Monday, April 25, 2016

California water wars: It's not about the fish, Stupid. That's a red herring.

Note bene: This post is a response to Facebook people's knee-jerk comments on an article by Jack Stewart in California Political Review. You may want to scan the article and rabid comments before you read this particular diatribe, as I begin this fishy story in medias res. A response to Jack Stewart's opinion piece,  Well-being of Fish Valued Over CA’s Economy and Quality of Life

Smelts are a family of small fish, Osmeridae —Wiki

Let me begin this rant by pointing out the faulty logic in Jack Stewart's opening paragraph:"....all the rain falling on California will wash into the ocean, instead of being stored for the dry, hot summer to come." Even the tittle, Well-being of Fish Valued Over CA’s Economy and Quality of Life,  is a real knee-jerker. Talk about hyperbole! It's a lopsided opinion piece parading as naked news.

All the rain? Most of that rain falling in Northern California will wash into the ocean because Shasta Dam is full to capacity, and because the rain did not extend south past San Jose, where most of the reservoirs are located, it will not fill those dams.

Only a handful of reservoirs—only seven out of a total of 55 major reservoirs statewide—are nearly full to capacity. But more than 26 of the state's major reservoirs are under 40% full (and a dozen of those are under 20% full) because all the rain falling on California did not fall within their watersheds. Besides, many of those reservoirs are dependent upon snowmelt, not rain, so Stewart should've addressed global warming's impact on the shrinking Sierra snowpack instead of fish.

Lake Shasta June, 2014. It's now full, but more than 26 of the state's major reservoirs are under 40% full (and ten of those are under 20%). Only a handful of reservoirs, seven out of a total of 55 major reservoirs statewide, are nearly full to capacity.

The (rain) water that Stewart claims is being dumped into the ocean, in detriment of the farmer, in order to save, what he deems as a worthless fish, is being dumped from our northern California dams for flood control. It's overflow, Stupid.

There is literally no place to store all that water when parts of Northern California has received 200% to 300% of normal precipitation for the year. Do you remember the the great Central Valley floods of 1996? That's what happens when the flood control system (and the levees) fails.

But somehow Stewart has managed to construe a tall tale that makes a small fish responsible for all our water woes. He blames a lack of enough dams for our agricultural woes (not a lack of snowpack), he equates the decommissioning of defunct hydro-electric dams, the destruction of orchards, and the upsurge of Central Valley's fallow fields—on a fish. He blames environmentalists and smelt for a much more complex water picture than he can possibly grasp. Talk about a snowjob.

Let's take one idea: save all that water; how? Perhaps Stewart is unaware that there is no pipeline infrastructure to move the excess Shasta water to, say, The (Stanislas) New Melones Dam (which is at at 30% capacity. BTW, in 1944, Congress authorized the construction of 1979 New Melones Dam atop the old Melones damsite, to prevent flooding—from spring snowmelt).

Jack Stewart goes on to say "As for the water now filling the state’s reservoirs, billions of gallons will be flushed down rivers and out to sea in efforts to protect fish, rather than being used to irrigate food crops..."

Is he aware that most of California's dams are dependent upon Sierra snowmelt, and that 70% of northern California's water is already shipped to southern California dams? Does he know that Castaic Lake is funded by Northern California water? Or that San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara water also comes from the north? Clearly we're bogarting Northern California rainfall in favor of fish vs farmers.

Stewart is all over the place; he shifts his argument from Colusa County to San Joaquin County, and then illustrates his point with a photo of a very full Shasta Dam, when he should depict a photo of a Southern California Sierra foothill dam. Stewart opines, and conflates ideas but does not back up any of his statements with facts.

Of course, Stewart's shallow-minded wading pool readers have massive knee-jerk reactions. OMG, the sky is falling! And they curse the bad environmentalists and Governor Moonbeam. Instead, they should get off their high horses and get down on their knees and pray for more snow.
2016 rain map as of 3/30. The green band represents normal rainfall.
All that purple rain (sorry, Prince) in the north represents a deluge.
The brown, red & ochre spots are parts of the state still in drought,

Do you know where your water comes from?
Most of the Bay Area's water is from the San Joaquin delta.

Stewart writes that in recent years "trillions of gallons of water have been flushed through California rivers in recent years to protect fish." How about posting some supporting facts.

