Prolonged Drought and the

End of California’s Central
Valley Agriculture

If it could happen, it will.

James A. Cunningham, Ph.D.
April 2015


Opening Comment
Few substances are more important than water. Without it, humans die within three
or four days. Water, as it continually moves between its three phases, largely
controls the weather and the temperature of the planet. Without water, there would
be no plants, no food, no life of any kind and the earth would be as dead as a brick.
And yet most of us take it for granted. Turn a valve and there it is. As much as you
might want. Clean as a mountain spring.

Even without invoking possible contributions from “global warming,” a reasonable
probability exists that the present California drought could last for many additional
years. If this occurs, an unprecedented disaster will unfold in our state. The only
viable insurance against such an event would be the creation of new sources of
water for the state. Yet aside from relatively small projects in desalination of sea
water, new water sources are not considered by any agencies or organizations in
charge of or interested in water quality, its sources or its distribution. And yet,
ironically, a high-capacity high-quality relatively low-cost new-source does exist—
the massive Columbia River which now discharges its fresh water into the Pacific
Ocean at quantities exceeding --by a factor of four--the State’s total yearly water
withdrawal and transfer rates. For this new source, see page 15 now.

Rain in California
Rainfall across the state of California is controlled by four main factors, the season
or time of the year, the particular latitude and land elevation, and more importantly
the conditions present in our vast neighbor to the west, the cool and vast Pacific
In central and southern California, it only rains in the winter, essentially only
during October through March. Come visit us in the summer and leave your
umbrella at home. The far northern portions of the state might get some limited
rain in the summer. But rainfall is highly dependent on latitude with the heavily
forested North getting 35 to 100 inches per year and the far south Mojavi Desert
east of Los Angeles getting typically less than 5 inches. Rain invariably moves in
from the easterly flowing winds from the Ocean. But if a high pressure oceanregion builds, the moisture moves north and we end up hot and dry. Like now.
The topography of the state also has major effects. This is shown below.

The green Central Valley region shown below is trapped between two mountain
ranges, the Coastal Range Mountains with elevations about 1000 to 2000 feet and
the Sierras rising to 10,000 feet or more. The precipitation in the high mountains is
mainly in the form of snow

The average rainfall around the state is shown below. The Central Valley normally
receives 5 to 15 inches per season with the extreme northern portion enjoying as
much as 20 inches. With 20 inches, so called dry farming can be successfully
practiced without irrigation. Crops such as grapes, olives, apples, grains, squash
and potatoes maybe grown.

But with irrigation providing some 30-inches of equivalent rain, the bounty of food
in the entire California Central Valley is indeed robust. And thus far, even through
the current four years of drought, the Valley has maintained its massive food
production by ground-water irrigation. The region produces some 300 sepatrte
food crops genertaing revenues from $17 to $20 billion per year, and supplying
about ¼ of the table food consumed in the US. The region produed $19 million of
almonds in 2012, 99% of the olives, 95% of the celery, 99% of the walnuts, 79% of
the lemons, and 90% of the avacados, to name only a few items.

The Four Year Draught in California
Everyone living in California knows about the drought. Annual rainfall has
dropped roughly in half. Some workers in the field claim that 2013 was the driest
year on record.

At the same time, mountain snow depths have plummeted here, yet greatly
increased in the eastern states. See rain map below for 2013. Precipitation in the
US is now far less uniform.

Rainfall in the Central Valley has also dropped at least in half during the last
season. During the past two years, the State as allocated no surface water to the
Central Valley. But this has been made up by massive increases of ground-water
pumping. But the total amounts are not accurately known.

