News item: On January 17, 2014, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency.
In 1846, one could book passage on a river boat between San Francisco and Bakersfield. In that year, the San Joaquin Valley had numerous lakes and marshes. The water table was at the surface in many of the lower parts of the valley. In the fall and winter, great flights of waterfowl darkened the sky. For thousands of years, Native Americans had lived in total harmony with the environment.
As the settlers moved in from the East, they established farms. Over time, they drained the valley’s marshes and lakes to create the world’s best farm land. Levees were built throughout the Sacramento River Delta, hastening the drop in the valley’s fresh water storage ability.
In time, dams were built in the mountains to the east, providing storage for water that could no longer be held on the valley floor. Valley land use and population expanded annually, increasing the need for fresh water.
The water stored in the mountain dams was not sufficient to supply the needs of the entire region, so wells were drilled. At first, the wells were shallow because the water table was high in many places. Over time, the wells were drilled deeper as the water table dropped and aquifers became depleted.
In the 1960’s, the Central Valley Water Project started shipping water south towards Los Angeles desert west valley agribusiness because both areas had inadequate local supplies. Water usage soared.
Today, California is under a water emergency. The entire state may not have enough water to meet demand. If heavy rains come, they will only postpone the emergency.
Not enough rain falls on a regular annual basis to meet California’s present demand for fresh water. Since 1846, the state has been gradually drawing down its natural fresh water supply. The supply is dangerously close to being depleted. Enhancing supply via deeper wells grows more expensive.
If the state runs out of water, Central Valley farmers cannot farm. If the land is left fallow, the Valley will become a dustbowl because all of the lakes and marshes are gone. The dry fallow land will generate enormous quantities of dust when the wind blows.
The Governor’s Solution
Present demand for fresh water in California is so much greater than the average annual rainfall that the 20% voluntary conservation suggested by the Governor will only slow the drawdown of whatever fresh water remains. Except for the wettest years, the state will eventually be in a perpetual water emergency. This is because demand will continue to grow with the population increase, combined with increased acreage in agriculture.
The $25 billion twin tunnels project promoted by the Governor will hasten the drawdown of fresh water reserves in the northern part of the state. As the north state’s economy grows, it will need to keep more and more of its fresh water resources, making the tunnels less and less useful to the entire state.
With its fresh water reserves shipped south by the twin tunnels, the north state will suffer the same level of drought emergency as the rest of the state. This will occur as California discovers the limit of its economic growth. When the state runs out of water, the economy will not only stop growing, but start to contract.
Clearly, the Governor’s proposed solution is inadequate to meet future need. Praying for a shift to a permanently wetter climate has to be included in his solution.
Recycling water is a positive step in increasing the water supply. The practice should be encouraged state wide and is more valuable than the proposed tunnel project, which only moves water and does not affect total statewide supply.
Desalinization plants along the coast would have the ability to manufacture large quantities of water. Reverse osmosis plants can produce 15 million gallons of water per minute.
While production of water is more expensive than moving water, the production could address the imbalance of supply versus demand, reduce the need to move water long distances, and enable the Great Valley to retain more of its naturally occurring water for agriculture. The higher cost of water production could be incrementally absorbed by rate payers.
The big question is whether the elected leaders of California, the California State Water Resources Board, and local water boards will join together to recognize all viable solutions and work to secure the state’s water future.
Most political entities fiddle until a major crisis occurs and then act only after severe damage has been done. Up until now, the state’s water boards have usually stayed ahead of the water shortage problem, but the present problem has grown unusually large and will require extraordinary measures to abate.
With global warming, no one knows whether the present drought is temporary or permanent. Whatever action is to be taken, it should start now. If the present drought is sustained, the Great Valley could become a dustbowl within a few years, with dire economic consequences for the entire state.
Further Reading: “The Ohlone Way,” by Malcolm Margolin. Information on desalinization technology can be found in Businessweek.