©2000 Cascadia Times
Growth in the South
is Straining Rivers in the North
by Paul Koberstein
SACRAMENTO The three most important things to know
about a piece of real estate, as they say, are location, location and
location. That may be true most places, but not in Southern California,
where the burning question has to do with water. As in, Where can I get
For most of the 20th Century, Southern Californias answer was steal
it. The Southlands politicians used every trick imaginable
to get their hands on someone elses water, whether it belonged to
folks in the Owens Valley (and Mono Lake), Arizona, Mexico or Northern
California. As late as the 1990s, Schemers floated ideas to take water
from the Columbia River and British Columbia. Californias water
wars made for a great movie (Chinatown), a best-selling book (Cadillac
Desert) and an epic Mark Twain line (in California, whiskey is for drinking,
water is for fighting over).
Southern California usually got its water, and just as often the rivers
got screwed. In 1979, with the construction of New Melones Reservoir east
of Stockton, the dam-building craze finally ended; by then, 660 dams blocked
California rivers. In the 1990s, California turned to restoring its rivers.
The public approved a $1 billion ballot measure for river restoration,
targeted dozens of dams for removal, and demanded that Los Angeles return
water to both the Colorado River and Mono Lake, which it now has done.
That would be the end of the story, except for one inconvenient fact:
The Southland's population is expected to grow by about 43 percent to
about 22.3 million people by 2020.
But before newcomers buy that gleaming new ranchette in Riverside, they
might ask: Wheres the water?
The answer is: There is no water.
There is no surplus ready to tap. There is no water that isnt owned
or used by someone, or some living thing.
In fact, officials now predict that California will experience annual
shortages of 4 million acre-feet to 6 million acre-feet by 2010 unless
steps are taken now to address the declining reliability of the state's
water supply system.
Even if there were a surplus, environmentalists say it should remain
in rivers, which are showing promising signs of recovery. But the recovery
could stall if Californias rivers have to give up more water to
the rapidly growing Southland.
With every new subdivision, and every new green lawn, the Southland digs
a deeper and deeper hole. It cant get out by stealing water anymore.
But water can be bought.
During the last big drought from 1987-1992, Southern California
had never been so desperate for water. With prodding from Congress, water
districts and farmers, the 14 state and federal bureaucracies that control
California water began working on a grand plan to increase supplies. To
meet the challenge of delivering more water to the Southland, without
hurting farming or the environment, they created a new mega-bureaucracy
On June 9, 2000, CALFED unveiled a proposal that, in every way, seems
sufficiently grandiose. California not only would have its first big water
project since the 1960s, but the biggest one ever.
At a press conference on the steps of the State Capitol, Governor Gray
Davis said CALFED would create the largest comprehensive water program
in the world spending a total of $8 billion over its first
seven years. It offered something for every interest. The plan spends
$1.3 billion on restoring rivers, plus $1.5 billion on new storage projects.
It adds $1 billion for improving water quality and another $3 billion
for using water more efficiently.
But thats just the start. Over the next 30 years, the program could
cost tens of billions more.
Davis and the other politicians at the podium declared the fighting over.
From now on, water will be for collaboration and consensus, not war, and
people will drink California cabernet or pale ale.
Davis called the plan an unprecedented collaboration among state
and federal agencies and the states leading urban agricultural and
environmental interests. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, standing
next to Davis, said California's long tradition of battling over water
would be relegated to the history books once and for all.
As Californias Sen. Dianne Feinstein put it, everyone should be
happy. It can bring more certainty for farmers, mechanisms for improved
water quality for those who drink the water, a more adequate supply for
Silicon Valley, and the development of a system that is more balanced."
But the happiest of all should be the people who drink water delivered
by the Metropolitan Water District. "This is a good framework we
can move forward on and then work on details," said a satisfied Timothy
Quinn, Metropolitans deputy general manager.
Metropolitan will get water thats cleaner, cooler and more plentiful.
Where will it come from? In this state, farmers use 80 percent of all
the developed water. The plan, however, guarantees them an increase. The
rivers are the obvious solution. But how can you get river- concerned
Californians to agree?
They wont. Not if Zeke Grader has anything to do about it.
Zeke Grader is leader of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens
Associations, and is one of the most influential advocates for salmon
in the West. Based in San Francisco, his job is to speak for the people
who make a living catching fish, and for the fish themselves. Graders
group has been a force for protecting salmon in every Pacific state. It
takes the principled stand of using the power of the Endangered Species
Act to protect fish, even if it costs fishing jobs. Most recently, PCFFA
joined other organizations as a plaintiff in a lawsuit to protect salmon
in the Klamath River (see A Broken River, page xx).
A reporter asked Grader if he thought the CALFED plan will solve everything.
Are the wars over?
No, theyre not over, he says. Its not over
with. People are deluding themselves if they think it is over with. This
was Munich. They sent Chamberlain when they should have sent Churchill.
California has been short of the water it needs in most years, and those
shortages have always been met at the expense of fish and the environment,
Grader says. The new plan continues down that road.
Overall this is creating a net withdrawal, he says. As
much as one million acre feet of water being taken out of the San Francisco
Bay-Delta system. Theres not good accounting so we dont know
Barry Nelson of the Natural Resources Defense Council says that while
CALFEDs plan will not end conflicts over water, it does represent
a step forward. Water users are recognizing the only way they are
going to get stability in their water supply is if we dedicate more water
to ecosystem protection. A lot of money is dedicated to ecosystem restoration.
But Nelson and others criticize the planned expansion of two reservoirs,
including Shasta, north of Redding. CALFED would also invest in new underground
storage in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, and on islands in the
Delta. In later years, CALFED will look at a number of other storage projects,
including a larger Friant Dam near Fresno.
