The UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences is hosting the California Water Policy Seminar Series, bringing in a wide variety of speakers over the upcoming months to speak on current water topics. On January 14, Professor Jay Lund spoke about the unique characteristics of California’s climate, the development of California’s water system and challenges facing it, arguing the answer lies with increasing local government participation and in developing flexible, integrated portfolios with different water management options.
Jay Lund began by explaining the title of his speech comes from a Pogo Possum cartoon, sort of the Doonesbury equivalent in the 1950s. Pogo had some ‘wonderful’ little witticisms, such as “we are confronted with insurmountable opportunities”, he said. It reminds him of California water because we are often in California water talking about problems: “People love to talk about problems. People talk about so many problems, they think nothing can be done. But that’s actually not the history of California water. The history of California water is one of insurmountable opportunities, where there are an awful lot of problems and somehow we get through them – not all of them but enough of them so that we make progress.”
So where to begin when you talk about California water? Usually, when talking to the public or even many elected officials, this is what they understand about water, said Professor Lund: “I turn the spigot and water comes out – clean water, potable water. And where did that water come from? It came from precipitation, some time, some place.” Showing a diagram of rain clouds, an empty box, and a spigot, Mr. Lund noted that most people don’t know what’s in the box that lies inbetween: “And I’m not even sure that people who have worked on this for 30 years have a complete understanding of what’s in that box.”
Mr. Lund explained that in the north, twenty percent of California’s land area supplies two-thirds of the state’s water supply. In the south, where all the population is, thirty percent of the California’s surface area supplies only 0.1% of the water supply. So, to put it succinctly, “all of our water is in the north, in the mountains, in the winter, and where we want the water is in the south, in the summer. This is a system made for engineers,” said Mr. Lund.
There is also a lot of variability between the wettest years and the driest years. The wettest year on record is 1983, which produced 71.9 MAF of runoff; the driest year on record, 1977, produced only 5.6 MAF. In addition, most of the precipitation falls as rain and snow from December through March; the snow melts April through June, and then hardly anything at all until late fall. “So there is this tremendous seasonality, and tremendous interannual variability,” Mr. Lund said.
California depends on an engineered statewide network of infrastructure that has been built over the last 100 years to reconcile this mismatch of time, space, and location, Mr. Lund explained. It is a network of reservoirs, aqueducts, hydropower plants, all throughout the system, and all owned by different entities – local, state and federal water projects. This intertied, hugely diverse network of California’s water infrastructure is owned and operated by one to 3000 different water districts – highly decentralized in terms of ownership, state and federal involvement. “I often tell foreign students when they come to California and start to study California water policy, in the U.S. we hate government so much, we have thousands of them, and nowhere else is so true as in California water,” said Mr. Lund.
Water supply is not California’s only problem, Professor Lund noted; flooding is a problem, too. To cope with flooding, the Sacramento bypass system was built which essentially creates two Sacramento Rivers: the low flow Sacramento River which is what flows through Sacramento between the levees in the summertime, and the Yolo Bypass.
When the channel capacity of the river through Sacramento is exceeded, the excess water flows down the Yolo Bypass. The channel capacity of the Sacramento River through town is 130,000 cubic feet per second, but the flood bypass has a capacity of 500,000 cubic feet per second. “Trying to put all of that through the narrow channel that flows through the regular Sacramento River system and we’d have a lot of floods, which is why we built the bypass,” explained Mr. Lund. Even with the bypass, there are still areas of the Sacramento Valley that are flood prone, such as the Natomas area of Sacramento, and the Marysville and Yuba City area, he noted.
California’s landscape has always been changing. At the end of the Ice Age, there were many glaciers still, and sea level was a lot lower; at that time, Delta was actually located outside the Golden Gate. As the glaciers melted, the sea level rose and the Delta moved inland, and as it did, it drowned out the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. “So essentially what we call the Delta is really a drowned confluence, in geologic terms, and it’s continuing to drown with sea level rise,” Professor Lund said.
He then presented a map of the Central Valley, dated 1873, showing large areas overflowed lands present at the time; there was permanently inundated tidal marsh throughout the area and seasonal floodplains, some of which might have been permanent, and groundwater tables were much higher then as well. The landscape was very large and flat, and so water tends to puddle, which is part of the flood control problem, and but it is also part of the wetlands that originally were here. California’s native birds and fishes evolved into this landscape, said Professor Lund.
