the San Francisco Bay. The mixture of fresh waters from the five rivers which feed into the Delta combine with the salty ocean water to create the largest estuary on the West Coast of North America. The 940 square-mile Delta area is home to over 750 different species of plants and animals.

The Delta is home to millions of migratory waterfowl that use the Pacific Flyaway every year from South America to Alaska. The Delta is also home to many species of fish, including salmon, steelhead fish, and the Delta smelt. The population of the Delta smelt fish has seen a rapid decline in the past two years, falling to its lowest level ever measured. The Delta smelt are considered an indicator of the biological health of the Delta, and their population has dropped so precipitously that some scientists fear they are on the brink of extinction. Other species, such as the Chinook salmon, are threatened as well.

The Delta pumps provide drinking water to more than 20 million people; and water agencies in central and southern California are dependent upon it, both directly and indirectly. 42% of the state's annual runoff flows through the maze of islands, marshes and sloughs of the Delta. Massive pumps at the southern end of the marsh pull approximately 5.5 million acre-feet per year of fresh water from the waterways to feed both the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project.

RECENT COURT DECISIONS REGARDING FISH AND WATER PROJECTS

However, these pumps suck in and kill significant amounts of fish, and these pumps have been the subject of a lawsuit recently. In December of 2006, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance filed suit in Alameda County Superior Court that the SWP does not have the proper permits to take (kill) certain fish species, such as the endangered Delta Smelt. In March of 2007, the judge agreed and ruled that the pumps must be shut down within 60 days unless the state acquires the proper permits from the Department of Fish & Game. (It is important to note that the ruling is based on a lack of paper permitting, rather than the impact on threatened species.)

In August of 2007, Judge Wanger confirmed his earlier decision that the state and federal pumps operating in the Delta were in violation of the Endangered Species Act, and issued a court ruling restricting the amount of water that can be exported from the Delta in order to protect the endangered Delta smelt. This has reduced the amount of water that can be exported from the Delta during the months of January through June, and as a result, water contractors have been told to expect only 35% of their allocation of State Water Project water for 2008.

In April of 2008, Judge Wanger ruled once again that another federal permit was in violation of the Endangered Species Act, this time for the salmon. Wanger ruled that the water projects were affecting the salmon in a subsequent hearing in August of 2008; however, he imposed no other restrictions at that time. More litigation is upcoming in this case, and It is unclear at this time how this will affect water deliveries in the future.

DELTA LEVEES ARE A MAJOR CONCERN

Besides being the hub of California’s water supply, the Delta serves many other uses. The Delta is a place where a lot of people live, and population is expected to continue to grow. There is a lot of water traffic in the Delta, with ships headed into the ports at Sacramento & Stockton. Three state highways cross the Delta, connecting the Bay Area to the Central Valley. There are also power lines, oil and gas transmission lines, and railroads throughout the area. The Delta also has more than a half a million acres of incredibly productive farmland. All of this property and infrastructure is protected by an extensive network of aging levees.

There are 1600 miles of levees that protect the Delta and channel water through the area; most of these were built soon after the Gold Rush. Since 1850, 95% of the estuary's wetlands and tidal marshes have been leveed and filled, with resulting loss of fish and wildlife habitat.

Much of the network of levees through the Delta has been built only to 100-year flood standards, and levees have failed 162 times in the past 100 years. Levees are susceptible to failure by erosion, seepage, rising sea levels, earthquakes, and land subsidence. If a levee failure occurred, salt water would flood many Delta islands, disrupting water deliveries to southern and central California. Water users would be forced users to rely on stored supplies. It could take several years and billions of dollars for the water system to be restored if a major levee break occurred.

For more information on the Delta:

THE PERIPHERAL CANAL DEBATE

In 1960, voters passed the California Water Resources Development Bond Act, authorizing $1.75 billion for construction of the SWP. However, the funds authorized by voters were insufficient to cover the cost of implementing the plan as originally designed, and so engineers decided to convey water from Northern California to the Delta and divert water from there. A few dams and a peripheral canal to divert water from the Sacramento River around the Delta were planned for later construction.

The original peripheral canal planned would have been large enough to carry the entire flow of the Sacramento River around the Delta, diverting fresh water away from the Delta to send it south. When the initiative went before the voters in 1982, it was soundly defeated, in large part due to the efforts of an alliance of Northern California interests. They saw the canal as a Southern California water grab that would promote unfettered growth and continued water wastage. Up until recently, the peripheral canal idea was considered the ‘third rail’ of California politics.

THE PPIC REPORT

However, the idea for a peripheral canal has reemerged, due in part to an influential study released in July of 2008 titled “Comparing Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta“. The report was authored by researchers at the Public Policy Institute of California, as well as the University of California Davis. One of the central findings of the report was that “a peripheral canal \”¦ should be part of a long term strategy for the Delta to serve both water supply and environmental objectives. Out of the four alternatives evaluated, they determined that a peripheral canal “appears to be the best way to maintain a reliable, high-quality water supply and to improve conditions for fish and other wildlife.