The rivers cant give up much more water, weve developed
this watershed so intensively, Nelson says. CALFED describes
the projects as relatively small. But if you add them up you get 1 million
acre feet of storage. You can do a lot of environmental damage with that.
Years ago, the Feather River often flooded parts of the Central
Valley north of Sacramento. In 1960, California voters brought the Feather
under control by approving a ballot measure to build Oroville Dam, a monstrous
earthen wall across the Feather, and the State Water Project. The State
Water Project diverts the flows from Oroville into a canal that eventually
reaches Los Angeles. The project takes water from other rivers along the
When driving through the surrounding farms of the Sacramento Valley ,
its easy to get a sense how people feel about water exports to Los
Angeles. No more water exports to the South, declares a sign
posted in a field near Corning.
Even if CALFED expands Shasta, none of the 300,000 acre-feet of new water
to be stored there will be used in Northern California. Farming communities
here have fought water grabs in the past, and are poised to
do so once again.
This plan gives very little, if anything, to Northern California,
while giving the south state nearly everything, said Maurice Johannessen,
a Republican state senator from Redding. As chair of a key Senate committee
on CALFED, he has promised to safeguard our water and property rights.
U.S. Rep. Wally Herger is more blunt. In comments to the Redding Record-Searchlight,
the towns daily paper, Herger called the CALFED plan an assault
on Northern California and the height of bureaucratic and
Though mostly Republican, farmers at the southern end of the San Joaquin
Valley, are singing praises for the plan and one of its authors, the governor,
who happens to be a Democrat. Crooned Fred Starrh, board president of
the Ken County Water Agency: Davis, Davis, hes our man. If
he cant do it, no one can.
About 100 miles south of Oroville, the Sacramento River blends
with the north-flowing San Joaquin River, and with brackish tidal water
from San Francisco Bay, to form the Delta. The Bay-Delta ecosystem is
the embattled heart of the water supply system that powers California's
The Bay-Delta's 738,000 acres of farmland and wildlife habitat provide
drinking water to two-thirds of the state's population, and habitat for
120 species of fish. The Delta also provides irrigation water for millions
of acres of farmland, comprised of 200 different crops, including 45 percent
of the nation's fruits and vegetables. Since much of this land is below
sea level, levees must protect the 520,000 acres of farmland. Competition
for water among human versus environmental needs has endangered some species,
and threatened water supplies in and around the Bay-Delta.
The Delta also provides most of Southern Californias fresh water.
Figuring out a way to restore a healthy Delta, without disrupting supplies
in the Southland, is the key environmental issue in the CALFED debate.
The plan attempts to solve these problems with a lengthy list of projects,
· $1 billion for ecosystem restoration projects in the Delta,
the Sacramento River corridor, and Bay-Delta tributaries.
· $300 million for local projects that contribute too ecosystem
restoration, water quality improvement and water supply reliability.
· Various changes to the system of pumping and moving water through
the Delta. These could include new fish screens at state and federal pumping
plants and a controverisal new canal to improve waster quality for Silicon
· $800 million for water quality programs to continuously improve
Delta water quality for all users. Actions include developing a Bay Area
blending/exchange program; addressing drainage problems in the San Joaquin
Valley, implementing a source water protection program, and investing
in treatment technology development.
· $1.3 billion in loan and grant programs for agricultural and
urban water use efficiency.
· $1.6 billion program for water recycling projects.
· $450 million for Delta levee system maintenance and improvements.
The plan also calls for storing 380,000 acre-feet in an Environmental
Water Account that could be drawn when needed for fish. Project
managers would send pulses of this water downstream at critical
times for spawning and migration.
However, the plan would suspend enforcement of the Endangered Species
Act for four years. The plan will not allow any reductions in water deliveries
to city and farm users resulting from measures to protect listed species.
At the same time, it calls for an increase in water deliveries to farmers
south of the Delta of about 15 percent.
"There are assurances of how much water farmers will receive, but
there aren't the same assurances to protect the environment,'' said Elyssa
Rosen, a Sierra Club spokeswoman. "There's reliability for farmers
but none for fish.''
Indeed, some farmers doubt the fish will ever see that water, and they
arent volunteering to give any of theirs away. Said Richard Moss,
manager of the Friant Water Users Authority in the southern Central Valley,
I dont think theres that much water sloshing around.
Back in San Francisco, Grader is pondering the next moves. A lawsuit
is possible. Grader would like to see innovative solutions that dont
remove water from the Delta. California could begin regulating groundwater,
and try linking growth with water availability.
The package lacks vision and courage, he says. The
best way to store water is underground. It doesnt cost you anything,
you build no reservoirs so theres no evaporation, and it protects
your existing aquifers.
If you store water underground, you have to make sure no one steals it.
But California does not closely monitor groundwater use. California
should have the toughest groundwater laws in the nation, not the weakest.
Though several groundwater storage projects are under study, their chances
of success depend on local support. One grass-roots group, Families Protecting
the Valley, has condemned a proposal for underground storage in Madera
County, in part because the developer is the Texas-based multinational,
Enron. Farmers fear Enron would make a killing exporting their water to
Las Vegas or Los Angeles. Locally owned water banks in the Bakersfield
area, however, have been successful, benefiting from local support and
Grader says the state should require communities to plan their growth
around water supplies. The CALFED plan says nothing about sprawl; nor
does it encourage cities to fill in rather than spread out.
Its the nature of sprawl that you have lawns, and a higher
water usage than for people living in more compacted urban areas,
Grader says. Developers and land speculators are buying cheap land
in the desert, building suburbs and then demanding water. The water must
be stolen from another use, from fish and increasingly from agriculture.
Unless you require builders and land speculators to show us the water
before they get permits, there is never going to be an end to this.