His statement is meant to inflame and enrage... Oh such waste. It's a crime. But think: is a dead riparian ecosystem better than a live one? The San Joaquin Delta is such a mess, thanks to over-allocation of water resources for upstream agriculture, that at times, it actually runs BACKWARDS, there's so little water in it. Now that's a crime against nature.

What's with the myopic thinking about diverting excess floodwater from the ocean, that's where the water is supposed to go, back into the ocean. We've already disrupted California's riverine and oceanic water systems to the point of massive fish population collapse, which in turn have triggered other massive species collapse. Not to mention the ramifications of the acidification of the oceans. Dead Sea ring a bell?

Smelt, salmon are not optional, nor are estuaries, which need fresh water to keep a massive ecosystem alive. Which, in turn, keeps us alive. 

I won't mention the problem of soil salt intrusion. Most of the Central Valley is at sea level. Flushing the rivers removes pooled agricultural run-off and halts salt intrusion. What's good for the smelt is good for the river. And that in turn, is good for the farmer. It keeps the soil and the water table sweet.

Has Stewart forgotten about what happens when the runoff from agriculture pools and stagnates? If the rivers aren't flushed, then the land becomes poisoned. Think toilet. Can I say Kesterson? Let me help you spell selenium poisoning.

Then, there's the downstream water table effect. A
Contra Costa County friend, Robert Lee Haycock, stated that actively pursuing the death of of our great estuaries is not the answer. Smelt, or no smelt, fresh water still needs to flow out the Golden Gate. Saltwater intrusion is already a problem for East Contra Costa County's water table—Antioch's drinking water that comes from the San Joaquin Delta system, has been compromised. 

We've pretty much killed the San Joaquin River, not to mention, the demise of the King River, the Tulare Basin, and Colorado River, which no longer even flows to the Sea of Cortez, which has led to the near extinction of myriad species. (A
nd has severely impacted the fishing industries.)

There is no longer a Mojave River, thanks to LA's Silverlake Dam (it siphons water from Northern California too). From there,
Northern California's water is shipped to Lake Perris and onto San Diego as well. 

And this unregulated water usage at the detriment of California's vast ecosystems is not just a Central Valley issue. On the back side of the Sierras, Owens Lake is no more, thanks to LA/San Fernando Valley, also responsible for Mono Lake's shrinking water surface. The Owens River is no more, LA/San Fernando Valley waterworks killed off the agriculture. Mulholland, et al, turned  the lush Owens Valley INTO a desert. Now that's ironic.

About the Damn Dams
CA has a thousand major reservoirs, many are flood control dams —Wiki

As to those few dams from the 1900s, that are being decommissioned, most are not even water storage dams, but outdated, inefficient hydroelectric dams no longer in use, and the water is not used for irrigation, etc. The dams are also silted up. Not to mention, old. As in cracked. To repair those Klamath hydro-electric dams, and add fish ladders would cost more than to tear them down. Of course, Stewart froths on about how it's a crime against humanity.

The Klamath is a mighty river, and those four hydroelectric dams should never have been constructed in the first place. The dams destroyed the massive chinook and coho salmon, steelhead (and rainbow trout) runs. Just like Klamath Falls, Oregon. Vast waterways were destroyed for "hydroelectricity." (But it was also the era of wilful destruction of native cultures. Destroy their food source. Destroy them. Don't call it genocide.)

Also, a minor detail, is Stewart even aware that all the good dam sites are taken up. Where does he suggest we put these new proposed dams? Or the crackpot suggestion to raise the height of Shasta Dam? There seem to be people living out there. Oh well...

Stewart never addresses the real problem, that we've outgrown and stripped our resources. (And the era of free federal funds for large dam projects is gone.) It's not about the evil Endangered Species Act, it's not about stupid smelt vs. the farmer.

I won't mention that we need those smaller fish to survive in order to feed the bigger fish, and that includes oceangoing salmon. And we've pretty much destroyed most of the salmon runs in California with a plethora of inefficient dams—especially those defunct hydro-electric dams slated for demolition.

Stewart states: "As a result [of the smelt?], nearly a million acres of the most fertile farmland in the world have been taken out of production, orchards are being bulldozed."

