In early June, environmentalists and Delta water agencies sued
the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the Kern
County Water Agency (KCWA) over the validity of the transfer of
the Kern Water Bank, a huge underground reservoir that supplies
water to farms and cities locally and outside the area. The suit,
which culminates a decade-long controversy involving multiple
issues of state and local jurisdictional authority, has put the
spotlight on groundwater banking – an important but controversial
water management practice in many areas of California.
Every five years the California Department of Water Resources
(DWR) releases an updated version of the California Water Plan -
a comprehensive compilation of water data that, as its name
implies, is the overarching guidance document for water policy in
the nation’s most populous state.
“Let me state, clearly and finally, the Interior Department is
fully and completely committed to the policy that no water which
is needed in the Sacramento Valley will be sent out of it. There
is no intent on the part of the Bureau of Reclamation ever to
divert from the Sacramento Valley a single acre-foot of water
which might be used in the valley now or later.” – J.A. Krug,
Secretary of the Interior, Oct. 12, 1948, speech at Oroville, CA
It would be a vast understatement to say the package of water
bills approved by the California Legislature and signed by Gov.
Arnold Schwarzenegger last November was anything but a
significant achievement. During a time of fierce partisan battles
and the state’s long-standing political gridlock with virtually
all water policy, pundits at the beginning of 2009 would have
given little chance to lawmakers being able to reach compromise
on water legislation.
Diverting water for farms and cities, generating hydro-electric
power, supplying an ever-growing urban population and protecting
endangered species have all shaped the development and management
of the Colorado River we know today. How to sustain the system
and build a resilient future for what is known as the “lifeline
of the Southwest” is the task facing the region and the river’s
It’s no secret that providing water in a state with the size and
climate of California costs money. The gamut of water-related
infrastructure – from reservoirs like Lake Oroville to the pumps
and pipes that deliver water to homes, businesses and farms –
incurs initial and ongoing expenses. Throw in a new spate of
possible mega-projects, such as those designed to rescue the
ailing Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and the dollar amount grows
exponentially to billion-dollar amounts that rival the entire
gross national product of a small country.
It seems not a matter of if but when seawater desalination will
fulfill the promise of providing parts of California with a
reliable, drought-proof source of water. With a continuing
drought and uncertain water deliveries, the state is in the grip
of a full-on water crisis, and there are many people who see
desalination as a way to provide some relief to areas struggling
to maintain an adequate water supply.
Travel most anywhere in California and there is a river, creek or
stream nearby. Some are highly noticeable and are an integral
part of the community. Others are more obscure, with intermittent
flows or enclosed by boxed concrete flood channels that conceal
their true appearance. No matter the location, each area shares
some common themes: cooperation and conflict regarding water
allocations, greater water conservation, an awareness of
environmental stewardship, and plans that ensure long-term
The critical condition of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has
prompted the question of how it can continue to serve as a source
of water for 25 million people while remaining a viable
ecosystem, agricultural community and growing residential center.
Developing a “dual conveyance” system of continuing to use Delta
waterways to convey water to the export pumps but also building a
new pipeline or canal to move some water supplies around the
Delta is an issue of great scrutiny.
California’s native salmon and trout are in trouble. Driven down
by more than a century of adverse impacts caused by development
coupled with a changing climate, salmon and trout populations
have dwindled to a fraction of their historic numbers. The crash
is evident in many areas, none more so than the collapse of the
West Coast salmon fishery in 2008. With the fish plummeting to
record low numbers, federal officials for the first time closed
all commercial and sport fishing off the coast of California and
most of Oregon.
Just before summer officially began in June, Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger publicly proclaimed what many people already knew:
California is in a drought. Consecutive years of sub par rainfall
coupled with a 2008 snowpack that literally dried up and blew
away before it could turn into runoff forced the issuance of the
state’s first drought declaration since 1991.
