Restore the San Joaquin Delta ecosystem

I am concluding this series of posts by focusing on the important and remarkable efforts of the Restore the Delta organization and the San Francisco Estuary Institute, the first of which is a grassroots community-powered group, and the other an institute that conducts scientific studies on restoring the San Joaquin Delta.  Both organizations are committed to responding to the current and projected disruptions to the Delta’s water quality and abundance.

restore-the-deltaAs this series of articles has outlined, the Delta is currently carrying the burden of providing water for upwards of 20 million Californian residents, local farmers, large-scale agribusiness, and federally protected fisheries in addition to buffering against saltwater encroachment from San Francisco Bay.

These organizations are good places to begin educating oneself on the negative effects on the Delta because of over-pumping at the state’s water pumps and the state’s plan to build two new water diversion tunnels from the Sacramento River – a major source of the Delta’s water flow.  The focus of these two organizations is holding the state accountable for upgrading Delta levees, maintaining sufficient water flow, regulating upstream pollutants, conserving fisheries, providing clean water to local farmers, and providing scientific guidance on how to implement ecological restorations.

 

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Schematic illustrating how water will be diverted from the Sacramento River, bypass the Delta, and be delivered to the state water pumps

 

While Restore The Delta is actually opposed to the building of the new California WaterFix tunnels, the organization is already involved in restoration efforts to preemptively deal with the negative outcomes if/when the new water diversion tunnels are built.  Their political focus has been precipitated by the poor state of the Delta’s infrastructure and water quality, concerns of Delta farming sustainability, and blocking a large-scale water grab by the impending new water diversion tunnels that will be situated upstream of the Delta.

As it stands now, the proposed restoration plans for the Delta that were initially outlined in the California WaterFix proposal are being scaled back by the state, which has caused a rift between state agencies and communities that want the Delta restored – making the work of Restore The Delta and San Francisco Estuary Institute all the more important.

Restore The Delta, a conglomerate of municipal governments, community groups, environmentalists, and farmers in the greater Delta region, has steadily grown since their inception in 2012 to ensure that the water quality of the San Francisco Bay – San Joaquin Delta estuary will be restored for current and future generations of Californians.

san-francisco-estuary-institute-squarelogosfei_logoThankfully organizations such as Restore The Delta have their restoration concerns and efforts validated by the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI), which produces ongoing scientific studies on restoring the Delta estuary.  Providing methodologies to support long-term improvements to the Delta water quality and ecosystem functions, and to increase viable wildlife habitat.

Two current reports published by the SFEI, “A Delta Transformed” and “A Delta Renewed,” identify “how the Delta has been altered over time and how it might be altered again in the future to better support resilient populations of native wildlife.”   These reports provide essential and credible resources for not only scientists, but the community organizations that care about saving the Delta.

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The SFEI provides open sourced access to their publications, and their 2016 publication titled “A Delta Renewed: A Guide to Science-Based Ecological Restoration in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta” is useful information for anyone interested in knowing more about the institute’s work.  The authors of this study clearly state that future restoration plans should provide clean and abundant water in the Delta that not only supports wildlife, such as Salmon and Smelt, but also the historical farms in the region. Furthermore, their reports “offers guidance for creating and maintaining landscapes in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that support desired ecological functions, while retaining the overall agricultural character and water-supply service of the region.”

Anyone interested in learning more about the scientific or community based efforts to restore the San Joaquin Delta can get involved through either of these two organization’s websites, where direct actions are posted, publically available scientific reports and educational tools for downloading, and crucial updates on the construction of the California WaterFix new diversion tunnels.

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Wetlands in the San Joaquin Delta

Throughout this series exploring the political, ecological and water quality issues of the San Joaquin Delta, and California’s ongoing struggle to provide water to all its communities and industries, it has become clear that I must continue to stay educated and motivated to do my part as a citizen of California that cares about water availability.

