Californians clueless that water comes from Sacramento Delta

A disturbing 78% of Californians in a recent survey said they didn’t know what the Bay Delta was. This strongly implies they also don’t know, depending on where they live, that some or most of their water may well come from the Delta and food they eat has been irrigated by Delta water. Southern California was even worse, with a whopping 86% saying they’d never heard of that Delta thingee.

For water activists and water policy wonks, this is approximately like discovering those you’d thought you’d been having a conversation with are, in fact, Martians residing on a different planet. And they’d not heard a word you said. Statewide, 4.7% said the Delta was about protecting endangered species while even fewer, 2.5%, said the Delta was a source of water. But the Delta isn’t just a source of water; it’s a primary source of water.

The Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers empty into the Delta. From there, the water goes to the Bay Area, the Central Valley Project, and the State Water Project. The Central Valley Project is a federal project that began in 1933. It includes reservoirs, hydropower, and water for people and of course agriculture. The behemoth State Water Project supplies water to 23 million people and generates large amounts of hydropower as well. It was originally created to send water to southern California from the Delta and elsewhere. Both projects get substantial amounts of water from the Delta.

Thus, if Californians don’t know about the Delta, then perhaps they need to because if they aren’t minding their water, someone else will mind it for them. “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over,” is as true now as when Mark Twain was reputed to have said it. And yes, he lived in California for a while.

The Center for Environmental Policy and Behavior at UC Davis says:

This lack of connection to water management puts a lot of power in the hands of the water experts in agencies and NGOs who are continually fighting (and sometimes cooperating) about water resources. I generally believe that further education about water resources would be a good thing, although sometimes I worry what would happen if EVERY Californian decided they had to fight over water!

Well, we don’t always have to fight about it. Sometimes we can vote on it, as in the upcoming 2012 elections where the ponderously named Safe, Clean and Reliable Drinking Water Supply Act of 2012 may be on the ballot. Surprisingly, 60% of those in the survey say they will vote yes on this $11 billion bond measure.

This bond measure was removed from a previous ballot because of fears it would not pass. It is quite possible this bond could be removed too, and perhaps put back on the ballot in 2014. This apparently would be Gov. Brown’s wish. The problems with the water bond are numerous. The interest on the debt would be $800 million a year, certainly a hard sell for a state struggling to meet financial obligations. Worse, it gives pork a bad name. Every municipality and water district seemingly jumped onboard and demanded funding for their pet water project in return for their support.

Even Sacramento politicians are embarrassed by what the Sacramento Bee calls “this Hinderberg of a water bond.” Its mere existence on the ballot could bring down Jerry Brown’s proposed tax hike measure. So, it will probably be pulled. But it also needs to be rethought, with a better water bond as the result. Who knows, maybe by then most Californians will know what the Delta is. Sigh.

(crossposted from IVN)

California water system in need of major repair

The California Department of Water Resources warned in a December report that 50% of the state’s aging levees are not up to standard and up to $17 billion is needed in repairs and infrastructure investment. This of course comes at a very bad financial time for California, as it is already suffering from huge budget deficits.

There are over 14,000 levees and other structures built along the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. Many were built by local governments or farmers, are decades old, and were built when the areas were mostly rural. That is no longer the case. In many areas now, major urban populations with homes and businesses are on the other side of the levees. This leads to a conundrum. If levees are reinforced and heightened, then even more development might result behind them, increasing the possibility of flood risk in future years.

But, if you lived behind a levee and learned that it would not be strengthened (when perhaps others would be), then you might well protest loudly. The politics of which levees get additional work could become contentious indeed. This also implies that new development needs to take note of the condition of nearby levees and that there may be areas where development shouldn’t happen.

The report is sobering. About half of the urban levees do not meet design criteria for several factors, including stability and underground seepage. In addition, 60% of non-urban levees suffer from similar or related problems. In other words, over half of the levees need work, as do half of the channels. Seepage is the biggest problem, with its relative threat factor rated as High, the only such rating for the entire system. A worrisome half of non-urban levees have a “high potential” of failure from under-seepage, while one-quarter could fail due to through-seepage.

Levees rated as Higher Concern include large portions of the San Joaquin River, starting west of Stockton near Firebaugh and continuing almost to Stockton. Much of the Sacramento River levees beginning north of Sacramento, continuing down to Rio Visto, are also Higher Concern.

The two rivers join in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where the water wars rage, as agricultural, urban, and fishing interests all compete for what generally isn’t enough water to satisfy everyone. Any major breakages or failures on the levees would be devastating to the delta.

