‘Wasting’ Water? Think Again
River Flows Ensure Water Quality for Cities, Farms, and Fish
Here in Santa Barbara, the water crisis is generating anxiety — but also reasoned and reasonable responses, from conservation to limited desalination. But in the San Joaquin Valley, anxiety has transmuted into outright fear — and anger.
You see it in the signs. They’re as ubiquitous as almond groves, tumbleweeds, and jackrabbits. The wording differs from sign to sign, but the message is the same: Stop Dumping Our Water into the Ocean. Build More Dams. Stop Wasting Our Dam Water.
It’s a natural response to a crisis situation. California agriculture depends on water, and anxiety is naturally rising in the valley’s farming communities as reservoir levels fall and aquifers are depleted.
But the signs also represent polarized thinking that neither reflects reality nor points to any practical solution to our water dilemma. There are multiple constituencies for California’s water, and all must have a seat at the table. Water is a public trust resource, and it must be shared equitably.
Likewise, its storage and transportation can’t adversely — and unfairly — affect the rights of any stakeholder.
The simple fact is this: Water flowing down the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, through their joint delta, and out the Golden Gate is not wasted water. It’s a dedicated resource that ensures acceptable water quality for cities, family farms in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, and a Bay/Delta estuary rich in fish and wildlife.
Agriculture consumes 80 percent of the developed water in California — but it accounts for only 2 percent of the state’s GDP. Much of that water is used to irrigate the industrial farms of the western San Joaquin Valley.
But back to the dams. If we just build more reservoirs, won’t there be abundant water for all?
We already have plenty of reservoirs; every river in California that can be dammed has been dammed, except for a very few that have been granted “wild and scenic” status. The problem is that there’s not enough water to fill the reservoirs we have. Cachuma Lake is one example. Another is Shasta Lake — the primary water source for the massive Central Valley Project. It is now approaching its lowest recorded level. Virtually every other major reservoir in the state is in the same fix. New reservoirs are worthless if we don’t have enough water to fill them.
Further, many of the dams that are currently operating are flouting the law. Section 5937 of the State Fish and Game Code requires dam owners to “ … allow sufficient water at all times … to pass over, around, or through the dam, to keep in good condition any fish that may be planted or exist below the dam.”
That necessarily entails letting water flow in its natural course to the sea, maintaining the cold temperatures in our rivers and creating the brackish conditions in our estuaries that allow native fish and wildlife to thrive.
Despite this unambiguous language, dam operators generally have not abided by Section 5937, nor have state agencies enforced it. Pending lawsuits are likely to affect this situation, however, further complicating the approval and construction of new impoundments.
Another inconvenient truth: water rights claims currently exceed the amount of water available in California by more than five times. New reservoirs can’t begin to compensate for this shortfall. We need to accurately quantify the amount of water we have and are likely to have as the climate changes, and plan accordingly — not waste taxpayer dollars and wreak environmental havoc through new dams.
Pragmatic and cost-effective drought strategies are numerous, and include conservation, recycling, aquifer recharge, and the retirement of hundreds of thousands of acres of salt-laden irrigated croplands in the western San Joaquin Valley. Through these measures, we’ll have enough water for cities, responsible agriculture — and the natural systems that sustain us all.
Carolee Krieger is executive director of the California Water Impact Network.