Home > Choke Point: Index > Central Valley > California’s Lingering Drought and Pollution Defy Solutions
FRESNO COUNTY, California — In the early morning between Los Angeles and Sacramento on Interstate 5 – before unbroken streams of semis crowd the highway, and tractors begin clawing the dry earth, the world is calm.
The dawn interlude, a quiet medley of things seemingly natural, is deceiving. The telling clue is a winding canal that meanders, without a riffle, past sprawling farms and small towns, feedlots and processing plants that mark the plain of California’s Central Valley. The canal’s concrete banks are bounded by chain-link fences and occasionally punctuated by large pumping stations that push the manmade river uphill, not down.
For almost a century, water providers and food producers in California have engaged in one of history’s most ambitious industrial enterprises focused on one objective – moving water where it won’t go on its own. California’s 80-year-old system of canals – the State Water Project and the federally-financed Central Valley Water Project — stitch together an audacious hydrological network comprising 1,200 miles of aqueducts, canals and pipelines. Collectively, both systems are capable of annually delivering from distant Sierra Nevada snowfields and streams about 11 million acre feet – 3.6 trillion gallons – of water for agricultural, municipal and industrial use.
The consequences of tapping, piping and pumping water from one end of the state, where it originates, to the other end, where it is used principally to irrigate the planet’s most valuable harvest, have been studied for decades. But as climate change alters California’s moisture trends, and older challenges like groundwater pollution go unaddressed, the need to better understand the state’s intersecting trends in water use have never been more urgent.
State water supply authorities anticipate that actual water deliveries will be far less than the maximum, as they have been in other droughts. For example, in 2008, another exceedingly dry year, both systems only managed to deliver about 4.5 million acre feet to water users, or 41 percent of the system’s capacity.
The 2014 drought portends big trouble for California. Water delivered by the two transport networks irrigates roughly 3.75 million acres and just over 40 percent of the state’s nearly 82,000 farms. In addition, the supply network satisfies the thirst of other industries, notably the oil industry of the southwest San Joaquin Valley, as well as 24 million of California’s 38 million residents, most of whom live in southern California.
On Friday, prompted by a severe and lingering drought that made 2013 the driest calendar year ever, and nearly three weeks of equally severe drought this month, California Governor Jerry Brown formally declared a public drought emergency. He called the dire dry conditions “perhaps the worst drought that California has ever seen.”
The list of challenges is growing:
- According to the state Department of Water Resources, California has experienced nine bouts of large-scale, multi-year drought since the beginning of the 20th century. But even for California, the depth of the current drought is exceptional. In 2013, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, and several other major cities across the state shattered previous records for lowest precipitation since record keeping began 164 years ago.
- The snowpack of the High Sierra that supplies the system is declining because of the warming, and drying climate. This year has proven to be especially dry. As of January 1, the state’s snowpack stood at a meager 20 percent of average. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, nearly the entire state is in a state of “severe” or “extreme” drought.
- Under current warming and drying trends, the state Department of Water Resources has predicted that the snowpack will be reduced by a quarter by the end of the century. That, in turn, could lead to a 17 percent increase in groundwater pumping from the Central Valley. If that scenario occurs, 2.12 million more acre-feet of water, or 690.8 billion gallons, will be pumped to the surface, prompting an increase in energy use (and water consumption) to run the pumps. (An acre-foot, the amount of water it takes to flood an acre of land in a foot of water, is approximately 326,000 gallons or 1,234 cubic meters.)
- The Water Resources Department predicts disruptions as often in one in every three years as water levels in the northern California reservoirs fall to “dead pool,” in which water is too low to be released into the canal network.
- West and south, out of the mountains and onto the plains, wasteful farm practices and lower water supplies are draining the life from fisheries in California’s San Joaquin Delta, east of San Francisco.