It has hopefully been made clear through this series of posts that water conservation and ecological restoration are fundamentally necessary in the Delta, one of the main sources of California’s water supply.  All Californians are affected by the decision made for our water security in the Delta, either through our dependence on water delivery, food production, salmon and fisheries conservation, and the overall importance of protecting the Pacific coast’s largest estuary.  All Californians will hopefully get involved to ensure that current and future generations will have access to fresh, clean, abundant, and available water by restoring the San Joaquin Delta.

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I created a poster that implies that the Sacramento River in Northern California is a crucial source of water for the San Joaquin Delta and its vast ecosystem.   This poster was designed using the blue and green background to give the impression of water and greenery, and to provide the subliminal message that the water flow from the Sacramento River will keep the San Joaquin Delta’s ecosystem healthy and provide beauty for people to enjoy.

The overall design of the poster focuses on blue and green, the colors of water and plants, and imagery of animals that depend on fresh water.  The text is representative of the ideas that the water from the Sacramento River is important for birds, animals and farmers, and  that the Delta is worth saving.

I decided to make this poster to impress upon and appeal to the senses of people that enjoy recreation, like relaxing in nature, fishing, and all around enjoyment of natural settings.  The poster is intended to draw viewers into the beautiful photos of animals in their aquatic habitat, implying that people will be able to experience relaxation and tranquility in a restored Delta.  Additionally, I made the point of representing the Delta with an agricultural image, which is used to give people a sympathetic opinion of farmers in the Delta.

The use of the red letters allows for the three action items of the poster to stand out.  The use of the red color gives the sense that these points are important, to pay attention, or else something bad may happen. The red is designed to stand out against the pleasing and tranquil blue and green background.

The words “Provide Water” is an indirect reference to the new tunnels that are expected to be built to provide a secondary conveyance of water for California’s cities and farms.  The implied message is that providing another reliable source of water is a logical idea, yet other issues are at play as well, which leads into the next statement in red text, “Restore Habitat.”

Using the words “Restore Habitat” is there to show that bigger issues at play in the building of the tunnels, such as what will happen if the San Joaquin Delta’s water flow is interrupted.  The use of these words doesn’t absolutely imply that a plan is in place to restore the habitat, but that it is an idea worth fighting for.

Finally, the words “Conserve the Sacramento River” creates the impression that the river is in danger.  The message implies a fear that if people don’t take action there will be consequences with our water supply.

However, if the observer acts by calling Governor Jerry Brown, the beauty of the Delta marshlands and watershed will be saved for future generations to enjoy.  I decided to add the link to the Restore The Delta organization that is advocating for the state of California to ensure sufficient and clean water flow into the San Joaquin Delta in order to maintain good water quality for wildlife, farmers, and recreation.  The main issue that poster indirectly states is that the Sacramento River is endanger of being drained of too much water by the two new diversion tunnels, and that the Delta would suffer as a result.  Since eighty percent of the San Joaquin Delta’s water comes from the Sacramento River, this issue is important to consider, and that is why I created this poster.

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Delta Restoration

Delta Agriculture

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My Opinion: Should California build the new water diversion tunnels as outlined in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan?

 

Yes, the two new water diversion tunnels should be constructed to provide another source of water conveyance for the state of California.  However, I think there should be a compromise such that the canals and levees of the Delta will be maintained to current standards, or better, in addition to building the water diversion tunnels.

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Illustration of the proposed water intake from the Sacramento River

Building the two tunnels will ensure that there is another reliable water source for California in the event that a natural disaster strikes the San Joaquin Delta.  But the Army Corps of Engineers will need to prioritize the upkeep of the earthen levees of the Delta and ensure that sufficient water is diverted into the Delta to counterbalance the water being diverted away by the tunnels.

 

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Many opponent to the new tunnels equate the plan to a major water grab by corporate agribusiness

Additionally, the water that is pumped from the federal and state pumps near Tracy should not exceed current levels, since over-pumping is already a major issue with fisheries depletion, and saltwater encroachment in the Delta.

Since many opponents to the proposed water tunnels fear that the large agribusinesses and Southern California municipalities will demand excessive water deliveries to make the cost of the project feasible, the new tunnels will need be regulated so that there is not a substantial water-grab by agribusinesses.

 

If the new water diversion tunnels are built, and buried underneath the San Joaquin Delta, it is imperative that the state of California prioritize the ecological restoration of parts of the Delta as was outlined in the initial proposition to build the diversion tunnels.  If the idea is to reduce the water demand from the San Joaquin Delta, then the state agency responsible for the California WaterFix plan, and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, need to make good on their proposal to restore the ecology of the Delta.

 

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After having researched the many angles regarding the construction of the two new tunnels, I concede that my initial position against building the tunnels has changed.  I realize that arguments against building the tunnels are valid, especially the position of the San Joaquin Delta farmers that are fearful of the Delta drying up if the tunnels take too much water from the sources feeding the Delta.  Opponents of the tunnels when talking about the current condition of the fresh water in the Delta say “This year we are having terrible issue with salinity and low water levels. It’s a drought year. With the tunnels in operation, it will be permanent drought conditions in the Delta.”  When considering the delicate balance where the San Joaquin Delta already teeters, the threat of diminished water flow into the Delta is well founded.

But it is also important for the state of California to ensure other ways to ensure water reliability.  In a perfect system, the new diversion tunnels will be built, and the state will also regulate how much water is being drained at the pumps, in addition to the Delta barriers being prioritized for maintenance.  Having a more diversified water conveyance system will be good for California, but the state cannot allow the Delta to fall into disrepair and potentially harm the economic livelihood of Delta farmers and residents in the process.

 

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The California WaterFix tunnels are not the solution to California’s water issues.

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Proponents of the San Joaquin Delta restoration plan

Opponents of the plan to build the CaliforniaWaterFix twin tunnel system argue that the levee and canal system of the San Joaquin Delta is sufficient to provide California with fresh water.  That it is unnecessary to build the new water tunnels because the Army Corps of Engineers already maintains the canals and levee barriers, and the overall cost of the Delta’s current infrastructure would amount to much less than the $25 billion to build the new diversion tunnels.  Economist Jeffrey Michael of the University of Pacific makes this point by saying “The levee system is actually improving, thanks to smart investments by the state over the last 25 years. And for only a few billion dollars more, Michael maintains, the state could seismically upgrade the Delta’s levees, securing the water supply and the people who live behind them.”

Additionally, building the twin tunneled diversion of the water from the Sacramento River, which feeds approximately 80% of the water flow into the Delta, local farmers, residents, and environmental argue that the Sacramento River was is crucial for maintaining the Delta’s hydrologic flow.

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Heat map illustrating the importance of the Sacramento River’s water flow on the Delta

Farmers and residents of the many islands and areas adjacent to the Delta argue that the current issues of diminished water flow, which have already reduced habitat for Salmon and the endangered smelt will only be exacerbated if the new tunnels are built.

Additionally, these opponents argue that the levees and canals could deteriorate over time with the reduced water flow from the tunnel diversion, leaving their farming businesses and the safety of their homes in danger of saltwater encroachment and flooding.

Don Nottoli of the Delta Protection Committee says “we are very concerned about not only the impacts to the delta, to the way of life here, to the agricultural pursuits, the recreational pursuits, but also with the coequal goals of water supply reliability and ecosystem restoration.”  Consequently, farmers in the Delta are opposed to the potential disruption in fresh water caused by the tunnels.

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Farms along the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

 

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Map showing that the Southern San Joaquin Valley uses the majority of California’s water

Most opponents of the construction of the new water tunnels make the point that the new construction project amounts to a large water grab for the large-scale agribusinesses in the southern San Joaquin Valley.  Critics of the new water tunnels argue that since the cost of the project is to be distributed among the taxpayers most served by the water, predominantly Southern California districts, the taxpayers and municipal water agencies will demand even more water to be diverted by the new tunnels to justify the cost.