The repairs and upgrades could cost upwards of $17 billion. $5 billion in bond funds have already been approved. An $11 billion bond measure may be on the November ballot. But voters are in such a foul mood that it’s difficult to predict if it would pass. Plus, of course, the money has to be paid back, with interest, and at a time when California sees little end to its financial woes.

The report recommends spending $6 billion in urban areas and another $6 billion in system-wide upgrades. The great fear of agriculture is that they will be mostly left out in water system improvements, while cities get the bulk of the money. Let’s not forget that California agriculture feeds the nation and provides a major source of revenue for the state.

There’s always the possibility of black swans, apparently unexpected events that change everything. Sen. Dianne Feinstein once said:

“I have just one statistic, one only, and that is 25 million people depend on Delta water for the drinking water of the state. And the probability of a big earthquake over 6.7 is 75% in the next 30 years. And if that were to happen, there are all indications that the Delta would collapse, the water would be gone, there would be no water for drinking, there would be no water for agriculture, there would be no water for fish, marsh, ecosystems.”

California somehow needs to fix the levees and water system, and it needs to do it sooner rather than later.

For further reading, water blogs of interest include Aquafornia, California Water Blog, WaterWired, and Aquanomics.

(crossposted from IVN)

Projected demand for Colorado River water exceeds supply

Lake Mead bathtub ring

The Bureau of Reclamation has requested input from the public to resolve water supply and demand imbalances for the seven states, including California, using Colorado River water. The problem can be easily stated, the solutions not so easily. Using ten year running averages, the bureau shows that demand for Colorado River water has already outstripped supply and that this trend will continue and worsen.

They emphasize multiple approaches and solutions will be needed to solve the problem of too many people competing for too little water. The Colorado River no longer reaches the ocean. Many other rivers in the West are similarly dry. These simple facts alone show the magnitude of the problem.

The Colorado River Compact of 1922 set the basic rules for water sharing and conservation. It split the states into the Upper Division (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) and the Lower Division (Nevada, Arizona, and California.) The Upper states are required to not overly deplete the flow of water into the Lower. Each group divides their water among themselves. Various new compacts further regulate and split the water and have led to massive projects such as Hoover Dam, Lake Powell, the Central Arizona Project, and large-scale commercial agriculture. Mexico is supposed to get some of the water, but given that the Colorado is mostly dry before it flows into there, it’s difficult to see how they could be getting a full allocation.

Californians should note with alarm that their state has been using surplus water left over from other states since the Compact started. However, that surplus, if it even still exists, will almost certainly be going away soon, leaving California with even less water. In a 2001 agreement, California was given 15 years to find a solution. Nevada, especially Las Vegas, is also facing almost certain water shortages. They do not favor renegotiating water allocations in fear they could end up receiving less than now. However, Arizona Sen. John McCain has called for the compact to be renegotiated.

The Sacramento Delta faces similar challenges. The water wars between Central Valley agriculture and urban southern California are legendary and span decades. Conservation, desalination, and reclamation will certainly be part of the solution. Certainly using less water is an important first step. Lush lawns and golf courses in semi-arid areas and deserts will be going away. Desalination may seem an ideal solution. But it is very expensive and requires huge amounts of energy. But energy often requires large amounts of water to create, thus creating a vicious cycle of using water to generate power to get more water. Plus, no one really knows the effect on the oceans if, say, desalination was on a scale large enough to supply large cities. Reclamation will increasingly be a necessity. This means trapping water so it doesn’t flow into the ocean in coastal areas and recycling wastewater with urine in it to be drinkable again. Some Texas towns are doing this now because of their extreme drought. While this may sound yucky, can we afford to not use and re-use all the water than we can?

The Bureau of Reclamation, as mentioned, is asking the public for ideas. At this point, no one really knows how this will play out or where the water will come from.

(crossposted from IVN)

Towing icebergs to be used for water in Middle East

Just fasten a geotextile belt around the iceberg (video), deploy a geotextile skirt to prevent melting, then tow that puppy thousands of miles using “bumps and holes”in the ocean to help out because a tug can’t possible handle the load.

Golly, what could possibly go wrong with this?

Well. some grumps in the comments opine that when icebergs melt then can flip over which could be a bit inconvenient. Plus, tugs in Arctic sometimes try to tow very small icebergs out of the way and end up getting towed by the iceberg. (sort of like a Nantucket sleighride!)

And do you think countries will stand by and let their icebergs be kidnapped by interlopers from elsewhere. I think not.