15 Dec 2009

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Everyone knows that California farmers are overdrafting the groundwater in the Central Valley, in a desperate routine attempt to replace supplies lost to drought, growth and regulation.

We also know that regulation to end this unsustainable, environmentally-harmful, economically-suicidal practice was gutted by irrigators in the Legislature.(We even know how it should have looked.)

Perhaps they preferred to overdraft and prevent regulation that would measure (and maybe, someday, regulate) their self-destructive practices, hoping that a Peripheral Canal Thingie would bring more water (in 2020?) or that Congressman Nunes would "get the pumps turned on" with arguments based on deceptive propaganda,* or perhaps they thought that some of their billionaire buddies would be able to circumvent the Engangered Species Act with some help from DiFi.

Well, now we know (via Josh and several others) just how fucked they are (we are?) down in the Valley. According to NASA:
California's Sacramento and San Joaquin drainage basins have shed more than 30 cubic kilometers of water since late 2003.... A cubic kilometer is about 264.2 billion gallons, enough to fill 400,000 Olympic-size pools [or 810,000 af]. The bulk of the loss occurred in California's agricultural Central Valley. The Central Valley receives its irrigation from a combination of groundwater pumped from wells and surface water diverted from elsewhere.


Initial results suggest the Sacramento River basin is losing about 2 cubic kilometers of water a year... The San Joaquin Basin is losing 3.5 cubic kilometers [2.8 maf] a year. Of this, more than 75 percent is the result of groundwater pumping in the southern Central Valley, primarily to irrigate crops
Now, I wonder what people are going to say about this. People who may be affected by the total destruction of the local water supply. Oh that's nice! Nope. Whatever! Nope. How about "What are our leaders doing about this?!?" and here's what your "leaders" are doing:
We encourage landowners in critically overdrafted areas to continue to devise and implement, under local control, groundwater management plans. We believe that local control over groundwater management is best accomplished through existing water entities or new water entities formed by local landowners for the purpose of  groundwater management.
-- Policy 79, California Farm Bureau (2008)
Brilliant. Leave it with the local guys. They know what to do!

I have two conclusions to draw from this additional piece of evidence:
  1. Groundwater has to be regulated by outsiders, by adults. The kids don't seem to realize they are breaking nice things.
  2. I will now be much more vehement in my opposition to the Peripheral Thingie -- it's clear to me that these guys are not only incompetent at managing their current water supplies, but that the PT will do nothing to rein them in -- they will merely take the additional water and mismanage it. It's happened before (many times!) and will happen again.
My solution (as usual) is monitoring and regulation of groundwater, at the basin level, by outside parties with the power to tax withdrawals and shut down pumps. It's too late to hope for indigenous sustainable practices to "evolve."

[Seems a good time for me to take a break from this dysfunctional mess. California is unique in its groundwater incompetence, and I'd like to be somewhere else -- probably with different problems :)]

Bottom Line: Things that can't go on, don't. The longer this goes on, the dearer the price we all pay.

* Supported, I am sad to say, by the passive acceptance of Richard Howitt (my adviser at UC Davis) who's done nothing that I can see to prevent Nunes from grandstanding on Howitt's disowned research.


Eric said...

Anger is nice and is fun.
What do you propose for effective action?
Remember that the Fertile Crescent was actually fertile until Hittites and their buddies cut down the trees.
So, humanity has been ecologically selfish for a long time.

J said...

Nice post. Maybe it will rain forty days and nights and refill the aquifer. Those things are known to have happened.

BTW, the Hittites lived in the Anatolian Plateau, and the Fertile Crescent is still fertile.

Eric said...

'Their buddies' includes the Babylonians, Phoenicians, Canaanites, Persians, et al.

Diamond and others say that the Crescent was much more fertile before humans did to it what Californians are doing to the aquifer.

Eric said...

Thanks for the comment. Since your are from Israel, you are likely to know more about the Hittites than I do.

