While the reins of political power may periodically shift, the
challenges surrounding water in the West remain, impervious to
the circumstances that put Democrats or Republicans in the
forefront of decision making.
So it stands in the wake of political upheaval in Washington and
a newly inaugurated state Legislature in California that the
matter of dealing with the most vital resource demands attention.
As with nearly all things taken up by state and federal
lawmakers, water management is marked by ideological struggles as
well as collaboration and compromise.
The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is faced with many major
challenges: land subsidence, deteriorating levees and flood
risks, agricultural sustainability, increasing urbanization,
water supply reliability, ecosystem health, sea level rise,
climate change, and water quality. Confronted with the question
of how to sustain the multiple values/uses of the Delta, federal,
state and local officials, Delta residents, environmentalists,
water agencies and others are working to craft a vision of the
Delta 100 years from today.
For most people in the United States, clean, safe drinking water
is a given – a part of daily life that is assumed to be a
constant, readily accessible commodity. Underpinning that fact
are the vast, mostly unheralded efforts of the many people
throughout the country who work everyday to take the raw source
water from the environment and turn it into the safe drinking
water that makes life possible.
The inimitable Yogi Berra once proclaimed, “The future ain’t what
it used to be.” While the Hall of Fame baseball player was not
referring to the weather, his words are no less prophetic when it
comes to the discussion of a changing climate and its potential
impacts on water resources in the West.
Chances are that deep within the ground beneath you as you read
this is a vast network of infrastructure that is busy providing
the necessary services that enable life to proceed at the pace it
does in the 21st century. Electricity zips through cables to
power lights and computers while other conduits move infinite
amounts of information that light up computer screens and phone
The Delta has been in the spotlight recently, with a cascade of
tumultuous events that have spotlighted the importance and
fragility of a unique resource that is mostly out of sight and
out of mind to most Californians. Issues of sustainability,
governance, water quality, ecosystem health and levee stability
have reached the forefront in recent months, punctuated by
congressional inquiries and even discussion of revisiting the
proposed peripheral canal that was trumped at the polls more than
20 years ago.
There may be no other substance in nature as vexing as selenium.
The naturally occurring trace element gained notoriety more than
20 years ago as it wreaked havoc among birds at the Kesterson
Reservoir in California’s Central Valley. The discovery of dead
and deformed birds sparked a widespread investigation that
revealed the pervasiveness of selenium throughout much of the
West; woven into the soil and rock of the landscape.
More than 80 years have passed since representatives of the seven
Colorado River Basin states crafted a historic compact dividing
the river’s waters. Following five of the driest years on record
since the 1930s Dust Bowl, present-day negotiators recently
reached a sweeping new proposed agreement on how to manage the
river to reduce the potential for future shortages. The
seven-state framework forwarded to Interior Secretary Gale Norton
Feb. 3 includes a proposal for coordinated operation of Lake Mead
and Lake Powell and tiered triggers in Lake Mead’s elevation tied
to Lower Basin shortage declarations. It also includes a long
list of new programs and projects designed to augment the river’s
flow and help meet long-term water supplies for growing cities.
Is the devastating flooding that occurred in the wake of
Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast an ominous warning to
California? That’s the question policymakers are facing as they
consider how to best protect lives, property and the integrity of
the state’s water supply from the forces of raging floodwaters.
The vital importance of water in the West is a given. It is the
basis upon which everything moves forward – the burgeoning
subdivisions, the seemingly limitless acreage of fruits and
vegetables and the remaining stretches of wilderness that support
fish, fowl and wildlife. In addition to its life-sustaining
properties, water, more specifically the force of moving water,
plays a significant part of the nation’s power system by
providing an inexpensive, reliable and renewable generation
With interstate discussions of critical Colorado River issues
seemingly headed for stalemate, Secretary of the Interior Gale
Norton stepped in May 2 to defuse, or at least defer, a
potentially divisive debate over water releases from Lake Powell.
