2000 Cascadia Times

Draining California Dry

Explosive Growth in the South
is Straining Rivers in the North

by Paul Koberstein
/Cascadia Times

SACRAMENTO – The three most important things to know about a piece of real estate, as they say, are location, location and location. That may be true most places, but not in Southern California, where the burning question has to do with water. As in, Where can I get some?

For most of the 20th Century, Southern California’s answer was “steal it.” The Southland’s politicians used every trick imaginable to get their hands on someone else’s water, whether it belonged to folks in the Owens Valley (and Mono Lake), Arizona, Mexico or Northern California. As late as the 1990s, Schemers floated ideas to take water from the Columbia River and British Columbia. California’s water wars made for a great movie (Chinatown), a best-selling book (Cadillac Desert) and an epic Mark Twain line (in California, whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over).

Southern California usually got its water, and just as often the rivers got screwed. In 1979, with the construction of New Melones Reservoir east of Stockton, the dam-building craze finally ended; by then, 660 dams blocked California rivers. In the 1990s, California turned to restoring its rivers. The public approved a $1 billion ballot measure for river restoration, targeted dozens of dams for removal, and demanded that Los Angeles return water to both the Colorado River and Mono Lake, which it now has done.

That would be the end of the story, except for one inconvenient fact: The Southland's population is expected to grow by about 43 percent to about 22.3 million people by 2020.

But before newcomers buy that gleaming new ranchette in Riverside, they might ask: Where’s the water?

The answer is: There is no water.

There is no surplus ready to tap. There is no water that isn’t owned or used by someone, or some living thing.

In fact, officials now predict that California will experience annual shortages of 4 million acre-feet to 6 million acre-feet by 2010 unless steps are taken now to address the declining reliability of the state's water supply system.

Even if there were a surplus, environmentalists say it should remain in rivers, which are showing promising signs of recovery. But the recovery could stall if California’s rivers have to give up more water to the rapidly growing Southland.

With every new subdivision, and every new green lawn, the Southland digs a deeper and deeper hole. It can’t get out by stealing water anymore. But water can be bought.


During the last big drought from 1987-1992, Southern California had never been so desperate for water. With prodding from Congress, water districts and farmers, the 14 state and federal bureaucracies that control California water began working on a grand plan to increase supplies. To meet the challenge of delivering more water to the Southland, without hurting farming or the environment, they created a new mega-bureaucracy “CALFED.”

On June 9, 2000, CALFED unveiled a proposal that, in every way, seems sufficiently grandiose. California not only would have its first big water project since the 1960s, but the biggest one ever.

At a press conference on the steps of the State Capitol, Governor Gray Davis said CALFED would create “the largest comprehensive water program in the world” – spending a total of $8 billion over its first seven years. It offered something for every interest. The plan spends $1.3 billion on restoring rivers, plus $1.5 billion on new storage projects. It adds $1 billion for improving water quality and another $3 billion for using water more efficiently.

But that’s just the start. Over the next 30 years, the program could cost tens of billions more.

Davis and the other politicians at the podium declared the fighting over. From now on, water will be for collaboration and consensus, not war, and people will drink California cabernet or pale ale.

Davis called the plan “an unprecedented collaboration among state and federal agencies and the state’s leading urban agricultural and environmental interests.” Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, standing next to Davis, said California's long tradition of battling over water would be “relegated to the history books” once and for all.

As California’s Sen. Dianne Feinstein put it, everyone should be happy. “It can bring more certainty for farmers, mechanisms for improved water quality for those who drink the water, a more adequate supply for Silicon Valley, and the development of a system that is more balanced."

But the happiest of all should be the people who drink water delivered by the Metropolitan Water District. "This is a good framework we can move forward on and then work on details," said a satisfied Timothy Quinn, Metropolitan’s deputy general manager.

Metropolitan will get water that’s cleaner, cooler and more plentiful. Where will it come from? In this state, farmers use 80 percent of all the developed water. The plan, however, guarantees them an increase. The rivers are the obvious solution. But how can you get river- concerned Californians to agree?

They won’t. Not if Zeke Grader has anything to do about it.


Zeke Grader is leader of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, and is one of the most influential advocates for salmon in the West. Based in San Francisco, his job is to speak for the people who make a living catching fish, and for the fish themselves. Grader’s group has been a force for protecting salmon in every Pacific state. It takes the principled stand of using the power of the Endangered Species Act to protect fish, even if it costs fishing jobs. Most recently, PCFFA joined other organizations as a plaintiff in a lawsuit to protect salmon in the Klamath River (see “A Broken River,” page xx).

A reporter asked Grader if he thought the CALFED plan will solve everything. Are the wars over?

“No, they’re not over,” he says. “It’s not over with. People are deluding themselves if they think it is over with. This was Munich. They sent Chamberlain when they should have sent Churchill.”

California has been short of the water it needs in most years, and those shortages have always been met at the expense of fish and the environment, Grader says. The new plan continues down that road.

“Overall this is creating a net withdrawal,” he says. “As much as one million acre feet of water being taken out of the San Francisco Bay-Delta system. There’s not good accounting so we don’t know exactly.”

Barry Nelson of the Natural Resources Defense Council says that while CALFED’s plan will not end conflicts over water, it does represent a step forward. “Water users are recognizing the only way they are going to get stability in their water supply is if we dedicate more water to ecosystem protection. A lot of money is dedicated to ecosystem restoration.”

But Nelson and others criticize the planned expansion of two reservoirs, including Shasta, north of Redding. CALFED would also invest in new underground storage in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, and on islands in the Delta. In later years, CALFED will look at a number of other storage projects, including a larger Friant Dam near Fresno.

