California’s Chinook salmon came back this fall, due in part to good ocean conditions and abundant water, but the Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast, is still in critical condition. “Thirty-three species are endangered, and likely to go extinct within the next 25 to 50 years, if not sooner,” said Dr. Peter Moyle, associate director of UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. “Many of these are salmon and trout species, and most of the species are found only in California, so they are part of our heritage. If they disappear, they are lost, not only to California, but to the world, forever.”California’s Bay-Delta covers 1300 square miles, is home to 750 species of plants and animals, and is where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers meet and flow into the San Francisco Bay. But its ecosystem is collapsing.
This is due to many factors, including pollution, invasive species and loss of wetlands, but the primary reasons for species decline are water diversions and excessive pumping in the estuary. The San Joaquin River has often run dry, and the Sacramento River, which once flowed out into the Bay, is often used to convey water to federal and state pumps, which send the water south. According to the Bay Institute, the reduction of freshwater inflow has eliminated much of the habitat, and populations of flow-dependent species have collapsed as a result.
To address some of these problems, the state government passed the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Reform Act in 2009. It required the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to develop, within nine months, flow criteria to protect public trust resources and a suite of native fish. The Doctrine of Public Trust suggests that streams, lakes, rivers, the Delta and coastal areas are jointly owned by the people and should be managed for reasonable and beneficial use for all. The SWRCB recommended the following Delta inflow and outflow amounts:
• 75 percent of unimpaired Delta outflow from January through June;
• 75 percent of unimpaired Sacramento River inflow from November through June; and
• 60 percent of unimpaired San Joaquin River inflow from February through June.
These recommendations stirred controversy for their potential to affect water supplies to 25 million people and a large portion of agriculture. “It has a number of well thought out conclusions, and it was approved and adopted by the board and transmitted to the Delta Stewardship Council,” said Les Grober, SWRCB Environmental Program Manager. “But the report looked at one metric – the flows to protect the public trust resources.”
Mark Gowdy, SWRCB Water Resources Control Engineer, added that the Delta outflow criteria were not developed with any consideration of other beneficial uses such as agricultural use or municipal water supply. “It’s important to note that flows would not necessarily need to be made up for by reducing consumption,” Gowdy said. “Reservoir and other system operations can be modified to shift flows to other times of the year.”
Caveats aside, those numbers suggest the need to reduce use by 13.7 to 14.6 million acre-feet annually, which is about 22 percent of the state’s annual average water supply. These estimates vary according to the data used, the time frame and the level of detailed analysis.
That percentage is similar to the standard established by Senate Bill X7-7 in 2009, which requires urban water suppliers to increase water use efficiency by 20 percent per capita by 2020. And already, some water suppliers, particularly West Basin Municipal Water District (West Basin) in Los Angeles, are close to meeting the requirement.
“In the early 1990s, we were relying on imported water from the Metropolitan Water District and then we had a drought, and that’s when we built our water recycling facility,” said Gus Meza, West Basin Senior Water Use Efficiency Specialist. “Now, 65 percent of our water comes from the Met Water District, and our goal is to get down to 33 percent. We hope to do that by doubling conservation, doubling recycling and using desalination.”
Several cities have already met the 20 percent goal, including El Segundo, Inglewood, Lomita and Manhattan Beach.
However, the per capita requirement is a 20 percent reduction per person, so if the population increases so will water use and some are critical of that. “Why should farmers be asked to mirror the urban 20 by 2020 plan and give up a portion of the water used to grow food in order to send more of it to the ocean with questionable benefit?” said Mike Wade, Executive Director of the Farm Water Coalition. “The goal of the urban plan is to stretch water supplies, not increase Delta outflow to the ocean.”
Agriculture consumes 70-80 percent of the state’s water and is not currently required to conserve, only to begin measuring use and adopting efficiency standards. But existing irrigation technology suggests that a 20 to 25 percent reduction in use is attainable while maintaining farm profits. According to the Department of Water Resources, from 1967 to 2007, the gross revenue for California agriculture increased 84 percent from $19.9 billion to $36.6 billion while total crop-applied water use fell by 15 percent.
Craig McNamara, an organic walnut grower in Winters, has adopted several efficient irrigation practices on his 450-acre farm. “We cover the gamut in terms of irrigation practices. We use drip irrigation, also sprinklers and furrow irrigation, and we have a small section using flood irrigation, just 10 acres,” he said. “At each step, going from flood to furrow to drip, you are cutting your water usage by about a quarter.”
Nearly 60 percent of California’s irrigated acreage is still flood irrigated. According to the Pacific Institute, the combined potential savings from improved irrigation practices and technology is between 4.5 million acre-feet in a wet year and 6 million acre-feet in a dry year. Agriculture could reduce water use by 17 percent without changing total irrigated acreage or crops.
So what’s the Problem? Inequity in Water Rights, Over-allocation of Resources & Weak Public Policy
The California water rights system is complicated. There are junior rights, senior rights, riparian rights, ground water rights, and state and federal contract allocations based on large infrastructure projects. All total, water rights exist for 531 million acre-feet, nearly 10 times as much as is available.
And despite the controversy surrounding court-ordered restrictions on Delta pumping, water deliveries are expected to average 60 percent of the maximum contract amounts, even with environmental regulations, which is the amount historically delivered on average.
Conflicts arise in dry years when some contractors receive 100 percent of their water allocations while others receive a fraction of that. “Even if you built a canal, you could never meet 100 percent of contract agreements over the long term,” said Peter Vorster, Bay Institute Hydrologist. “There is an over-allocation of water rights to users that is many times greater than what is actually available. But it is unfair and unrealistic to expect state and federal contractors to solve the Delta problems with their reductions alone. It’s a shared problem that all users who divert from the Delta watershed need to contribute to solving.”
Westlands Water District in particular has been hit hard by the system. “We received only 10 percent (of the contracted amount) in 2009, and that’s because we were in the middle of the three-year drought,” said Gayle Holman, Westlands public affairs specialist. “That was extremely difficult for our farmers.” Some Westlands farmers have fallowed land, put in solar systems and shifted crops grown. But even installing solar has its challenges. It is a very detailed, regulated process to pull farmland out of production and have it approved for solar, added Holman. It requires many levels of vetting and county approvals.
“If a farmer is supplied with less water, he has to manage with less,” said Dr. Charles M. Burt, a Cal Poly Professor specializing in irrigation agriculture. “In general, this requires an investment in both time and money.”
But the technology is available to reduce urban and agricultural water use, maintain the farm economy and meet Public Trust requirements. Fairly managing the system is the primary challenge. “Water rights are by their nature not equitable across the state – just as everyone doesn’t own a house, and we can’t always physically move replacement water from one place to another,” said Dr. Burt. “This is sort of like dealing with the nation’s debt – some people are going to get hurt, but the idea is to deal with the debt before everyone is too damaged to recover.”
The Doctrine of Public Trust could potentially make the system more equitable. A possible tool for applying it is the Delta Plan, which will contain legally enforceable regulatory policies. The Delta Stewardship Council (DSC) recently published the fifth draft, and thus far more than 200 environmental groups have criticized it for failing to take the public trust into account. “The DSC is empowered to plan for public trust requirements, which should include a healthy fish population, clean drinkable water, and an aquatic environment that enables native plants and animals to thrive,” said David Nesmith, Environmental Water Caucus Facilitator. “The fifth draft does not do that.”
There are two more drafts, with the final draft due out this December. ■