However, we’ve made a lot of changes to the landscape since then, Mr. Lund pointed out. We’ve built a lot of dams and levees, which has blocked access to extensive amounts of salmonid habitat. Most of these wetlands have been reclaimed for agricultural and other human uses; only 4.9% of the wetlands that were present in 1900 remain today. With climate warming, in order to survive, the fish will need to spawn at higher elevations where it will still be cool enough, but if the higher elevations are blocked by dams, that’s going to present a problem for the natural adaptation of these species, he explained.
In the upper Sacramento Valley, rice cultivation provides a substitute for wetlands as rice fields are flooded in the winter months to provide habitat for migratory waterfowl. However, “most of that riceland is not available for fish, and so it’s worked out better for the birds than the fish,” Professor Lund noted.
We’ve modified seasonal flows by storing water during the winter and spring, and diverting it on to agricultural fields or storing it in reservoirs for use later in the season, producing much more muted spring flows than there were historically. And in the Sacramento Valley, there’s a lot more water flowing down the Sacramento River into the Delta during the summer months than there was historically because of reservoir releases. The water is captured in the winter time and released in the summer time, where it’s picked up in the south Delta and conveyed to San Joaquin Valley, Southern California and the Bay Area.
“So in some places we have more flow than we would have naturally, but the pattern is not natural,” Mr. Lund noted, “and one result of all of this is that the fish are losing.” In 1985, 44 fish species were reasonably secure, 50 were of special concern, and 14 were listed. In 2010, twenty-five years later, 23 fish species, or half as many, are reasonably secure, there are 55 species of special concern and the number of listed fish species has more than doubled at 31. It’s been decades since the Endangered Species Act, decades since the Clean Water Act, a lot of big improvements, Mr. Lund said, so how come the fish are getting worse? “We have widespread decline despite decades of well-intentioned effort, these listings are now affecting our ability to run water supply systems and flood protection systems, and we can probably expect these conditions to worsen with additional climate warming and additional invasive species. What we’ve done is probably good for the environment, but we haven’t really succeeded, not by a long shot,” he said.
Over time, California’s economy has changed. Back in 1850, about 75% of employment in California was in the mining industry. In the late 1800s, there was a drop in employment in mining, partly due to depletion of the gold fields, and partly due to the growth of other kinds of economic activity, particularly agriculture. In the 1880s, a judge ruled to shut down hydraulic mining, saying that the sluicing down of hillsides in order to mine for gold was causing more damage to the economic development of California than it was worth. “It was impeding the development of agriculture, so we basically shut off a significant portion of California’s economy at the time to let another part of the economy grow. In this case it was agriculture,” said Professor Lund. “And what we’ve seen over time since then is the overall growth in California’s population and economy is a declining share of agriculture just as we have a continuing declining share of mining, and a shift in water demands to some of these other uses.”
Mr. Lund continued: “One of my arguments here is that the changing economic structure of California is what drives our purposes for water management. We used to manage primarily for mining. If you go back to the early water law and the early water technologies, it was all managing water for mining, then managing water for agriculture, now we’re interested in managing water, certainly for agriculture, but more for urban, and more increasingly for environmental purposes.”
California’s history can be summed up as such: “Floods, droughts, and lawsuits,” said Mr. Lund. He explained: “The history of California water are that there are periods of conflict punctuated by floods, droughts, and lawsuits, where you have high enough level of political attention that politicians are willing to make decisions. And that usually requires a flood, a drought or a lawsuit.”
The early period of California water is referred to as the era of Laissez Faire. Settlers arrived from the Midwest and the East Coast where the climate was wet and humid, and most of the rainfall was in the summer. “They irrigated with solar-desalinated-sea water, or rain,” said Mr. Lund. But when they settled in California, there was no rain in the summer but the there was flooding in the winter. During this period, people were trying to organize themselves into little groups of individual farmers. “They found that it didn’t work to try and build levees or water diversions by yourself,” he said.
Then a period followed, the local organization period, where levee districts, irrigation districts and municipal districts were developing and bringing in water. In the Sacramento Valley, there were levee districts forming on each side of the river. “So, if you’re a levee district, how high does your levee have to be … ? Higher than the guy’s across the river. How high does his levee have to be? The game theory of it is like this … and then someone discovers dynamite. My levee doesn’t always have to be higher than your levee, only during a flood event. So basically you ended up with guerilla warfare happening during flood events, and eventually the state said enough is enough,” said Mr. Lund.
