Will Parrish: California’s Water Pathology


Speaking at the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board’s once-every-other-month meeting in the north Santa Rosa burbs on January 30th, California State Water Resources Board member Steven Moore characterized California’s drought as a natural disaster of epic proportions.

“This is our Hurricane Sandy,” he told the North Coast’s five regional board members.

In spite of a few solid drenchings in the past week, as well as a relatively wet February across much of California, the drought is indeed leading to some serious dislocations in many areas of the state, especially for farmers.

We have San Joaquin Valley almond farmers pulling thousands of acres of trees and chipping them to sell to power plants.  Cattle ranchers in Bakersfield and elsewhere in the region are selling their stocks en masse as grasslands dry up and hay prices stratify.  Fields across the US’ most prolific agricultural region lie fallow.

The idea that the drought is a natural disaster, as opposed to a human-engineered catastrophe (or, better yet, a capitalist-engineered one), papers over the real causes of the state’s water crisis: California’s insanely wasteful and destructive water system.

California already leads the nation, by far, both in its number of large dams and reservoirs and in their storage capacity.  More than 1,400 state and federal dams and their reservoirs are built to capture 42 million acre feet of water, almost sixty percent of all the state’s water runoff (runoff being water that flows in streams, creeks, and rivers).  Private dams capture much of the remaining water.

So, with regard to the dislocation of San Joaquin Valley farmers, here’s another way of framing the story: California has captured immense volumes of mostly Northern California water in the last several decades to irrigate cotton, pistachios, and pasture to grow them in the Southern California desert, and that massive water subsidy is not fully available this year.

Given the fact that the ecological fabric that supports life on the planet is being brutally eradicated, with an estimated 200 species going extinct everyday worldwide in the biggest wave of extinction perhaps since the Cretaceous era, you might figure the lack of water that this massive amount of water infrastructure leaves over for non-humans would be something of a concern.

A regional poster child is the Central Coast Coho Salmon.  This iconic species, which at one time lashed local waterways into whiteness with its dense runs, ranges from southern Humboldt County to the San Lorenzo River system in Santa Cruz.  Nowadays, the US Environmental Protection Agency classifies them as endangered.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) classifies them as “extirpated or nearly so” in the Russian River system, owing to the depredations of suburban development, the wine industry, the timber industry, and other agribusiness (not that the CDFW acknowledges the historic cause).

The drought is preventing the salmon from leaving for the ocean or swimming upstream to spawn as part of their annual reproductive migration.  Most of the small creeks and streams flowing into the ocean along the coast are now sandbars that grow in the mouths of the rivers due to the aforementioned water impoundments and lack of snow runoff.  Biologists have warned that this situation could be the tipping point that renders the coho extinct.

It’s not only salmon, of course.  As journalist Dan Bacher noted in a piece at http://www.counterpunch.org last month, called “The Emptying of North California”:

“The Department of Fish and Wildlife’s fall midwater trawl surveys, initiated in 1967, the same year the State Water Project began exporting water from the [Sacramento-San Joaquin] Delta, document the steep decline of Delta fish species. They reveal that the population abundance of Delta smelt, striped bass, longfin smelt, threadfin shad and American shad declined 95.6%, 99.6%, 99.8%, 97.8%, 90.9%, respectively, between 1967 and 2013, according to Jennings. The 2013 abundance estimates for Sacramento splittail, a native minnow, were not released, but results from 2012 reveal that splittail abundance indices have dropped 98.5% from 1967 levels.”

In spite of the record drought, Governor Jerry Brown continues his plan to build two enormously destructive peripheral tunnels to divert Sacramento River water under the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) and to expand the water-intensive oil extraction process of fracking (hydraulic fracturing) for oil and natural gas in California.

The Twin Tunnels, as they are called, would divert prodigious volumes of water from the Sacramento around the periphery of the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta.  They would hasten the extinction of Central Valley salmon and Delta fish populations, as well as imperil salmon and steelhead populations on the Trinity River, the largest tributary of the Klamath River.

From there, the water would enter the largest network of water storage and transfer systems ever engineered: the State of California’s already-existing water infrastructure.   This system of dams, reservoirs, power plants, pumping plants, canals, aqueducts, siphons, tunnels, gates, and other water control structures would convey the new influx of water from Northern to Central and Southern California, including San Francisco Bay Area water providers like Santa Clara Valley Water District.