Ground Water and Desperate Moves
Normally, some surface water transfers are made so that ground water makes up
38% of irrigation needs, and during dry years about 48%. The Central Valley
pumps from some 200,000 wells. Now many hundreds of wells have gone dry. And
the land is sinking. The small town of Palm Desert 120-miles east of Los Angeles
has sunk two feet since 1995.
According to the LA Times 3/18/2015. “Parts of the San Joaquin Valley are
deflating like a tire with a slow leak as growers pull more and more water from the
ground. The land subsidence is cracking irrigation canals, buckling roads and
permanently depleting storage space in the vast aquifer that underlies California's

The National Geographic reported last August 2014 that some farmers in the
Central Valley are sinking wells over 1000-feet deep at costs over $300,000. Part
of the driving force for such action is crops with high water needs. For example, it
is claimed that a single almond requires a gallon of water for its formation. Better
get your almonds now while you can.
The State overall also has more than 800,000 wells pumping stored underground
water, and numerous percolation ponds dot the Bay Area landscape in an attempt
replenish this source. Such a pond in San Jose may be seen below. Unfortunately
most of these ponds have been dry during the past four years.

The Drought
Some blame the Western State’s drought on global warming. Climate scientists
suggest, “While some regions are likely to get wetter as the world warms, other
regions that are already on the dry side are likely to get drier.” Could be. But in
reality, the weather and rainfall amounts have always been widely variable.
In the chart shown below, beginning around 1919, we note a 15-year drought in
California. The PMDI value used here is an index which considers both rainfall
and temperature.
Back then in 1919, we had only 3.3 million people in the State. Now we have 39
million people and a huge Central Valley agricultural region that supplies half of
the nation’s fruit, vegetables and nuts. Prolonged droughts will now come much


Studies of tree rings show that we have experienced several draughts lasting as
long as 200-years. One beginning in the year 850 and another around 1100. As if
15-years isn’t long enough to return the Central Valley back to its more natural
When a really serious water shortage appears, the people in the cities will get
the surface water, not the farmers.
See long term weather and drought chart below.


Rainfall Variability in California
Rain amounts vary widely in our many micro climates. Here, in my bedroom
community of Saratoga (Silicon Valley) we usually get an average of 25 inches of
rain. (This season is less, about 19 inches.) The San Jose airport, only 14-miles
from here expects only 15 inches
Yet the amount of rain in the opposite direction, up into the Santa Cruz mountains in a little
village called Boulder Creek about 22 miles from here, normally expects a thunderous 49 inches
per year. Squaw Valley up in our Sierra Nevada Mountains to the east where people, far younger
than me, ski in the winter, averages 247 inches of snow in the usual winter. Some report this
number as high as 452 inches, Squaw Valley is only 158-miles by car from my house.
Seattle in Washington State, 848-miles to the north by car from my house, normally averages a
lush 38 inches a year, 48 in 2014. Parts of the city are swamp.
See below the drought rainfall during the last season. Note that its distribution is far more
variable and anomalous than during normal years.


The Aqueduct Systems in California
California has the most extensive aqueduct and stored water system in the world.
Part of it taps the San Joaquin River, which is usually fed from mountain snow
melting in the spring and summer. The system was built largely during the early
portion of past 50-years. Early goals were to assure the Los Angeles region an
adequate supply.
Shown below are the vast tributaries crossing the relatively dry Central Valley and
supplying the San Joaquin River.

Below is shown the aqua duct system. Its water sources include Lake Shasta in the
north, the San Francisco Delta fresh-water portion, the San Joaquin river, various
lakes, rivers and dams some of which are in the mountains, some ground water,
and the Colorado river which is the only out of state source.

The larger portion of the system is called the California State Water Project (SWP).
In wet years, it allocates roughly 25% of its water to agriculture.

By January 31, 2015, “The snowpack was at 25% of normal levels, according
to the San Francisco Chronicle. Many parts of the region reportedly did not even
have enough snow to measure.”

San Francisco gets its fresh water from a system called the Hetch Hetchy. At the
end of March 2015, the reservoir was in reasonable shape at 68% of its capacity.


In general, the allocation of California water from these many sources varies with
the seasons and the year, but may be roughly appreciated in the pie chart below.
This chart shows usage before the current drought.

Note that urban use is only10%. But this represents conditions before the drought.
During the last two years water transfers to agriculture have been cut off. The
total water transfers now arise from 80% surface and 20% ground sources.

Who is in Charge?
A number of state, federal and local agencies allocate and control the water. These
include: The Bureau of Reclamation, Association of California Water Agencies,
California Water Districts, Various Private Water Companies, The State
Government, The Department of the Water Resources, The EPA, The California
Public Utilities Commission, The Army Corp of Engineers, and the California
Water Quality Control Board.
So? Are we being well taken care if?

New Water Program Announced March 20, 2015
According to the SJ Mercury News, Gov. Brown announced a new, “one billion
dollar package of emergency legislation meant to help California weather its
crippling drought.” Remarkably, two thirds of the spending, or $600 million, is
earmarked for flood control projects. Yes, you read that correctly--flood control!
Other funds are dedicated to desalination projects. The Governor also insisted that
home owners water their grass only two times a week. But he didn’t mention how
long we could water each time.
Speaking of desalination, San Diego recently completed a reverse osmosis plant
which will deliver 50 million gallons of water a day. That output is 0.1% of the
water use in California in 2005. It will be delivered to utilities at a cost of about
$0.007 per gallon which already exceeds by 60% the typical residential delivered
water price of about $0.005 per gallon.
On April 1, the Governor announced a state-wide plan to reduce water
consumption by 25%, enforced partially by increasing water usage rates.

It has not occurred to Gov. Brown to build a new aqueduct
to new water sources? Like his father supported back in the
California is currently drying up with a prolonged draught. The Central Valley
agriculture could disappear. Remarkably, the State has no viable plans to alleviate
this problem. Our leaders would rather build a fast train to L.A. for $68 billion. If
you like almonds and walnuts, better stock up now.


According to Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at the NASA
Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech and a professor of Earth system
science at UC Irvine:
“Statewide, we've been dropping more than 12 million acre-feet of
total water yearly since 2011. Roughly two-thirds of these losses are
attributable to groundwater pumping for agricultural irrigation in the
Central Valley. Farmers have little choice but to pump more
groundwater during droughts, especially when their surface water
allocations have been slashed 80% to 100%. But these pumping rates
are excessive and unsustainable. Wells are running dry. In some areas
of the Central Valley, the land is sinking by one foot or more per year.

Water restrictions are just a taste of what's to come for California
As difficult as it may be to face, the simple fact is that California is
running out of water — and the problem started before our current
drought. NASA data reveal that total water storage in California has
been in steady decline since at least 2002, when satellite-based
monitoring began, although groundwater depletion has been going on
since the early 20th century.
Right now the state has only about one year of water supply
left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply,
groundwater, is rapidly disappearing. California has no contingency
plan for a persistent drought like this one (let alone a 20-plus-year
mega-drought), except, apparently, staying in emergency mode and
praying for rain.”

The California Drought. Leadership?
My good friend Ed Ward and I have attended several well attended meetings at
Stanford University on the subject of the drought in California. They have all been
disappointing—heavy on description of the problem—virtually absent on
reasonable solutions. The last one we attended was the more disappointing. It was
called The California Draught Panel. Three people associated with Stanford
University made presentations: a law professor, a man in charge of facilities at
Stanford, and one Ph.D. student in Environmental Science. The literature passed
out was blatant in its plea for funding so that Stanford could “innovate” and solve

the problem. Providing sufficient water for California requires known
engineering, not new science. The Romans built aqueducts for fresh water
2000 years ago.
The Roman aqueduct system extended a total of 258 miles, lasted for 1200 years
and delivered clean water using no electricity.