On the other hand, I am dubious that you are really 111 years old.


WaterSource/WaterBank said...


You conveniently left this part of the report out:

"PASADENA, Calif. – New space observations reveal that since October 2003, the aquifers for — have lost nearly enough water combined to fill Lake Mead, America’s largest reservoir."

Since before 2003, some darn spammer has been claiming a solution for the region ...

Quick " kill the messenger " ...

David Zetland said...

@Eric -- I gave my solution in the post, and it's pretty pathetic (in our age of rocket science) that we can't improve on sumerian water management.

@Ray -- Lake Mead is a volumetric measure, so I left nothing RELEVANT out. If you have a solution, go talk to someone who will buy it.

Josh said...

I'd like to add that "local" and "indigenous" are not relevant terms to apply to the Central Valley, for two main reasons. First, California's demographics and (more importantly) ag. business climate has shifted so quickly that there has been no length of time sufficient to label anything "indigenous" (except some Miwok folks).

Second, the mismanaging folks here usually live in L.A. or the Bay Area, and only own land here. They usually drink purified Delta water or Hetch-Hetchy water. The local folks, meanwhile, are screwed in their inability to consistently acquire clean drinking water, and they are screwed in the jobs and working conditions offered to them, such that the Valley has economic conditions on par with Appalachia, and things like the highest income disparity in the nation, the largest ag. county in the country, the largest dairy county in the world, unemployment of 20+%, a huge gang problem, and the worst air quality in the U.S.

I agree that it has to be managed by outsiders, but I just wanted to point out that it is currently managed by outsiders.

Anonymous said...

The amazing thing is that water agencies like East Bay MUD would buy into putting more Mokelumne River water into the aquifer on the chance they might be able to get some of it back in dry years. The valley farmers will just overdraft that, too.

Time to collect stormwater and use it for aquifer recharge.

JD said...

And to make it worse this discussion is mostly about aquafier quantity, not quality.

Using large quantities of groundwater for irrigation in areas w/o a drain to the ocean (ie, southern central valley) sets up a "blackhole" for salts. Each time it is pumped up and used the resultant percolation back to groundwater is more concentrated....eventually it will be unuseable w/o expensive (RO) type treatment.*

I think at the rates we're seeing the overdraft issue will stop things first, and is arguably more important (you can't even treat something that is all gone).

However, at some point quality affects (economical) quantity and this issue will remain even if the overdraft aspects are addressed in time. There are initiatives at work trying to address the quality management issues (CV_SALTS, SWRCB Recycled Water Policy, Irrigated Lands Program) but some of the same resistance to even data gathering/monitoring are apparent there too.

* This impact especially needs to be evaluated/mitigated when a user of surface water sells those rights out of the valley (sometimes for $millions) and then proceeds to shift to local groundwater use.

Mister Kurtz said...

Of course, proponents of projects will say, we need to add surface water to replenish the groundwater. However, in areas where the aquifer has been destroyed, this will not work.
It is possible to draw incorrect conclusion from this evidence, however. Overdraft, per se, is no more irrational or damaging than what all of us do with our personal finances. When the car needs fixing or little Timmy needs his cancer medicine, we spend more than we make for a month or two, then (one hopes) replenish the account. An aquifer that is not being destroyed through subsidence or pollution requires a different policy from one that is. There are so many different hydrological and geographic regions in our state that I fear a one-size-fits-all centralized approach will be cumbersome and expensive. Yet agriculture's knee jerk rejection of any management plan almost ensures we will end up with the Big Government solution.
What I would like to know is 1) how much of our groundwater storage has been permanently ruined from overdraft; 2) What is the percentage of fossil water to renewable water in the groundwater now being produced statewide. In any event the report is a black eye for agriculture, and a strong argument for sensible resource management plans.

WaterSource/WaterBank said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
David Zetland said...