Most of those fallen orchards Stewart laments the loss of, are of recent vintage, and should never have been planted in the first place. Has he driven down I-5 lately and seen where speculative agri-farmers planting these orchards? On dry hillsides with thin soil. Are we talking of small farmers here, or agribusiness?

Pistachio and almond orchards are being planted in unprecedented numbers because they yield a much higher monetary return than, say, growing local food. (California nuts (the edible kind) are not primarily sold in California, but to the rest of the world, including Turkey, and the UAE).

Let's look at those pricey pistachios (one of California's top-ten crops): In 2012, a drought year, a record pistachio crop of over 550 million pounds (249,930 metric tons) was harvested, as compared to 1976 where 1.5 million pounds (680 tons) was gleaned. The average pistachio yield in 1982 was "1,468 pounds per acre," which ballooned to over "3,806 pounds per acre in 2010.... California comprises 99% of the total [US pistachio harvest] with over 294,000 acres planted in  22 counties."

The "annual “farm gate value” of pistachios represents more than $1.6 billion to the California economy..." That's after costs have been deducted. (American Pistachios) We grow enough pistachios to feed the entire world. And we do. And pistachios take water. Let's see, at $12 a pound,  250,000 metric tons is 551,155,655 pounds x 12 =  $6,613,867,860. It's not easy being green.

Now let's look at almonds (California's second largest agricultural commodity). "California produces 82% of the globe's almonds, harvesting 800,000 acres of the tree nut across a 400-mile stretch from northern Tehama County to southern Kern County" [read: dry desert land]. And "About 70% of California's almonds are sold overseas" [mostly to China], and "...the state will harvest its third-largest crop this year [2015] at 1.85 billion pounds" [down from 1.88 billion in 2014].

"That's more than three times what the state was producing in the late 1990s." Or  to put it into another perspective, that's "... twice as much almond acreage in California as there was two decades ago..."  (LA Times, 2015). Oh, and almonds are an extremely thirsty crop, more so than cotton. When I computed raw almonds @ $10 per pound x 1.85 billion pounds = ? Google answered with a smartass answer: what does a trillion dollars look like? No wonder almonds and pistachios are so green. And I don't mean that in a good way.
“The governor’s executive order said to the agricultural sector that it must only submit ‘plans’ for future drought,” he explains. But while the industry makes up only two percent of the state's economy, " agriculture is responsible for 80 percent … of all the water that’s used here in California." Hertsgaard has found that some of the biggest farmers of pistachios, almonds and walnuts, known as “thirsty crops,” are actually expanding operations and reaping record profits. At the core of the problem is the water pricing system in California, Hertsgaard says. Experts say water is still relatively inexpensive, so more of it is being used more than necessary.   —Agriculture is thriving in bone-dry California, and that's not a good thing (PRI 2015)
Most of the bulldozed nut orchards Stewart is referring to, were planted in the dry southern portion of the state within the past 20 years—where sagebrush, artemesia, and opuntia normally thrive. (Then there's the water-hungry alfalfa equation, hay being sold, not to our dairy industry, but to China and the UAE because of, well, for enormous profits...just like those greeny pistachios and almonds.)

According to California Agricultural Production Statistics, our number one agricultural commodity is milk? And we're selling all our hay ($1.3 billion's worth) down the Yangtzee River? What about the happy California cows? (See Saudi Arabia buying up [drought-stricken] farmland in US Southwest.. to grow alfalfa hay). (Jan, 2016).

It's a good thing that grapes are our third largest agricultural commodity. It's enough to drive you to drink. The cows, too.

I have not derailed. Yet. We were talking about smelt vs. water earlier, and something in Stewart's loose leaf argument sure is beginning to smell fishy. The center does not hold.

Much of the southern Central Valley is desert because we've already dammed and removed the major water sources. We've destroyed massive riparian ecosystems. Saving more water for crops in marginal farmlands won't reverse the desertification process once its begun.

The entire Central Valley was one vast marshy ecosystem/wetland: 16,000 square miles, one of the largest wetland ecosystem on the west coast of North America. All gone now. Twelve of the 29 native fish species are gone, smelt are endangered. Smelt are a major food source for other fish and marine animals.