“The rivers can’t give up much more water, we’ve developed this watershed so intensively,” Nelson says. “CALFED describes the projects as relatively small. But if you add them up you get 1 million acre feet of storage. You can do a lot of environmental damage with that.”


Years ago, the Feather River often flooded parts of the Central Valley north of Sacramento. In 1960, California voters brought the Feather under control by approving a ballot measure to build Oroville Dam, a monstrous earthen wall across the Feather, and the State Water Project. The State Water Project diverts the flows from Oroville into a canal that eventually reaches Los Angeles. The project takes water from other rivers along the way.

When driving through the surrounding farms of the Sacramento Valley , it’s easy to get a sense how people feel about water exports to Los Angeles. “No more water exports to the South,” declares a sign posted in a field near Corning.

Even if CALFED expands Shasta, none of the 300,000 acre-feet of new water to be stored there will be used in Northern California. Farming communities here have fought “water grabs” in the past, and are poised to do so once again.

“This plan gives very little, if anything, to Northern California, while giving the south state nearly everything,” said Maurice Johannessen, a Republican state senator from Redding. As chair of a key Senate committee on CALFED, he has promised to “safeguard our water and property rights.”

U.S. Rep. Wally Herger is more blunt. In comments to the Redding Record-Searchlight, the town’s daily paper, Herger called the CALFED plan “an assault on Northern California” and the “height of bureaucratic and political cowardice.”

Though mostly Republican, farmers at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, are singing praises for the plan and one of its authors, the governor, who happens to be a Democrat. Crooned Fred Starrh, board president of the Ken County Water Agency: “Davis, Davis, he’s our man. If he can’t do it, no one can.”


About 100 miles south of Oroville, the Sacramento River blends with the north-flowing San Joaquin River, and with brackish tidal water from San Francisco Bay, to form the Delta. The Bay-Delta ecosystem is the embattled heart of the water supply system that powers California's economy.

The Bay-Delta's 738,000 acres of farmland and wildlife habitat provide drinking water to two-thirds of the state's population, and habitat for 120 species of fish. The Delta also provides irrigation water for millions of acres of farmland, comprised of 200 different crops, including 45 percent of the nation's fruits and vegetables. Since much of this land is below sea level, levees must protect the 520,000 acres of farmland. Competition for water among human versus environmental needs has endangered some species, and threatened water supplies in and around the Bay-Delta.

The Delta also provides most of Southern California’s fresh water.

Figuring out a way to restore a healthy Delta, without disrupting supplies in the Southland, is the key environmental issue in the CALFED debate. The plan attempts to solve these problems with a lengthy list of projects, including:

· $1 billion for ecosystem restoration projects in the Delta, the Sacramento River corridor, and Bay-Delta tributaries.
· $300 million for local projects that contribute too ecosystem restoration, water quality improvement and water supply reliability.
· Various changes to the system of pumping and moving water through the Delta. These could include new fish screens at state and federal pumping plants and a controverisal new canal to improve waster quality for Silicon Valley.
· $800 million for water quality programs to continuously improve Delta water quality for all users. Actions include developing a Bay Area blending/exchange program; addressing drainage problems in the San Joaquin Valley, implementing a source water protection program, and investing in treatment technology development.
· $1.3 billion in loan and grant programs for agricultural and urban water use efficiency.
· $1.6 billion program for water recycling projects.
· $450 million for Delta levee system maintenance and improvements.

The plan also calls for storing 380,000 acre-feet in an “Environmental Water Account” that could be drawn when needed for fish. Project managers would send “pulses” of this water downstream at critical times for spawning and migration.

However, the plan would suspend enforcement of the Endangered Species Act for four years. The plan will not allow any reductions in water deliveries to city and farm users resulting from measures to protect listed species. At the same time, it calls for an increase in water deliveries to farmers south of the Delta of about 15 percent.

"There are assurances of how much water farmers will receive, but there aren't the same assurances to protect the environment,'' said Elyssa Rosen, a Sierra Club spokeswoman. "There's reliability for farmers but none for fish.''

Indeed, some farmers doubt the fish will ever see that water, and they aren’t volunteering to give any of theirs away. Said Richard Moss, manager of the Friant Water Users Authority in the southern Central Valley, “I don’t think there’s that much water sloshing around.”


Back in San Francisco, Grader is pondering the next moves. A lawsuit is possible. Grader would like to see innovative solutions that don’t remove water from the Delta. California could begin regulating groundwater, and try linking growth with water availability.

“The package lacks vision and courage,” he says. “The best way to store water is underground. It doesn’t cost you anything, you build no reservoirs so there’s no evaporation, and it protects your existing aquifers.”

If you store water underground, you have to make sure no one steals it. But California does not closely monitor groundwater use. “California should have the toughest groundwater laws in the nation, not the weakest.” Grader says.

Though several groundwater storage projects are under study, their chances of success depend on local support. One grass-roots group, Families Protecting the Valley, has condemned a proposal for underground storage in Madera County, in part because the developer is the Texas-based multinational, Enron. Farmers fear Enron would make a killing exporting their water to Las Vegas or Los Angeles. Locally owned water banks in the Bakersfield area, however, have been successful, benefiting from local support and monitoring.

Grader says the state should require communities to plan their growth around water supplies. The CALFED plan says nothing about sprawl; nor does it encourage cities to fill in rather than spread out.

“It’s the nature of sprawl that you have lawns, and a higher water usage than for people living in more compacted urban areas,” Grader says. “Developers and land speculators are buying cheap land in the desert, building suburbs and then demanding water. The water must be stolen from another use, from fish and increasingly from agriculture. Unless you require builders and land speculators to show us the water before they get permits, there is never going to be an end to this.”