That ushered in the hydraulic era when state and federal governments became involved, realizing that the proper scale for governance and management of the system is at a larger scale. Floods in the Sacramento Valley could not be managed at the parcel scale, or a local district scale, but at the valley scale, explained Mr. Lund, so with state and federal help, large flood bypass systems, irrigation systems, reservoirs and canal systems were built. However, we’re about at the end of the hydraulic era, he said, as almost all the rivers already have reservoirs on them. There aren’t very many sites left that don’t yet have reservoirs, and the sites that are remaining are expensive to build and won’t yield a lot of water: “We’re starting to see the scarcity of the environmental things that we didn’t value so much when we were poor, but now that we’re relatively rich, we start to value them,” he said.
So now we’re in an ‘era of conflict,’ he added, but we’re hoping for an ‘era of reconciliation.’ There are a lot of objectives in water management, and many of them conflicting: “water supplies, floods, environmental habitat, hydropower, recreation, fights between these objectives, as well as fights within some of these groups. Different agricultural users don’t like other agricultural users, don’t like urban users, north doesn’t like the south, even fighting between flood interests,” he said.
California’s system has changed in very fundamental ways over the last century and a half, and it will continue to change, Mr. Lund explained. There will be climate change impacts such as sea level rise, warming temperatures, and changes in precipitation. There is deterioration of the infrastructure, accumulation of contaminants such as salts and nitrates, as well as mercury contamination, a legacy from the mining era. We have accumulated groundwater overdraft, lower groundwater tables in general, and there is the threat of earthquakes and the continuing deterioration in the Delta. We also have a changing economy and demography, a changing economic structure, globalization, and the deterioration of the state and federal government’s ability to finance anything, as well as continued population growth and urbanization. We have changes in ecosystems that are pretty fundamental, continuing degradation, and continuing invasions of invasive species – about 90% of the Delta’s biomass is invasive species. We have changes in science and technologies, and new chemicals coming in and being used in widespread ways. But it’s not all bad, he said: we have new technologies – computer modeling, remote sensing, new water and conservation technologies, too.
However, the centerpiece of California’s water problems is the Delta: “The Delta is sort of the problem du jour in California for about 80 years. It might not change over the next 80 years. If you want to move water from north to south, it’s going to involve the Delta,” Professor Lund said. Everybody depends on the Delta. Some people live in the Delta and they depend on the Delta because they live there; some people are south of Delta or west of the Delta and they depend on the Delta because they take water directly from it; and north of the Delta, we’re dependent on the Delta because we take water before it would have gone there. “So if there’s a higher inflow requirement for the Delta, there’s a likelihood that we’re going to be asked to surrender some of our water use as well as everybody else, because we’re all taking a lot of water, as you can see. It’s not just Southern California; we like to blame Southern California, and certainly their guilty as sin, but we’re not completely devoid of sin ourselves,” Professor Lund said.
The Delta has some big problems, such as physical instability, Professor Lund explained: “The Delta was formed with the submergence of the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. The land essentially kept up with that inundation by the accretion of tule marsh. Tules were breathing carbon dioxide, they gathered up the sediments, they died, and then they added to the accretion of the soil, so as the sea level rose, the marsh would rise with it. So long as the sea level didn’t rise too fast, the marsh would keep up with it.” These soils are peat soils, made up of partially oxidized decomposition material, that when it is exposed to oxygen, the material completes the oxidation process, and it goes away, literally, up into the air, he said: “A huge carbon sink that is no longer a carbon sink.”
Along with that, we have sea level rise, floods, and earthquakes which give us a lot of reasons to be concerned, particularly with the very low-lying portions of the Delta. And there is the tremendous habitat alteration, hydrologic alterations, and invasive species. There is economic instability as well, Professor Lund explained: if you are farming low value crops on a subsided island, as the island subsides, you have to pump your drainage water to higher elevations, thereby increasing your costs. If the levee fails and the island floods, oftentimes the cost of recovering the island isn’t worth it; basically two out of three islands that have failed most recently have been abandoned, he noted.
The Delta is not the only problem California has, not by a long shot. Each region has its own issues to deal with which are different than other regions. It isn’t like all of California has one problem, or even all of the Delta has one problem, Professor Lund said. Different parts of the Delta have different problems, just as different parts of the California have different problems – and the whole state has a problem.
California is facing some challenges, said Mr. Lund. The first challenge that we have is the limitations of traditional management. The average politician or person on the street tends to think that the answer to California’s water problems is to build another reservoir, because that was what was done for decades. However, “there’s very little reason to think that large scale reservoir construction is going to solve hardly any of our problems. It might solve a few, but it’s not going to be major. Our traditional management has reached the technological, economic, and environmental infinite,” he said.