A corollary scheme involves raising the Shasta Dam, already California’s seventh highest dam, by up to 18.5 feet.  Doing so could theoretically increase water storage behind the dam by about 13 percent.  The dam captures water from the Sacramento, McCloud, and Pit Rivers.  It is the cornerstone of the Central Valley Project, which provides much of the water to irrigate the desert agricultural plantations I alluded to before.

Raising the dam would correspondingly expand the Shasta Reservoir, which would destroy the remaining stronghold of the McCloud River’s original people, the Winnemem Wintu.  It would also flood thousands of acres of the Shasta-Trinity National Recreation Area, which includes the habitats of numerous important and special status wildlife species.

In a roundabout way (no pun intended), all of that brings us to our local drought poster child: Willits.  The modest-sized inland Mendo municipality has experienced a wave of publicity across the past month, with hundreds of articles highlighting the tenuous state of the city’s water supply.  Willits Mayor Holly Madrigal is rubbing elbows in Sacramento with high-ranking state officials.  Willits received a major share of the focus of a secretive meeting between local, state, and federal officials in Ukiah last week.

Yet, the greatest water hogging project occurring in the Willits Valley, ie Little Lake Valley, the Caltrans Willits Bypass (a project moving forward primarily because it is a boon to the construction industry) is being systematically omitted from discussions regarding the town’s water use.

In Governor Jerry Brown’s “State of the State” address in which he declared a drought emergency in January, he highlighted wetlands restoration as a main priority for “mitigating” the drought’s impacts. The Willits Bypass is causing the largest wetlands destruction by acreage of any North California project since World War II.  The Brown administration, California officials, the mass media, and Willits city officials are united in silently declaring that this destruction is unworthy of mention in the context of conversations concerning Willits and the drought.

Granted, Willits gets its water from reservoirs, not from groundwater, which is what wetlands destruction and freeway construction impact.  But Willits is now in the process of hooking up its water system to groundwater sources as an emergency back-up due to the drought.

In response to local criticism, Caltrans spokesperson Phil Frisbie, Jr. has recently been touting the new Caltrans party line regarding the drought, including via a Facebook post: “Caltrans’ Willits Bypass will not significantly impact the over 11 BILLION gallons of groundwater (by the most conservative estimate) available in the Little Lake Valley.”

But what matters most in discussions of groundwater aquifers is not so much aquifer  supply as groundwater recharge.  Aquifers recharge very slowly, usually at rates of 0.1 to 0.3% per year.  Their primary recharge mechanism is wetlands.

If water draws from the aquifer exceed aquifer recharge, the groundwater table lowers.  For example, the groundwater table in Chico dropped 15 feet from 1978 to 2011, according to Butte County records.

When the water table drops below stream beds, the result is what is referred to in regulatory jargon as a “losing stream.” In the early-‘90s, Outlet Creek (the headwaters of which are on the north end of Little Lake Valley) began recording precipitous drops in its stream gauge readings, even though rainfall stayed relatively high.  If the groundwater is not fully recharging, the water table drops. If it gets below stream level, surface water disappears, with obvious implications for life in the streams.

In November, the State Water Resources Control Board sent Caltrans a violation notice warning Big Orange of a possible “cease and desist order” if the transportation agency didn’t get funding for its Willits Bypass mitigation plan in order.  The Water Board’s goal, Executive Officer Matt St. John assured Caltrans, is to “help Caltrans succeed.”

Success in this case means the largest wetlands destruction in Northern California in a half-century.  It also means implementing one of the most expensive environmental “mitigation” projects in recent memory, which may only cause further watershed harm.  It means stripping trees and vegetation in a 150-foot-wide band from creek crossings across a six-mile stretch of Little Lake Valley, thus filling in and heating up these waterways.  And it means drawing millions of gallons of waters from valley wells for dust control and compaction.

St. John’s statement is not so much an indictment of him as of the power dynamics governing our society in general.  This system is set up to help those with superior wealth and power succeed.  It is not, by contrast, set up to help anyone else succeed, least of all non-human species.

Outlet Creek, where Caltrans is destroying 89 acres of wetlands to construct the Willits Bypass, has been the longest remaining run for Central Coast Coho salmon up until now.


California Water Report

by Jamie Lee, March 5, 2014

The Federal government just released their first assessment for water allocations for the coming year in California after the driest year on record since they kept records 118 years ago. The news is historical and breaks a 54 year contractual agreement with state water suppliers..