 

When opponents of the new tunnels talk of the diminished fisheries they argue that diverting the water into tunnels from the Sacramento River to the state and federal pumps near Tracy, will not change the fact that the large pumps already create a backwards flow of water in the Delta.  This backward flow of Delta water is partially to blame for the diminished Salmon populations and for saltwater encroachment.   Environmentalists also argue that an increase in pumping near Tracy, in the case of a large water grab, will cause more fish to become trapped in the pumps.

 

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The Delta’s Salmon runs and Smelt habitats are in danger of a total collapse

 

With so many unanswered questions regarding how much water will be diverted into the tunnels from the Sacramento River, coupled with the possibility of increased pumping to justify the cost for taxpayers, the opponents of the California WaterFix tunnels are against building the new tunnels.

It is clear to the opponents of the new water diversion tunnels that it would be cheaper to just continue maintaining the existing canals and levees.  In addition to saving billions of dollars of taxpayer money, they are adamant that the twin tunnel project will not alleviate the issues of fresh water flow in the San Joaquin Delta, but only deteriorate the Delta’s infrastructure.  And considering the already shady business of water grabs by privately held agribusiness many opponents to the tunnels say that the ultimate reason why the tunnels are being built is to essentially allow for large corporate agribusinesses steal more water.

Building the California Water Fix Tunnels Will Ensure Reliable Access to Water

 

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Currently, the areas around of the San Joaquin Delta that serves the state’s important water intake pumps could best be described as a wild labyrinth of canals and levees, constructed from peat bricks supplemented with blasted Sierra Nevada rock and silt.  To the State Water Project these levee and canal structures represent a potential disaster-zone-in-waiting should a substantial earthquake hit the Delta area and cause a breach of levees and subsequent flooding – an event that could cause the state to lose control of the fresh water flow that serves 25 million California residents and multiple farms in the San Joaquin Valley.

Therefore, proponents of the proposed twin tunnel water diversion plan, namely the state of California, explicitly argue that building the water diversion system from the Sacramento River and underneath the Delta is absolutely imperative if the State of California wants to ensure that water delivery to municipalities and agriculture is not disrupted should a destructive natural disaster strike the network of levees in the Delta.

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Illustration showing how the new tunnels would be buried underneath the San Joaquin Delta

In addition to just simply conveying water through the Delta, the levee and canal system, built over the past 100 years, is also designed to keep encroaching saltwater from San Francisco Bay tides out of the fresh water.

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Islands created by the levee and canal system in the Delta

What has resulted from the levees are islands, which are now home to upwards of 400,000 people and  successful farms.  In the event of a sizeable earthquake in the area of the Delta, levees could be compromised, flooding the islands, heightening the potential for losing access to fresh water.   State of California officials argue that if the levees are compromised, the saltwater could contaminate the fresh water for upwards of a few years, which could cripple California’s multi-billion dollar agricultural industry.

 

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A breached earthen levee on the Sacramento River

Professors Scott Brandenburg and Jonathan Stewart of the UCLA School of Civil and Environmental Engineering say “seismically induced failures of levees are not the product of imaginative speculation. They have been observed elsewhere around the world (mainly Japan).”  They continue by imploring that: “we ignore the potential for seismic failure of levees in California at our peril. We must do all we can to prevent these catastrophic failures from affecting our water supply.”

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California Governor Brown speaks about the state’s water issues

Therefore, proponents of building the twin-tunnelled water diversion system around the San Joaquin Delta are adamant that in order to ensure reliability to fresh water to upwards of 25 million people and the agricultural economy, building the tunnels is absolutely necessary. Governor Brown agrees and says the project  “..is an imperative. It must move forward.. This is not just some piece of rhetoric … this is a serious effort on the part of the federal authorities, state authorities.”

For proponents of the California Water Fix’s plan to build the new diversion tunnels, the choice is clear, that in order to ensure a reliable source of water for Southern Californian and some Bay Area municipalities, and the state’s large agribusiness economy, this project must move forward.  Although the tunnel project is not without its opponents, a subject which I will explore in coming posts, proponents have made a strong case for the necessity of expanding the water harnessing infrastructure for the state of California.