- Further south, the state’s Central Valley has become a great dumping ground for industrial and agricultural toxins – pesticides, fertilizers and other forms of industrial waste contaminate municipal and private wells with nitrates. Today, tens of thousands of people across the valley — most of them living in poor and politically disconnected towns — rely on groundwater that contains contaminants that exceed state limits and is dangerous to use for drinking and bathing. The agriculture sector, though, is reluctant to limit its use of pesticides and fertilizers, viewing them as a mainstay in California’s $44 billion farm economy.
- The threats to drinking water extend beyond the state’s agricultural regions. A February report from the State Water Resources Control Board identified 31 principal contaminants, including arsenic, uranium, perchlorate and pesticide residues in groundwater serving 21 million Californians.
- A new project meant to ensure a more stable supply of water to farmers and to wildlife, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, is in the proposal stage. But its cost, complexity, and environmental risks in an era of economic austerity pose serious political challenge to its construction.
- California’s state Water Plan, which is updated every five years, calls for water conservation to anticipate and respond to shortages, though the cumulative effect is not reducing demand sufficiently to secure the state’s water supply.
California, in sum, is being buffeted by cross-cutting trends in water supply and demand that are growing more complex, more expensive, and much harder to resolve.
“We’ve built a massive set of water infrastructure in the state and that has brought benefits to many, many different water users,” says Peter Gleick, president of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, a premier water research group. (Circle of Blue is a Pacific Institute affiliate.) “But relying on infrastructure and engineering solutions is not going to solve California’s 21st century water problems. There are few places to build big, new projects. We have a better understanding now of their true, economic, environmental and social costs. And frankly, there’s just no more unspoken for water in the state.”
The First Drops Start In North?
If there is a starting point for California’s water supply challenge it begins in the erratic snowfall of the Sierra Nevada, which form a high wall 150 miles east of the Pacific. A decade ago, the canal network routinely transported 12.3 million acre-feet from north to south annually. But that volume has dwindled by 12 percent, according to state figures.
From the Sierras, the diminishing supplies of water reach the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, east of San Francisco, the great tidal estuary formed at the place the state’s two longest rivers, the Sacramento and San Joaquin, end – and where the state’s two largest manmade rivers, the California Aqueduct and Delta Mendota Canal, begin.
Once a vast expanse of tidal marshlands covering 1,600 square miles, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has been reduced to a highly engineered and straitjacketed system. As the intensity of agriculture and industry in the Central Valley ratcheted up, the sinuous meanders of natural rivers were straightened to ease the passage of large cargo ships, which today haul fruits, vegetables and other raw materials out of the Central Valley to San Francisco Bay and points around the globe.
Levees were built to encourage the conversion of the wetlands to cropland. They also prevented spring flooding. A century of re-engineering and heavy farming has taken its toll. Without the spring flooding from the Sacramento and San Joaquin to replenish organic material in the southern Delta’s characteristic peat soils, the ground dries, disintegrates and collapses; in some places in the Delta the ground has sunk to 15 feet below sea level.
As the Delta subsides, the levees holding back the ocean also sink. And with rising sea level, the threat of saltwater intrusion from San Francisco Bay increases. The worry is that the sea could overtop the levees, saturating the Delta farmland in salt, and overwhelming the pumps that pull water from the Delta and transfer it into the great concrete arteries that deliver water to points south. And because the Delta is the source of the bulk of the state’s exported water to southern California, what happens here has repercussions far outside the region.
To reduce the risks posed to this tremendously complex and vulnerable system, the state has proposed a massive new engineering scheme called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, or BDCP. Backed enthusiastically by Gov. Brown, the centerpieces of the $23 billion plan are massive tunnels capable of shunting as much as 9,000 cubic feet (67,000 gallons) of fresh water per second toward the aqueducts from further up the Sacramento River rather from the pumps in the Delta.
This, state officials say, would not only improve water quality for downstream users but help to achieve the “co-equal” goal of restoring the Delta’s ailing aquatic ecosystems. “I think any biologist familiar with the Delta would tell you that more freshwater through the Delta won’t be enough in and of itself to ‘restore’ the ecosystem, though it could have ecological benefits,” wrote Nancy Vogel, a spokesperson for the Department of Water Resources. “[But] changing how water is diverted from the Delta also may have environmental benefits.”
