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California Water Primer

California Water Primer

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Published by: California Forward on Aug 16, 2012
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The Layman’s Guide to California Water

“In an arid environment, water is the ultimate sovereign.” — Carey McWilliams, 1949

California’s interconnected water system serves over 30 million people and irrigates over 5,680,000 acres (2,300,000 ha) of farmland. As the world’s largest, most productive, and most controversial water system1, it manages over 40,000,000 acre feet (49 km3) of water per year.2

Where Does It Come From?
Most of California’s water passes through the Sacramento -San Joaquin Delta, where the state’s two largest rivers come together. Most of the water that fills those rivers comes from snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada. The Delta supplies water to more than 25 million Californians through the California State Water Project and the Central Valley Project. The California State Water Project (SWP), the heart of which is the Sacramento-San-Joaquin Delta, is the largest multipurpose, state-built water project in the United States. The SWP is a water storage and delivery system that brings water to more than twothirds of Californians and 750,000 acres of farmland. California Aqueduct SWP’s 20 major reservoirs can hold 5.8 million acrefeet, with annual deliveries averaging up to 3 million acre-feet. The SWP deliveries are 70 percent urban and 30 percent agriculture, meeting the needs of 20 million Californians and more than 600,000 irrigated acres, respectively.3 The Central Valley Project (CVP) is another major water storage and delivery system, which preceded the SWP. Construction was authorized in 1935 in order to protect the Central Valley from crippling floods and droughts. The CVP, operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, consists of 22 reservoirs with a combined storage of 11 million acre-feet, of which 7 million acre-feet is delivered in an average year. CVP water irrigates more than 3 million acres of farmland and provides drinking water to nearly 2 million consumers.4 Other key infrastructure that deliver water to California include the All-American Canal, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the Colorado River Aqueduct and San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy Project, all built (primarily) in the early 20th century.

1 2

Hundley, N. (2001). The great thirst: Californians and water. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press. Jenkins, Marion W.; Lund, Jay R.; Howitt, Richard E.; Draper, Andrew J.; Msangi, Siwa M.; Tanaka, Stacy K.; Ritzema, Randall S.; Marques, Guilherme F. (2004). "Optimization of California’s Water Supply System: Results and Insights." Journal of Water Resources Planning & Management 130 (4): pp. 271–280. 3 California Department of Water Resources: http://www.water.ca.gov/swp/index.cfm 4 California Department of Water Resources: http://www.water.ca.gov/swp/cvp.cfm

Surface Water vs. Groundwater
“The history of California in the twentieth century is the story of a state inventing itself with water.” — William L. Kahrl, Water and Power, 1982 Surface water: California has ten major drainage basins defined for convenience of water management. These basins are divided from one another by the crests of mountains. From north to south the basins are: North Coast, Sacramento River, North Lahontan, San Francisco Bay, San Joaquin River, Central Coast, Tulare Lake, South Lahontan, South Coast, and Colorado River regions. Each region incorporates watersheds from many rivers of similar clime. Around 75% of California’s water supply comes from north of Sacramento, while 80% of the water demand occurs in the southern two-thirds of the state.5 There are six main systems of aqueducts and infrastructure that redistribute and transport water in California: the State Water Project, the Central Valley Project, several Colorado River delivery systems, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the Tuolumne River/Hetch Hetchy system, and the Mokelumne Aqueduct. Groundwater: The water beneath the surface of the Earth is an important element of the water cycle. Water that falls as rain, and then is absorbed into the ground will generally make its way to the water table, or “aquifer.” It is this water from the aquifer that is pumped out of the ground to be used for human purposes. Groundwater is a critical element of the California water supply. During an average year, 40% of the state’s water supply comes from groundwater. In times of intense drought, groundwater consumption can Source: U.S. Geological Survey rise to 60% or more.6 Over 850,000,000 acre feet of water, enough to cover California to a depth of 8 feet is stored in California’s 450 known groundwater reservoirs.7 However, not all the water is usable. Over half of the groundwater is unavailable due to poor quality and the high cost of pumping the water from the ground. While surface water is concentrated mostly in the northern part of the state, groundwater is more evenly distributed. The largest groundwater reservoirs are found in the Central Valley. The majority of the supply there is in the form of runoff that seeps into the aquifer. The freshwater is usually found in deposits of gravel, silt, and sand. Though California has laws governing surface water usage and quality, there exist no statewide groundwater management laws. Each groundwater basin is individually adjudicated to determine water rights.8 Otherwise, for all practical purposes, land ownership implicitly carries the right to virtually unlimited groundwater pumping.