 

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To build or not to build: The new water diversion tunnels

Should California build the 2 new water diversion tunnels as outlined in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan?

This is a salient question, that has its fair share of proponents and opponents and competing opinions on how, when, and whether this large scale infrastructure project should actually be built.  First the building of the two large water diversion tunnels will cost a lot of money, to the tune of $15 billion, and the construction could take more than 10 years to be completed.

Additionally, there are still political and environmental issues with allowing water to be diverted away from watersheds that would normally flow into the San Joaquin Delta, especially in times of extreme drought.

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The proposed new water diversion tunnel schematic from the Sacramento River

Proponents argue that the new water diversion tunnels will allow for water from the Sacramento River to flow around the San Joaquin Delta, without disrupting the natural watershed flow, allowing for a reduction in the ecological concerns for the delta Smelt and Salmon, as well as other riparian species that require a consistent flow of fresh water for their survival and breeding cycles.

The state of California is currently required by federal endangered species laws to heavily reduce water extraction from the delta to curtail further destroying the protected Smelt populations.  One of the arguments the state puts forward for the construction of the diversion tunnels is to appease the federal government’s intrusion on state water allocations by making efforts to decrease disruption of fresh water flow to endangered fish species.

Another strong argument state legislators and Governor Brown put forward for the need to build the Sacramento River diversion tunnels is that the Bay Delta Conservation Plan’s diversion tunnels are important for repairing the state’s aging water infrastructure.  Currently the San Joaquin Delta’s hodge-podge of canals and waterways consist mostly of earthen levees that are prone to earthquake damage, proponent argue.  The state government, and Brown in particular want to build the new diversion tunnels, in hopes of returning some of these aging canals and levees back into natural wetlands.

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Alexis Madrigal points out in his Atlantic article “American Aqueduct: The Great California Water Saga” that “The levee system is actually improving, thanks to smart investments by the state over the last 25 years.. (and) the state could seismically upgrade the Delta’s levees, securing the water supply and the people who live behind them.”

Environmentalists argue that the state’s original plan to convert 55% of the current delta into watersheds is already too low, and according to recent reports the state has reduced its commitment to watershed reclamation to approximately 30%.   Which is not a trend that environmentalists view positively.

Interestingly, although wetlands reclamation sounds like a good idea in theory, environmentalists such as Bill Jennings of the California Sportsfishing Protection Alliance say that merely building new wetlands is insufficient for environmental protection if there is insufficient fresh water to flow into these wetlands.  Jennings says, “any water transported around the delta will only exacerbate poor water quality.  Habitat isn’t simply acreage,” he said. “Habitat is adequate water and water quality.””

 

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Perhaps the biggest opponent to the state’s plan to return parts of the delta back into wetlands argue that the small-scale farming businesses adjacent to the delta will be required to vacate the lands and put local farmers out of employment.  Farmers that have business in areas that will be ‘reclaimed’ by the state for new habitat are most in danger of losing their livelihoods, and are justifiably concerned about the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

Other arguments on the converse side say that the new tunnel diversions will cost $15 billion to state taxpayers, and further allow for diverted water to be delivered to the large Kern Water Bank, which is partially privately owned by a large agribusiness.

Farmers and Environmentalists argue against the new diversion tunnels because they say water will be diverted away from the San Joaquin Delta and potentially damage farming business adjacent to the Delta in times of serious drought, while water still flows to the Kern Water Bank.

Climate Change and the Future of Agriculture in California

It has been well established in this blog that the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is the predominate source of water for Southern Californian municipalities and industry, as well as for the large agribusinesses located in the southern portion of the San Joaquin Valley.

But what happens in times of drought, and how will Climate Change affect the ability for continued water delivery to these drier regions of Southern California; what will happen to California’s robust agriculture business if the Sierra Nevada snowpack diminishes during prolonged climate disruptions?  How will California be able to provide water to individuals and industry during times of prolonged drought?

