California Legislature Destroys Incentive to Achieve Water Resiliency

The California State Water Board is currently drafting the regulations needed to implement Senate Bill 1157, which is possibly the most misguided, unnecessary, intrusive, expensive disaster of a law ever passed by the state legislature.

Passed and signed by Governor Newsom in 2022, SB 1147 requires California’s water agencies to limit residential indoor water use to 47 gallons per person per day starting in 2025 and 42 gallons in 2030. The theme promoted by the State Water Board as they conduct hearings and solicit public comments is “Making Water Conservation a Way of Life.” Rationing would be a more apt description of what’s coming for California’s households.

It isn’t as if conservation hasn’t been a way of life in California for decades. Despite the state’s population growing to over 39 million today, total urban water consumption in the state has been falling each year since the mid-1990s. At just over 7 million acre feet per year in 2022, urban water consumption hasn’t been this low since 1985, when the population of the state was only 26 million.

As California’s water bureaucrats move towards implementing SB 1157, the officially stated goal is to reduce total urban consumption by 400,000 acre feet per year by 2030. Put into the perspective of California’s total water withdrawals per year, this is very small potatoes. Diversions for agriculture average 30 million acre feet per year, more than four times the urban use, and diversions — captured rainfall that is released from reservoirs during the summer and fall — to maintain ecosystem health range between 20 million acre feet in dry years to over 60 million acre feet in wet years. A 400,000 acre foot reduction in urban water consumption represents barely more than one-half of one percent of the amount of water California diverts and manages even in its driest years.

For the uninitiated, SRIA stands for “Standardized Regulatory Impact Assessment,” an analysis that is required for any proposed state regulation that may have an economic impact exceeding $50 million. In March 2023, the State Water Resources Control Board submitted a SRIA to the California Department of Finance. It evaluated the impact of conservation mandates on more than 400 cities and water agencies, and concluded that over the period from 2025 through 2040, the financial impact would be a net benefit of $1.2 billion.

But despite weighing in at an impressive 186 pages, this study is flawed. For example, consumers (with subsidies from water agencies) will have to purchase high-efficiency toilets and washers at an estimated total cost of $1 billion. If only 10 million of California’s 13 million households had to purchase these upgraded appliances, that would be $100 per household, not nearly enough. Yet the “benefit” to residential suppliers is estimated at $5 billion. How? Recouping capital investments and paying overhead constitute most of a municipal water bill, and water agencies under this regulation will have to help subsidize consumer purchases, install dual meters to measure indoor vs outdoor water use, hire more staff to monitor and enforce use restrictions, and meanwhile, continue to upgrade their facilities to cope with, for example, PFAS contaminants. Then they have to spread these fixed costs and additional costs over fewer units of water sold to their ratepayers. Where is this $5 billion in “savings” to consumers going to come from?

Independent experts agree that the SRIA was flawed. Last month, MESA Water District completed a review of the State Water Resources Control Board’s SRIA, and tore it apart. With respect to the overestimated benefits of these regulations, MESA stated (1) “It significantly overstates supplier variable production costs and appears to double count these costs,” (2) it bases its estimates of avoided water production cost primarily on wholesale water rates even though these rates embed a sizable portion of fixed costs which in the long run are not avoidable, and (3) “it mistakes the underlying causes for escalating wholesale water rates and consequently overstates the rate at which truly avoidable costs will escalate in the future.”

With respect to the underestimated costs of these regulations, MESA writes (1) “It uses constant unit costs for conservation measures despite assuming a rapid and massive ramp-up of these programs in the first five years of the regulation,” (2) “it underestimates customer costs by ignoring the time-value-of-money costs of shifting future expenditures closer to the present,” (3) it underestimates the costs of mixed use meter to dedicated irrigation meter conversions by only counting the initial installation and inspection costs and ignoring the annual maintenance, billing, and meter replacement costs,” and (4) it grossly underestimates the costs of program creation and reporting as well as the costs to implement the new ‘Best Management Practices’ for commercial, industrial and institutional customers.”

All told, the MESA analysis estimates a net cost of $7.4 billion. For 400,000 acre feet per year of water.