What the hell is a smelt?
The Delta smelt, Hypomesus transpacificus, found in the Sacramento Delta, is a major food source for salmon, striped bass and lake trout. Like salmon, many species are anadromous, living most of their lives in the sea, but traveling into fresh water to breed. —Wiki
"The tiny delta smelt is a bigger deal than you think.... In the case of the delta, we're talking about a once-magnificent place that is in serious trouble. It is 16,000 square miles of wetland and open water -- the West Coast's largest estuary -- and the end point of about 40% of California's precipitation. When the Spanish arrived centuries ago, it was teeming with fish, crawling with bears and beavers, its skies periodically darkened with migrating birds."  (It's small, but it's a keeper - latimes, 2007

"The tiny delta smelt is one of the best indicators of environmental conditions in the San Francisco Bay-Delta, an ecologically important estuary that is a major hub for California's water system — and an ecosystem that is now rapidly unraveling." (Delta smelt - Center for Biological Diversity).

A smelt is an indicator species.

I agree that water needs to go back into the water table, and I don't mean by fracking. Agribusiness has already siphoned significant amounts of artesian water from the ground. Much of the Central Valley has sunken from 12 to 28 feet within the past five years.

"A spot near Corcoran, in the Tulare basin, sank 13 inches in an eight-month period" and "...UC Davis said farmers are pumping an additional 6 million acre-feet of groundwater this year, compared to 2011, the year before the drought started...." (SacBee, 2015, Central Valley sinking fast in drought, NASA study shows).

Garry Hayes, a professor of geology at Modesto Junior College, said, "The sucking of the water in the underground aquifers may be the worst part of all. Hard to replace, if ever, and yet running short too. There aren't a lot of good choices into the future."

Does Stewart think that we can ever undo that kind of colossal damage? Pump the compacted soil back up so it can again store water? Those collapsed aquifers will never, ever be replenished, as the ground has sunk. So the repercussions of the latest drought, in this case, are forever.

Ditto that process of over-taxing our water resources and destroyying ecosystems on the back side of the Sierras. Owens Lake, drained dry to supply LA, is an alkali sump. Ditto Mono Lake—we've diverted its fresh water supply too. When the wind blows, the air is toxic with alkali dust. Silicosis has become a chronic health issue for folks living there. (The Eternal Dustbowl, L.A. Weekly, 2006)

The amount of alkali dust billowing over Mono Lake the other day was like a vast white curtain, a death shroud that stings the eyes and irritated the nose and lungs. But I digress.

Owens Lake (10 x 17.5 miles long) held a significant amount of water until 1913, when most of the Owens River was diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Now it's the largest single source of dust pollution in the U.S. Image from the International Space StationWiki
And that rampant disregard for, and destruction of our water resources continues, with Nestlé pumping vast amounts of water out of Southern California which it sells right back to you, courtesy of the BLM. Crystal Geyser and Nestlé are siphoning off trillions gallons of Southern California water on public lands (pretty much for free), and then selling it back to us at a dollar a pint. So, do you buy bottled water? It too, is part of the problem.

"Nestlé is draining California aquifers, from Sacramento alone taking 80 million gallons annually. Nestlé then sells the people's water back to them at great profit under many dozen brand names." (Nestle Continues Stealing World's Water During Drought 2015). And in the San Bernardino National Forest (read; Mojave Desert), a similar scenario is unfolding: that's 24,820,000 gallons a year that Nestlé bottles—for free. 

Nestlé should not be allowed to remove our public water with little to no oversight from the BLM, its siphoning off 705 million gallons of water per year from California’s groundwater water supply. "If the Forest Service renews Nestlé’s San Bernardino permit, it would not just be a catastrophe for California, but for the whole country -- because it creates a precedent that even in times of scarcity, corporations have a right to profit from our most precious shared resources." Sign the petition here: (SumofUs)

And Nestlé isn't the only water czar.

Calistoga based Crystal Geyser is mining whatever little water that would otherwise replenish Owens Lake, and bottling it as well. "According to the Inyo County Planning Department, Crystal Geyser would extract water from three existing on-site wells in the shallow aquifer up to 360 acre feet per year." That's something like 117,306,515 gallons a year. (Crystal Geyser plans bottling plant expansion, 2012).

