18 October 2011

Murdering a river -- the dry details

In response to my review of Water Follies, Bill Kier wrote the following email:
The surface water/groundwater interface issue is playing out as we speak in California’s Scott River, an important tributary to the Klamath, where the interconnection is (a) being investigated as part of a State Water Resources Control Board-adopted total maximum daily load (TMDL) plan; and (b) the subject in fact of litigation brought by the Environmental Law Foundation and the commercial fishermen’s PCFFA, charging that the SWRCB has failed to protect the public trust in allowing the diversion of streams containing an about-to-wink-out coho salmon population. There appears to be a substantial interconnection between the Scott’s surface and ground waters. [The extent of that connection is controversial. Dueling studies of impact are more likely to retard than advance the discussion, which may be their objective.]

The real Scott River ‘follies’ showgirl is the USDA, which started a $60 million Klamath basin restoration program on the heels of the Klamath Reclamation program-related Sagebush Rebellion in 2002, when yahoos from all over (covered by media from as far away as the Netherlands) cut locks off US Bur Rec water gates and diverted Klamath Lake into irrigation canals in defiance of Reclamation’s duty to conserve water for Klamath Lake suckers and downstream coho salmon. This was the year of the gigantic downstream Klamath River salmon kill in late September. USDA has apparently (they say the data is proprietary, despite its federal funding) made dozens of grants to ranchers to sink wells in the Scott and Shasta rivers floodplains, thereby exacerbating coho salmon habitat loss (particularly in the Scott basin, which research has shown to be heavily tributary-dependent - see this PDF).

The Cosumnes River doesn’t really have a lot of water to offer, but what little it has was diverted to pastures a century ago, and, more recently, to the Rancho Murrieta home/golf development. As chair of the Sacramento County Parks & Recreation Commission, back in the early ‘70s, I campaigned hard for a Cosumnes River parkway modeled after the county’s highly popular American River Parkway. I was thwarted by a combination of political resistance from the Rancho Murrieta crowd, conservative to the core; the farm community – and then-Assemblyman, later State Controller Ken Cory, who had a ranch on the river bought for him by an Orange County kingmaker whose name now escapes me – Dick ___. The Cosumnes was a target of the Bur Rec/DWR’s ‘Eastside Project’ proposal, with proposed headworks on the Yuba River and an Eastside Canal extending down (including a new dam on the Cosumnes) to the Delta-Mendota Canal, allowing this imaginary Eastside water to eventually enable a cross-tie at the southern end of the SJ Valley to bring water over to the State aqueduct (to make up for the loss of the North Coast rivers to the W&S River System). George Miller’s election to Congress in 1975 was the death knell for the Eastside Project - not that George explicitly opposed the Eastside, but because he opposed the San Luis Drain, creating the first dissention among the CA congressional delegation re new-start project authorizations, whereupon the new-authorizations action immediately shifted to the Central Arizona Project.

What we able to conserve in the lower Cosumnes River floodplain then became Nature Conservancy’s Cosumnes River Preserve.

And finally – and then I’ll shut up: I went to work for the State Senate in 1967 with an agenda. One of the several things I wanted to fix was the double-whammy of a redevelopment policy that explicitly stated that areas subject to periodic flooding were ipso facto targets for redevelopment and a 1945 policy that had the State picking up the lands/easements/rights-of-way costs of local flood control projects. (with no upfront costs and the prospect of new taxable development there wasn’t a local official in the state that could say no to killing a wetland). It took me five years to get the flood control cost-assumption policy spiked (fighting the CA Supes Assn’s flood control lobbyist Gordon Miller, who was able to kill the bill in Assembly Water four times, and working with the ‘cut, squeeze and trim’ Reagan administration – see this PDF for details). The policy made a come-back following Prop 13, but has died a natural death, I believe, since.
In a second email, he adds:
It’s a total embarrassment that we should be aligned with Texas, alone, in our failure to deal with the surface water/ groundwater interconnection

The last time the matter was seriously institutionally addressed, I believe, was Jerry Brown I’s 1978 ‘Governor’s Commission to Review CA’s Water Rights Law’

The Governor’s Commission advanced a decent first-stage groundwater management program proposal (you can find the rpt and supporting docs on the SWRCB’s website)

In this minority rpt [PDF] to the Governor’s Commission rpt by Ira ‘Jack’ Chrisman, father of Mike Chrisman, you see the opening attack on the Commission’s groundwater mgt recommendations (check that concluding paragraph on page 3)

By this second term Jerry had made his ill-starred presidential bid, been saddled with that ‘Governor Moonbeam’ thing, and the powers that be, particularly the then-nouveau riche SJV ag lobby of which Jack Chrisman was the poster elder, were figuring out they didn’t have to take any more of Jerry’s foolishness – including this modest first-step toward managing the surface water/ groundwater interconnection.