The cost of water rationing isn’t merely felt financially. Imagine having to report how many people live in your home in order to qualify for your 42 gallon per person per day water allocation. Imagine having to justify your “outdoor water budget” in order to keep your outdoor landscaping healthy. It is not necessary to put ourselves through this. Cost-effective supply-side solutions are plentiful. In the water season that just ended in California, over 25 million acre feet of water passed through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and out to the Pacific. This is more than twice what is required for the health of Delta ecosystems, and if that water had been stored it would have offered enough supplemental supply to withstand several years of drought.

There are many ways to store this water that fulfill reasonable environmentalist concerns. For example, channels cut into Delta islands can have gravity-fed French Drains that move water without harming fish. Feasibility studies indicate that a 200 acre site could move 15,000 acre feet per day during storms, and this water could be stored in vacant underground aquifers that are, just in the San Joaquin Valley, estimated to have a capacity of 75 million acre feet.

Other ways to realize massive increases in urban water supplies were described in detail last year in a study released by the prestigious Pacific Institute. They estimated that just through capturing urban runoff, up to 3 million acre feet could be stored each year, and that by recycling urban waste water, capturing another 2 million acre feet per year is possible. Even if these figures are optimistic, they accurately identify two additional paths to water abundance that are necessary investments anyway. Harvesting rainfall through daylighting streams and diversions into aquifers will prevent flooding and will help mitigate toxic runoff from urban surfaces. Recycling and reusing urban wastewater will eliminate the nitrogen pollution still present in treated outfall. Other options to increase water supply are additional reservoirs (SitesTemperance FlatPachecoShasta enlargement, etc.), as well as desalination. There are plenty of ways to achieve water abundance in California.

Abundance and resilience are synonymous. Water rationing will not achieve the resilience that Californians are going to need in the future, whether it’s to adapt to prolonged droughts and bomb cyclones, or to cope with other potential disruptions to a precarious network of pipelines, pumping stations, and aqueducts. Precisely the opposite policy should be California’s legislative priority.

Water agencies need to be incentivized to increase their supply capacity, not reduce it to a fragile minimum that lacks any margin for error.

This article originally appeared in the California Globe.

California Bureaucrats Embrace Water Rationing

On October 4 the California State Water Board held a hearing to discuss how it will implement Senate Bill 1157, passed by the state legislature in 2022, which lowers indoor water-use standards to 47 gallons per person starting in 2025 and 42 gallons in 2030. The title of the hearing was “Making Water Conservation a Way of Life.”  Rationing would be a more apt term for what’s coming for California’s households.

It isn’t as if conservation hasn’t been a way of life in California for decades. Despite the growth of the state’s population to over 39 million today, total urban water consumption in the state has been falling each year since the mid 1990s. At just over 7 million acre-feet (MAF) per year in 2022, urban water consumption hasn’t been this low since 1985, when the population of the state was only 26 million.

That’s not enough, however, for California’s water bureaucrats, and the environmentalist organizations they answer to. As they move toward implementing S.B. 1157, their officially stated goal is to reduce total urban consumption by 400,000 acre-feet per year by 2030. Put into the perspective of California’s total water withdrawals per year, this is small potatoes. Diversions for agriculture average 30 MAF per year, more than four times the urban use, and diversions — captured rainfall that is released from reservoirs during the summer and fall — to maintain ecosystem health range between 20 MAF in dry years to over 60 MAF in wet years. A reduction of 400,000 acre-feet in urban water consumption represents barely more than one-half of 1 percent of the amount of water California diverts and manages even in its driest years.

To implement such a massively intrusive regime of rationing for such a meager result is perhaps a textbook example of diminishing returns. Anyone living in California, or visiting from out of state, has seen evidence of what has already been done. Faucets in commercial buildings and airports that squirt out barely enough water to get your hands wet and automatically turn off before you’ve rinsed away the soap. Washing machines that use almost no water, violently tossing and damaging delicate clothing, taking hours to complete a cycle, and requiring multiple cycles to get clothes clean. Dishwashers so ineffective that dishes have to be hand washed prior to being loaded into the dishwasher. Flow restrictors on shower heads that make it impossible to rinse shampoo out of long hair. Yet according to the state legislature, these measures don’t go far enough.

Next on the list are lawns, and by extension, trees. It is a fact, perhaps willfully ignored by environmental activists masquerading as responsible investigative journalists, that when lawns are allowed to die, the mature trees growing on those lawns also die, because the root system is adapted to surface watering. And what’s the matter with lawns, anyway? According to the U.S. Department of Energy, turf lawns are on average 30 degrees cooler than asphalt and can be as much as 40 degrees cooler than artificial turf. Lawns not only lower the urban heat-island effect, they absorb runoff during storms to reduce flooding and recharge aquifers. As for toxic fertilizers, widely applied to lawns, these can be regulated or restricted. But instead, California’s legislature is banning lawns on commercial properties. Expect water agencies, faced with draconian mandates to reduce their supply, to impose similar bans on homeowners.

None of this is necessary. California’s original water plan, written in 1957, called for an eventual statewide system capable of delivering 40 MAF to farms each year, and 10 million acre feet to cities. As it has turned out, what they envisioned was never completed, but it is nonetheless the most remarkable system of interbasin water transfers in the world, delivering around 30 MAF per year to California’s farmers and around 7 million acre feet to the cities. Compared to the magnificent projects completed in the 1950s and 1960s, it would not take much additional investment to bring the total for cities back up to 9 million acre feet, which is where it was in the 1990s.

Skeptics will point out that California may be experiencing more severe droughts, but they will also acknowledge that there will in some years be winters such as the one we just lived through, where the entire state is inundated with prolonged and heavy rains. In the water season just ended in California, over 25 MAF of water passed through the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta and out to the Pacific. This is easily more than twice what is required for the health of delta ecosystems, and if that water had been stored it would have offered enough supplemental supply to easily withstand several years of drought. There are many ways to store this water that fulfill reasonable environmentalist sensibilities.

For example, channels cut into delta islands can have gravity-fed French drains that move water without harming fish. Engineering studies indicate that a 200-acre site could move 15,000 acre-feet per day during storms, and this water could be stored in vacant underground aquifers that are, just in the San Joaquin Valley alone, conservatively estimated to have a capacity of 75 MAF.

Other proposals also offer large-scale solutions to achieve water abundance. In a 2022 study, the Pacific Institute estimated that just through capturing urban runoff, up to 3 MAF could be stored each year, and that by recycling urban wastewater, capturing another 2 MAF per year is possible. And despite environmentalist objections, desalinating water from the Pacific Ocean has the potential to augment other local sources and render California’s massive southern coastal cities completely independent of imported water.

One of the trump cards wielded by environmentalists who want to ration California’s water is the connection between water and energy. They’re not wrong about the connection, but they overstate the problem. While energy is required to heat, treat, recycle, desalinate, and pump water, most of that energy is used for water heating. Overall, about 20 percent of California’s total energy consumption is allocated to water operations, but 80 percent of that is for heating. To put this in perspective, consider desalination, which is the next most energy-intensive water operation. Desalinating 1 million acre-feet of water per year would require a 400-megawatt input. That represents a 1.25 percent increase in California’s total electricity consumption, which in 2022 averaged 32 gigawatts. If California goes electric, something the state legislature is also determined to accomplish, they’ll have to find around 100 gigawatts, and allocating enough to desalinate a whopping million acre-feet of ocean water per year would require less than one-half of 1 percent of that.

Californians who are serious about climate change, unless they’re completely dominated by special interests and environmentalist extremists, need to take away the state’s many regulatory barriers to nuclear power and lobby the federal government to do likewise. They need to consider a more reasonable all-of-the-above approach to energy development, utilizing their abundant reserves of natural gas and oil, and commit to achieving energy abundance, which is a prerequisite to water abundance. As it is, the California legislature is doing the opposite.

What is being put in place today in California is a misguided set of laws that are removing the incentive for water agencies to invest in more water supplies. These laws will actually fine water agencies if they deliver too much water to their urban customers. To achieve the resilience that Californians are going to need in the future, whether it’s to adapt to prolonged droughts or to cope with other potential disruptions to a precarious network of pipelines, pumping stations, and aqueducts, precisely the opposite policy should be California’s legislative priority. Water agencies need to be incentivized to increase their supply capacity, not reduce it to a fragile minimum that lacks any margin for error.

An entirely new mentality must inform California’s voters and policy-makers, one that rejects rationing and embraces abundance. It is out of character for Californians, blessed with an innovative culture that inspires the world, to impose extreme restrictions on their residents. Water is life. Having as much as we need, affordable and abundant, is a goal that is achievable and sustainable. It’s time for Californians to reject extremist mandates and restore the quality of life that is in keeping with their heritage.

This article originally appeared in the National Review.

Saving the Salton Sea

The Salton Sea has been called the biggest environmental disaster in California’s history. Formed in 1905 when a canal diverting water from the Colorado River to farms in the Imperial Valley breached during heavy rains, barely a century later the lake is drying up. How to save the Salton Sea, or at the least, how to manage its decline, is a confounding challenge.

At first almost everything about the newly formed Salton Sea was good. The canals were fixed, a process that took nearly two years, and Southern Californians found themselves with 350 square miles of freshwater lake where previously there had been nothing but desert. Into this new wonderland came entrepreneurs, stocking the lake with fish and building plush resorts for fishing and boating only a few hours from Los Angeles. During its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, resorts along the lake boasted yacht clubs, golf courses, and entertainment venues that drew top celebrities.

All the while, a catastrophe was brewing. The Salton Sea is located within the Salton Sink, a basin straddling the San Andreas fault. With an average elevation 250 feet below sea level, there is no outlet to the ocean for the water. The lake is large but shallow, and even at its greatest volume never held more than around 7.5 million acre-feet (MAF) of water. As it happens to be located in California’s lower Colorado Desert, a place of blistering heat more than half the year, the estimated annual losses from evaporation are roughly 1.3 MAF. It doesn’t take an environmental hydrologist to see where that leads. All runoff has some salt, picked up from the soil. When there is no outlet, salt accumulates since fresh water perpetually evaporates. Dissolved salts and every other introduced contaminant will stay in the sea.

For several decades, it didn’t matter. The salinity gradually increased, but fish and wildlife continued to thrive. The Salton Sea was adopted by migratory birds as a vital stop-off point on the Pacific Flyway, and runoff from irrigated Imperial Valley agriculture, flowing downhill into the lake, maintained the lake volume. But starting around 2000, after decades of warnings from lake watchers, the Salton Sea’s decline became acute.

To begin with, the salinity in the lake finally reached toxic proportions. Current salinity in the Salton Sea is 60 parts per thousand, not quite twice what is normal in the ocean, and nearing the point where the lake will die completely, joining the Great Salt Lake and the Dead Sea as host to nothing living apart from bacteria and some resilient strains of algae. Worse, at least for humans living near the Salton Sea, starting in 2003 the farmers in the Imperial Valley began selling some of their irrigation water to California’s coastal cities and using their remaining allocations far more efficiently. Consequently, instead of around 1.3 MAF of agricultural runoff going into the sea each year to replace evaporative losses, only about half that much has gone in. And all along, the agricultural runoff deposited not only salt but traces of fertilizer and pesticide, which have now accumulated to levels toxic to wildlife.

Estimates vary, and occasional rains have temporarily reversed the trend, but at present the total volume of the Salton Sea is down to about 4.5 MAF, a roughly 40 percent decline from its peak. Simply letting the lake dry up might seem like a rational solution, since before man intervened back in 1905, there was no lake. But the region has changed over the past 120 years: The Coachella Valley, northwest of the lake, is now home to over 370,000 people. If the lake bed becomes exposed, so too will the concentrated salts and every leached toxin and introduced ag chemical that ever ran out of the Imperial Valley. When the Santa Ana winds blow hard enough, toxic dust will fill the air from Bombay Beach — essentially a lakeside ghost town, home to a handful of eccentrics — to downtown Los Angeles.

There is no easy fix, and doing nothing is not an option. Exactly what to do calls into question the viability of California’s governing model in the 21st century. Certainly if the people running California in 1950 had the technology we have today and faced this problem, within ten years the problem would have been solved.

Here’s what would happen today under more decisive governance:

It is less than 100 miles from the shores of Camp Pendleton, federally owned land along the Pacific, to the western edge of the Salton Sea. In a water project guaranteed to restore the Salton Sea, a pipe would be laid connecting the Pacific Ocean to it, and because the pipe would terminate at an elevation 250 feet lower than where it originated, there would be no energy requirement: Gravity would be enough. Ocean water at a salinity of 35 parts per thousand — far lower than the Salton Sea’s — would then flow into the Salton Sea at the rate of 750,000 acre-feet per year, which, combined with agricultural runoff from the Imperial Valley, would maintain the lake at its desired “historic” level. If the 250-foot drop in elevation were engineered adequately, it is even possible that several hundred megawatts of baseload electric power could be generated by running the flow through turbines.

