By now most people have probably heard that California and other western states are facing what could be the worst drought since Europeans first arrived on the scene. There is simply not enough water to go around and choices are going to have to be made among the various competing interest. The main battle line is being drawn between agricultural interests and environmental use. Congressional Republicans are using their legislative artillery on behalf of agribiz.
California drought produces thirst for water – and political solutions
Big dams, bitter feuds and some political bombshells surface in a California water bill slated for lickety-split House approval next week.
One new dam would be authorized for the Upper San Joaquin River. Another would get a green light to store Sacramento River water at a new Sites Reservoir. The existing Shasta Dam, already the state's seventh largest, could grow taller.
And all of that takes only one technical sentence, on page 20 of a 68-page bill the House is set to approve within days. There's much more, in a bill whose rapid acceleration through the Republican-controlled House is spurred by California's drought, as well as the forgoing of traditional congressional hearings and oversight.
Gov. Jerry Brown has come out in strong opposition to the bill. At this point Southern California is in a fairly good position to make it through another dry year. In recent years they have increased local storage capacity and improved conservation measures. It is the agricultural interest who are the biggest users of water and the most likely to sustain a major economic impact from the situation. A large portion of these operations are corporately owned factories in the field and not small family farms of political lore.
Understanding this battle requires a grasp of the practical realities of water in California. To begin with the climate in the west is very different from what it is in the eastern part of the country. From north to south on the Pacific coast there is a steady drop in average annual rainfall. The average annual rainfall in Crescent City in the far northern end of the state is 67 ins. In San Diego it is 10 ins. That means that most of the precipitation available to the state falls in the far north. The further south you go the more dependent areas become on water imported from somewhere else. This is what the water system looks like.
There is only one river left in the state that is not dammed and managed. That is the Smith in the far northwest. Most every drop of water that falls has somebody's name on it in a complex system of interlocking water rights. There is a large array of irrigation and municipal water districts, but by far the two most important water agencies are the US Bureau of Reclamation and the CA State Water project.
The federally operated Central Valley Project was established as one of the major public works projects of the new deal. It collects and stores water in the states largest reservoirs at the head of the Sacramento Valley and on the American River. The primary users of this water are agricultural users of the San Joaquin Valley. The CA Water Project operated by the state collects water on the Feather River and stored in the reservoir created by the Oroville Dam. Some of that water goes to agricultural use and some of it is pumped over the Tehachipi Mountains to Southern California.
Both agencies release water that ultimately flows down the Sacramento River and into what is known as the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta. Once upon a time the San Joaquin actually flowed north and out into the ocean. The status if that river is one of the many controversies. The present practical reality is that it is the delta of the Sacramento River. Both agencies operate giant pumping stations on the south side of the delta that pull out Sacramento River water and send it south before it can flow into the ocean. On the map you can see the California Aqueduct and the Delta Mendota Canal which transport this water.
The delta and the San Francisco Bay estuary are ground zero in the environmental war.
The delta is a fresh water environment. The bay has varying levels of salinity and the ocean is of course a salt water environment. Historically the rivers had sufficient flow even during the dry season to prevent salt water intrusion into the delta. The running battle for many years has been over maintaining sufficient fresh water flow to protect the delta environment and habitat for threatened and endangered species. The various species of salmon are all at serious risk. The agricultural interests that are behind the Republican bill see the water that is being allocated to environmental protection as wasted. There are a number of complicated issues involved in California's water problems. However, this is a major environmental issue and one that will continue to be at the center of the political controversies. Having a grasp of what is involved is helpful to anybody who is trying to keep track of it.