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When it comes to water Californians have attempted to have it all. We want a long dry season of mild temperatures under cloudless skies. We want parks and landscaping that looks like an English country estate. We want fisheries and a scenic natural environment and agriculture that puts food on the table at a reasonable price. Keeping all those balls in the air is becoming an increasingly impossible task.

I have a vivid memory of the mid 1970s. At the same time that we were experiencing the first national energy crisis from gasoline supply California was having a particularly severe drought from 1975-1977. People began to talk seriously about the need to do things differently. However, the rains returned and the oil began to flow again. It was business as usual once more.

California's water problems have gotten progressively worse since then. We have the same historical cycles of alternating wet and dry years. However, the population has continued to expand and the demand for water has increased while the supply has not. Increasingly the wet years are not sufficient to supply all the needs and replenish the storage from the dry years. There are conflicting interests competing for a finite supply of a natural resource.

Agriculture is by far the largest user of California water. Farmers get their water from the statewide irrigation system and from pumping ground water. As irrigation deliveries are decreased ground water pumping is increased. Rainfall is insufficient to replenish the aquifers and ground subsidence is occurring in some locations.

California's Central Valley is one of the most fertile and productive agricultural areas of the world. Clearly it is needed for essential food production. However, there is significant production of water intensive crops such as cotton and rice. One option is to restrict agriculture to less water intensive crops and require more efficient means of irrigation such as drip systems. The present water system was built with public funds. Agriculture is being subsidized by the public.

The preservation of fisheries and endangered species are another competing demand for water resources. Flows in rivers must be maintained at a level sufficient to provide for the migration and reproduction of fish. The giant pumps that pull water from the delta suck up fish and destroy them. Federal law such as the endangered species act has provided a basis for allocating water to environmental protection. As a result federal judges have routinely become referees in California water disputes.

Southern California is an area of vast urban sprawl that is dependent on water being imported from Northern California and the Colorado River basin to maintain its golf courses and swimming pools. A federal water compact was developed in 1922to allocate water to the various states with water sheds in the Colorado River basin. At the time some of the less developed states did not need their entire allocation and California was allowed to draw more water from the basin than its allocation. In recent years the other states have demanded their full share. California was unwilling to voluntarily reduce its pumping. The federal courts have stepped in to enforce the compact. This means that Southern California is going to have its water supply reduced.

Global warming climate change will doubtless have an impact of California's water situation. One of the most obvious impacts is that less of the precipitation will fall as snow and the snow that does fall will melt more quickly. This will have the effect of reducing the amount of water that can be stored while maintaining flood control capacity.

It may or may not mean less rain. Given the variable nature of the historical climate it will take time to sort out long term change from seasonal fluctuations. One of the factors in the El Nino phenomenon is a change in ocean temperatures. Warmer oceans could mean more rainfall but the storm track is likely to be altered so that the rain doesn't match up with the storage facilities.

The people of California are a long way from accepting a future that entails major reductions in the usage of water. Before the State Water Project was completed in the 1960s people were already coming up with new schemes for more water. The state's heaviest rainfall typically occurs on the north coast. Much of that water is left to natural flow. There's a beautiful spot in Northern Mendocino Co. called Round Valley with the Eel River flowing through it. One plan was to turn this into a reservoir to hold the water that was being "wasted" in the north coast rivers. They would then blast a tunnel through the mountains making it possible to pump the water into the Central Valley and send it on its way to Southern California.

While that scheme got quashed we have a current version of the silver bullet that will solve the problems.

Water interests argue new state dam proposals    

Scheuring's group and others stand behind three big projects they argue would not inflict the environmental harm of past dams: The expansion of Los Vaqueros Reservoir in Contra Costa County, the Temperance Flat dam on the San Joaquin River above Friant Dam, and Sites Reservoir, which would flood the Antelope Valley in Colusa County.

Funding for these projects is part of the $11B water bond initiative that the legislature has placed on the Nov 2010 ballot. Gov. Schwarzenegger has now gotten cold feet and is trying to get it removed from the ballot because he thinks it won't pass.

The peripheral canal is another water project that rears its head on a regular basis. It would create a bypass around the delta making it more "efficient" to shift water to the south. It was on the statewide ballot in 1982 and was overwhelmingly defeated. It is now being dragged out again.

The use of ocean water by means of desalination has also been a perennially favorite proposal. This involves the construction of a giant still that boils the salt water to get the salt out. That of course requires large amounts of energy, something else that is in short supply. It appears that such a project is about to come into existence.    

Monterey area looks to sea for drinking water  

In the wake of a November "cease and desist" order by state regulators requiring Monterey County's main water purveyor to slash its diversions from the Carmel River 70 percent by 2016, an ambitious regional desalination project has emerged as the best - and arguably only - way to slake the thirst of about 100,000 customers on the peninsula.

California has been arguing over water longer than most of the rest of the country. However, it is an issue that is becoming increasingly common elsewhere. The issues vary from place to place but the problem is the same. Water and energy are finite resources and their sources and usage have profound environmental implications. Any attempts to change the way we produce and use these resources have major economic implications. Costs to consumers are likely to be increased by solutions and jobs for ordinary people will be effected by impacts on industry. There aren't any easy solutions, but the time for kicking the can down the road for a few more years is running out.

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Originally posted to Richard Lyon on Wed Jul 07, 2010 at 12:08 PM PDT.

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