One of the many intriguing questions in Western water issues is
the fate of the Colorado River Delta. The subject of extensive
consultation at the local, state, national and international
levels, the Delta is a beguiling place that is either at the cusp
of rejuvenation or teetering toward oblivion, depending on who’s
consulted. Left forgotten for decades as Colorado River water was
sent to farms and growing cities, the Delta today shows glimmers
of its legacy – a promise of restoration that has spurred people
in the United States and Mexico to seek a renewed vision of its
When a drought occurs as it has this year, the response is
couched in the three Rs of the waste hierarchy: reduce, reuse and
The reduction part is well-known. State and local officials are
urging people to use less water in everything they do, from
landscape irrigation to shorter showers. Spurred by California’s
difficulties, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on June 4 declared a
statewide drought. On July 10, the governor and Sen. Dianne
Feinstein announced their support of the Safe, Clean, Reliable
Drinking Water Supply Act of 2008 – a $9.3 billion bond proposal
that would allocate $250 million for water recycling projects.
They are located in urban areas and in some of the most rural
parts of the state, but they have at least one thing in common:
they provide water service to a very small group of people. In a
state where water is managed and delivered by an organization as
large as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California,
most small water systems exist in obscurity – financed by
shoestring budgets and operated by personnel who wear many hats.
Consider the array of problems facing the Sacramento- San Joaquin
Delta for too long and the effect can be nearly overwhelming.
Permanently altered more than a century ago, the estuary -
arguably the only one of its kind – is an enigma to those outside
its realm, a region embroiled in difficulties that resist simple,
Perhaps no other issue has rocketed to prominence in such a short
time as climate change. A decade ago, discussion about greenhouse
gas (GHG) emissions and the connection to warming temperatures
was but a fraction of the attention now given to the issue. From
the United Nations to local communities, people are talking about
climate change – its characteristics and what steps need to be
taken to mitigate and adapt to the anticipated impacts.
Eighty-five years ago, representatives of the seven Colorado
River Basin states joined then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover
at The Bishop’s Lodge in Santa Fe, N.M., to negotiate an
agreement to divide the Colorado River. The Colorado River
Compact signed on Nov. 24, 1922, was a historic milestone. It was
the first time more than three states negotiated an apportionment
for the waters of a stream. It divided the watershed into the
Upper and the Lower basins and allocated the water between them.
It laid the groundwork for construction of Hoover Dam, whose
construction changed the course of the Southwest.
Groundwater, out of sight and out of mind to most people, is
taking on an increased role in California’s water future.
Often overlooked and misunderstood, groundwater’s profile is
being elevated as various scenarios combine to cloud the water
supply outlook. A dry 2006-2007 water year (downtown Los Angeles
received a record low amount of rain), crisis conditions in the
Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the mounting evidence of climate
change have invigorated efforts to further utilize aquifers as a
reliable source of water supply.
A test injection well drilled 4,150 feet deep will send
processed, salt-rich wastewater into the underground of
California’s Central Valley. “The idea is to inject it down into
a zone where it will be contained and stay in perpetuity,” said
David Albright of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The
federal agency reviewed the injection well plans by Hilmar
Cheese, whose Merced County manufacturing site 100 miles east of
San Jose now trucks 70,000 to 80,000 gallons of wastewater
concentrate from the plant to the San Francisco Bay area daily
for eventual discharge to the Pacific Ocean.
“In the West, when you touch water, you touch
everything.” – Rep. Wayne Aspinall, D-Colorado, chair,
House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, 1959-1973
Rapid population growth and chronic droughts could augur dramatic
changes for communities along the lower Colorado River. In
Arizona, California and Nevada, a robust economy is spurring
communities to find enough water to sustain the steady pace of
growth. Established cities such as Las Vegas and Phoenix continue
their expansion but there is also activity in smaller, rural
areas on Arizona’s northwest fringe where developers envision
hundreds of thousands of new homes in the coming decades.