The Delta as it is today, a levee-lined tidal channels surrounding deeply subsided islands, is unsustainable, researchers say. It is gradually shifting towards a estuary system with large tracts of open, deep water. The driving factors behind these changes include the subsidence (sinking) of the Delta islands, the rising sea levels, the risk of a major earthquake, and the changing inflows of water, all of which are putting stress on fragile and aging levees.

The cost of maintaining the current levee system will become increasingly expensive, as within 50 years, researchers say it is likely many islands will be flooded permanently. Upgrading and repairing the levees in an attempt to resist these changes will soon exceed all available bond funds, and will, at some point, go beyond the willingness of the public to continue to pay these repairs.

The PPIC Report concluded that a peripheral canal is the best option for providing a reliable, high-quality water supply for the residents of the Bay Area and Southern California, as well as for the millions of acres of farmland that depend on Delta water. A peripheral canal has the potential to benefit fish and other wildlife by being more responsive to the Delta's changes over time.

But the original fears still persist. Northern Californians today are worried that if the peripheral canal were built, Delta water quality would stagnate without fresh water flows to dilute the farm runoff and municipal discharges into the estuary. This would damage Delta fisheries and threaten the fresh water supply for communities and farmers who draw their water directly from the Delta. They are also worried that if the peripheral canal were built and the state no longer dependent upon the Delta to channel water to the pumps, the Delta would be abandoned, and the fragile levees will crumble as a result of neglect and inadequate funding.

Still, it is becoming quite obvious that ‘business as usual’ in the Delta is simply not working for anyone, and a new direction and consensus is needed.

To read the PPIC Report:

\Ӣ Comparing Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, by the Public Policy Institute of California

Other Reports on the Delta and Peripheral Canal

PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE OF THE DELTA

Several planning processes for the Delta are currently underway, the two most notable being the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan is being developed with the goal of creating an ecosystem-based approach that will protect at-risk species while providing for reliability of water project operations. It is being prepared by a group of state, federal, and local water agencies, state and federal fish agencies, and environmental organizations.

The BDCP is being prepared to meet the requirements of both federal and state endangered species laws, as well as the National Communities Conservation Planning Act. The BDCP will consider alternatives such as the restoration of floodplains, intertidal marshes, channel and openwater habitat, as well as invasive species control. The BDCP hopes to identify an improved way to move water through and/or around the Delta to create a more natural estuarine environment, as well as reduce species entrainment. This may include finding new points for diversion of water, as well as other changes to existing SWP & CVP facilities.

One of the objectives of the BDCP is to obtain 50-year permits to operate water and energy projects and result in the issuance of ‘take' permits from the state & federal agencies for covered activities.

The plan is currently in the scoping process, with a basic conservation strategy available around the end of 2008, with the full plan scheduled to follow mid-2009. It is hoped that by the end of 2010, the BDCP and permits will be approved.

For more information on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan:

Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force

In 2006, Governor Schwarzenegger formed the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force, and gave the newly formed task force the task of developing a long-term vision for sustainable management of the Delta.

The task force first report, released in December of 2007, identified twelve ‘integrated and linked' recommendations, intended to be implemented together as an integrated solution, working in tandem to achieve success. The task force has identified two of the twelve recommendations as key elements of it's vision:

The Delta ecosystem and a reliable water supply for California are the primary, co-equal goals for sustainable management of the Delta. Both are irreplaceable assets and one must not be secured at the expense of the other.

The California Delta is a unique and valued area, warranting recognition and special legal status from the state of California. The Delta's uniqueness and value must be protected through special designation to safeguard its assets, its culture, and its economy.

The task force is currently working on a Strategic Plan to implement the task force's twelve recommendations. The report is due in October of 2008. The key themes of the strategic plan are:

\Ӣ Revitalization, not mitigation: Adopt a strategy that better supports diverse species, is less susceptible to major disruptions and increases opportunities for adaptation to changing circumstances.
\Ӣ Sustainability, not extraction: Focus on sustainability rather than extraction or withdrawal of water; a sustainable water supply is more valuable and reliable, and will require significantly improved water use efficiency.
\Ӣ Recognition, not abandonment: Encourage the Delta's unique character with levee improvements, support for its economic engines of agriculture and tourism, and safety improvements.
\Ӣ Consistency, not chaos: Strengthen Delta governance to emphasize consistency of actions among existing local, state and federal agencies, guided by a clear and enforceable plan, thus enabling all four themes.

While much attention has focused on water exports from the Delta, the task force notes that upstream diversions are also impacting the Delta. The the Hetch-Hetchy system and the Mokelumne Aqueduct divert water that would have otherwise drained into the Delta and carry it across it to the cities they serve. “You can't have your own pipes crossing the Delta with water that used to flow through the Delta and claim it has no effect,\” said Phil Isenberg, the chairman of the Delta Vision task force said in a recent Contra Costa Times article. “It isn't just them. It's us.”

The Delta Vision Task Force meets monthly and the meetings are webcast.

For more information on Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force:

THE DELTA – A COMPLEX AND CHALLENGING PROBLEM WHICH WE MUST SOLVE

In January of 2008, Lester Snow testified before the U. S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Water and Power, and said of the Delta and it’s myriad of problems: “Fixing the Delta is an incredible challenge, with multiple layers of complexity and constantly changing conditions. Notwithstanding the immensity of the challenge, California cannot afford to fail. Immediate actions are critical, but a long term comprehensive management strategy will be essential to the sustainability of the Delta.”