A year ago I was fanaticizing that Jerry II might become seriously interested, once again, in adult water management issues.

I don’t now see that happening
Mike Eaton (Cosumnes River Project Director for The Nature Conservancy from 1995-2007), added:
The Cosumnes has been wetter this year than in my 20 year experience; a month ago it stopped flowing, but it has - abnormally - not completely dried out. If it rains early, it will, because the channel is still damp, start flowing earlier than it has in several decades, good news for any salmon that may stray this way; anything resembling an indigenous run is probably long gone.

Glennon did a good job on the Cosumnes, documenting how groundwater pumping has obliterated the natural flow profile. I ranted in the Bee in July 09 on the subject; no longer on their web site but pasted below. Conceptually, think of the river as now running backwards for half of the year, as the gradient associated with the large "cones of depression" underlying south Sacramento County sucks water (unmeasured and uncounted) from the Delta.

A Legal Fiction Shelters Sacramento's Out-Dated Water Practices

One day this week, or perhaps as late as next week, the last of the wet spots in the channel of the Cosumnes River in southern Sacramento County will fade away, leaving bone-dry most of the river corridor from the foothills to the Delta.

It wasn’t always this way. Until the mid-20th century, the river gave generously to the groundwater table during the wet season, and then as flow declined in the summer the river got back from groundwater enough moisture to sustain fish populations, other aquatic life, and riparian vegetation until the rains came, maintaining a rich corridor of life from the Delta to the Sierra.

What upset that seasonal transaction was large-scale groundwater pumping, first by agriculturalists near the river and then, at an increasingly larger scale, by Sacramento County and its growing cities, where demand for water long ago exceeded legal rights to divert from the American and Sacramento Rivers.

Enabling that transition was a legal fiction: the premise, in California water law, that water on the surface of the earth – in our streams, rivers, sloughs, and wetlands - and water under the ground are independent and unconnected resources. This presumption of law remains in effect today despite what science has for a long time told us - that water moves steadily from the surface of the earth, pulled by gravity out of our rivers and streams where there are porous soil layers, filling the dry space created when pumps lift water from beneath the ground.

California's groundwater legal fiction dates to the early days of the state, when water resources were abundant and seemingly inexhaustible and salmon crowded our rivers and streams.

The law may be static, but California is not. Over the past century and a half our population has mushroomed and we’ve deployed energy and technology to store, move, and use water in ways that our pioneer forbears could never have imagined, just as they could not have imagined the now-looming demise of California’s once huge salmon populations.

The consequences of this disconnect – static law, dynamic state – have become increasingly problematic in an era of growing competition for water and rising concern about the environmental costs of water diversions and groundwater pumping.

No setting illustrates these conflicts better than Sacramento. Today, Sacramento local governments (along with farms and rural residents) pull an average of over half a million acre feet of water per year from the underground aquifer.

The primary sources of “recharge” for Sacramento’s groundwater are the rivers, wetlands and sloughs in and near the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The more groundwater Sacramento pumps, the greater its yearly draw from (or interruption of flow to) the Delta.

As a de facto user of Delta water, Sacramento ranks high. Its annual take - year in, year out, wet year, dry year - is equivalent to well over 25% of the volume of the State Water Project’s shipments out of the Delta this year.

But Sacramento enjoys an awkward distinction. Although a major Delta water user, it is an “unofficial” user because we don’t have a reality-based state water law. Because the law pretends that groundwater pumping has no impact on surface flows - and because state agencies have lagged in recognizing their obligation to use existing authority to address the problem - the region can hold back from acknowledging complicity in the ecological problems of the Delta or accepting responsibility for being a part of the solution. Other Delta-dependent water users, recognizing the fragility of the resource and their vulnerability to cut-back, have invested heavily in water efficiency and water reclamation, areas in which Sacramento lags far behind.

