Not the Apocalypse

As winter comes to a close, it is obvious California's drought, now in its fourth year, is serious indeed. Much needs to be done.

It is not quite the apocalypse for all of California, as some have suggested, although it may be for Delta smelt as well as some farmers.

smelt_w_text.jpgProfessor Jay Famiglietti's recent column in the Los Angeles Times, suggesting that "California has only one year of water left", is more than a little hyperbolic. Perhaps it has served its purpose as it has gotten people's attention. Today, the news section of the Los Angeles Times published an article clarifying that it isn't true. 

Those wanting a less incendiary and more thoughtful discussion of our ongoing drought, as well as a series of recommendations on how we should better manage our limited supplies, might want to check out this blog published by the Public Policy Institute of California.

How bad is the drought? Is it worse than ever? There are many ways to assess statewide water supply. One is to examine the Eight River Index - the average total runoff from the Sacramento, Feather, Yuba, American, Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Merced, and San Joaquin Rivers over the past four years, and to compare it to past records. 

As the chart below shows, the average runoff over the last four years (with conservative projections for the remainder of 2015) is among the lowest over the last century, but such droughts have indeed occurred several times. Now that it is time to give up hope for any more meaningful rainfall in 2015, we begin the long wait to see if 2016 might bring relief to our parched state. 


But river runoff does not tell the whole story. During past droughts there were fewer people in California. Groundwater is less plentiful, as well as more difficult and expensive to reach. 

Also, environmental demands have increased over the past 20 years, largely to lessen the impacts we have caused to wetlands and fisheries. Some water agencies have been able to make additional system improvements to retain supply while protecting natural resources, while other water agencies have been forced to adapt to reduced supplies.

Westlands, a large, powerful, litigious and highly productive water district with "junior" water rights on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, has installed enough drip irrigation to reach the moon and back. But for the second straight year, they will receive zero supply from their principle source - the federal Central Valley Project. Westlands' farmers, like many others in the state, will scramble to provide whatever surface and groundwater supplies they can to keep trees alive while fallowing fields that typically grow annual crops. The drought will increase unemployment in many Central Valley towns, and likely cause some farmers to go bankrupt.

Impacts of the drought vary considerably in the urban sector. Marin County's reservoirs filled during December rains. They are in fine shape. 

This fall, San Diego expects to receive deliveries from its highly controversial newly constructed desalination plant in Carlsbad - to be the largest such facility in the western hemisphere. If the drought continues, expect more California cities to pursue desalination and expect plenty of controversy. "Desal" is expensive at best and particularly expensive if it uses renewable energy, minimizes harm to marine life and is not to impair our enjoyment of California's beaches.

Of course, exports from the Bay-Delta have provided about 25% of the water supply in both the Bay Area and urban southern California in recent decades. The battle over operations in the Delta - how much water to divert to farms and cities vs. how much to leave instream to protect the estuary, its communities and its fisheries - rages on. 

Regulators, courts and legislatures are continually asked to weaken environmental protections in the Delta. Even though its readership is significantly affected by pumping restrictions, the San Jose Mercury News opined last month that environmental protections should remain.The San Francisco Chronicle, whose readership relies largely on San Francisco's Tuolumne River system and is less affected by conditions in the Delta, agreed in a March 2 editorial (subscription required), stating that water supply shortages are not  "an argument to further degrade the largest estuary on the West Coast, the San Francisco Bay Delta".

One thing is clear - if the drought continues, the "water wars" will continue as well.

Our campaign to restore Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley may be contentious in some circles, but it is fundamentally different from the water debate in the Delta. Restore Hetch Hetchy is not asking for anyone to make do with less water - we are simply asking that it not be stored inside Yosemite National Park.

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir holds only about 1/8 of the storage in the Tuolumne River system. There are ample opportunities for San Francisco to store this water in depleted Central Valley aquifers, to invest in surface storage outside Yosemite or to recycle a small portion of their supply. 


Other California water agencies have done far more to diminish their impact on the environment than would be required of San Francisco when Hetch Hetchy is restored. See the comparison here

The drought impacts us all, but has little to do with restoration of Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley.