California Wants to Store Water for Farmers, but Struggles Over How to Do It
FRIANT, Calif. — Californians suffering through the fourth year of a punishing drought have a new worry. With fierce storms predicted for the winter, they are bracing for floods by stockpiling sandbags and rushing to buy insurance.
Yet those who need water the most, farmers, are in a poor position to take advantage of any deluge. If El Niño floods pour into the Central Valley, the farmers will inevitably watch millions of gallons of water flow to the sea.
This state, forward-looking on other environmental issues, has been stymied for decades over how to upgrade its plumbing system, an immense but aging network of reservoirs and canals that move water from the mountainous north to the drier south.
But the prolonged drought of recent years has prodded California into action, with new laws and a willingness to spend public money to better prepare for a future that is likely to be more difficult because of climate change. The state must decide how best to save the water that arrives between the drought years, weighing the value of billion-dollar construction projects against smaller and less expensive measures.
“We’re seeing a level of attention and commitment that we haven’t seen in decades, a desire to move forward,” said Lester A. Snow, a former head of water resources for California and veteran of the state’s water battles.
Big decisions loom. What parts of California’s water system, the most elaborate in the world, need fixing the most? And how can it be done in a way that helps the state’s enormous farm economy, which uses huge amounts of water, without sacrificing the needs of its cities or the environment?
The path California chooses will affect people across the United States and even around the world.
In the 20th century, cheap and plentiful water for irrigation, coupled with rich soils and a special climate, turned the state into a cornucopia that has stocked the nation’s refrigerators and cupboards for generations. These days, farmers are also helping to supply developing countries like China with fruit and nuts.
But keeping California’s agricultural land in production depends on fixing its growing water problems.
As the state considers its options, many farmers want to revive the approach that worked for them in the last century: building dams. Not far from this tiny hamlet northeast of Fresno, for instance, the government is thinking of building a new artificial lake just above an existing one.
“We’re in a critical condition right now,” said Mario Santoyo, a board member and technical adviser for the California Latino Water Coalition, as he stood on the deck of a motorboat in the middle of Millerton Lake, built in 1942. He pointed to a spot called Temperance Flat, where the new dam — it would be the latest of many on the San Joaquin River — would be built.
Yet, as agricultural interests prepare a major push to get water projects built, doubts are growing about whether spending huge sums to pour high walls of concrete are the best way to solve California’s water problems.
Many independent experts, and almost all environmental groups, argue that dams would supply relatively little water for the money. They contend that Californians need to move aggressively to more modern methods of water management, reducing waste to a minimum and learning to live within the limits imposed by an arid environment.
“We are living with a legacy of decades of overallocating our water, and refusing to say ‘no’ when people want more,” said Doug Obegi, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. “When people think they are entitled to more water than exists in the system, that’s a recipe for failure.”
California is able to supply a third of America’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts because it is one of only five major growing regions of the world with what is known as a Mediterranean climate. That means it is cold and wet in the winter, then dry and sunny in the summer. The bright, clear days create ideal growing conditions.
The hitch is water. Precipitation is erratic, and when it comes, it tends to fall in the mountainous northern and eastern parts of the state, while much of the population and farming are in the south and west. Winter snows in the Sierra Nevada are crucial, sending billions of gallons of water racing down the state’s rivers with the spring snowmelt.
In the mid-20th century, two enormous government projects — the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project — were built to capture those flows. They move water over hills and through deserts, delivering it as far south as the San Diego neighborhoods bordering Mexico.
Much of the water is pumped from the great delta where the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers converge on their way to the ocean through the Golden Gate, and that pumping has become a focus of intractable conflict.
In recent decades, the ecology of the delta deteriorated to the verge of collapse, with many of California’s native fishes believed to be in danger of extinction. Scientists said that excessive pumping was a contributing factor. Congress imposed restrictions that reduced water for farmers, and environmental groups sued under the nation’s landmark conservation laws to further tighten the rules.
The extended drought has compounded the problems. Across large parts of the Central Valley, farmers have survived by pumping groundwater at a furious rate, causing water tables to drop precipitously and thousands of shallow wells to run dry.
Public awareness of the overpumping allowed Gov. Jerry Brown and other state leaders to overcome decades of resistance from the farm lobby and pass a law last year to regulate groundwater, though the law does not require the pumping to be reduced to sustainable levels until the 2040s.
“You’ve got a free-for-all for the next 25 years,” said John D. Bredehoeft, a retired federal hydrologist in Sausalito who spent decades studying water in California. “I don’t think the water’s going to last for 25 years.”
As water problems have worsened in the Central Valley, many farmers have blamed the environmentalists who, the farmers argue, are choosing to waste water on fish at the expense of people.
Speaking in Congress in July, Tom McClintock, a Republican House member who represents a large section of the Central Valley, decried “the nihilistic vision of the environmental left: increasingly severe government-induced shortages, forced rationing, astronomical water prices and a permanently declining quality of life for our children, who will be required to stretch and ration every drop of water in their parched homes.”
For people who share this view, one proposed solution is to overcome the political power of the environmentalists and build more dams. When California voters, frightened by the drought, approved $7.12 billion in new bonds last year to improve the water infrastructure, agricultural interests pushed to include $2.7 billion for new water storage.