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An irrigation ditch on a California farm

These very questions and more are discussed in a video produced by the University of California’s Gianni Foundation for Agricultural Economics, titled: Effects of Climate Change on California’s Water Supply.  The panel participants are Dr. David Sunding of UC Berkeley, Dr. Richard Howitt of UC Davis, and Dr. Ariel Dinar of UC Riverside.

Agriculture in California will need to drastically revolutionize either its water delivery system to its crops, downsize the acreage that is currently farmed, or discontinue the production of water intensive food sources.  This point could not be more evident, considering that agribusiness uses upwards of 80% of the water in state of California, it should not come as any surprise that agriculture production could be hit the hardest during times of extreme drought; forcing agribusiness into more sustainable practices as a result of the fluctuating water supply captured from the Sierra Nevada mountains.

In fact, Dr. Howitt of UC Davis’ department of Agricultural and Resource Economics clearly states that California’s agricultural industry will “need to downsize in water use, and irrigated acres.  To put it bluntly, over a million acres of currently irrigated crops will be coming out of production” as a result of projected climate induced water shortages.

 

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Graphic showing a 5-year span that brought extreme drought to much of California

In the drought of 2011 to 2015, the state of California discontinued water deliveries to many agricultural areas, however I didn’t realize that so many farmers could be in danger of losing their business altogether because of impending water restrictions.  I’ve learned through researching the topic of water in California, that a large number of farmers could lose their livelihood, I’ve learned that not only is it a matter of people having water to use in their homes, but the diversity of agricultural business in the state could suffer if small-scale farmers are forced out of business.

Although what Dr. Howitt speaks about may seem like an unwelcome and harsh reality for many small-scale farmers, he is optimistic that through the reduction of agriculture’s water footprint, farming can be more sustainably managed through crop rotation and fertility enhancement which can lead to an increase in not only employment, but also an increase of revenue.

Other important points that the professors on the panel make is that since agriculture uses upwards of 80% of California’s water demand, the agricultural industry will be required to change their water demands most drastically.  As a comparison, municipalities in Southern California have been successful at conserving water, as Dr. Howitt states, and that it is important to remember that only 20% of water demands in California are from households and municipalities.

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The new de-salination plant in San Diego County

But more to the point, Southern California urban agencies have successfully implemented more diverse water portfolios, such as water recycling, the construction of a desalination plant in San Diego County – while agricultural demands have no such plans in place to decrease its water usage.  As professor Sundig states it, “Agriculture is more stable in its demands, but less elastic, while urban areas are an increasing demand” considering population growth, but that with the depletion of water caused by Climate Change, agriculture may need to downsize.

 

Conversations About Water

Reading through the public comments of The Atlantic article “American Aqueduct: The Great California Water Saga” by Alexis Madrigal, a few major themes emerges.  The most prevalent of which is commenting on the historical perspectives of water infrastructure and water availability in desert cultures throughout history, and how this could apply to the aridity of California and the ongoing struggle to ensure fresh water is available to the citizens in the more arid regions of the state.  Additionally, to maintaining the largest agribusiness economy in the United States.  Other major topics covered in the public commenting were focused on the idea that large societies should not be living in desert areas if there is not a sustainable and local source of fresh water to support those communities. Along with the other major topic concerning the usage of water by California’s agriculture businesses versus the amount of water used by people in their everyday lives.

Tim305 offers a solid viewpoint on the subject of why civilizations arise in arid and deserted regions by explaining that past societies and empires that were able to build infrastructure to harness water sources and direct the flow into desert regions, would have less conflict and battles for control over their abundance.  That deserts, unlike more temperate and lush environments, are more challenging ecosystems in which to build massive water channeling infrastructure, making these desert regions less prone to invasion and take-over, and that California has continued along a similar historical path.