And like Nestlé, Crystal Geyser is mining more Northern California water as well, in Shasta County. "Residents whose homes and wells border the Mount Shasta plant worry that Crystal Geyser’s facility could leave them dry, and contend that some wells ran low when Coca-Cola was pumping there." It also raised an ethical question: "Should bottlers be able to pump unlimited amounts of water for sale during a drought?" (Resident group files suit over Mount Shasta water bottling plant, La TImes, 2015).

Mono Lake, alkali duststorm (due to the low lake level), Earth Day, 4/22/2016
Water conservation begins at home. It's not about farmers, or our drinking water vs. the little fish. That's a red herring. There's money to be had. And a lot of it. It ain't easy being green.

As H. L. Menken said, "Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong." Now he was one smart feller.

Almonds or apricots are not the main water guzzlers. Alfalfa, used to feed the cows, is. So, dairy/beef is our biggest agricultural water user.

What percentage of California’s water is used by agriculture?
  • 80% based on the developed water supply 
  • 52%: based on the total water supply of a dry year 
  • 29% based on the total water supply of a wet year   
—Blaine Hanson Department of Land, Air and Water Resources University of California, Davis
  It's not an Us vs Them (agribusiness, fracking) vs (consumers) equation.

We all eat food, we drive cars, All of us here, in California, almost 40,000,000 of us—we ARE the problem. Deferring blame to the farmer (or the smelt) is not the answer. Yes, we need to kick Nestle's buttnuts, and ban fracking, and quit driving cars, but I'm rather fond of eating. Not willing to give it up. The farmer is the man.

So, I'll save every drop of water I can. Because I can.
More links:

The Race to Buy Up the World's Water - Newsweek
Draining California - The New American
List of dams and reservoirs in California
California drought: Why doesn't California build big dams any more?
California built many of the world's most ambitious dam projects during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, but a large state- or federally-funded reservoir hasn't been built in 35 years. Experts say there are a confluence of factors, from environmental laws to funding to a lack of suitable sites. ...nearly all of the best sites are already taken. California has more than 1,400 dams. Most of its major rivers, like the Sacramento and San Joaquin, already have dams on them. and...easy money to build large projects dried up.aid Ron Stork, with Friends of the River.
"All the good dam sites are taken and the water is already diverted," he said. "Voters are being misled if they think they are going to get a meaningful amount of water out of new dams."
Indeed, California has given out legal rights to five times as much water as rain and snow produce in average years, according to a new study by UC Merced. Since 1914, the state has given out rights to 370 million acre-feet, when a typical year of precipitation only provides about 70 million acre-feet to lakes, streams and rivers.
"We're kind of in big trouble," said Joshua Viers, a UC Merced scientist.

Largest reservoirs in California by year built, with reservoir size, dam height and location:
Shasta: (1945) 4.5 million acre feet - 521 feet - Shasta County
Oroville: (1968) 3.5 million acre feet - 742 feet - Butte County
Trinity: (1962) 2.4 million acre feet - 458 feet - Trinity County
New Melones: (1979) - 2.4 million acre feet - 578 feet - Calaveras County
San Luis: (1967) 2 million acre feet - 305 feet - Merced County
Don Pedro: (1971) 2 million acre feet - 568 feet - Tuolumne County
Berryessa: (1957) 1.6 million acre feet - 255 feet - Napa County
Almanor: (1927) 1.3 million acre feet - 130 feet - Plumas County
New Exchequer: (1967) 1 million acre feet - 479 feet - Mariposa County
Folsom: (1956) 1 million acre feet - 275 feet - Sacramento County

A must-read on water wars: The New “Water Barons”: Wall Street Mega-Banks are Buying up the World’s Water (2012)

Robert Lee Haycock reminded me about Sausalito's Bay Model (we used to go there for field trips): In the late 1940s, John Reber proposed to build two large dams in the San Francisco Bay as a way to provide a more reliable water supply to residents and farms and to connect local communities. In 1953, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed a detailed study of the so-called Reber Plan. The Bay Model was constructed in 1957 to study the plan. The tests proved that the plan was not viable, and the Reber Plan was scuttled. The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta portion was added to the model in 1966-1969 to provide information for studies concerning impacts of the deepening of navigation channels, realignment of Delta channels (via a Peripheral Canal), and various flow arrangements on water quality.  —Wiki

see also my  Droughtful Musings (9/15)

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