Thursday, December 13, 2012


By Patricia McBroom

       California is due to lose a quarter of its Sierra snowpack by midcentury because of climate change. And that's the low end of the estimate. The loss could be bigger. Sierra snow is the largest reservoir in the state, accounting for about a third of the annual water supply. Its inexorable change into rain is a slow-moving train wreck.
       Water experts will quickly add that we're not losing the water, just the form and timing of its release. The lost snowpack will come to us as rain, so not to worry – too much.
       But from what this reporter has been able to glean from weeks of interviewing knowledgable sources about water storage in California, the time to start worrying was yesterday.


Increasing rainfall and floods come with rising
temperatures, as climate warms in California
Credit: Patricia McBroom
      We will not only experience a shift from snow to rain, but it will come in the winter rather than the spring when we need it for crops. Moreover it will likely come as floods that cannot now be captured and stored, and some of these floods will increase in areas like the western side of the southern Sierras. Implicit in these predictions is the need for a revolutionary reorganization of water management in the state. The past cannot guide the future.
      California is not planning to build any large new surface reservoirs to contain this rain, which may come as a shock to the uninitiated. Most of the good sites have already been taken and what remains is too costly or too inefficient. Instead, the emphasis is shifting from centralized management of water to local and regional action. If your region wants a new surface reservoir, you're free to build and pay for it.

                                                               A RETURN TO LOCAL MANAGEMENT

Berryessa Reservoir in Napa County;
regions may build their own; the state
is bowing out. Credit: P. McBroom
     “The great dreams of the past, of vast new storage systems everywhere around the state and pipes that take water currently not being used by anyone for anything hundreds of miles with no damage and at no cost – that dream is over,” said Phil Isenberg, chair of the Delta Stewardship Council, which is pushing water management at the regional level.
      New storage is “essential,” said Isenberg, “but you have to find somebody who is willing to pay for it.....History indicates that we are going into old style things which are regional or local.”
      A recent report by the California Roundtable, drawing upon a wide range of experts, agrees with this assessment.


      Underground storage, on the other hand, is a vast and largely unexplored territory. California's potential for holding water in aquifers staggers the imagination. Something on the order of 150 to 450 million acre feet (10 to 30 times the entire Sierra snowpack in an average year) can be stored in underground basins that are economically accessible, according to John Andrew, assistant deputy director of the Department of Water Resources, who is the agency's lead authority on climate change.
       The greatest basin in the state underlies the Central Valley, containing one-fifth of all groundwater pumped in the nation. Because farmers have been pumping the hell out of it for 100 years, this basin now contains enough empty space to be identified as showing “the most promise for large-scale groundwater recharge” in California, according to a report by Juliet Christian-Smith of the Pacific Institute, in a positive take on the half-empty glass story.
Snowpack will decline over the century
Credit: Patricia McBroom
      But accomplishing the recharge of this – or any other – basin in the state confronts water managers and policy makers with multiple headaches. Our system is historically set up to discourage such use of water. It isn't even considered a beneficial use, so few managers have done it. There are currently promising moves toward recharging critical basins, such as in the San Joaquin Valley around King's River and in the Pajaro Valley near Santa Cruz, but much more is needed.


      “Climate change studies indicate that more extreme weather is coming and we don't have a system in place to capture that water,” said Timothy Parker, a consulting hydrologist and chair of the legislative committee of California's Groundwater Resources Asso. “We should be filling our basins back up. We need more storage and groundwater is a good way to do that.” But once past such firm statements of need, Parker and other experts who spoke on this issue fall into a quicksand of shifting, half-formed ideas about next steps.
      Who owns the water that is put underground? Water is now tied to the land. If you can pump it, you own it.
      How do you get it into the ground? That takes percolation ponds on farms – a use of land that is not now readily accepted by farmers needing to make a profit.
      Where does the surface water come from to recharge the aquifers? New diversion plans cost money and require ingenuity on the part of regional water managers, not to mention planning and risk taking. You can't always get the water out that you put in.
      How about privatization issues? If the recharged basin water belongs to landowners, then the massive Kern County Water Bank (taken over by private interests in a secret deal by the state in the late 1990s and supplied by the State Water Project that pumps from the delta) would further enrich a small group of wealthy farmers, as they sell water for new developments in the southland.


      These and other urgent questions call for a vigorous state-wide debate on groundwater policy, leading to a new framework for managing this kind of storage, especially its sustainable use. Legal and technical confusion is everywhere; water managers are just beginning to think about underground storage. In a recent survey, most didn't know whether it would be less expensive or more costly than surface storage. The great majority needed more information.
      “it's really challenging!” said Brian Lockwood, staff hydrologist with the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency. “The laws (on groundwater) are so antiquated. Reforms are badly needed. Most people don't even have meters on their wells” to measure the amount of groundwater removed. “If we could think of the Central Valley as a whole, of the state as a whole,” we might have a chance, said Lockwood, whose small water district is off the state and Federal water grid.
       Their coastal region depends for its water almost exclusively on a groundwater basin. The state of the critically depleted basin is fueling a creative venture to get water back into the ground to achieve a sustainable supply, thus serving as a model for regional responsibility.


      Isenberg would no doubt applaud such local resourcefulness.
"Calm down:" Phil Isenberg, chair of the
Delta Stewardship Council. Credit:
Patricia McBroom
      At the end of a long interview, after two years of listening to Californians fight over water coming out of the critical Sacramento/San Joaquin watershed, he said “The most important thing for survival of California as a society is for everyone everywhere in the state to be prudent in their use of water, to calm down and act like grownups, to reduce the irrational and overblown demands for water that seem to be the stock in trade of the water debate.
      “We're not running out of water” said Isenberg, “but it's a scarce resource and we have to make some hard management decisions.”
     That would require courage and focus on the part of state planners who are unfortunately preoccupied with building huge tunnels under the delta to divert an ever-decreasing supply of Sierra snowmelt. The tunnels offer a centralized water system out of the 20th century, while nature is cooking up floods in your backyard.