If California's power woes weren't bad enough, wait until you hear about the potential for a water crisis

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Sunday, June 03, 2001 7:40 AM MST

If the state's power woes weren't bad enough, wait until you hear about the potential for a water crisis

Poor planning, ecological concerns drying up supply

By Douglas Fischer


California has built two dams in a decade, and environmentalists swear there will be no more. The Delta is bottlenecked and rights to excess Colorado River water are drying up, yet people keep coming, and demand for water keeps increasing.

It's a pattern of denial that led California into the power crisis. Now experts are saying a water crisis is within sight, too.

So far the cracks are largely unseen. Farmers on the west side of the Central Valley may be getting just 40 percent or less of the water they need, but reservoirs around the state started the season full, and municipalities will easily make it through this summer.

Yet the last of the big dams -- with one notable exception -- went up in the 1970s, when California had 16 million people, capacity was four or five times demand and agriculture was king. Today California has 35 million people. Restoring salmon is the new religion -- not growing melons in the desert.

A new reservoir in this kind of environment takes 10 to 20 years -- if at all. That's time California doesn't have, say those who know water. The Golden State averages one dry year for every three and is coming off a run of seven wet ones.

Given the odds, many say this winter's thin snowpack could signal the beginning of the next dry spell -- one water experts fear will hit the state harder than the last drought in the late 1980s.

"We're stretching that rubber band mighty tight," said Richard Stein, chief hydrologist at the East Bay Municipal Utility District. "We're using every darn bit of our system, and there is very little excess left."

The power crunch can be linked to a number of causes, very few of them environmental. As energy deregulation talks gained momentum in Sacramento in the early 1990s, no power producers risked building a plant given the uncertainties. Environmental regulations, despite Republican cries to the contrary, never played a role in the construction drought, say California Energy Commission officials.

The Iron Triangle

The same can't be said for water. For 50 years starting in the 1930s, California threw up dams and dug canals to ship water south. The "iron triangle" -- agriculture, Congress, the White House -- drove the water wagon. The desert bloomed. People flooded in. California was gold.

In the 1980s and '90s society said enough. The dam building stopped, and fish and wildlife started to get some of the water back. Today no big water projects are in the works as the state heads into what could be the next dry cycle.

The exception is Southern California's Diamond Valley Lake, a $2 billion reservoir finished in 1999 and designed to wean the Metropolitan Water District from the surplus Colorado River water that Arizona until recently did not need.

But Diamond Valley can only take up so much slack. California's water use is expected to shoot up 38 percent in the next 20 years, sopping up nearly 1.1 trillion gallons more than were needed in 1995, according to state Department of Water Resources predictions. Meanwhile overall supply will creep up 1.25 percent -- or 326 billion gallons.

The difference will come straight out of agriculture, except in dry years when the environment takes the hit.

What happens next can be told by Jeff Boyd, who with his father farms 1,300 acres in the Klamath River basin in Northern California. Last year, using an irrigation network first laid in 1909, he raised 275 acres of potatoes, 70 acres of mint, 955 acres of wheat, barley and oats.

This year the rain never came. Unlike the last drought, new water restrictions aimed at protecting salmon runs and Native American water rights take priority. For the first time in 92 years, Boyd's irrigation ditches are dry. He planted no potatoes, half the grain and is scrambling to find water to protect his mint, a perennial.

"We expected to be cut back. We never expected to be cut back to zero," he said. "If society is saying these fish are important, that they need all the water, then these environmental restrictions are getting ready to hurt your food supply.

Boyd has been whipsawed by a seismic shift in California water policy.

World turned upside down

The watershed moment, by most accounts, came with the 1990 listing of the Sacramento River's winter run chinook salmon as endangered. More listings followed, giving fish water nobody wanted to give up. The orderly irrigation world turned upside down; suddenly farmers who planted in April wouldn't learn until May or even June whether their water was coming.

Out of the chaos came various accords, none more significant, perhaps, than CalFed -- a coalition of federal, state and local agencies working to restore the San Francisco Bay and Delta and find stable supplies for farms and cities.

It is, at best, an uneasy alliance, prone to tipping.

Rep. John Doolittle, R-Rocklin, sank CalFed last term with demands for an Auburn dam on the American River. CalFed resurfaced last week with the help of bipartisan legislation by Sen. Diane Feinstein, a Democrat, and Rep. Ken Calvert, a Riverside Republican, only to be torpedoed by environmentalists who demand more conservation before the state adds supply.