@Ray (WS) -- that topic is off post and in the spam category. I've deleted it. Please stay ON TOPIC, i.e, groundwater supply and regulation.

KE said...

And they want more water from overtapped rivers like the Mokelumne without any change in their behavior? No way.

Steve Bloom said...

David, recalling that famous photo of the utility pole showing the valley floor having dropped due to past overdrafting, my immediate question upon seeing this news was what the altimeters say for the last five years. IOW, how much aquifer capacity have we lost?

Mike Wade said...

Historical fact: Part of the purpose in building California's water supply infrastructure was to reduce the impacts of groundwater overdraft. This was recognized almost 100 years ago so for those of you who think you're on to something new, welcome to the party.

Farmers have effectively managed surface and groundwater resources for decades. It wasn't until environmental reallocations from the early 1990s on that groundwater overdraft returned as a serious problem. Am I blaming the environment? No. I'm blaming the way many have tried to resolve the problem without looking at all of the causes.

The real problem is that your outrage is misplaced. Over 3.5 million acre-feet of water per year that once served farms, homes and businesses now flow out to the ocean. Is this water being wasted? Maybe. The fact that the Delta is still a mess and fish populations continue to crash tells me that we’re not solving the problem and it’s time we got serious about finding the cause. An HONEST look at the situation will reveal that Delta exports are not the problem. They have been curtailed to the tune of millions of acre-feet for years and things aren’t getting better.

That’s a horrible waste of water by anyone’s definition.

Eric said...

Nice comment.

I will see your raise and call.

1. What is the heart of the problem now?
2. What strategy and actions are mostly likely to resolve this problem?

Josh said...

Mike Wade, to your comment about 3.5 MAF flowing into and through the Delta I say, "hurray!"

The ESA is the only regulatory action that has worked regarding our water use and the Delta. I grew up watching my system get taken from. Now we've run up against a social value greater than letting Central Valley agriculture get whatever it wants for near free (and give almost nothing back to its own community): we understand and believe in the importance of individual species ("we" being the U.S.).

Current Central Valley ag. practices are the reason for the groundwater drying up. The Delta should be able to handle occasional droughts, but Valley big Ag. has kept it in a near-perpetual drought state for years (I'd say especially the last eight).

Chickens and roosting and all that.

Mike Wade said...

The heart of the problem is that there are many negative influences on the Delta ecosystem including upstream sewage discharge, invasive species competing for the same food the smelt consume, predators that dine on smelt and salmon fry and polluted runoff. Plus, fishery managers have approached species recovery issues one at a time instead of looking at the ecosystem as a whole.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) is designed to do just that. It will examine all of the stressors and develop an approach that takes into account ALL of the needs of the Delta. That’s not acceptable to the folks who have put all their eggs in the “exports” basket, which is unfortunate. The public has been mislead into supporting expensive water supply cuts due to regulatory restrictions and drought that have done absolutely nothing except put a lot of people out of work and idle a half million acres of farmland. Part of the BDCP process is to examine an alternative way to get water to users who have right and have paid for the infrastructure to use water. Call it the Peripheral Canal or whatever but what we’re finding out is that there needs to be a reliable way to move water in, around or through the Delta that doesn’t impact fish. It’s easy to say, “stop the exports” but ask the experts what that would do to California’s economy.

Check out a new report by the Public Policy Institute of California (www.ppic.org) that shows an overall downward trend of water use in California as a result of higher efficiency and less demand in agriculture. Declining agricultural demand is offsetting increasing urban demands caused by population growth. Per capita urban use is declining but overall urban use is still on the rise.

Mike Wade said...

Josh, the ESA ISN"T working.

Eric said...

@Mike, Josh, and others;

Maybe I am too cynical, but, to me, reports, emails, conferences, and talks are not 'actions.' They are preludes to actions. Actions are changes in policy that are implemented and for which someone is accountable.

So rising population of smelt with lower water usage all as part of a comprehensive plan that is being accomplished is an action.