GROUNDWATER

Groundwater typically accounts for about 30% of statewide water use in a year; it can be up to 40% in a drought year. Nearly one in three Californians rely solely on groundwater to meet their needs, not only in rural areas, but also the cities of Fresno and Bakersfield. Along the central coast, 90% of the drinking water is from groundwater.

California uses more groundwater than any other state. Even in average rainfall years, more groundwater is used then is replaced by precipitation, stream seepage, or artificial recharge systems. Annual statewide overdraft is estimated by the DWR to be approximately 1.4 million acre-feet in a normal year.

Groundwater sources are recharged by precipitation, surface runoff, irrigation, or by using imported water injected back into the aquifer, or used in lieu of groundwater pumping. When there is no rainfall, snowfall, or other source available to recharge the aquifer, the aquifer can become overdrafted. Overdrafting can result in lowered water tables and increased energy costs for pumping. Overdraft can also lead to land subsidence, as well as cause sea water and other contaminants to invade the aquifer.

Subsidence occurs when overpumping leads to the collapse of the earth's surface overlying the aquifer; it is often irreversible. Subsidence can also cause salt water intrusion into coastal aquifers.

California is only one of two states left that has yet to enact a comprehensive statewide groundwater management system. Currently there are no controls over the amount drawn from underground aquifers. There is some regulation in local districts or basins which have been adjudicated by the courts, but other than that, there are no controls over extraction. To some, such a program equals a state-dictated system for a resource that historically has been considered a right of the overlying land owners. Agricultural interests oppose any regulation as they fear it would constrain pumping in drought years.

The quality of groundwater is of concern as well. All of the state's groundwater basins are contaminated to some degree. Up until as recently as the 1970′s, it was felt that groundwater basins did not need to be protected because of the widespread belief at the time that all contaminants, including toxic chemicals, were removed by percolation through soil and sediment. However, it has since been learned that a large variety of contaminants can migrate into groundwater supplies, and groundwater supplies must be carefully protected.

Groundwater contamination can come from landfills, leaked toxins, solvents, microbial agents, acid mine drainage and agricultural chemicals. The contaminants are usually concentrated in small sections of the basin, and can force some communities to abandon their wells and rely on imported surface water supplies.
Unfortunately, once contamination has been detected, it is costly and difficult to remove. Some aquifers may remain contaminated for hundreds of years, or quite possibly forever. It is therefore much cheaper to prevent contamination of groundwater basins then to remediate them afterwards.

Perchlorate is used in rocket propellants, road flares, fireworks, and air bag inflation systems. It is a chemical contaminant which is very mobile once it gets into water. Perchlorate has been showing up in an increasing number of Southern California’s groundwater sources, including Santa Clarita, Rialto, and Simi Valley. Experts have been unable to agree on a drinking water standard for perchlorate. Federal and state agencies have set different minimums, while environmentalists have pushed for more stringent standards.

For more information:

  • Metropolitan Water District, Executive Summary of the September 2007 Groundwater Assessment Report – click here.
  • Department of Water Resource’s Groundwater Fact Sheet – click here.

IT'S A QUESTION OF BALANCE AND SUSTAINABILITY

Southern California is hugely dependent upon large water projects which import water from far away, and each of these water sources is facing crises and impacts as a result of the diversions. The DWP has had to reduce its usage of water in order to restore Mono Lake, restore wetlands and some flow of water to the Owens River, and to deal with dust problems on Owens Lake. Southern California has long been overusing its allocation of water from the Colorado River, and this supply is being impacted by drought and population growth in other areas who also depend on the Colorado River for their water supply. The State Water Project depends on water from the fragile Delta area, which is threatened by a breakdown in the ecosystem, rising sea levels, vulnerable levees, and increasing urbanization.

Water is a limited resource; there is only so much of it to go around. Managing California's finite water supply in the future so that it is sustainable and reliable will require striking a balance between the three stakeholders: urban users, agricultural users, and the environment. As the state continues to grow, it's going to require rethinking in how we view and use water throughout the state, and we're all going to have to be more efficient in how we use it.

FOR MORE INFORMATION, CHECK OUT THE OTHER SECTIONS ON THE AQUAFORNIA INFORMATION DESK:

  • Learn more about the issues facing California’s water supply and the possible solutions:California’s Water Crisis
  • Find out more about the Delta and the critical issues are facing this tiny but vital region: Why the Delta is Important
  • Saving water is something you can do today. Get an extensive list of things you can do to conserve water: Aquafornia’s Water Conservation Tips
  • Read some of the best coverage of important water issues from various newspapers: Recommended Reading
  • For links to reports and other websites: Other Resources. Also, look down the right hand column for the categorized archive of news stories and the blogroll.

To return to Aquafornia’s home page, click here.

Photo credits: Bureau of Reclamation, Department of Water Resources, and Thea Hess. Flickr photos are linked to the flickr website.

Be Sociable, Share!