Many residents in the northern part of the state, however, see the project as an appeasement of wealthy and politically powerful interests in the southern part of the state. They also call it a plan for ruination of the Delta, and for damaging the communities and farms scattered across the low-lying pastoral landscape.
Meanwhile, the semi-arid reaches of the Central Valley south of the Delta, dry landscapes remade with northern water, are also suffering.
Pumps That Drive Water Uphill
One of the big engines of California’s elaborate water delivery system is the Banks Pumping Plant. Found on a winding back road under the wind turbine-stippled hills of Altamont Pass, 249 feet above sea level, the rectangular building is tucked into a ravine under the triangular summit of Mt. Diablo.
Jim Odom oversees the plant. A stout man with a jovial laugh and sleek sunglasses perched on his baseball hat, Odom began as a maintenance worker at the pumping plant in the 1980s and worked his way up to his current job as the plant’s supervisor.
The Banks plant, he explains, lifts water 250 vertical feet, by way of the plant’s powerful pumps, from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta into the California Aqueduct. Within this 450-mile long concrete artery, water is delivered to farms, industries and cities to the south. When the aqueduct hits the Tehachapi Mountains at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, the water is again lifted, this time nearly 2,000 feet by the Edmonston Pumping Plant, up and over the hills and into the Los Angeles basin.
“The State Water Project has enhanced California,” Odom says. “There’s some debate about how it needs to be managed. But the state wouldn’t be the same with out it.”
Powerful as it is, the Banks Pumping Plant is just one of the hydrological engines that transports water south. Another is the Tracy Pumping Plant, operated next door by the federal Bureau of Reclamation and the starting point of the Delta-Mendota Canal, which runs parallel to the California Aqueduct. The two plants and the water they pump supply millions of acres of irrigated farmland and 24 million Californians with drinking water.
But that water supply engine is faltering. In the time since Banks came online in the early 1960s, the state’s population has grown dramatically, from 15 million to 38 million. The amount of irrigated cropland statewide has nearly doubled, from 4.7 million acres in 1929, three years before construction began on the Central Valley Project, to over 11 million acres in 2007.
Because of climate variations, reductions in water supply and pumping have changed the nature of Odom’s job significantly, he says, forcing the plant to respond rapidly to changing water availability. The ups and downs in water deliveries mean that the pumps must be started up and shut down frequently. “It’s a little harder on equipment because it’s not made to stop and start all the time,” he says. “But if they say start up three or four units, we do it. If they say, stop one, or two, we do it, too. We do what the folks in Sacramento tell us.”
Of Subsidence and Salt
Tracing the aqueduct and its water supply south, from the Banks plant into the great dry sweeps of the Central Valley, is to enter an industrial agricultural landscape utterly transformed.
Westlands Water District, west of Fresno, is the poster child of California’s remaking through brute-force water engineering. Home to some of the state’s wealthiest and most politically connected farmers, Westlands has used its pull to compensate for its dearth of natural rainfall.
Today the district commands more imported water than any single agricultural district in the U.S., with farmers holding contracts for about 1.2 million acre-feet of water from the Central Valley Project – a volume large enough to inundate Delaware in a foot of water.
But Westlands is showing signs of strain under several years of severe statewide drought. Over the last three years, the district’s allocations have been cut by 40, 60, and 90 percent respectively.
Dan Errotabere’s family has farmed here, in the arid western reaches of Westlands, since leaving the Basque region of Spain in the 1920s. Before the Central Valley Project came online in the 1930s, most of the farms in this dry area were small, no more than 160 acres, and completely reliant on groundwater, he says. But the Central Valley Project changed all that.