5 6

Association of California Water Agencies. General Facts About California’s Water Carle, David (2004). Introduction to Water in California. Berkeley: University of California Press. 7 Ibid. 8 City of Pasadena v. City of Alhambra, 33 Cal.2d 908 (Cal. 1949).

Where Does It Go?
In average water years like 2000, California receives about 200 million acre-feet of water from precipitation and imports from Colorado, Oregon and Mexico. Of this total supply, about 50-60 percent either is used by native vegetation, evaporates to the atmosphere, provides some of the water for agricultural crops and managed wetlands (effective precipitation); or flows to Oregon, Nevada, the Pacific Ocean, and salt sinks like saline groundwater aquifers and the Salton Sea. The remaining 40-50 percent, or dedicated supply, is distributed among urban and agricultural uses, water for protecting and restoring the environment, or storage in surface and groundwater reservoirs for later use. In any year, some of the dedicated supply includes water that is used multiple times (reuse) and water stored from previous years. Ultimately, about a third of the dedicated supply flows out to the Pacific Ocean, in part to meet environmental requirements, or to other salt sinks. For wet and dry years, the total supply and the distribution of the dedicated supply to various uses differ significantly from the example above for an average year.9

The Delta
Covering more than 700 square miles, the Delta is a patchwork of nearly 60 islands and tracts surrounded by natural and man-made channels and sloughs. It is a popular destination for boaters and other recreationists, and home to more than 750 distinct species of plants and wildlife. Salmon, striped bass and other key species such as Delta smelt depend on the Delta and its many marshes and waterways for their food and habitat. 10 Since about two-thirds of the islands and tracts are below sea level, the Delta relies on a maze of levees to protect land and key infrastructure from floods and daily high tides. In all, there are more than 1,100 miles Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta / Source: U.S. Geological Survey of levees in the Delta, including many built more than a century ago to protect farmland. Were it not for these levees, the Delta would be a 740,000-acre brackish inland sea.11 Today, the Delta’s aging and increasingly fragile levee system is being asked to protect much more than farmland. Three state highways, a railroad, natural gas and electric transmission facilities, and aqueducts serving water to parts of the Bay Area also are depend on Delta levees. In addition, more 400,000 people live in Delta towns and communities, some of which rank among the fastest growing areas in California.12 The Delta is also the single most important link in California’s water supply system. Two of the state’s biggest water projects – the State Water Project (SWP) and the federal Central Valley Project (CVP) – depend on Delta waterways to convey water from Northern California rivers to pumping facilities in the southern Delta. Delta


California Department of Water Resources: http://www.water.ca.gov/swp/watersupply.cfm Association of California Water Agencies: http://www.acwa.com/content/delta/delta 11 Ibid. 12 Ibid.

levees play a critical role in preventing salty water from San Francisco Bay from intruding into critical parts of the Delta and contaminating the fresh water that supplies communities and farms.13 “A major catastrophe in the Delta like an earthquake or Katrina-like flood could wipe out California’s water supplies that are coming from the Delta for a period of up to two years and that would be disastrous for the California economy.” Tim Quinn, Executive Director, Association of CA Water Agencies.