And while other Delta water users come to the table as stakeholders with a common interest in addressing Delta ecological and water conveyance problems, Sacramento is not only largely absent from the table but actively hostile to some of the key efforts, such as the Delta Vision Plan and the proposed Bay-Delta Conservation Plan, taking an “us vs. them” posture when “we” would be a better fit with the physical facts.

Without the push of a reality-based water law, Sacramento enjoys for now a mostly free ride. But it’s a ride that should not last. It’s time for state policymakers and the courts to create a modern legal framework for the integrated management of groundwater and surface water. The current disconnect between law and reality fosters far more waste, inequity, economic inefficiency, and environmental cost that can be sustained over the long term. We need instead a system with a consistent accounting for water use, a uniform accountability for impacts, and a single legal standard for what constitutes “reasonable use of water” in an arid state.

Meanwhile, the fate of the Cosumnes River is of far more than just symbolic importance. Because the Cosumnes is a key Delta resource, it has received an extraordinary amount of public and philanthropic investment as a step toward restoring overall Delta health. These efforts are undercut by Sacramento’s groundwater pumping, which has resulted in the near-extinction of the salmon fishery of the Cosumnes and has put at serious risk its globally significant wetlands, oak forests, and riparian habitats.

A fix for the Cosumnes could be on the horizon. After more than a decade of work, Sacramento County is nearing completion of a “Habitat Conservation Plan” for the lower Cosumnes area. Unfortunately, the County’s draft plan does not address aquatic resources or the impact of groundwater pumping. Moreover, County representatives have taken the posture that their plan is in competition with a similar plan, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which focuses heavily on aquatic resources. If coordination replaced competion in this arena, the benefits could be huge. How can the plans together address the needs of the water-dependent natural resources of South Sacramento County that are both important in themselves and critical to overall Delta health?

A meaningful and collaborative approach to protecing aquatic resources, along with a real, accelerated commitment by Sacramento local governments to improved water use efficiency and expanded water reclamation, would be a big step toward aligning water management in the region with reality.

1 comment:

  1. I realize that certain folks love to make the Scott River their poster child for all-things-bad with the sw/gw issue -- but let's still get the facts straight:
    1. There is no question that there is an interconnection between surface water & groundwater, a recognition codified in the State Water Code Section 2500 back in 1971 as the first step in the SWRCB's development of the Scott River Adjudication.
    2. No other groundwater basins in California have received the same legal interconnection recognition with their streams -- 40 years later.
    3. Coho salmon are not about to "wink out" on the Scott River any more than any other stream in CA. In fact, the Scott's 927 coho spawners in 2010 appear to be the biggest natural run in the state, and within the 800-2,000 coho run size that CDFG estimated for the Scott River back in 1965. Two weak brood years follow this one stronger cohort, and are as small as other rivers' coho numbers. Not a good situation, but the low population problem is not unique to the Scott River in this ESU.
    4. Coho rearing habitat is primarily in the tributaries to the Scott, near where their spawning occurs, and not in the mainstem of the river, which is primarily Chinook salmon spawning habitat.
    5. Surface water is used for irrigation (primarily pasture) in the tributary watersheds, not groundwater. Wells are primarily used on alfalfa on the valley floor.
    6. Irrigation from groundwater has been switching from wheelline to center pivot method over the past 15 years, following a national pattern promoted as a water and energy conservation tool. USDA has not promoted switching from surface to well use, only the method of application or the location of wells within fields for "efficient" application. The rate of water application is less with center pivots.
    7. Same acreage and same crops have been farmed in Scott Valley for the past 50 years. Short growing season, few options for these "family" farms, which are neither "industrial" nor "corporate" as certain anti-Scott farming hit pieces have asserted.
    8. The UCD groundwater model for the Regional Water Board and the County is in Phase II, version 2, after 3 years and will continue to be fine tuned as more data and understanding are developed. The Karuk's gw model will be less than 1 year and in version 1.0 when completed by a consultant from Colorado in April. Hopefully, both models can help provide realistic and accurate insight into hypotheses regarding cause-effect and management options.
    9. Economics will play a strong role in the suggested solutions that may be finally accepted.

    Bashing the Scott River over and over in public forums or via lawsuits is not helping those working hard to find real answers. Lawyers get the money, positions get hardened, emotions get frayed, and facts get obliterated. Naysayers may win the War of Words but will lose the Peace Prize of Proof.

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