How to we get from reports to completed actions?

Josh said...

Eric, can an action include a physical stopping of flow due to properly following an existing regulation? The ESA cut exports, it is an action that has forced big Central Valley ag. to reconsider its production, and potentially pursue other opportunities, like solar.

I think it's great when an existing measure works.

Mike,I've been through the "Understanding the Delta" classes - in fact, I taught them, and I've a Bruce Lee approach to the concepts. I'm glad you understand wetlands dynamics; don't forget, though, they need to be wet, and this one needs both flow and volume of freshwater.

As for fallowing land - farm solar.

As for unemployment - it was nearly the same rate during the "good times." Ag. work conditions/pay/consistency in the Valley is often (but not always) sub-human.

All past "processes" concerning the Delta included ways to help it, and they haven't worked, which is why the ESA kicked in. The ESA is the last stand for a species, after all other attempts have proven unsuccessful.

Hurray for the ESA, it's working.

We dramatically cut exports last Summer, and there was a subsequently greater push to get solar installations in the Valley. There are always tradeoffs in change, but unsustainable practices lead, eventually, to greater costs than benefits, by their definition.

Current Central Valley ag. is unsustainable. The success of the ESA just caused it to look at itself a bit sooner than it would have, otherwise, and before smelt have completely disappeared.

Eric said...

Yes it can.

What do you mean by 'farm solar?'

My company, Efficient Engines, has been talking internally about putting small solar installations in fallow or just infertile land.

Quick calculations say that the owner of an acre of land who converted that land to solar energy driven electricity production would net 2 MW and $350,000 a year per acre. The owner could devote one acre, 1/10 of an acre, or many acres to solar driven energy production.

(2MW is high compared to competitors but then we own transformative technology.)

I had not thought of our approach as a way to fallow farm land or conserve water. Would you share more details?

Tim in Albion said...

Mike, you were almost right: the heart of the problem is too many demands on the water. Those demands include the ones you list (sewage disposal, habitat for introduced species, etc.), but I'm curious why you left out the big one - water diversions. Can anyone really believe we could divert massive quantities of water away from the Delta without causing any adverse effects? Following on that, can anyone believe we could fix the problem without reducing diversions?

"Farmers have effectively managed surface and groundwater resources for decades." Really? Which decades were those? Surely not the most recent ones, otherwise we wouldn't be in this pickle, would we? Here's news from Stockton: "It [the Eastern San Joaquin Basin] is a region that for a half-century has seen groundwater levels decline an average of 1.7 feet per year, with some areas dropping to 100 feet below historic levels."

In fact farmers have been mismanaging the water resources for as long as they have been farming in the CV. The water managers acted as if droughts would never occur - allocating on the basis of calculated average flows - and farmers continued to pump groundwater even after the surface water projects were built. Now the consequences of all that mismanagement are becoming apparent, and the "farmers" are blaming everyone else for the problems they created. Taxpayers built those giant water projects and subsidized the nearly-free water for agriculture, and now the "farmers" are howling about the public "taking" of "their" water.

Josh said...

Eric, I've heard that Westlands has been in talks with major enviros. and possibly a major energy player. I've also heard that PG&E and CleanTech have already been bidding on fallowed or impacted properties for leasing, dry solar in CleanTech's place, and wet in PG&E's.

If I were you, I'd consider getting down to individual properties and pitching them, especially if everything is good to go.

Politically, some folks in Sacramento have been pushing hard to get solar in the CV and out of the desert, because the gains to solar in the CV (esp. in light of climate change) are much much better than those to the desert, and require no additional resources (eg., BrightSource Solar is building wet solar at Ivanpah, which is in a watershed that receives 2 inches of rain per year and is already tapped hard by local sources).

I would love to see BLM make its land equally expensive for companies, to give both farmers and residents of the CV a chance to be competitive.

David, on that note, how about a post on how cheap federal land outbids private land and pushes water zoning and development?

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