Many proposals for new storage are on the table. Two that have drawn considerable interest are damming the San Joaquin River again at Temperance Flat, costing more than $2 billion, and a project north of the delta called Sites Reservoir that would store water pumped from the Sacramento River, at a cost nearing $4 billion.
Yet, in part because California already has so many dams and the best sites were used up long ago, all that money would buy relatively little extra water, according to experts who have studied the proposals.
Ellen Hanak, head of the water program at a think tank called the Public Policy Institute of California, calculated that if both projects had been in place in time for the current drought, water supply to the state’s farmers might have been increased by about 5 percent. “I think people in agriculture imagine that it would do more than it would,” Dr. Hanak said.
Just as controversial is a huge plan pushed by Governor Brown to build two immense tunnels, at a cost of $15 billion, to move water from the upper reaches of the delta to the lower delta, bypassing some of the environmental problems. The goal is to create a more reliable system, but delta farm groups see the plan as an old-fashioned water grab by the southern part of the state.
On a boat ride in July through one of the delta’s channels, Anna Swenson, co-director of a community group called North Delta Cares, spoke of William Mulholland, the famed Los Angeles water boss who, in the early 20th century, purloined the water of the distant Owens Valley on behalf of his city.
“William Mulholland is in the grave, and so should his ideas be,” Ms. Swenson said. “The days when you could come up here and stick your straw in to satisfy your insatiable demands — those days are over.”
Elsewhere in the state, many farm groups support the tunnel plan, but others are wary, fearing they will be stuck with a large bill in exchange for minimal benefits. Mr. Brown has pledged to make water users, not taxpayers, pay for the tunnels, but it is not clear whether he will be able to pull together the financing.
The economics of the proposed dams are just as difficult. Farmers are not willing to pay the full costs, and a huge battle is expected over how to spend the $2.7 billion approved by California voters for water-storage projects.
“We should just be ruthless about this,” said Jay R. Lund, head of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis. “It’s a straight-up calculation: What’s the benefit to the people of California compared to the costs? If you think your project is such a good project, prove it.”
Flooding as a Solution
For Don Cameron, a farmer south of Fresno, a wet winter 33 years ago led to an idea about how to take advantage of the vast natural water storage system underground. He noticed that some grapevines along the San Joaquin River were flooded for months in the winter, but that those same vines produced a lush crop of grapes in the summer.
He had to wait until 2011, the last wet year before the current drought, to act on his idea. With a small government grant and help from scientists and an environmental group, Mr. Cameron diverted water to a thousand acres of the farm he manages, Terranova Ranch, deliberately flooding fields of grapes, pistachio trees and hay.
Conventional wisdom among farmers held that the roots of the crops, standing in floodwater for weeks on end, were likely to rot. “I think our neighbors thought we were crazy, to be honest with you,” Mr. Cameron recalled.
But Mr. Cameron’s fields suffered little damage. And the water soaked deep into the ground, helping to recharge the underground supply. Nowadays, Mr. Cameron is a man in demand, fielding telephone calls and interviews from around the state.
It turns out that California already has a place to store immense amounts of water, without necessarily building new dams.
Decades of overpumping have left the state’s water-bearing formations, known as aquifers, with enormous spare capacity. By some estimates, California could pump 10 times as much water into the aquifers as could be held by the new dams on the drawing board.
Such groundwater storage is already occurring in parts of the state, mainly in urban areas. It is not a perfect solution for agriculture: Water pumped into the ground and then pulled back out can pick up salts and other pollutants.
But no option confronting California farmers is perfect. Experts say this one has the potential to be far cheaper than dams. And if a new dam is built — at Temperance Flat, say — it could potentially help supply water for the aquifer-recharging projects.
The new groundwater law that the Legislature passed last year would give farmers stronger incentive to cooperate in such plans. In wet years, they might allow their fields to be flooded in the winter or early spring to recharge the groundwater, and they would then be entitled to pump a certain amount out in dry years.
Now, urgent research is underway to figure out what soils and crops can tolerate deliberate flooding. To move floodwater around in the winter, new canals and other infrastructure may be needed in some areas, one potential use of some of the $2.7 billion in public money.
If floods come this winter, Mr. Cameron will wish he were in a position to go beyond his 2011 experiment, capturing more water. But, like many farmers, he does not yet have the canals and gear in place to make that work, a big reason the farmers could be forced to watch millions of gallons of floodwater escape to the sea this winter.
Over the long term, Dr. Hanak believes, the state should not only encourage farmers to store water in the ground, but also consider creating a market to allow them to buy and sell their allotments.
Megan Konar, an engineer at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, is among the experts eager to see California lead the world toward more sustainable methods. Recent research she did with a graduate student, Landon Marston, found that 18.5 percent of the American grain supply, an essential link in the food chain, is coming from parts of the country where the aquifers are being depleted. Other research suggests that overpumping of water is even more severe in parts of India and Africa, a long-term risk to the global food supply.
As climate change forces farmers to grow crops in hotter conditions, water demand is only going to rise.
“These aquifers need to be seen as strategic national reserves that can help us weather more climate variability in the future,” Dr. Konar said. “Right now, we have pretty much the opposite situation — we’re just seeing rapid overexploitation.”