“The US Bureau of Reclamation released its first outlook of the year and finds insufficient stock is available in California to release irrigation water for farmers. This is the first time in the 54 year history of the State Water Project. “If it’s not there, it’s just not there,” notes a Water Authority director adding that it’s going to be tough to find enough water, but farmers are hit hardest as “they’re all on pins and needles trying to figure out how they’re going to get through this.”

From the Associated Press,

Federal officials announced Friday that many California farmers caught in the state’s drought can expect to receive no irrigation water this year from a vast system of rivers, canals and reservoirs interlacing the state.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released its first outlook of the year, saying that the agency will continue to monitor rain and snow fall, but the grim levels so far prove that the state is in the throes of one of its driest periods in recorded history.

Unless the year turns wet, many farmers can expect to receive no water from the federally run Central Valley Project.

… the state’s snowpack is at 29 percent of average for this time of year.

California officials who manage the State Water Project, the state’s other major water system, have already said they won’t be releasing any water for farmers, marking a first in its 54-year history.

Farmers are hit hardest, but they’re not alone. Contractors that provide cities with water can expect to receive half of their usual amount, the Bureau said, and wildlife refuges that need water flows in rivers to protect endangered fish will receive 40 percent of their contracted supply.

Contractors that provide farmers with water and hold historic agreements giving them senior rights will receive 40 percent of their normal supplies. Some contracts date back over a century and guarantee that farmers will receive at least 75 percent of their water.

One of those is the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority in Los Banos that provides irrigation for 240,000 acres of farmland.

The Water Authority’s executive director Steve Chedester said farmers he serves understand that the reality of California’s drought means it’s going to be tough to find enough water for them. “They’re taking a very practical approach,” he said. “If it’s not there, it’s just not there.”

For the State of California, most in the state are critically dependent on what water comes off the Sierra and as noted above there will not be very much water to allocate as described in a recent article by Kurtis Alexader in the SF Chronicle on Feb. 28, 2014:

“The snowpack – often called California’s largest reservoir – normally provides about a third of the water used by cities and farms as it melts into streams and reservoirs in spring and early summer.

California’s major reservoirs, mostly bereft of both snow and rain this winter as the drought pushes through its third year, are dangerously low.

Lake Oroville in Butte County, the State Water Project’s (SWP) principal reservoir, is at only 39 percent of its 3.5 million acre-foot capacity (57 percent of its historical average for the date). Shasta Lake north of Redding, California’s and the federal Central Valley Project’s (CVP) largest reservoir, is at 38 percent of its 4.5 million acre-foot capacity capacity (52 percent of its historical average). San Luis Reservoir, a critical south-of-Delta reservoir for both the SWP and CVP, is at a mere 33 percent of its 2 million acre-foot capacity (39 percent of average for this time of year).

With no end to the drought in sight, DWR on January 31 set its allocation of State Water Project water at zero. The only previous zero percent allocation (water delivery estimate) was for agriculture in the drought year of 1991, but cities that year received 30 percent of requested amounts. This is the first time the allocation has been set at zero across the board.

Despite the “zero” allocation, water essential for health and safety will still be delivered. And nearly all people and areas served by the State Water Project also have other sources of water, but most of these also are stressed by three successive dry years.

Deliveries will be boosted if storms produce enough rain and snow to boost reservoir storage and the snowpack. “Every report I’ve seen says we need another 40 days and 40 nights of rain or whatever to make any difference,” said Daniel Sumner, who as director of the UC Agricultural Issues Center in Davis is closely watching water supplies. “Every drop is helpful, but we need a lot more.”

The Department of Water Resources’ snowpack measurement is a benchmark for state and federal officials who determine how much water California’s networks of reservoirs and canals will deliver to communities and farms.

At the Phillips Station off Highway 50 near Echo Summit, surveyors measured 8.1 inches of water in the frozen snow Thursday, just a third of what the site averages at this time of year. It was the same story at other weather stations.

Two business days after the stunning announcement from Federal water authorities as to California’s dire water supply forecast, a double secret, need-to-know-only, “listening” meeting was held between limousine liberals from Sacramento and 100 mostly public officials of Mendocino County, as chronicled by Will Parish in last week’s AVA. This was followed two days later by the Russian River Water District informing the residents of Ukiah their water allotments were going to be cut by 50% starting next month.

