State of the Planet

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California’s other crisis

The “Golden” State doesn’t seem so golden these days. LA’s recent wildfires and Sacramento’s recent budget crises have left a dark cloud hanging over the state. Compounding the state’s financial woes and charred image is a problem potentially even more challenging: drought. Since 2000, the state’s reservoirs have been depleted and current climate change projections suggest that the state’s water supplies will be further diminished by reduced snowpack in the Sierras (already having lost 10% of snowpack over the past 100 years), as well as more intense warming periods.

Without solutions to California’s water crises, many of its current economic and ecological dilemmas may become the norm. Water is an essential lubricant of the diverse state economy – from the tourism that is attracted to the state’s rivers, beaches, wildlife preserves, and mountains, to the industrial and domestic needs in Los Angeles and Silicon Valley, and, of course, to its farmers of the Central Valley, the world’s fifth largest food producer. Already, the effects of long-term drought in the Central Valley helped to push unemployment up to 40% in 2009, and agricultural revenue losses are almost $500 million.

Drought is not the only factor that has impaired California’s ability to sustain its productive agricultural sector. The state’s geographic mismatch between its natural supply of water resources (mostly in the northern portion of the state) and the majority of its water demand (mostly in the dry Central Valley and southern portion of the state) forced the state and federal government to build a massive “plumbing” system to move its natural sources of supply to meet its sources of demand. Both the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project move water from northern California to irrigators and municipalities through a system of reservoirs, lakes, canals, pumps, levees, tunnels, and storage tanks.

A part of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta
A part of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta

The San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers, coming together at the San Francisco Bay Delta, have been at the heart of this plumbing system. The result of this has been near collapse for critical species in the Bay Delta, such as delta smelt and Sacramento River salmon, as their habitat has been blocked, water temperature altered, and water quality impaired. Competing with these species for the precious sources of freshwater that are delivered through this system are the state’s expansive agricultural sector and growing municipalities in southern California.

Overlaying the complicated water supply system that has been developed in California is an even more complex institutional system that manages and governs the storage, distribution, flood control, delivery and protection of these waters. California’s numerous municipal, private and quasi-public water districts, water wholesalers (like the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California) agricultural districts, state department of water resources (and its regional offices), state water quality control board, federal agencies (such as the Bureau of Reclamation), as well as fish and wildlife agencies, all play distinct roles in water supply and quality management throughout the state.


As a mechanism for developing infrastructure, transporting water, and meeting diverse water demands of the 20th century, this institutional system has worked well. As for a verdict on its capacity to coordinate strategies for collectively resolving 21st century ecological crises, long-term drought, climate change, and urban growth, however, the jury is still out.

The state and federal governments have, in fact, taken initiatives to try to coordinate these diverse institutional and water management interests. In the mid-90s, state and federal agencies began to team up around emerging problems in the Bay Delta and in 2000 formed the CALFED Bay Delta Program to undertake ecosystem restoration programs, enhance water supply reliability, and maintain flood control protection in the delta.

A new state agency – the Bay Delta Authority – was created to administer the program, with support and input from new public and scientific advisory bodies. Although the program had some initial success with new strategies, such as its “Environmental Water Account”, which used a market-based approach to support transfers of water for instream flows, CALFED became the subject of criticism and diminished authority. Fish populations continued to crash in the Delta and by 2005, Governor Schwarzenegger tasked California’s Little Hoover Commission and the Department of Water Resources to recommend organizational changes to narrow the Authority’s scope of activities.

Several other initiatives have been underway in the Bay-Delta region, including the Delta Vision, Bay-Delta Conservation Plan, and Delta Regional Ecosystem Restoration Implementation Plan, to identify new plans for managing the Bay Delta and devising a governance structure with the capacity to address the various institutional interests. Recently, however, the Bay Delta Blue Ribbon Task Force came together concluding that little had been done in terms of enacting the recommendations and strategies of the Strategic Plan. Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger has been pushing the state to fund the construction of more dams.

At the same time, a number of key players in the state have expressed renewed interest in dusting off a previously canned engineering plan–the “peripheral canal”–which would route water from the Sacramento River down to bring more water to South Bay residents. Instead of using the water that has flowed through the Delta, which is of diminished quality from irrigation run-off and salt water intrusion, growing urban areas south of the Bay would have access to a cleaner source of water.

Current legislation is pending in the California Senate that would revive the canal. The canal, in theory, would also improve the quality of the water in the Delta for fish, because currently water from the Sacramento that is “piped” south, goes through the Delta through a series of pumps and reverses flows needed for fish migration. Yet many community residents in the Delta fear it will further harm endangered species by exporting even more water from the watershed to central and southern California. Farmers also fear the canal would bring more water to cities at the expense of agriculture.

Clearly, no easy solution exists for the Bay Delta and for California’s water crises more broadly. For too many years, the state has been limping along with ad-hoc or locally-driven solutions, such as water conservation restrictions, small-scale water transfers for species, or band-aid fixes to delta levees. The institutional and policy responses that are needed today are likely to require bold leadership and extensive inter-jurisdictional coordination and cooperation. With the CALFED process hamstrung, the state appears to be sorely lacking in the institutional mechanisms to bring these ideas to the forefront and garner cross-sectoral support. Will new dams or a new canal address these problems, or only create further fractures and debates?

Historically, crisis is an opportunity to make something happen. And California’s Bay Delta is in such a moment of crisis. Policymakers in California are paying attention, but the question is whether or not the attention is focused in the right direction.

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Kristin Francoz
Kristin Francoz
14 years ago

The California state government is run by a system of home-rule that leaves most of the power with local and regional authorities. This is a great system, in theory, for a state as diverse in California–because each distinct area can create laws and management strategies best suited to its economy, climate and population. It becomes an institutional nightmare, however, when trying to organize any sort of state-wide program–whether it be financial, agricultural, or environmental—-because there is no higher authority who can mediate between various stakeholders. In a home-rule state, when no one can agree on a compromise, things often come to a complete standstill, and are occasionally dropped for good. This is what has happened with the California budget crisis this year, and also what happened with the canal plans.

Richard Rosas
Richard Rosas
14 years ago

The water issue in the western part of the United States is a Federal and multistate Issue. My suggestion of building desalinization plants in Oregon and Washington coast; building 2 pipeines across to Yellowstone National Park; placing water storage tanks along the mountains for storage and natural release to watersheds,lakes and streams would supply- Washington,Oregon,California,Idaho,Wyoming,Nevada,Utah,Colorado,Arizona and New Mexico with fresh water through natural gravity flowing rivers, lakes and streams. With this “ALL NATURAL” release, the western states would have a constant supply of water! Most Every Lake,River,Stream,Reservoir,Aquafir etc would be filled! The Colorado River and Rio Grande would be its old self again! Our Mountains,Forests deserts biodiversity would respawn! I call it the U.S.GREEN PIPELINE because it would use green power to function and would catch,treat before release to ocean! I have been pushing this idea for 3 years! I originally got this idea from a 1972 ACOE archive research file which i modified for biodiversity.

14 years ago

It’s not leadership per se, although leadership is implicated in the idea of impetus. ,

14 years ago

[…] for months.  As discussed by Water Center expert Tanya Heikkila in her September blog post “California’s other crisis,”  the state’s reservoirs had been significantly depleted and fights had been breaking out all […]