Uninformed California State Water Policy Threatens the Environment
Since the late 1980s, California has progressively enforced ever-more-strict regulations and decrees over the use of the state’s waters. Now, advances in science research are leading to questions about whether the state’s solutions to addressing California’s environmental problems are providing their intended results.
First, the evidence. Key environmental laws, regulations and court case decisions progressively increased the amount of water diverted from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Estuary to environmental uses, lowing the amount delivered to traditional urban and farmland irrigation uses. The Delta is a vital crossroads for water flowing from the federal and state water projects. The Delta divides California’s wet-winter north with its vast rural lands from the state’s arid south where 25 million Californians live, work and play.
There are a number of ways of looking at this diversion shift, but among the easiest is to consider that the two traditional users of California’s developed water supply are being pushed aside by a thirsty third user, the environment.
Before 1990, about 20 percent of California’s developed water supply — water captured from precipitation, snowmelt and runoff in surface reservoirs — went to the state’s residents and cities, while 80 percent was used by agricultural users for irrigation and other on-farm uses.
A massive shift in the historical allocation pattern has taken place, resulting in huge changes. By 2010, the environment received over 50 percent of the state’s developed water, urban areas 10 percent and agriculture 40 percent. Cities continued to grow as populations increased, but agriculture watched its water for irrigation dwindle as both the cities and environment reduced their allocation.
The environment consumed vast quantities of water for habitat maintenance and improvement, for endangered species, for other wildlife and birds, and most importantly for water quality — managing the temperature, salinity and load of contaminants in waterways and the Delta.
Another fact of evidence is that the state redirected public waters to the environment with the intent of helping endangered migratory fish such as salmon and steelhead and non-migratory endangered fish like the Delta smelt, several populations of sucker and some other species.
The impacts of these regulatory policy shifts were huge. Nearly two million acres of productive farmland was fallowed in California’s Central Valley between 1989 and 2016, over 500,000 acres during just the last four years.
Statewide, the impact was even greater. From 1992 to 2012, the California Department of Conservation reports that 4,474,782 acres of important farmland and 1,880,282 acres of grazing land — 6,585,836 acres in total — vanished from agriculture.
In an effort to maintain crop production and sustain their herds of livestock and poultry, farmers pumped vast quantities of underground water to replace dwindling surface water deliveries, leading to massive land subsidence. Some areas of slumping will recover as underground aquifers refill, but others will persist for years if not forever.
In the late 1990s, the state aggravated the diversion of water to the environment by imposing so-called “pulse flow releases” throughout the hot summer months. These waters were spilled from California’s water reservoirs to redistribute gravel in streams to make spawning areas more functional and to reduce water temperatures too warm for fish survival.
Higher minimum flows down California’s rivers and the Delta were believed to rejuvenate endangered species’ populations suffering precipitous declines.
Recent scientific evidence, however, indicates that this massive re-plumbing of California’s water supply system may have been initiated without a clear and informed understanding of its consequences, simply in the belief that something, anything must be done to help the environment and endangered species recover.
Recent mainstream scientific evidence says otherwise.
First, FishBio, a highly respected fisheries biological research organization, completed a decades-long, rigorous study of the effect of pulse flows and unimpaired river flows on the Tuolumne River. It was a research project that began before the state ordered widespread implementation of such practices, and the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) intuitively modeled its widespread mandates for pulse flow releases across many state rivers on the study while it was still in process, before results could be obtained and reported.
Now, published in a major fisheries scholarly journal after peer review, FishBio found that both pulse flows and higher river flows in general did little to nothing to help migratory fish, including endangered Chinook salmon and steelhead. Rather, they found that the practices intended to help actually harmed the endangered species.
SWRCB has circulated a new rule and will decide early this summer whether to expand the pulse flows and unimpaired flow practices FishBio found harmful to endangered species across all the tributary streams to the San Joaquin River, including the Tuolumne. The state is drafting a similar rule for the much larger Sacramento River and all its tributaries.
Of even broader concern is a recent study just completed and a preview from the early results of further research still underway at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder Colorado. NCAR’s researchers demonstrate that reduced soil moisture in California’s Central Valley appears to provide positive feedback for worldwide atmospheric circulation processes that establish and sustain drought conditions across the Western United States.
Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, NASA, and the National Science Foundation (NSF), climate scientists Haiyan Teng, Grant Branstator, Hailan Wang, Gerald A. Meehl, and Warren M. Washington have fingerprinted and mathematically modeled a distinctive atmospheric wave pattern high above the Northern Hemisphere that can foreshadow the emergence of summertime heat waves and shifts in persistent bands of precipitation in the United States.
California’s efforts to redirect water from the Central Valley and the arid southlands of our state sent it west to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Estuary and out into the Pacific Ocean, instead of pumping it south. The shift meant less water was available to irrigate home landscapes and farmland across thousands of square miles of California, uses that naturally preserve soil moisture.
The researchers are currently investigating whether fallowing millions of acres of irrigated croplands provided unintentional feedback to the movement of so-called “wavenumber-5 patterns,” a sequence of five alternating high-pressure systems and five low-pressure systems that form a ring circling the northern mid-latitudes of our planet, several miles above the surface.
The pattern appears to have been a major causation factor in the formation and duration of the widely discussed Remarkably Resilient Ridge of high pressure that caused storm systems to stall over the eastern Pacific Ocean from 2012 to 2016. The ocean received several years of torrential downpours that otherwise would have fallen as rain and snow in California or inland across the drought-stricken West.
Other factors also in play have potential for interfering with natural environmental and atmospheric patterns due to their effects on soil moisture: Changes in irrigation practices and crop shifting.
Years of declining surface water deliveries capped by the extended drought and state regulatory mandates led farmers to widespread efforts to convert traditional irrigation methods — including field flooding and overhead spray sprinklers — to water-conserving surface, area and sub-surface drip irrigation.
Such micro-irrigation techniques boast an efficiency rate of between 80 and 90 percent compared to 50 percent or lower for flooding and overhead irrigation methods. For farmers, the benefits are multiple. Using less water regardless of its source costs less, improving profits. Conservation irrigation also produces higher crop yields and more uniform crops.
The result of this water-conservation effort has been dramatic. According to the California Department of Agriculture, from 1967 to 2010, the total applied water use to crops in California on 9.6 million acres was reduced by 20 percent, from 31.2 million acre-feet (MAF) to 24.9 MAF as crops produced grew in value from $19.9 billion to $37.5 billion.
The other shift made by farmers was to move ways from low-value crops such as lettuce and tomatoes to high-value crops like grapes, nuts and specialty fruit. Because the higher-value crops — especially vine and orchards — use less water and some may tolerate water less suitable for row crops, revenue yield per acre increased as irrigation water required dropped.
Farmers made these moves to survive the tectonic shifts rocking agriculture in California: for profit motives, to achieve cost reductions, to comply with water conservation regulations, to counter disruptions in surface water deliveries made unreliable by the state’s shift of water to the environment and to allow fallowing of marginal lands made unprofitable by other rising costs, including labor.
California is expanding its grip over the environment and natural resources. In just the past few legislative sessions, broad mandates have been imposed through new laws governing the maintenance of underground water aquifers and the extraction and use of their waters.
A major source of water for communities as small as many tiny rural towns and as big as the megalopolis of Los Angeles with 19 million or more citizens, underground water supplies provide drinking and irrigation water to vast segments of California’s population. For many, these underground resources are the only available water supply.
Historically in California, groundwater was under local control, both by law and by tradition. Now, the state is acting to replace local control of water for local use with state regulation and oversight. Simultaneously, the state is mandating greater recovery of storm-water runoff and aquifer refill, a project with costly ramifications for local communities.
Cities that have built water facilities to provide for their own needs found themselves in the curious condition of not being able to use their own water resources during the drought without violating mandates of the SWRCB for water conservation despite having more water than they could store or use.
San Diego, for one, built a new reservoir and a costly desalination plant at its ratepayers’ expense. The reservoir filled with water conserved under state mandates, but the state blocked them from releasing the water for the city’s residents’ own use.
The rural northern California towns of Eureka and Crescent City ran afoul of the same drought-conservation mandates despite never having a water shortage in their region, a foggy, rain-sodden area of the state best known for its water-loving redwood forests. Similar problems plagued McCloud in Siskiyou County, where a water district manager resigned rather than waste its water, which the state forced his district to release down a creek previously dry for decades.
The State of California, in its valiant and well-intended efforts to protect, preserve, conserve and enhance the environment, is instead distorting nature, the environment and our state’s population to fit unnatural, uncomfortable and unsustainable policies.