Slatlantican continues along this line of thinking by talking about two of the most significant of desert dwelling empires that eventually disintegrated – Mesopatamia, and ancient Egypt.  This commenter made a point to the fact that Mesopatamian civilization eventually fell because of its collapsed agriculture.  The collapse being caused by elevated salinity of the arid soils because of excess irrigation on soil that was acclimated to low water.  While this may not be the eventual fate for California’s main agriculture regions, since the majority of the Central Valley was once a vast watershed that became flooded from annual snowmelt, Slatlantican makes the case that Egypt’s rapid increase in population caused the massive empire to crumble, perhaps mirroring California’s current population boom.  Nonetheless, Egypt has the abundant Nile river, while California’s annual snowfall can fluctuate wildly depending on aberrant weather cycles and impending climate change disruptions.

Other commenters make the point of the overwhelming use of water by California’s agribusiness in comparison to the comparatively low percentage of water used by municipalities and individual homes.  AndreL clearly states that the article accentuates the reality that only 20% of water usage is for individuals and municipalities.  The remaining 80% of water is used primarily for industrial and agriculture business.  Another commenter Concernedresidentofearth makes the point that current facts point to approximately 60% of California’s water usage on agriculture is exported throughout the world in produce grown here in the state, bringing up the point that our water usage here in the arid regions of the westernmost United States is being used to provide people around the world with quality products, such as the water-intensive crop almonds.

Needless to say, California’s water usage situation is a complex story of economic wealth, coupled with the ongoing ecological pressures of water availability.  At some point in the near future climate change could possibly bring about an economic collapse of sorts here in the Golden State if agribusiness can’t find ways to conserve water.

Rhetorical Analysis of Madrigal’s “American Aqueduct: The Great California Water Saga”

Access to fresh water is essential to people that live in cities, and crucial for sustaining California’s large scale agribusiness industry.  In “American Aqueduct: The Great California Water Saga,” Alexis C. Madrigal argues successfully in his article that having access to water will require sacrifices and compromises from all industries, municipalities, and homes within the state, but the big picture that Madrigal deftly shows is that the San Joaquin Delta is in danger of becoming overused.

Madrigal clearly shows throughout the article that even though the Delta is being overused, current and future diversions of water to cities such as Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Jose, in addition to the large scale agribusiness of the southern San Joaquin valley would not have access to fresh water.  Madrigal builds his credibility through the statistics that upwards of 20 million residents in Southern California depend on the Delta for their water needs, and that without the planned diversion tunnels of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, tens of millions of people could be without water in the near future.

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Lake Perris in Southern California serves millions of municipalities in the arid southern part of California 

The San Joaquin Delta itself requires a sufficient water flow to maintain a healthy fresh water ecology.  Early in the article Madrigal clearly states the worries of the residents, fishermen and food producers around the delta, that “too much is being asked of the delta” and that “native fish species are on the brink of extinction in part because of this massive water-transfer apparatus.”

Madrigal does a great job at showing the fears and emotions of these residents by writing that the locals “..worry that the tunnels will used to drain the Delta’s fresh water – in effect, wiping out the farmers here in favor of bigger southern producers.”

Using the opinions of people that live, farm, and fish in the San Joaquin Delta, that will be affected by the new water diversion pumps, Madrigal build an emotionally relevant story by illustrating how the towns close to the proposed tunnels will become more industrialized – something many residents oppose.

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The Sacramento – San Joaquin Delta Watershed

To build on the credibility of the article, Madrigal uses quotations from Governor Jerry Brown and President Barack Obama to illustrate that the issue of California’s water has the attention of federal and state governmental interests.  Governor Jerry Brown, who likens the new project, which the state has named the Bay Delta Conservation Plan to the great infrastructure projects of the past that have altered nature to serve the needs of a growing society.  During the unveiling of the tunnel diversion plan in 2012 Brown said: “I can say that the proposal that we’re unveiling today is a big idea for a big state for an ambitious people that since the Gold Rush has been setting the trends and tone for the entire United States.”

In essence Madrigal uses Brown’s words to appeal to the passion and pride of Californians, despite the serious concerns of the effect the new diversion tunnels will have on many communities.  President Obama’s comments were used to galvanize credibility for the article that the federal government has become involved in California’s water issues.