The district holds Mendocino County’s right to 8,000 acre feet of water in Lake Mendocino. It sells that water to seven municipal water districts and about 40 farmers. It’s up to the individual water districts to implement water saving measures.

The district also voted Monday night to entirely cut off Redwood Valley, which is only allowed to purchase surplus water because it is not within the Russian River district’s boundaries. Until now, Redwood Valley had a contract to use up to 1,300 acre feet of water. There is no surplus water to sell, the board agreed. Redwood Valley is expected to be able to purchase water from Sonoma County, which owns a majority of the rights to Lake Mendocino water.

Redwood Valley residents are suddenly scrambling to kick-start their dormant decade old wells that were put out of use when they hooked up a water pipeline to Lake Mendocino.

No mention was made by county or state officials regarding cuts to larger corporate business or government water use.

Meanwhile, farmers across the state are screaming for Governor Jerry Brown to halt the water shipments to California frackers and give the precious water coming off the mountains to the central valley farmers instead.

Fracking is a process of pumping massive amounts of chemicals and water into miles deep wells to force pockets of natural gas to the surface to be controlled and piped for our domestic use and to sell to global energy suppliers. Our federal and state governments have declared the US to be the “Saudi Arabia of Natural Gas” going forward and that because of fracking we have all been told, the US is heading towards “energy independence”. Yet at what cost?

Each fracking well uses 13 million gallons on average of potable water. Out-of-state fracking corporations have recently been outbidding central valley farmers 3-to-1 on water rights. The fracking industry also pays Governor Brown with out of state campaign donations to keep the water spigots full throttle open for fracking at the direct expense of our food growers in California.

The reason there is such pressure on the frackers to keep producing in the state is due to the Eastern half of the United States being in a perpetual storm and frozen over all winter. The cold storms after storms have put a big kibosh on anticipated fracking production goals estimates made last year by government officials. This is also why natural gas prices have rocketed up over 60% in just the past three months and natural gas shortages have been reported in the East and Midwest

Fracking operations are due to legally enter Mendocino County in 2015 as part of a 45- year overall fracking plan for California.

* * *

At the end of January of this year, Willits, Cloverdale, Sebastopol and 12 other communities in Northern California were put on a 100 day water supply watch list by the State Water Agency. This meant that in 100 days the water agency was estimating these communities would run dry. No mas agua.

On the Mendocino coast residents are water conservationists by default due to already low water tables in the area. They will need to continue to do so to attract the summer tourista business as reports of wells running dry in February are already being reported in their area.

In Anderson Valley, unconfirmed rumors are going around the valley about the Anderson Valley Brewery having to replace some of their high efficiency Grunfos well pumps due to continual override resetting to suck up low level water from to keep up with the beer making operations.

Next week: State of the Farm report for Anderson Valley.

Please join all for a community conversation about water conservation on Sunday, March 16 @ 4 p.m. at the Philo Grange.


California is parched. The state’s worst drought in decades has left its reservoirs half-naked, if not skeletal. Officials say 17 communities could run out of drinking water this summer; some are considering mandatory rationing; and 500,000 acres in the state may be left fallow. For the first time in its 54-year history, the California State Water Project—the world’s biggest plumbing network and the way millions of state residents get hundreds of billions of gallons of water—is essentially shutting down. In 2012 the project moved 815 billion gallons of fresh water from Northern California’s rivers to 25 million people and a million acres of farmland in the arid central and southern parts of the state. Last year, the driest on record, the system delivered 490 billion gallons, down 40 percent. This year, the planned water distribution is zero.

Two-thirds of California’s 38 million people and most of its $45 billion farm products depend on snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountain watersheds, imported via thousands of miles of pipelines, canals, and the Colorado River. Although snowfall is up this winter in the Rockies, precipitation in both mountain watersheds has been going down over the last 14 years, raising scary questions for the nation’s most populous state: What if drought is the new normal? Where will California find the water it needs?

Aint rule by intelligent sociopaths interesting? In medicine it is routine for people, both patient and doctor, to confuse symptom with disease. If we were able to identify intelligent sociopaths (easily done BTW with brain scanning) and remove them from positions of power, in short order essentially all our problems, the symptoms of rule by these people, would evaporate. It only requires local representative bodies to add brain scans to the current drug screens.