Growers on the Central Valley's west side are at war with those on the east side over water rights. Northern Californians grumble that Southern Californians take too much water. And so on.

"Everybody's got a story to tell of how they've been wronged," said the man in the middle, CalFed director Patrick Wright. "There's a lot of skepticism on the individual elements -- and on our ability to deliver."

Meanwhile time keeps ticking and demand keeps growing.

Environmentalists vs. growers

Environmentalists claim that water districts had their way for 50 years and the fish are just beginning to recover. Growers say substantial government cash has been pumped into wildlife restoration the past several years and that it's time for them to get a share.

What's clear, according to Department of Water Resources predictions, is that agriculture is going to get squeezed over the next few decades -- if only because as water becomes scarce, fewer farmers will be able to afford it.

"It's always been far cheaper to take water out of the environment than it is to invest in those (conservation) technologies," said Gary Bobker, program director at the Bay Institute. "Economics is going to change the playing field here."

That squeeze is the reason why environmentalists oppose the big public works projects in the Feinstein/Calvert legislation. More water means more people, more farming, more waste.

For them, the equation's been too lopsided for too long. They want some farmland taken out of production. They want growers to find a way to reuse the salty, mineral-laced water collected from irrigated fields and for cities to recycle more of their waste water. Then maybe they'll talk new storage.

"The reality has been new water supplies are often used to expand areas of cultivation," Bobker said. "Yes, there is going to be a serious contraction of area that's in irrigated ag. The handwriting has been on the wall for that one for a long time."

Bobker points to plenty of ways to improve both the environment and California's water supply. Flood plains can be restored to provide a more natural reservoir for spring runoffs. Farmland can be bought up. Spring flows can be pumped into the ground, to be retrieved later.

Pumping water below ground takes lots of electricity. Retiring questionable land in the San Joaquin River valley would take as much as 200,000 acres out of production -- a considerable blow to California's farm economy.

And California, a state dependent on the north-to-south transfer of water, would still be stuck with a significant bottleneck in the Delta as pumps shut down to save fish.

"We're getting to the point where we can survive a drought with fairly minimal adverse impacts," said Mike Ford, Water Resources' chief Delta planner. "But if you're looking at any sort of a multi-year dry scenario, you're going to be looking at some pretty severe impacts around the state."

The only way out of the jam, said Wright, is to move everyone together. The three major interest groups -- agriculture, cities, environmentalists -- have the clout to clobber each other's agenda but not enough to move their own ahead.

"That's always the fear of the interest groups -- that some will be funded without the others," he said.

CalFed needs to get back online, he and others say, for the state to find a way out of this gridlock.

The short term, Wright added, will be solved with patches such as the environmental water account, sort of a bank account where the government purchases water from farmers and holds it in reservoirs until fish runs need increased flows.

Money from the state, notably propositions 13 and 204, has underwritten most of CalFed's commitments and is paying for a lot of environmental restoration, Wright said. What's lacking is cash for storage and drinking water and science -- and a consensus on big federal projects.

The cities are a mixed bag. Southern California's Metropolitan Water District isn't screaming, Wright added, because it will soon have enough water for nearly 1.6 million people locked up in Diamond Valley Lake and a 15-year agreement with Arizona to wean itself off surplus Colorado River flows. EBMUD secured a deal earlier this year with Sacramento utilities to tap the Sacramento River in times of drought.

But Sacramento has rights from the Sacramento River to water to serve 260,000 families that is nowhere to be found. The East Bay gets 95 percent of its water from a pipe that crosses the Hayward Fault near the Caldecott Tunnel.

EBMUD officials estimate they'd need six months or more to restore service if a temblor severed that line -- a problem given that East Bay storage would be sucked dry in three months.

The utility had once proposed building a new reservoir -- dubbed Buckhorn -- above Upper San Leandro that would double the district's East Bay storage.

"The common belief is that there's absolutely no chance of our being able to build a reservoir in the East Bay," said Charles Hardy, EBMUD's spokesman. "We've discussed water supply options at length for the last number of years. There's been a dozen ideas discussed. Building a reservoir has never been on the table."

"The bottom line," he added. "if we had proceeded with building Buckhorn, we wouldn't be concerned at all about a drought now."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), June 03, 2001


Got to protect fish. To hell with people.

-- Loner (loner@bigfoot.com), June 04, 2001.

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