In response to the last meeting, paraphrasing, Ed wrote portions of the comments
The problem that must be addressed is the transport of fresh water from areas
where it exists to areas where it's needed. Water transport has been a California
issue since the early 1900's. In the late 1950's the issue was addressed with the
construction of the California aqueduct system supplying water to all of California
from where it existed to where it was needed. The system has been essential to the
growth and economy of the state. Fortunately, Gov. Pat Brown had the foresight to
look beyond the naysayers of the times and see through the construction of the
system. The problem of today is that the water is no longer where it used to be.
California must look to where it is now.

The Columbia River—at the Oregon / Washington State
Border. A Potential New Source of Water for California
One source is the Columbia River which currently discharges on average
265,000 cu ft/sec (2 million gal /sec), at maximum 1.2 million cu ft/ sec, and at
minimum 12,000 cu ft /sec. This water currently discharges into the Pacific

Ocean. This quantity of water is roughly one half the outflow of the
Mississippi River, the nation’s largest. Seen below is the Columbia near its
point of discharge.

The river is 1,243 miles long. Its drainage basin is roughly the size of France and
extends into seven U.S. states and a Canadian province. See below.
By volume, the Columbia is the fourth-largest river in the United States; it has the
greatest flow of any North American river draining into the Pacific. Its average
final output is 12 times that of the Colorado River into the Gulf.


California's total water transfer usage runs 60,000 to 70,000 cu ft /sec . The
Columbia out flow is thus on average four times the total water usage of water
in the State of California.
When the question was asked at the Stanford meeting about the transport of
this water to California by pipeline, the idea was summarily dismissed as too
expensive with no serious thought given to the idea. This same objection was
raised over the California aqueduct system. Fortunately, former Gov. Pat Brown
had the foresight to proceed in spite of the objections.
The solution to California's water problem is a straight forward engineering
problem. Yes, it would be expensive but when compared with the cost of the loss
of the agricultural output of California ($40 billion/year) the cost may not be so
The water needs to be transported from the Columbia River to Lake Shasta a
distance of approximately 350 miles -- approximately 1/2 of the length of the
existing California aqueduct system. The California aqueduct system was started in
1961 and has to-date spent approximately $4.3 billion for 25 dams and reservoirs,
18 pumping stations, 8 hydroelectric plants and 683 miles of aqueducts. The
aqueduct system can move up to 13,000 ft3/sec, or 7 to 9 acre feet per year. The
system requires large flow channels: 40 to 110 feet wide and 30-feet deep. See
“California Aqueduct” below.


The construction of such an aqueduct system from the Columbia River and across
Oregon would be expensive but may be the only way to solve California's water
The existing aqueduct system has cost $4.3 billion. Allowing for an 8X increase in
construction costs via inflation, the construction of the system should cost on the
order of $20 billion - no small sum but considerably less than the estimated $65
billion for the high speed train.
The value of ensuring adequate water to California far exceeds the value of a high
speed train. Cost is not a reason not to consider the transport of water from the
Columbia River.
We recently spent $1 billion for a 50 million gallon/day (77 cu ft. / sec)
desalination plant in San Diego. The output is far too small to significantly address
the overall problem. New water capacity - water transport is the only viable
solution. The state cannot be allowed to run out of water. Desalination plants are
not the answer due to their high cost and low output.
Governor Jerry Brown’s legacy may not be his new bullet train, but rather the
loss of Central Valley agriculture.
The cost of electric power to move the water is low. Using the numbers below, the
cost to move water in the 700 mile “State Water Project” is $8X10-5 per gallon.
This is roughly 60 times less that the selling price of commercial delivered home
water in California
The following data is from is from “A. GIV, SWP, Dept. of Water Resources,

Cost of electric power used in system… $192 million
Water delivered south… 7 X106 af/yr.

