Fac­ing the drought’s chal­lenges

Wa­ter ex­perts ad­dress is­sues con­fronting the state and of­fer pos­si­ble so­lu­tions amid the short­age.

Los Angeles Times - - THE STATE - By Rong-Gong Lin II ron.lin@la­times.com

A panel of wa­ter ex­perts mapped out the chal­lenges Cal­i­for­nia faces in meet­ing fu­ture de­mands for wa­ter at a time when wa­ter sources are un­der stress and sup­plies ap­pear un­cer­tain.

The panel, speak­ing at the Los An­ge­les Times book club, agreed the prob­lems are se­ri­ous and mul­ti­fac­eted: ground­wa­ter re­serves un­der­neath Cal­i­for­nia’s Cen­tral Val­ley are es­ti­mated to have been de­pleted by 125 mil­lion acre-feet since the first wells were drilled more than a cen­tury ago and as wa­ter de­mand is fore­cast to out­strip sup­ply com­ing from the Colorado River in the com­ing decades.

“What we’re re­ally look­ing at is about a 20% prob­lem of our sup­ply be­ing lost to cli­mate change and over de­mand, and that’s huge,” said Jeff Kightlinger, gen­eral manager of the Metropoli­tan Wa­ter Dis­trict of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, at a dis­cus­sion of the book “Cadil­lac Desert,” by Marc Reis­ner.

Among some of the chal­lenges Cal­i­for­nia is set to face, ex­perts said at a panel dis­cus­sion Sun­day mod­er­ated by Los An­ge­les Times Pub­lisher Austin Beut­ner at the city’s Hype­r­ion Treat­ment Plant: Un­sus­tain­able use of ground­wa­ter

Wa­ter lev­els are get­ting lower un­der­ground, some wells are go­ing dry, there’s a need to drill even deeper wells, and Cal­i­for­nia un­til last year had no reg­u­la­tions on ground­wa­ter pump­ing, said David Hayes, for­mer deputy sec­re­tary at the In­te­rior Depart­ment un­der Pres­i­dents Clin­ton and Obama. “We’re clearly pump­ing un­sus­tain­ably, and it will be a while be­fore that law fully kicks in,” Hayes said. Pump­ing river wa­ter through a sick delta

South­ern Cal­i­for­nia gets a huge por­tion of wa­ter by turn­ing on gi­ant pumps that cause one of the state’s largest rivers, the San Joaquin, to f low ar­ti­fi­cially back­ward in an en­vi­ron­men­tally sen­si­tive delta. “That cre­ates all sorts of chal­lenges to the en­dan­gered species, with fish, mi­gra­tions,” Kightlinger said.

There’s a po­ten­tial so­lu­tion: Build­ing tun­nels that would al­low wa­ter to be pumped from the wa­ter-rich Sacra­mento River around the delta, in­stead of through it, said Mike Sweeney, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy in Cal­i­for­nia.

But how big do you make it? Big enough to get wa­ter down south dur­ing years of floods? Would that give South­ern Cal­i­for­nia an ex­cuse just to take all the wa­ter it can even dur­ing dry years?

“North­ern Cal­i­for­ni­ans don’t trust you guys,” Hayes said to laugh­ter. “And with some good rea­son.” Less flex­i­bil­ity on farms dur­ing droughts

Up un­til 15 years ago, it was eas­ier for the Metropoli­tan Wa­ter Dis­trict to pay farm­ers to leave their fields fal­low dur­ing droughts so cities could use the wa­ter.

Not any­more. Cal­i­for­nia’s farm­ers have in­creas­ingly fo­cused on lu­cra­tive al­monds, wal­nuts and pis­ta­chios as other crops got cheaper af­ter the pas­sage of the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment. But almond trees need to be wa­tered all the time and don’t of­fer the f lex­i­bil­ity of row crops where fields can be left fal­low dur­ing dry years.

“That has greatly tight­ened our de­mand on wa­ter,” Kightlinger said. “It’s one of the rea­sons why this drought is so dif­fi­cult to deal with, be­cause there is very lit­tle f lex­i­bil­ity now within

our wa­ter sys­tem.” Cli­mate change has given the state a less re­li­able sup­ply of wa­ter

A key source of sta­bil­ity to Cal­i­for­nia’s wa­ter sup­ply in the last cen­tury was the snow­pack.

It stores pre­cip­i­ta­tion as ice in the moun­tains, melt­ing slowly through the sum­mer, giv­ing the cities wa­ter at a com­fort­able pace in- stead of at f lash-f lood speeds in the win­ter.

“That snow­pack is go­ing away,” Hayes said. It will be dif­fi­cult to fig­ure out how to store that pre­cip­i­ta­tion if it comes down as rain in­stead

of snow. The eco­nomics of what’s the most ben­e­fi­cial use of Cal­i­for­nia’s wa­ter

Does it make sense to send cheap crops abroad if the wa­ter used to grow them could be put to bet­ter use in Cal­i­for­nia? Should there be a dis­cus­sion of what types of crops should be planted? Per­haps, “but that’s a big, big pol­icy change. Right now, in Cal­i­for­nia and in the United States, we don’t tell folks what they can or can­not plant,” Hayes said.

Still, there is a pos­si­ble prece­dent. In Cal­i­for­nia, it took years for a law to be passed re­quir­ing res­i­den­tial de­vel­op­ers to prove that they would have a wa­ter sup­ply. “It’s not much of a leap from there to call on farm­ers to show if they’re go­ing to change crop pat­terns and use more wa­ter that they’ve got a wa­ter source. I’m not sug­gest­ing that, I’m just point­ing that out,” Hayes said.

There could be other ways to get farm­ers to think more about be­ing more wa­ter ef­fi­cient, Hayes said, such as state of­fi­cials shar­ing in­for­ma­tion with them on what the most wa­ter-ef­fi­cient farms are do­ing.

Robert Gau­thier Los An­ge­les Times

DE­CLIN­ING WA­TER lev­els are ev­i­dent at Cas­taic Lake. The reser­voir, which holds sup­plies from North­ern Cal­i­for­nia that have been slashed amid the drought, is the end of the west branch of the State Wa­ter Project.

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