Growing People Population, Declining Wildlife Population
State officials project that California’s population will reach 50 million by 2032 and 60 million by 2050. 14 If the prediction comes true and there is no action to increase the water supply, the difference between water demand and supply would be between 2 and 6,000,000 acre feet in the year 2020.15 Perhaps the most important factor affecting California’s efforts to meet current demands for water management is the historical failure to adequately protect the environment. Ever since the Gold Rush, the environment has borne the brunt of the tremendous changes in land, water, and infrastructure development that have shaped California. From mining to logging to hydropower to rapid urbanization Decline in Native Fishes / Source: Moyle, Katz, and Quinones, 2010 (from of Southern California and San Francisco to Public Policy Institute of California) massive water diversion projects (State Water Project and Central Valley Project), our state’s native habitats and wildlife have suffered tremendously.

California’s Drought/Flood History
“And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.” — John Steinbeck Historically, California is prone to long periods of drought. A “drought” generally refers to a condition when precipitation is significantly less than average. Typically this condition has to last for at least two years before it is recognized as a drought. This type of drought ends when precipitation returns to approximately average or above-average conditions.16

13 14

Ibid. Department of Finance: http://www.dof.ca.gov/html/demograp/reportspapers/projections/p1/documents/p1_press_release_7-07.pdf 15 Cal Water Crisis: http://www.calwatercrisis.org/pdf/ACWA.WS.AgingInfrastructure%202007.pdf 16 John Austin, “Floods and Lakes in the Tulare Lake Basin,” draft (to be published late 2012, www.tularebasinwatershed.org)

California’s last major statewide drought was 1987-‘92. Other significant droughts occurred during 1928-‘34 and 1976-‘77. In the years since precipitation has been tracked, 1977 was the single driest year of California’s records.17 As devastating as California’s droughts are, so too are its floods. Floods can and do happen in California. Since 1950, flood disasters have been declared in every California county at least nine times. Since 1983, Central Valley State-Federal project levees have been breached or overtopped more than 50 times. 18

The last major flood in the Tulare Lake Basin was the December 1966 flood, which brought fifteen-foot waves crashing along the Kaweah River in Three Rivers. And Dry Creek—below Terminus Dam—which is usually a quiet stream, carried more water than the Merced River in Yosemite Valley during the January 1997 flood.19 “The fact that our rivers have been relatively quiet during the last 40 years probably doesn‘t mean anything; it‘s just a statistical coincidence. The problem is more psychological. We have become complacent. We have come to think of the federal reservoirs and our levees as protecting us from the effects of big floods, and that isn‘t necessarily realistic when we consider our flood history.” 20

Climate Change
The climate in California (and around the globe) has seen significant changes in the past 60 years. An overwhelming body of science suggests that this current trend will continue and intensify in the future, further testing the resiliency of water management systems designed for the past (Hanak and Lund 2008).21 Adapting the state’s water management systems to climate change presents one of the most significant challenges for the 21st century. A more volatile climate now appears to be the norm, with an increasing frequency and intensity of droughts, floods, extreme high tides, and heat waves. Increases in average annual temperatures Source: NASA could have a significant impact on California’s water resources. Warmer temperatures will reduce the annual snowpack and increase the frequency of extreme storm events, changing runoff patterns and further stressing water infrastructure and management capabilities.22 Continued warming temperatures, changing patterns of precipitation and runoff, and rising sea levels will profoundly affect the state’s ability to manage water supplies and other natural resources.
17 18

Cal Water Crisis: http://calwatercrisis.org/pdf/ACWA.WS.RecordDrought%202007.pdf Department of Water Resources, http://www.water.ca.gov/floodmgmt/lrafmo/fmb/fas/risknotification/california_disaster_history.cfm 19 John Austin, “Floods and Lakes in the Tulare Lake Basin,” draft (to be published late 2012, www.tularebasinwatershed.org) 20 Ibid. 21 Public Policy Institute of California, “Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Resolution,” 2011, http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/r_211ehr.pdf 22 Cal Water Crisis: http://calwatercrisis.org/pdf/ACWA.WS.ClimateChange%202007.pdf

To find out what you can do to conserve your personal water and energy use, use the Pacific Institute’s WaterEnergy-Climate Calculator to receive personalized recommendations for reducing your water use. http://www.wecalc.org/

Map of California’s Surface Water

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