“The End of California?” is the headline of Timothy Egan’s New York Times op ed piece for May 3. “California,” he says, “from this drought onward, will be a state transformed.… The Golden State may recover, but it won’t be the same place.”
As dire as that sounds, an aggressive statewide effort – to use water more efficiently, reuse wastewater and capture lost stormwater – could save enough water to serve 20 cities the size of Los Angeles every year, according to a new analysis released by the Pacific Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Now in its fourth year of drought, the state’s reservoirs are running low, lakes are turning into mud puddles, some rivers will go completely dry. The drought led to the death of 12.5 million trees in California forests last year, greatly increasing the danger of wildfires. The Sierra snowpack was only 5 percent of normal in April, following the driest winter on record.
Governor Jerry Brown ordered the first mandatory statewide water rationing for cities in early April.
Finding solutions to California’s water problems is no simple matter – but we must keep trying to find innovative and technological answers to better usage practices. Eighty-two percent of this large and varied state was in extreme or exceptional drought last November, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
California 4-year drought map, 2011–2015.
Source: National Drought Mitigation Center.
Value of CA water & farming
Eighty percent of the water used in California goes to farms, and nearly a fifth of the state’s energy use goes toward moving the water around, including pumping it over the mountains to Los Angeles.
Low-value crops have become uneconomical to farm in areas where water has become scarce and expensive. California’s Central Valley, through which the San Joaquin flows, grows 40% of U.S. fruits and 80% of the world’s almonds. These are high-value cash crops, but they need a lot of water. Ten percent of California’s water supply is used for almonds alone – many of which are exported overseas. Only the richest corporate farmers can survive in this drought.
Last September, CNN columnist John D. Sutter wrote about his 417-mile trip down the San Joaquin River, designated by American Rivers as the United States’ “most endangered” river in 2014. As Sutter says, “Depending on what happens soon, it could become a river reborn, or a drainage ditch.”
The San Joaquin has federal protection, yet it is a river that is broken. Within living memory it was packed with an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 spring-run salmon. But now it is so over-drawn that a 40-mile stretch in its midsection is always dry. The migration route has been destroyed.
The Central Valley has increasingly high levels of groundwater pollution, some so bad that some people can’t drink from the tap. The extremely high rates of poverty in the Central Valley are also increasing since the lack of water for farms means fewer agricultural jobs are available. Access to the river is largely forbidden because it’s lined by private property; some people don’t even know it dries up not far from there.
Subsidence during this drought has been documented at nearly one foot per year near Los Banos due to excessive withdrawals of the groundwater. Still-expanding orchards of profitable almonds and fruit trees need water year round, not just during fruiting season – thus creating higher demands for irrigation and negating the former ability of Central Valley farmers of tomatoes and other seasonal vegetables to fallow their lands during droughts such as this.
In August, the Tulare County Office of Emergency Services had 12-gallon-per person rations of bottled water delivered, where at least 182 of the 1,400 households in East Porterville reported having no or not enough water. Because dry wells on private property are rarely reported, the real number is likely far greater, according to the state.
The problem was partly due to the shallowness of some residential wells that are replenished by groundwater from the Tule River. The drought has greatly lowered river flows. The state Department of Water Resources reported in November that more than 1,480 domestic well failures in 36 counties had been reported, more than half in Tulare County.
Water resources & water rights
Further complicating the situation is the complex set of appropriations that determine California’s century-old water rights laws. Competing interests are vying for an increasingly dwindling resource.
The State Water Resources Control Board has warned water rights holders to expect restrictions on their right to divert water from rivers and streams. On April 27, 2015, the Board announced it had approved a petition to allow transfers of water south of the Delta to needy water districts, including the Kern Tulare Water District and the The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD).
Several water districts south of the Delta, including MWD, which serves the coastal and most heavily populated portions of Southern California from Ventura County to San Diego County, are offering $700 an acre-foot to water agencies in the Sacramento Valley.
Problems with oil field wastewater
Last summer, state officials abruptly shut down 11 waste-injection wells in Kern County after the federal EPA found that the state had allowed companies to drill more than 170 waste-disposal wells into aquifers suitable for drinking or irrigation. Hundreds more wells inject wastewater into lower-quality aquifers that could have been used with more intense treatment. Most of the waste-injection wells are in the Central Valley. One farmer near Bakersfield blames oil companies for tainting the aquifer that used to feed his cherry trees. 3500 dying trees had to be removed, damaged by high levels of salt and boron in the water.
In Kern County, Chevron recycles 21 million gallons a day of waste water from oil fields, using various filtering methods to remove oil and chemicals. Chevron sells the treated water for about $30 an acre-foot, about half the open-market rate, to farmers who use it on about 10 percent of Kern County’s farmland. Though the program is two decades old, there are new concerns about crops raised with oil field water. Acetone and methylene chloride have been found in water moving through the irrigation canals from Chevron’s plant to farmers’ fields. Farmers can smell the petrochemicals in the irrigation water and trust that microorganisms in the soil are removing the toxins, but it’s unclear how much is removed and how much makes its way into the food chain.
In April, the Central Valley water authority notified all oil producers of broader testing requirements under California’s new fracking disclosure regulations requiring oil companies to tell the state which chemicals they use in oil-extraction processes so that testing agencies will know what to test for. Oil producers must submit their reports by June 15.
As mentioned, the Pacific Institute and NRDC reported that California could save up to 14 million acre-feet of water a year. Their June 2014 report (PDF) summarizes the problem: California’s water supply strategy has been based on reservoirs for surface waters and on wells to tap the aquifers. Even in wet years, the rivers are over-allocated. Overdrafting of groundwater is so severe the subsidance of the land has damaged public roads and even water-delivery canals.
Green Infrastructure (GI): The good news is that there are opportunities to save 11 to 14 million acre-feet of water through cost-effective strategies that are technically feasible and more resistant to drought than the current system, and are compatible with healthy river basins and groundwater management. A series of issue briefs by Pacific Institute summarize the trends and the potential for improvements in agricultural and urban water conservation and efficiency, water reuse and stormwater capture.
A study of green infrastructure (PDF) by experts from The Dow Chemical Company, Shell, Swiss Re, and Unilever, working with The Nature Conservancy, finds that constructed and natural resources can be successfully used to replace gray infrastructure treatment plants. The study used two constructed wetlands for treating industrial wastewater, and found that initial capital expenses were significantly lower than for conventional gray infrastructure; operating expenses were minimal; energy requirements were significantly lower, carbon footprint and energy costs were reduced; and operational performance was satisfactory, being 100% compliant upon startup and for over 15 years in one case. These constructed wetlands also provide habitat for deer, bobcats, fish and birds, and educational opportunities for local schools.
Desalination: For coastal communities desalination is another source of fresh water. But because this process is energy intensive and the concentrated brine must be carefully disposed of, it comes at a high price. Researchers are now working on three new desalination technologies that require less energy.
Market Pricing: What is water’s economic value? Should the price of water be set by the free market? Water from a desalination plant opening soon near San Diego will cost about $2,000 per acre-foot, about what some almond farmers are paying to keep their trees alive. For the average California household using 360 gallons of water a day, that would come to $67 a month. Would that be too much to pay?
Market pricing would encourage conservation and investment in water-saving technologies, and make development of new infrastructure more cost-effective.
But water is an essential resource. In a water market, how can the needs of poor public districts be met when they could be outbid by rich and politically powerful communities?
Whatever the winning solutions turn out to be, California will be a state transformed.