We have long term problems with native species and their habitats, especially wetlands. How are we going to restore these native habitats to a degree that we can keep these native species around and how do we reconcile permanent water scarcity? “There’s a wonderful saying in water that there’s no such thing as a water shortage; there’s only a shortage of cheap water,” said Mr. Lund.
We have groundwater depletion over time, particularly in the Tulare Basin and in other places, and there is essentially permanent degradation from salts accumulating in groundwater basins in some places, and nitrate contamination occurring in many rural areas.
We can’t count on the state and federal government spending to help out, said Mr. Lund: “I think the state and federal governments are going to be basically permanently weak for a few decades. We have really left the era when there was a lot of state and federal money to coax everybody along.” Most of the power and most of the money, is at the local districts, local cities, and the local irrigation districts, he pointed out, noting that we’re going to have to figure out ways that induce local entities to cooperate and work together across this statewide system without having a lot of money for incentives.
The third problem we need to address is how to modernize the statewide system. “Modernizing the local systems is pretty easy; because they are pretty flush with money relative to other governments in the state and the country, but how to modernize the state’s water system … It has to serve many different goals, many of which conflict and many of which have a mutual need for each other,” he said.
And we have to figure out what to do with the Delta. If you have one identifiable focus problem in California’s water, it is the Delta. “We have to figure out how to rebuild it in a more sustainable way, or figure out how to abandon it and not depend on it at all,” said Mr. Lund. We need to develop locally driven portfolios of actions with a statewide system, and to need figure out how the local entities can contribute to the statewide objectives and to the environment in particular. The challenge for the state and federal agencies will be how to stay involved in a system which is predominately driven by locals, he noted.
However, Mr. Lund does see reason for hope. It’s likely that human water use in California has peaked, he said. For decades, the thinking was that the demand for water was going to grow and keep growing forever, but we seem to have seen the end of that. “We’re not going to see major expansions in irrigated land areas. We’re going to see contractions in irrigated land areas, due in part to accumulating salinity in some places, and because urban areas are expanding on top of agriculture, and in some areas due to water shortage,” he said, noting that urban consumption has leveled off, mostly due to urban water conservation. “Over time it looks like our water use might have peaked, and I think that’s a big reason for hope,” he said.
California’s economy is also less dependent on water than it was in the past, Professor Lund noted. Back when agriculture was a third of California’s economy, it was a large segment that required abundant, cheap water. Today, agriculture is only about 5% of California’s economy, he said: “So if you look at the total economic disruption to California of a water shortage, of a drought, it’s much less today than it would have been in the past. That gives you reason for hope – a more stable, resilient economy in terms of water,” he said.
And we’re starting to develop water markets that can way shift resources in a more flexible and civilized way from a sector that is becoming less valuable, relative to other sectors. “Shift water from lower value to higher value agriculture, from agriculture to cities, in a way that compensates the farmers,” said Professor Lund.
“The final reason for hope is that we all agree we have a problem,” said Professor Lund. Now, we have multiple options for how we manage water – a mix of state and local actions, he noted.
Professor Lund says he feels lucky to be at UC Davis: “We’re right in the center of things and we’re not responsible for any of them, except for the water that we use.” And there are many ways universities can help out: by working to understand the system, educating students, exploring novel solutions, and even myth-busting. “We can say controversial things in useful ways. If you talk to people in agencies, there are a lot of things they know that they can’t say as it would cause too much trouble. I’ve got tenure. No one in Sacramento is ever able to fire a graduate student. We can say what we think needs to be said, and if we say it in useful ways and we’re diplomatic about it, we can be very useful,“ he said, adding “we are particularly useful when the agencies fall silent; when something is so controversial, that the agencies can’t be heard on.”
So in conclusion, California has a statewide system with local governments and fragmented regulation with limited state and federal abilities to solve these problems, and although the state and federal governments are still important and crucial, they have much less capability than in the past, said Professor Lund. “Local government is really the most important, and we need to figure out how to make that work on a statewide scale.”
California’s system is complex, but in that complexity may lie the solutions, said Mr. Lund: “Complexity enriches possibilities. People often talk about complex systems being brittle. Actually, no. If you’ve got a complex system, there are a lot more ways you can work around things then in a simple system.” The future is integrated portfolios of many different water management activities, he added.
“Nature and economics will eventually prevail over indecision and existing law. This has been true for every era of California water, every era of environmentalism. Eventually we figure it out, after we’ve done other things.”