The water wars - Page 7

San Francisco Bay and the delta are dying. Salmon runs are collapsing. Droughts are getting worse. And big agriculture still wants more water
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Illustration by Caitlin Kuhwald

A homegrown bean festival held every year in Tracy has had to resort to purchasing beans, she told us, because it's become too salty to grow them.

"The estimates are $10 to $40 billion to build a canal," Barrigan-Parrilla said with a note of disbelief. "We're going to spend that much money on a project when we have just gutted education and welfare?"

As Sacramento lawmakers pull at the threads of this tightly-wound knot, looming uncertainties are waiting in the wings. For one, the delta's network of 1,100 miles of earthen levees is under increasing strain due to its age, making it susceptible to failure. In fact, some say a peripheral canal could help prevent levee failure. Meanwhile, climate change is a challenge that can't be ignored because it will affect overall water supply even as the state's population continues to climb.

"The science makes it increasingly clear that the current system is unsustainable, Simitian said. The scientists are telling us there's a two out of three chance that in the next 50 years the whole system will collapse, and that serves neither the delta well nor the two-thirds of the state that relies on delta water." Simitian doesn't endorse the canal, but told us that the system of water conveyance needs to be changed.

Doug Obegi, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told us that thinking about water supply is just as important as thinking about how to move it around. He pointed out that some Colorado River dams just aren't filling up anymore. If you build a new dam without managing the water supply, he said, "you have a big hunk of concrete that just isn't doing anything."

Climate change will reduce the Sierra snowpack, an important natural reservoir, anywhere from 15 percent to 60 percent, according to the Department of Water Resources. The warmer air temperatures will also shift the runoff flows to earlier in the year, making major adjustments necessary. Climate change models also predict worsening drought. Water shortages worse than those caused by the 1977 drought could occur in one out of every six to eight years by 2050, and one out of every three to four years by 2100, according to the department's study. The change in weather patterns will also increase the likelihood of floods.

Rising sea levels will also bring more saline ocean water into the delta, making it necessary to inject more freshwater into the system to maintain water quality and protect native species.

All told, climate change is expected to reduce overall delta water exports from 7 percent to 10 percent by 2050, and 21 percent to 25 percent by the end of the century — a heavy toll that can't be managed without smarter water management.

Pending water shortages can be addressed in part with what NRDC calls California's "virtual river," Obegi said, an aggressive system of water efficiency, waste-water recycling, groundwater cleanup and storm-water management that could yield a potential 7 million acre-feet per year.

As for agriculture, the 800-pound gorilla of water consumption in the state, there's plenty of room for improvement. A report by the Pacific Institute estimates that annual agricultural water savings — with a combination of strategies like smarter irrigation management, modest crop shifting, and more efficient technology — could save up to 3.4 million acre-feet of water per year. The study strongly recommends avoiding expensive infrastructure projects that will burden taxpayers when the state has more budget-friendly options like targeted conservation and efficiency.

It won't happen without the political will, however. During a discussion about the bills that are currently being debated in Sacramento, Barrigan-Parrilla said she fears the delta will lose out in the end.