At the same time, the agricultural runoff would be cleaned using reverse-osmosis filtration, sending fresh, clean water into the Salton Sea. If necessary, water already in the Salton Sea could be withdrawn and also filtered, ensuring the desired level of salinity in perpetuity. Because reverse osmosis, at most, requires only about 400 megawatts of input per million acre-feet of purified water per year, power harvested from the Pacific Ocean pipe could be sufficient to treat the agricultural runoff with enough power left over to also treat 250,000 acre-feet per year of water in the Salton Sea. The comparable drop in elevation from the Imperial Valley to the Salton Sea might also enable engineers to generate electricity from that water transfer.

Conceiving a plan like this — ambitious but possible — is how Californians thought about problems back in the 1950s and 1960s. With 21st-century sensibilities would come more extensive mitigation measures. For example, the intake pipes could be put well offshore and dispersed to draw water that could filter down to intakes buried under the seabed, engineered in a manner that would all but eliminate any impact on marine life. These features would add cost, but the extra costs would be affordable, because — if, again, we imagine a mid-20th-century approach to the plan — the projects would get done. They wouldn’t be mired in litigation and continuous reengineering and endless compromises, costing additional billions of dollars and taking decades to resolve. Like the great reservoirs, aqueducts, and pumping stations constructed in the last century, these projects would take years instead of decades, and the money would be spent on construction labor and materials, instead of attorneys, bureaucrats, and bankers.

Now imagine the reverse: If the politicians and political culture of today’s California were in place in 1950, nothing would have been built. We would have no state water project, no freeways, and no reliable power. We live today on the capital investments made by people whose like no longer have a seat at the table, much less call the shots.

This fact bears emphasis. Before discussing what solutions are actually being put forth to save the Salton Sea, it’s important to emphasize just how dysfunctional California’s governing elite has become. Gridlock and the exploitation by special interests of regulations and opportunities for litigation have made it impossible for the state to do anything big. The most monumental project the state has undertaken this century is so-called high-speed rail, planned to eventually link the state’s northern and southern megacities. “Eventually” is the key word. Every time the project releases an update, the price tag rises. The first 171-mile segment, linking Merced to Bakersfield — i.e., in the flattest, most rural portion of the entire planned line — is now estimated to cost $35 billion, that is, over $200 million per mile. More than ten years and ten billion dollars after construction ostensibly began, not one single piece of track has been laid. This is governance in California. This is Gavin Newsom’s legacy. This is a fiasco on a scale so huge it defies description.

Only in this context can the convoluted compromises that constitute Salton Sea restoration proposals be properly evaluated. There are sources of money. A lot of money. Already, state and federal sources have committed over a half billion dollars to Salton Sea restoration, with much more possible. And private-sector funds could be forthcoming.

Earlier this year, Controlled Thermal Resources, a geothermal-power developer, announced that its planned 1.1-gigawatt geothermal plant would also extract 300,000 tons of lithium carbonate from the Salton Sea’s geothermal brine each year. If this plant goes into full production, it and subsequent facilities may generate the energy, and the wealth, needed to fund restoration efforts. But it’s way too soon to pop open the champagne. The technology is not proven, and local tribes and environmentalists have concerns. Can direct lithium extraction be done without causing more harm than good? Will political support for green power overcome objections from the usual suspects?

In December 2022, Brent Haddad, a UC Santa Cruz professor of environmental studies, and Robert Glennon, a University of Arizona law professor, who participated in the State of California’s Salton Sea independent review panel, published a summary of ways to save the Salton Sea. Reflecting the most recent recommendations to the panel, most of them propose to maintain the lake in its shrunken state or allow it to shrink down further to a size that can be supported by what remains of agricultural runoff and occasional natural runoff. The centerpiece of their plan is a desalination plant that “would remove 200 million gallons of high-salinity water daily from the Salton Sea and produce 100 million gallons per day of desalinated water, which would be returned to the Salton Sea.”