In a 2014 visit to the Central Valley, Obama said “California is our biggest economy.  California is our biggest agricultural producer.  Whatever happens here happens to everybody.”

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Farmers in the vicinity of the delta that fear water will be diverted away from their own farming businesses and sent to the larger agribusiness in the southern part of the valley, and Madrigal uses their stories and struggles regarding future access to fresh water to great affect.  And that additionally the construction of the diversion pumps disrupt their daily lives for upwards of 10 years.

In building a great piece on the the overuse of the San Joaquin Delta, Madrigal illustrates a complex picture of the water needs of Californians, while giving space to explain the enormity of the infrastructural and ecological impacts, striking a balance between human interest story and the politics of a new public works plan.

 

 

 

Water Games: Who owns California’s water?

California’s agriculture business is world famous for the abundance and diversity of food crops produced by the state.   And since agriculture needs an abundance of fresh water, one of the important questions to consider is:  Who owns the rights to distribute water in California?  Some would say that the Kern Water Bank owns the rights to a large portion of municipal and agricultural water.  Yet how did a conglomerate of municipal water agencies and one large agribusiness come to own this water?

In considering these very questions, a history of recent water rights policy and legislation is crucial.  Beginning in 1994 the State Water Project (SWP) , a consortium of contractors that delivered water to the urban and agriculture districts in Southern California met behind closed doors and decided to sellout water coming from the San Joaquin Delta to this conglomerate.

The agriculture industry in the Golden State is one of the primary economic engines that has, and continues to generate great wealth for California’s businesses, providing upwards of $46 billion in revenue annually.  However, any agricultural industry is limited by the availability of one great resource – water.  And consequently, California is no stranger to substantial hand wringing and stress over the precious availability of fresh water.

Southern California is a perennially dry region of the state with minimal annual rainfall, and lacks sufficient local water resources to manage its municipal and agricultural water needs.  Perhaps an even greater grievance in the Monterey meetings was that the SWP relinquished control of the Kern Water Bank, the largest underground water storage facility of its kind, to a supposed public water trust that is in part owned by one of the biggest agribusiness conglomerates in the United States – Paramount Farming Company.

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California crops with an overhead irrigation delivery system

 

The Kern Water Bank, which provided water for some 25 million Californians and 700,000 acres of agriculture, and was initially built from a $1.75 billion California state bond had been relinquished to the Westside Mutual Water Company, taking over ownership of massive amounts of water from state governmental control.

Some would say that this change of ownership had put a massive amount of water under the control of a privately held business, and stealing water away from the public good of the state of California.  Paramount Farming is considered to be the largest agribusiness in the United States. So the big question is, did the Monterey Amendment of the State Water Project give the Kern Water Bank, and the 100 million feet acres of California water to a privately held business?  Environmentalists and water rights lawyers think the answer to that question is yes, that the State Water Project had given away water, a public commodity, to a consortium of privately held corporations and public water districts, water which is now out of the control of the State of California to use in times of emergency or drought.

As a result the Center for Biological Diversity has been fighting an ongoing legal battle to return the Kern Water Bank to the public good of Californians which could be used when needed in water emergencies.  Currently the Kern Water Bank is still under the control of Westside Mutual Water Company and seeks to divert more water away from the San Joaquin Delta to be stored at the water bank, further rankling environmentalists and water rights advocates.

 

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A sign stating the private property at the Kern Water Bank near Bakersfield, CA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In subsequent posts to follow I will explore the current topic of the how the Kern Water Bank is seeking to divert water from the state’s largest watershed, the Sacramento River Waterbasin, by building tunnels that would bypass the San Joaquin Delta.  A move that could further exacerbate the ecological and fishery issues of the delta.   Additionally, I will continue to write about the other recent changes in California water rights which have allowed the State Water Project to relinquish increasingly more control over the state’s water.  Other issues that will be explored is governmental and public opinion on the the proposed 10-year plan to build two diversion tunnels in the San Joaquin Delta watershed.