Approximate Cost of Transporting From the Columbia River
Water transported via aqueducts such as those used in the Calfornia Aqueduct,
pumping stations and so forth could make its way across Oregon to Shasta Lake in
similar fashion to the presesnt CA State Water Project. Moving the water would be
cost effective. We can make a rough calculation usng data from the current cost of
today’s 700 mile SWP. In years where stored supplies are adequate, the SWP
reportedly moves about 4-million acre ft per year for a cost of $600 million. This
mumber includes the electric power, debt service and maintenance. This comes to
$0.0005 per gallon. Assume our new water transport from the Columbia River to
Lake Shasta would be the same cost, but ratioed up with increased volume.
Assume we would like to greatly reduce pumpung ground-water. Keep most of it
in the bank, so to speak. In high-rate dry years, we pump roughly 14-million acre
feet per year from under the ground in the Central Valley. This is 144,000 gallons
per sec or 19,300 cu ft per sec., a value about 7% of the average dischagre rate of
the Colunbia River. Assume we design the new sysyen to transport water at the
same rate as the Califurnia Aqueduct which is about 97,000 gal per second. This is
2/3 of the higher ground-water pumping rates mentioned above. Those in Oregon
and Washington would never miss it. And we would get new water at a cost rate of
about 17% that of desalination. Oregan would make money from it.

This is not a new idea. For example, the followwing appeared five
years ago in the “Oregon Catalyst”
Columbia River Water Next Export to California
by Jerry Dawson Saturday, December 12. 2009

“Speculation is high that Oregon has, for the first time, begun formal
exploration into the feasibility of sending surplus water from the Columbia River
south to thirsty California. The success of the recently announced giant wind farm
has water export proponents salivating at the chance to tap just a small portion of
the average 265,000 cubic feet of water per second that slips by Oregon, unused
but for power generation, fish habitat and limited shipping.
Closed-door sessions have been held privately in recent months to discuss
the very future of the Columbia River as we know it today. People have been asking
for Oregon’s water for a long time. In 1990 Kenneth Hahn, an LA County
Supervisor, formally requested water from Oregon via pipe to offset the severe
water shortages they were experiencing. Then governor Neil Goldschmidt said no to
the request, as did then Washington governor Booth Gardner.


Oh, how times have changed. With Oregon now leading the way in green
power exports with the proposed Shepherds’ Flat Wind Farm, many around the
state see the opportunity to export water as the next logical export. Raymond
Branxton, a leading proponent of the plan to export water, said recently, “Why
wouldn’t we do this? Our state is one of the worst in the entire nation in
unemployment and in shortages of state revenue. This extra water, and there is
extra, believe me, is like gold or oil. Billions of dollars are at stake. And every single
hour we simply watch as over six billion gallons of water goes by, untapped, and
empties into the vast Pacific Ocean. I say tap it and tap it now. I am talking with
government officials on a regular basis.”
It is estimated that Oregon could supply California with approximately 8
billion gallons of water each day [93,000 per sec] without any deleterious effect on
either the environment or shipping. That amount of water could easily end, forever,
the shortages that have plagued Southern California for decades. At the same time,
jobs and revenue would flow into Oregon in numbers never seen before. It is
estimated that at least 7,000 new temporary jobs would be created to construct the
pipe and that 125 permanent jobs would be created in maintaining the pipe and
pumps needed to supply the water. Revenue for this water, at current California
rates, could easily top six million dollars per day or more. “That is over two billion
dollars of revenue per year for Oregon for something that costs Oregon nothing,”
noted Branxton. How anyone could oppose this in times like these is a
mystery to me,” exclaimed Branxton at a recent secret meeting to discuss water
export. “The pipe can go right next to the power lines and we can run the pumps
with the wind power. It is simply amazing to me that we have not moved forward
on this much sooner. Goldschmidt is long gone — maybe our next governor will
have the foresight to put this much-needed plan into place,”Branxton predicted.”

Final Comment-----So? Will this happen? Only if a leader somehow emerges.
More likely in a few years we will say goodbye to California Central Valley agriculture and its
2.5 million jobs. But not to worry, we can get what we need from China. In cans. …..And Good


Typical California water curmudgeon, retired, with daughter…….
Jim Cunningham