What’s Current? Issue #24 – Challenging the Water Orthodoxy

Welcome back and Happy New Year! Just a reminder — you can find all What’s Current newsletters archived here. Most of them offer data, calculations and links on a single topic, so if you scroll through the titles of archived newsletters you can easily determine the topics that each of them covers.

This week, we return to the topic of water. Along with energy, water abundance is a nonnegotiable prerequisite for conditions we value and aspire to achieve: prosperity, affordability, resilience, and equity. But judging from California’s restrictive policies over the past fifty years, continuously escalating in severity and scope, you would think the opposite is true. California state water policy, despite occasional rhetorical nods towards the value of abundance, remains resolutely committed to enforcing water scarcity.

The laws and regulations that reflect this bias may come from the legislature, but their impetus comes from the culture. Environmentalism that is often extreme and often misguided and unbalanced is promoted by powerful nonprofit organizations and their donors, and reinforced by journalists and commentators who tend to be remarkably uninterested in explanations that might challenge the scarcity orthodoxy.

An example of this is found in the following December 27 article in the Los Angeles Times.

Their land is sinking. But Tulare farm barons defy calls to cut groundwater pumping

Apart from the omissions, this is a good article that makes good points. Nobody denies that groundwater in the San Joaquin Valley has been severely overdrafted. Nobody disputes the fact that in the Tulare Lake Basin, and elsewhere in the San Joaquin Valley, aquifer depletion has led to land subsidence between 5 and 30 feet. Also beyond debate are the consequences — damaged aqueducts, roads and rail, degraded levees and greater flood risk to local towns, collapsing aquifers with permanently reduced capacity to recharge, and shallower wells, often serving homes and communities, that have gone dry. It’s a problem. But the LA Times article only told half the story. And, of course, it’s framed as “farm barons” against the world. Here’s the rest of the story.

State Water Project Allocations from 1967-1995, and from 1996-2024

The reliability of water supply under the State Water Project (SWP) has changed drastically in the past 20 years. In the first 30 years of operation, the SWP supplied 100 percent of contracted supplies in all years except those of extreme drought. However, in the past 20 years the SWP has provided an average supply of only 34 percent of contract water for agricultural and 66 percent for residential, municipal, and industrial. In 2021, the SWP only delivered 5 percent of contracted water, only 20 percent in 2020, 35 percent in 2018, 20 percent in 2015, and 5 percent in 2014. Even in years with excessive rainfall, such as in 2017, only 85 percent was delivered. So far in 2024, even though reservoir levels are above normal for this time of year, the SWP has only guaranteed farmers 10 percent of their contracted allocation. When State Water Project deliveries are cut off, farmers must deplete groundwater to survive.

The State of California’s salmon management policy

A good resource for anyone striving to offer balanced reporting on California’s water policies are the articles and posts coming from the Center for California Water Resources Policy and Management, an organization that conducts and compiles scientific research and data to “guide the state and federal resource agencies toward long-promised adaptive management.” In the Center’s article “The State of California’s salmon management policy,” factors are identified that may have a more decisive impact on healthy populations of salmon, smelt, and other Delta species than the current priority, which is to systematically increase the amount of water that must be left in the rivers as “unimpeded flow.” For example, “Current hatchery operations, ocean salmon fishery practices, and non-native predatory fish regulations all undermine the goals established by State law intended to enhance natural production of salmon.”

Mismanaged salmon hatcheries. The far greater impact of commercial fishing on salmon populations. Excessive protection for introduced predators. Before we cause additional damage to California’s farm economy and ration water to its cities, why aren’t these other policies being reevaluated?

“While California’s population has doubled since the 1970s, we haven’t completed a single major (water) storage project in that time.”

This analysis by PolitiFact disputes a statement made by Congressman Kevin McCarthy, as quoted, but in its debunking it demonstrates a common affliction and perennial crutch of any biased observer — scope insensitivity. In contradicting McCarthy’s assertion, PolitiFact writes that the “state had added more than 1.6 million acre-feet of water storage since 1979.” That sounds like a lot! Nope. There is critical missing context. Prior to 1979, the state added a total of 50 million acre-feet of storage capacity, almost all of it in the 1950s and 1960s.

In that more pertinent context, McCarthy is right — for nearly 50 years, we have done almost nothing to significantly improve California’s ability to harvest and store storm runoff. There is plenty of available fresh water, if we make the investments to capture it. According to data provided by the California Department of Water Resources and compiled by the Public Policy Institute of California, Delta outflows to the ocean between 1980 and 2021 averaged 15 million acre feet per year. Just capturing one-third of that water — most of it during very wet years such as the 2022-23 water season that just ended — would guarantee water abundance in California forever, and all the prosperity, resilience, affordability and equity that would follow as a consequence.

There are plenty of ways to deliver water abundance to California’s farms and cities without causing environmental havoc. We summarized them most recently in WC #23. Scarcity is not an inevitable byproduct of being environmentally responsible. If Californians are serious about setting a positive example for the world, we must recognize that many of the environmental policies we have adopted are harming the environment more than they are helping the environment, at the same time as they are damaging our economy and our communities, and destroying the American dream. There is an inspiring, entirely feasible alternative. We can choose abundance.