Tuesday, November 15, 2011


By Patricia McBroom

            “Water in California isn’t a problem; it’s a code word for 100 problems.” 
            Nowhere is this observation, attributed to Journalist Carey McWilliams, more apparent than in the massive 2200-page environmental report from the Delta Stewardship Council (DSC). Everything you ever wanted to know about water in California is in this encyclopedic report.  Except solutions, which have yet to be determined.
            In the meantime, the Council’s Delta Plan (the subject of the environmental analysis) is clearly aimed at reducing reliance on northern water by building up self-sufficiency throughout the southland.
According to Martha Davis, senior policy advisor to the DSC, “We want to reduce reliance on the delta through an expansion of local and regional resources.”  Davis is the primary author of chapter 4 (“A More Reliable Water Supply for California”) of the Fifth Draft Delta Plan and a former leader of the Mono Lake Committee.
Delta slough near the Mokelumne River
in fall, when the water runs low. Credit: P. McBroom
            She said that, among other requirements, the Delta Plan calls for Southern California and Central Valley water districts – all those who import water from the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta –to describe how they would deal with a catastrophic three-year interruption in water supplies from the north.
            “What will you do?” she asked, if an earthquake puts the pumps off-line for up to 36 months.
            Southern water officials may not be able to answer that question yet, but by all accounts, agencies there are racing to develop their own local water resources. They have already cut dependency on imported water to an unexpected degree in the past few years.
      San Diego’s Water Authority has cut dependency on imported water by 48% since 1991 and is on course to reduce another 10% by 2020.
      The City of Los Angeles expects to reduce its purchase of imported water by 48% between 2010 and 2035. (slide 16)
      The City of Santa Monica has cut its imported water from 85% to one third and aims to be 100% self-sufficient by 2020.
           Other districts in the south are expected to achieve by 2020 a nearly 30 percent reduction in purchases from the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) – the wholesaler that supplies 26 southern water agencies with water from the Delta and the Colorado River.
            “MWD agencies are improving local water supplies as we speak.  All have been dramatically reduced over the few years and more is the works,” said Dennis Cushman, assistant general Manager of the San Diego County Water Authority.
San Diego County Water Authority map of future MWD sales,
showing decline from projections in 2000 (orange) and 2005 (green) 
             Cushman testified recently at an assembly hearing in Sacramento, presenting the chart at right showing a 28 percent reduction in purchases by 2020.  He said that between 2010 when the chart was made and today, another 300,000 acre feet of local capacity has been created in the south.
“We are driving that blue line ever lower,” he said. “The handwriting is on the wall.  Clearly, the future is going to be one in which (Southern California’s) agencies will be providing more and more of their water though local development and conservation.”
But there are limits to how much self reliance southern California can achieve.  “The absence of local water resources is, indeed, the basic weakness of the region – its eternal problem,” McWilliams wrote in his landmark book, “Southern California: An Island on the Land.”
Half the population of the state lives in Southern California and 50% of them rely on imported water to some significant degree.  How low the new water initiatives can drive that figure is still unknown.  In the Council’s emerging Delta Plan, slated for implementation next April, all agencies that rely on water from the delta will be required to submit management plans demonstrating their moves toward regional self-reliance.  At that point, it should become more clear what the real demand is now and in future years in southern California, as opposed to current pumping or business as usual.
Central Delta lawyer, Thomas Zuckerman, an
influential voice for regional self-reliance.Council's Delta Plan
Credit: Patricia McBroom
          Nevertheless, dependency on northern water cannot be broken without more storage in the south, said northern California water lawyer, Thomas Zuckerman, an advocate of regional water development.
Zuckerman, who lives in the delta and works for the Central Delta Water Agency, is one of the more influential voices in shaping state water policy. “He is one of the most eloquent spokesmen for the people of California,” said Davis of Zuckerman.  “Very thoughtful; very common sense.”
 Zuckerman’s ideas about where to store water for southern California, however, has not won any prizes from the Delta Stewardship Council. He wants the State to recover a huge natural lake in the Tulare region that once drained the Southern Sierras.
It may come as a shock to most Californians, but the Tulare basin, now a dry desert farmed with irrigation and imported water, was once the largest lake in the western U.S., flanked by wetlands.  The rivers were tamed in the 1920s in a legendary tale of manipulation and power on the part of a wealthy grower, as told in the recent book, “The King of California: J..G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire,” by Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman.
         If the lake were recovered – representing about 200,000 acres of farmland – it could hold the liquid equivalent of about three new reservoirs, and could charge the depleted underlying aquifer as well.  It’s a grand idea, supported not only by Zuckerman, but by the 200 organizations that make up the Environmental Water Caucus.
Tulare Lake once drained the southern Sierras via four rivers.
The lake basin is visible in this map.
        “To reduce reliance on the Delta and increase regional self-sufficiency in areas that use water exported from the Delta, the Tulare Lake could be reestablished with natural inflows from the Kern, Kings, Kaweah, and Tule rivers to store about 2.5 million acre-feet of water with minimal modifications of existing berms, as proposed by the San Joaquin Valley Leadership Forum,” wrote the environmental coalition in its alternative to the Delta Plan. (page C-76) “The Tulare Lake Basin Surface Storage Facility also could store water from the San Joaquin River, Friant Kern Canal, or California Aqueduct following construction of conveyance from Tulare Lake to these locations.”
The DSC environmental report dings this idea because of the loss of agricultural land.  One wonders what role is played by a handful of wealthy landowners in the San Joaquin Valley who have the State hogtied in its search for solutions to California’s water problems.
Another idea yet to be accepted by the DSC is for the state to take back ownership of the huge underground Kern Water Bank that was inexplicably turned over to private hands in the Monterey Agreement (See Spigot's March, 2011, blog).  The bank, controlled by Stewart Resnick’s Paramount Farms, is a critical storage area for imported State (delta) water. It sells water to the southland during droughts, as well as to other buyers willing to pay the price.  By this means, water is sold to the highest bidder, regardless of public value – not a good thing for the public interest.
Thus, the Environmental Water Caucus wants the Delta Plan to “direct the Department of Water Resources to regain public control of the Kern Water Bank and dedicate the water supply for the benefit all Californians.” (page 18)
That one move alone could go far toward providing the storage that 22 million urban users south of the delta need.
Neither Tulare Lake nor the Kern Water Bank involve vast new sums of money for reservoir construction.  But they do require that State planners confront wealthy, politically powerful San Joaquin growers, making the changes that would put California on the path to a sane and equitable water policy.
            Southern California is already doing its part, said Zuckerman.  “it’s the agricultural interests in the San Joaquin Valley that are the problem.”