In a letter to governors of the seven Colorado River Basin
states, Norton preserved the status quo of river operations for
five months, giving states and stakeholders a chance to move back
from the edge before positions had hardened on two key issues:
(1) shortage guidelines for the Lower Basin and (2) Upper Basin/
Lower Basin reservoir operations, particularly at Lake Powell.
But Norton served notice that she wants discussions on those two
issues to continue, possibly outside of the annual operation plan
(AOP) consultation process, which at least one observer described
Despite a winter during which much of California was drenched
with plentiful rain and snow, there is no escaping the need for
the continued wise use of water, no matter what the change of
The issues surrounding the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento- San
Joaquin River Delta are as complex and varied as the ecology of
the estuary. Start with the fact that water is a valuable
resource in California that more often than not is in short
supply for the many competing demands. Combine that with a
growing urban sector and the need to maintain an agricultural
industry that is a significant part of the state’s economic
engine. Finally, recognize the environmental impacts from the
development of California, including the diversion of water, and
the obligations to preserve species diversity and water quality.
They are remnants of another time. A time when the Southwest’s
climate was much cooler and probably wetter, and large lakes
covered vast tracts of land in Nevada, Utah, southeastern Oregon
and California’s Eastern Sierra. Beginning some 14,000 years ago,
the region’s climate grew warmer and drier, shrinking these
lakes’ shorelines and leaving behind an arid landscape dotted
with isolated bodies of water including Pyramid Lake, Mono Lake
and the Great Salt Lake.
The San Joaquin River provides the water that enables farms up
and down the San Joaquin Valley’s eastern side to produce a
substantial agricultural bounty. For more than 50 years, the
majority of the river has been halted at Friant Dam and diverted
north and south for use by farms and homes throughout parts of
five counties, in the process making that part of the valley the
most productive agricultural region in the world.
Some time in the next month or two, slight, temporal changes in
the upper atmosphere will augur the beginning of the rainy
portion of California’s Mediterranean climate. The high pressure
and sunny days should gradually give way to rain and snow,
replenishing the vast reservoir that is the state’s precious
Most people take for granted the quality of their drinking water
and for good reason. Coinciding with America’s rapid urbanization
last century was the development of an extensive infrastructure
for the storage, treatment and delivery of water for generations
to come. The improvement in the quality of water provided by
water agencies has been so phenomenal that some of the best
tasting water in the world comes not from a plastic bottle, but
from the tap.
The Gold Rush was a seminal moment in California’s history. The
discovery of a few flakes of “color” in John Sutter’s millrace at
Coloma set off a migration that transformed the nascent state’s
frontier from a sleepy, remote outpost into a magnet that drew
fortune-seekers from around the globe. Over the course of
decades, intense efforts were focused on washing and prying gold
from the hills of the Sierra Nevada – along the way, hardly a
stone was left unturned in the pursuit of the hidden riches.
Mercury was an essential commodity of gold mining, as it greatly
increased the recovery efficiency of primitive mining technology.
Mercury, which by fortuitous coincidence was available in
plentiful quantity from deposits in the nearby Coast Range, acts
as a magnet of sorts, drawing gold to it in a ready-made, easily
recoverable amalgam from rock, gravel or soil. Once gathered,
miners heated the amalgam to separate the two metals.
Legal and physical ties link the seven states, two countries and
many stakeholder groups that share the Colorado River, known as
“the lifeline of the Southwest.” Within this vast 250,000
square-mile basin, change has become the watchword of the day as
the Basin grows more urbanized. The increasing demands upon a
river already over-allocated, suffering from four years of severe
drought, have increased interest in finding new ways to manage
the river and share the resource.
The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta has been described as the
“switching yard” of California ’s water delivery system, moving
billions of gallons that supply the drinking water and irrigation
for millions of people. When stakeholders signed the 1994
Bay-Delta Accord, it was a dual-purpose deal designed to
preserve, protect and restore the ecosystem and increase water