This is the second piece of a four-part series on the Sacramento River Watershed. The first piece discusses people in the watershed, the third piece discusses conflict, and the final piece discusses conservation.
The concept of “peak water” to describe water use is gaining popularity among some environmentalists, and it feels appropriate as we dive in to water issues in the Sacramento River watershed. According to a new journal article from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), there are three types of peak water: peak renewable water, where flow limits total water availability over time; peak nonrenewable water, where water use exceeds natural recharge rates or overpumping and contamination have led to a decline; and peak ecological water, the point beyond which the total costs of ecological damage exceeds the value provided by human use. Peak ecological water is the point on which the challenging and sensitive debates of water use in California all hang. There will never be more water added into the current system. We must manage what we have, bearing in mind the consequences of our actions. Given the complexities of a system about which scientists are continually learning, the topic is a tough one to address. I'll attempt to describe in brief some of the ways in which California water is handled, and where the major sticking points lie. Of course, this is not a simple topic, so links are provided for those who want to learn more of the details.
The Mediterranean climate of California creates warm, dry summers and cool, wet winters. Winter storms flow down the Pacific Coast, bringing with them the majority of the annual precipitation between October and April. While the South Fork of the Kern River receives fewer than 10 inches of rain per year, the mountains of the North Fork of the Feather River receive a comparative deluge of over 80 inches annually. At upper elevations snow is the most typical form of precipitation. All of these large mountains create one gigantic rain shadow. This rain shadow pulls water from storms on the western edge and leaves the eastern edge an arid desert.
Three rivers form the basis of the Sacramento River. The Upper Sacramento River originates near Mount Shasta, the McCloud River flows from the southern Cascade Range, and the Pit River, which is one of only three rivers that crosses the Cascade Range. The Pit River and the McCloud River have been critical in California’s recent drought as they are both spring-fed and offer consistent flows even in drier times.
The first of the major dams occurs at Shasta Dam, where water is held for flood control downstream, irrigation, and hydropower. Keswick Dam is next, where the Trinity River joins in before the Red Bluff Diversion Dam. A large diversion is taken out at Red Bluff for use in irrigation. Irrigation is the main driver for water use at this point in the Sacramento River as the Central Valley plays a key role in agricultural revenue in California. Even through 20% of Central Valley lands are unused due because of the drought or crop rotations, 65% of agricultural revenue comes from this region. Water here is divided up among users based on water rights that date back to the 19th century.
Water rights in California are based on two different systems: riparian water rights versus prior appropriation water rights. Riparian zones refer to transition areas of land that are adjacent to rivers, streams, or lakes where land and water-based vegetation meet. "First in time, first in right," is the hierarchical system for water use. Those who make use of water before any others have the first use.
Any landowner whose property touches a body of water has the right to use it reasonably, as it cross their property. When water is in short supply, water is allotted depending on the amount of frontage to the water source. Rights cannot be sold or transferred unless the transaction is with a neighboring land parcel, and non-use does not result in the loss of the right. More importantly for California, water cannot be taken out of a watershed without consideration of any downstream water users. California and Oklahoma are the only western states that still recognize riparian rights. Only “natural flow” is allowed to be diverted, meaning that any other waters brought into the watershed from other water sources cannot be utilized under riparian rights. When water is in short supply, riparian rights users are bound by law to share the limited water, giving first priority to household uses like drinking water. Riparian water rights take priority over appropriation rights.
Prior appropriation water rights are different in that the first person to take water from a source for “beneficial” reasons (like farming or household) has the right to continue using that amount. Successive users can use what remains as long as it doesn’t harm the original user. Under California law, appropriation water rights apply for use on non-riparian land or for water that would not be there normally on riparian land (like diversions or water storage). This type of water right is often called “first in time of use.” Appropriation water rights are less common in California than riparian rights, though a mixture of both has been in place since an 1886 legal conflict over the two. These rights cover surface water usage only. Appropriation rights are important because they typically are the control mechanism for diversion projects and water transport to other portions of the state.
Groundwater, another crucial source of water in the California supply chain, offers 30% of the state’s annual use. In drought conditions, groundwater use rises dramatically. While there are over 400 known groundwater reservoirs, not all of the water is usable due to the costs associated with pumping as well as the need for treatment of lesser-quality water in some reservoirs. Each of these reservoirs is individually managed for water use, with a lack of comprehensive plan for groundwater state-wide. According to the California State Water Resources Control Board, "overlying land owners may extract percolating ground water and put it to beneficial use without approval from the State Board or a court. California does not have a permit process for regulation of ground water use. In several basins, however, groundwater use is subject to regulation in accordance with court decrees adjudicating the ground water rights within the basins." The water board states clearly that this system of managing groundwater is not appropriate for the semiarid climate that is much of California. Aggressive overpumping of groundwater has led to a subsidence of nearly 30 feet in only 50 years in some agricultural areas.