The rectilinear rows of Errotabere’s farm – 6000 acres of garlic, chickpeas, onions, cotton, lettuce and almonds – are well beyond the dimensions most Americans associate with a family farm. The scale of the enterprise is one of necessity, he says. “This is not a cheap investment out here. You can’t be a forty acre guy or a mom and pop cattle outfit,” he says. “The farms out here work on economies of scale.”
The bone-dry farm has been plowed into arrow-straight rows by huge tillers. The only hints of green that are visible are shoots of “volunteer” chickpeas along the road’s edge. He explains that he obsessively keeps the soil free of weeds in order to conserve small but important volumes of water.
Errotabere bends down and scrapes a little dirt from one of the rows, revealing a bulb of garlic underneath. Between the seed rows, thin strips of black drip tape run through shallow furrows. The tape is part of the elaborate water-saving technology being employed across the farm, which he says has cut the water demands for this particular parcel in half.
In spite of efforts toward greater efficiency, water is still in dangerously short supply. Water reductions, he says, force him to heavily tap groundwater and take roughly one-fifth of his land out of production.
Gayle Holman, a spokesperson for Westlands Water District, says this proportion is below average for the district. So far this year, about one third of the district’s 600,000 acres have been fallowed (though a sizable proportion of this land has been fallowed due to soil salinization).
Moreover, Errotabere says 60 percent to 70 percent of his water this year has come from aquifers, with the rest supplied via the Central Valley Project. “Our water table is dropping and we have to keep lowering our wells,” he says. “I haven’t seen subsidence yet but that may be coming.”
Statistics on groundwater overdraft are difficult to come by, since California is one of the few states in the U.S. that does not monitor groundwater usage. However, a recent study from the University of California at Irvine found that from 2003 and 2010 the Central Valley aquifer – the second most pumped aquifer in the U.S. after the Ogallala – lost a volume equivalent to the capacity of Lake Mead, on the Colorado River near Las Vegas. Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States.
Throughout the valley, subsidence due to unchecked groundwater pumping is a major issue – in some places the land has subsided by more than 20 feet. “Continued groundwater depletion at this rate may well be unsustainable,” states the report, “with potentially dire consequences for the economic and food security of the United States.”
Another serious problem of tapping groundwater in this part of the San Joaquin Valley is salinity. Unlike groundwater pumped in other parts of the valley, water drawn from its western edge tends to be highly saline, on average between four and 13 times saltier than water taken from the aqueduct, according to a district report.
Errotabere points to the effect of reduced water deliveries to the local economy. “Farming is the economic fabric,” Errotabere says, explaining that he sells his tomatoes, garlic, chickpeas and onions to processing plants along the Interstate 5 corridor. “If I don’t get my water, they don’t run.”
And yet, at least in the short run, the lack of water and reduced acreage has not been met with a commensurate loss of revenue for Westlands farmers. According to a 2011 Pacific Institute study that examines the economic effects of the 2007 and 2009 drought, crop yields remained steady even though fallowed acreage more than doubled, from just over 46,000 acres in 2000 to 122,000 acres in 2009.
In the same period, overall revenues increased, from $1.27 billion to $1.49 billion, suggesting that when faced with water shortages California’s farmers can be innovative in developing water-conserving production practices.
But it may still not be enough.
Do Westlands farmers need to downsize in order to adapt to what seems to be the “new normal” of reduced deliveries? Errotabere rejects that notion. “That might work for organic farms in Sonoma. But that’s not the model here,” he says.
Low-Income Residents Supplied With Toxic Drinking Water
In Kettleman City, half an hour south of Dan Errotabere’s farm, Maricella Mares-Allatore, an environmental activist with the Bay Area environmental group Greenaction, considers another outcome of groundwater use and management in the Central Valley.
She sits in the local Starbucks and sips black coffee brewed with the town’s water, which comes from its aquifer. The irony is somewhat diabolical.
Kettleman’s groundwater is contaminated with arsenic at an average of 12.5 parts per billion (and as high as 16 ppb), in excess of the state limit of 10 ppb. Arsenic enters drinking water supplies from natural deposits in the earth or from agricultural and industrial practices, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And yet, a river of cleaner water from the Delta flows through the middle of town in the concrete confines of the California Aqueduct.
