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Environmental Issues and Water

Environmental concerns have closely followed California’s development of water resources since its earliest days as a state.

Early miners harnessed water to dislodge gold through hydraulic mining. Debris resulting from these mining practices washed down in rivers and streams, choking them and harming aquatic life and causing flooding.

Elsewhere, water fueled an agricultural boom in the Central Valley and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. As part of that, farmers built levees, pumped water and irrigated the land. Similarly, beginning in the late 19th century, water also played a big role in the rise of California’s cities.

But up until World War II, such use of water was mostly unregulated by the state government.

By the 1970s, however, environmental awareness had grown to an extent that environmental considerations were factored into the water supply equation.

California Environmental Regulation

Since the 1970s, California has pioneered some of the toughest state environmental legislation.

New laws focused attention on “instream uses” of water to benefit fish and wildlife, recreation, water quality and aesthetics – uses to which price tags cannot easily be attached. By 1990, these uses rivaled such traditional benefits as irrigation and navigation in importance. Such instream uses are recognized by the state constitution and Water Code as beneficial, and must be considered in administrative decisions and in issuing water rights permits.

The California Legislature was the first in the country to protect rare plants and animals through passage of the California Endangered Species Act in 1970, and Congress followed suit in 1973 by passing the federal ESA.

Also in 1970, the California Environmental Quality Act and the National Environmental Policy Act were passed, requiring lead public agencies to prepare and submit for public review environmental impact reports and statements on major projects with potentially significant environmental effects.

As part of this, in 1972 the state Legislature moved to preserve the North Coast’s free-flowing rivers from development by passing the California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act [on the heels of the national Wild and Scenic Rivers Act passed in 1968], preserving about a quarter of the state’s undeveloped water in its natural state. The act prohibits construction of dams or diversion facilities, except to serve local needs, on portions or entire rivers around the state.

The 1972 federal Clean Water Act is also one of the nation’s most sweeping environmental laws. In addition to water quality standards, the CWA regulates the filling or dredging of wetland areas. Through this and other environmental laws, the government began protecting wetlands, which filter pollutants, absorb flood waters, recharge groundwater and shelter fish and wildlife.

More than 90 percent of the Central Valley wetlands have been destroyed by human activity, creating environmental issues across the Central Valley.

Environmental Regulation Backlash

There has been some backlash against environmental laws by critics who claim the laws put environmental preservation above people.

In two U.S. Supreme Court decisions, property-rights advocates have successfully limited the reach of environmental protection. In one case the court significantly expanded the class of individuals and entities who can sue under the federal ESA to include those claiming economic injuries arising from ESA-based actions. Another case determined a landowner who was restricted from developing her property, which is a wetland, could go to trial and seek compensation for alleged economic loss caused by the land use restriction.

Federal and state initiatives during the 1990s tried to reduce ESA conflicts by replacing the single-species protection approach with broader concepts of biodiversity planning and habitat management. Habitat Conservation Plans became an attempt to allow non-federal property owners to conduct lawful activities on their property that might result in an “incidental take” of an endangered species, if certain conditions are met. Incidental take permits may be issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Despite all these agreements, conflict continues. For example, the threatened Delta smelt, whose population has plummeted with the Bay Delta‘s health, induced a federal court order in 2007 to reduce Delta pumping to study the inadvertent killing of the fish. Yet, restrictions on pumping mean agricultural losses and water shortages for the public.

Endangered species also are a major concern at the Salton Sea, a manmade lake in the southeastern corner of the state. Efforts have been underway since the mid-1990s to reduce the salinity of this water body that has no natural outlet. Compounding the salinity build-up is the Imperial Valley Irrigation District-San Diego County Water transfer, which will reduce its current water supply – drainage from area farms – further concentrating the salt and exposing dry lakebed to dust storms.

Climate Change

Climate change adds complexities and questions regarding environmental impacts in the future. For example, rising water temperatures are attracting invasive species to waterways in which they have not previously lived. And a 2013 study by the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences said 82 percent of California’s 121 native fish species could become extinct or have critically low numbers due to climate change.

The California Water Plan recognizes climate change as a threat to water supply reliability, and remains a key issue as state experts work to determine how to best incorporate a changing climate into water management planning, including flood planning due to a sea level rise, peak flow changes and a reduced snow pack.

Meanwhile, in May 2013 the report, America’s Water Risk: Water Stress and Climate Variability, by the Columbia University Water Center, assessed the potential impact of climate change on drought. Several major cities including San Diego are likely to be increasingly vulnerable to drought. The study also said population growth and water demand will reduce overall water availability.

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