All of these forms of water management and associated rights lead to a complex usage system. In current drought conditions, the need for water in smaller, more rural, or drier communities has become much more fraught. Small water districts have been formed in greater numbers recently as a way to give citizens in groups of homes as small as 15 houses a way to secure access to drinking and household water. Water code allows rainwater harvest as one method to reduce demand on streams, but that hasn’t been enough to prevent small districts from putting in wells without the money needed to safely operate. Current law allows anyone to create a private water company with a vote from local officials at the county level. Senate bill 1263 seeks to curtail this, requiring reports estimating costs for connecting to larger systems rather than creating new ones. Each new water system will need a permit from the State Water Resources Control Board in Sacramento if the bill passes.
The complexities of the water system came to a crisis point in the “water wars” of the late 1980s as another long and severe drought crippled the state. The Sacramento River was running at only 40% of its usual flow, greatly reducing the quality of drinking water and irrigation capacities. To try and cope with the multiple demands for clean water, federal and state authorities gathered together with the governor, the State Water Resources Control Board, agriculture advocates, and environmentalists to form what was initially known as “Club Fed” (now known as CALFED). Club Fed’s goal was to find ways to collaborate on Sacramento River Delta issues in ways to protect both agricultural and environmental interests.
The latest controversy rests with the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP). Environmental groups like Sacramento River Preservation Trust (SRPT) are set against the plan for the WaterFix twin tunnel project currently proposed. While California Water Code requires that water supply and water for restoration of Delta ecosystem be co-equal goals, how those goals are achieved has yet to be agreed upon under the current plan. The twin tunnel project would divert water from the Sacramento River south of Hood, California. According to the BDCP’s website, “three intakes would then send the water using gravity, not pumping, through the tunnels under the Delta 30 miles to Tracy. From there, State Water Project and Central Valley Project canals would convey the water to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.” SRPT raises questions about how and when water will be stored as well as who will be in charge of the overall project. SRPT states, “It is also puzzling how the WaterFix will be integrated into the Delta Plan, which calls for reducing reliance on the Delta for water supply and for protecting and restoring the Delta ecosystem.” It is a legitimate critique. If the Delta Plan calls for reducing Delta reliance, it does beg the question whether pulling the projected 9,000 cubic feet per second meets that call.
Current water use plans are not sustainable in the long run and research is being done into how and where water use reductions can occur. Given the scale of agriculture in the region, it is not unreasonable to expect the biggest improvements to come there. In different studies (two sponsored by CALFED and a third by the nonprofit Pacific Institute), comparable numbers were found in the amount of reduction in agricultural water use. Scientists are projecting an estimated 20% savings. This would come in the form of improvements in irrigation systems, better timing according to weather patterns, transition to more drought-resistant varieties, proper implementation of field fallowing and crop rotation, and more. This is not to suggest that municipal and individual water users should not also curtail their use. If you’re curious about your personal impact, you can calculate how much water you use daily.
Drought will continue to plague California. With little relief in sight from climate change, water managers will face new and different challenges in balancing the needs of endangered species and human interests. Toxic algal blooms are now a frequent problem across the state. Reservoirs popularly used for boating, fishing, and swimming like the Pit River Arm of Shasta Lake, Lake Temescal in Oakland, and the Iron Gate and Copco Reservoirs on the Klamath River have all been affected. Cyanobacteria, more commonly known as blue-green algae, can harm human and animal health alike with its toxins. Pets and people experience vomiting, diarrhea, and flu-like symptoms upon exposure. Typical water treatments like boiling or backpacking water filters cannot remove these toxins. Even eating fish or shellfish from these waters can make people sick. With continued hot spells, more folks will travel to lakes and reservoirs to cool off, fish, and swim, facing exposure.
Counterintuitively, while drought rages, there are calls for release of more water from reservoirs to help improve fish habitat and prevent the Sacramento River Delta ecosystem from saltwater intrusion. The California Natural Resources Agency is currently promoting the Delta Smelt Resiliency Strategy. One of the proposed actions for state and federal agencies is to release more water into the Yolo Bypass in order to improve smelt habitat. These water influxes will do wonders to help prevent seawater from intruding inland where it poses threats to habitat and to drinking water quality. Once saltwater has entered, it can take months to flush out, and using precious water resources from upstream may not always be an option. If water could be used to resolve more than one single issue, like improving smelt and splittail habitat at the same time as helping maintain water quality, it is a win-win for everyone.
For the people who live in this varied region, peak ecological water is a concept that will only increase in value with drought and reduction in available clean water sources. The water we have now is the most we'll ever have and should be treated accordingly. The complexity of water in California can best be seen visually with the California Water Rights map. Everyone from the little guy to major metropolitan cities is shown, filling the state with dots. As more dots appear on the map, balancing the needs of endangered species like the splittail and delta smelt, not to mention wild-run salmon, with clean drinking water free of saltwater, and big agricultural values will always be a challenge here. Learning more about the reasons behind water management decisions in the state is one way to be involved in the process. In our next piece we’ll go deeper into the specific conflicts that result from current water management practices, and the long state of drought in California.
For more information about the Sacramento watershed, follow the rest of the series here:
We believe good things come from people spending time outside. It’s about more than standing on the mountain top. It’s about nourishment and learning. It’s about protecting what sustains us. It’s about building relationships with the outdoors and each other. LEARN MORE and share the pledge to Adventure Like You Give A Damn.