A warning that hangs at the Kettleman City Post Office sends a confusing message: “You don’t have to use an alternative (e.g., bottled water) supply,” the flyer reads. Yet an information sheet on arsenic from the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment suggests that long-term ingestion of arsenic at levels below the legal limit have been shown to increase risk of certain kinds of cancer.
Mares-Alatorre holds a manila folder. Inside is a flyer with images of five babies of Kettleman City parents who were born between 2008 and 2009. Each of the children show the distinct scars of cleft palates.
Residents of Kettleman City have contended with an array of pollution sources for decades, including pesticide drift, diesel emissions, and oil drilling wastes. One of the nation’s largest hazardous waste dumps, operated by Waste Management, a Houston-based company, is located here. Every year it accepts tens of thousands of tons of PCBs, asbestos, oil wastes and pesticides.
The city briefly entered the national spotlight in 2010, when the California Department of Public Health identified 11 Kettleman children born between 2007 and 2008 with chromosomal birth defects – including heart defects, cleft palate and club foot. In spite of the myriad of pollution sources, the state Department of Public Health could not identify a single cause for the spike in birth defects, citing the small population and multiple causes as confounding factors.
But the disfigured babies continue to symbolize the serious anxieties in this community of 1,500 – the vast majority of whom are farm workers living at or below the federal poverty line.
The health risks also animate Mares-Alatorre’s push for clean water. Right now a controversial proposal is in the works to fix the town’s water system. Waste Management has offered to pay off the water system’s $552,000 debt, which would allow the town to secure $8 million in state funding needed to install a plant to draw and treat drinking water from the California Aqueduct.
In exchange, Waste Management wants to expand its toxic waste landfill in town.
The proposal has fostered a lively conversation about risks and benefits. “Of course we want clean water to bathe our children in and to drink,” says Mares-Alatorre. “But at what price? Should we have to allow another major source of pollution into town in order to get it?”
On the opposite side of the valley from Kettleman City, dozens of small farm communities near Visalia also are dealing with contaminated groundwater – in these cases from years of over-application of fertilizers and pesticides. The problem is particularly acute in dozens of small, unincorporated towns – many of which are home to large populations of farmworkers and are served by rudimentary water systems.
The water systems tap into aquifers contaminated with nitrates, a constituent of of synthetic fertilizer and manure, and other agricultural contaminants. A 2012 report from the University of California at Davis found that 254,000 people in the Salinas Valley and Tulare Basin, two major agricultural regions, are at risk of nitrate contamination. Of the nitrates seeping into the Central Valley’s groundwater, a full 96 percent comes from the region’s croplands, the report found.
According to Peter Weyer, associate director of the University of Iowa’s Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, nitrates are often seen as an indicator of “overall” water quality – and high levels can indicate the presence of other microbial or organic contaminants. “The problems can go way beyond nitrate in places where there is inadequate filtration,” Weyer says.
Nitrates are particularly serious problems for infants. At high enough concentrations they can cause methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby syndrome,” a condition in which an infant’s red blood cells are incapable of transporting oxygen. In adults, long-term exposure to nitrates can lead to the formation of carcinogenic compounds called nitrosamines, believed to contribute to elevate the likelihood of various forms of cancer.
So extensive and vast is the groundwater contamination that there is little hope for “cleaning” up the Central Valley’s aquifers, says Thomas Harter, an author of the UC Davis report. “There is nothing we can do that will solve this issue for them on the source side anytime soon. This is the water quality they will have for decades to come,” says Harter. “Even if we got rid of all the contamination sources tomorrow, it’s going to be decades before this mess is cleaned up. To think we’re going to remediate this problem away is the wrong path.”
One town, Seville, is located along the base of the Sierra foothills. There, local activist Becky Quintana has been pushing state and local officials to address the severe problems of the town’s water system, which is located beside a sprawling orange orchard.
From the pumps, a small array of coupled plastic pipes run through the middle of an irrigation ditch. This, Quintana says, is the town’s water main. When the ditch is full of irrigation water in summer, she says, the pipe is often submerged.
Irrigation water, unfiltered and loaded with dirt, debris and other contaminants can enter the water main through the rickety couplings. She says a neighbor once had a tadpole wriggle out of her kitchen tap. “We hear mixed messages,” says Quintana. “Sometimes the water district will tell us to boil the water, to get rid of the bacteria. But if you boil the water you concentrate the nitrates.” As a result, many people in these towns are spending upwards of $100 a month on bottled water – an expense most residents of these impoverished communities can ill-afford.
Though groundwater contamination has been a lingering political issue in California at least since the 1980s, the state has been slow to act. Quintana’s group, the Committee for a Better Seville, part of a larger coalition, la Asociación de Gente Unida por el Agua (the Association of People United for Water), have pressed state and local representatives for years to do something to reduce the threats.
Last year the community groups won passage of AB 685, the Human Right to Water Bill, an amendment to the state water code, which declares that “every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.”
The ambitiously worded bill is modeled on a similar United Nations resolution passed in 2010, and adopted by 122 nations (the U.S. was one of 41 countries to abstain). But, just as with previous legislative and regulatory steps to reduce farm chemical contamination and make groundwater safe, when it comes to actual regulatory teeth to change the patterns of water consumption and engineering in the valley, AB 685 is of questionable practical effectiveness.
AB 685 does not force state agencies to ensure clean water, but to merely consider the water as a human right when “revising, adopting, or establishing policies, regulations, and grant criteria” that affect water used for domestic purposes.
A good illustration of the law’s weak regulatory potency is its applicability to the massive water-engineering project of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Even if the project were to go forward as conceived, it seems there is little chance the project, designed specifically to ship cleaner water south, will ever reach the poor and clean water-deprived communities of the valley.
“AB 685 does not apply to the Bay Delta Conservation Plan,” wrote Nancy Vogel, of the Department of Water Resources. “BDCP is a habitat conservation plan under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and a natural community conservation plan under state law. [Therefore] there is no obligation created by AB 685 for the BDCP to solve problems outside its focus on species and habitat.”
Still, proponents such as Laurel Firestone, executive director of the Visalia-based Community Water Center, say the bill is a step toward addressing long-standing public health concerns. “AB 685 is very significant in creating a priority and focus at the state level. State agencies now have to consider drinking water more explicitly in their decision-making. That’s huge,” she says. “It’s made people look and see the disparities around drinking water across the state.”
In the meantime, state and federal agencies say they are committing financial resources and technical assistance to helping these communities address long-standing problems. According to the California Department of Public Health, efforts are ongoing in both Kettleman City and Seville, such as providing $50,000 to Kettleman residents from the state’s clean drinking water bond fund to purchase bottled water until a permanent solution is found. In November, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it had awarded $174 million in funds to the state to “control water pollution and provide low-cost loans for both drinking water and wastewater infrastructure upgrades.”
John Borkovich, the manager of the state’s Groundwater Ambient Monitoring and Assessment program, says one possible solution is delivering safer water to communities by blending contaminated groundwater with cleaner water piped in from elsewhere. “There are some communities that have the means to blend with a cleaner water source and deliver water that does not exceed the maximum contamination levels,” says Borkovich. “But there are many other communities that can’t do this. So they either need help with a remediation system or to obtain another water source that is safe to drink.”
Just how long it will take to complete the large infrastructure projects required to bring clean water to isolated communities is unclear. Promises have been made and broken before, says Mares-Alatorre, and the poor people of the Central Valley have become accustomed to being at the back of the line when it comes to access to California’s increasingly scarce freshwater supplies. “People in Kettleman City assume that the state doesn’t care about them, that they’re on their own when it comes to water,” says Mares-Alatorre. “But that doesn’t mean we won’t keep fighting for what’s right.”