These authors, and the panel they were part of, may be commended for coming up with a big idea. Desalinating 100 million gallons per day is twice the capacity of California’s one and only large desalination plant, the Carlsbad plant in San Diego, which desalinates 50 million gallons per day. Haddad and Glennon are proposing to desalinate and return to the Salton Sea 112,000 acre-feet per year, which means the entire 4.5 MAF volume of the lake would be turned over every 40 years. Assuming this project ever gets built, it’s a good start. But what about the exposed seabed around the shrinking lake? What about the agricultural runoff? What about the brine?

To handle a shrinking lake, the plan is to “stabilize the exposed playa [lake bed]” by plowing furrows and planting vegetation. The plan for the brine is to dry it out in evaporation ponds and transfer “dried salts from the ponds to landfills or industrial uses.” It isn’t clear how agricultural runoff would be treated, apart from the possibility that runoff could be channeled directly into the desalination plant for pretreatment before going into the lake. But that would require an even bigger desalination plant. Good!

Proposals to draw water from the Sea of Cortez or the California coast were both dismissed as impractical. But the authors, the panel, the legislators, and the activists who want to save the Salton Sea must face a bleak reality: There is no plan that involves any major infrastructure that will not be controversial and costly. The compromise plan put forward — let the lake shrink, purify the water with a massive land-based desalination plant, and mitigate the exposed playa with furrows and vegetation — is projected to cost $63 billion. Sixty-three billion. Why?

Even at today’s California prices, a coastal desalination plant the size of two Carlsbads would cost “only” about $2 billion. A pipeline traversing the land from Camp Pendleton to the Salton Sea might cost an estimated $10 billion (of course, that’s before the litigators and regulators get involved), and would generate, not consume, electricity. A sensible solution would be to disburse the brine in the Pacific Ocean, but if there’s a land-based solution for brine disposal, put the desalination plant at the receiving end. How did these planners come up with their cost estimate? Where do all those billions and billions of dollars go?

Ultimately, the chances that anything significant will ever be done to save the Salton Sea are remote. Not because it is such a challenging undertaking — though it is — but because the culture that might have moved forward decisively to build the big infrastructure it’s going to take to solve the problem is long gone. Californians feel this every day as they pay punitive prices for rationed water, rationed energy, and insufficient housing. This abuse is sold as necessary “to save the earth” while benefitting politically connected special interests. Soon, every time the Santa Ana winds blow across the tainted bed of what used to be the Salton Sea, millions of Southern Californians are going to feel even more acutely the consequences of small thinking and gridlock masquerading as virtue.

This article originally appeared in the National Review.

Harvesting the Rain

It never rains in California
But girl, don’t they warn ya?
It pours, man, it pours
–  It Never Rains in Southern California, by Albert Hammond, 1972

Anyone who has experienced traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway coming to a halt as torrential rain floods the lanes, pelting the windshield with drops so big and so plentiful that visibility is reduced to a few feet, knows the truth of Albert Hammond’s iconic hit. It doesn’t rain very often along the Southern California coast, but when those storms do come in, some of them are whoppers.

Nowadays, of course, we call them atmospheric rivers, an apt description. They originate in the tropical Pacific, where the warm ocean evaporates stupefying amounts of moisture. When a strong fast wind hits that airborne moisture just right, a few days later in faraway Los Angeles it will pour. And man, it pours. According to National Geographic, the average atmospheric river is about 500 miles wide and 1,200 miles long.

Some are much bigger, such as in the very wet winter of 2017, when an atmospheric river over 5,000 miles long dumped enough water to fill Lake Oroville in northern California to overflowing. The neglected spillway couldn’t handle the torrent that year and began to come apart, triggering the evacuation of 180,000 people.

In Los Angeles, where, in case you’ve been living on Mars, it poured like crazy this past winter, the phenomenon of atmospheric rivers is compounded by the tight geography of the watershed. From the 9,000 foot crest of the San Gabriel Mountains, an immovable object where rivers of rain make landfall, it is only 30 miles to the Long Beach Harbor, where the Los Angeles River meets the sea. There’s a reason the Los Angeles River was turned into a gigantic concrete culvert in a series of projects started in the 1930s and completed by 1960. Without that unobstructed channel, atmospheric rivers would routinely turn the City of Angels into a swamp.

Intermittent but ridiculously intense episodes of rain are California’s opportunity and curse. The curse is obvious. Even in California’s vast interior, where incoming storms hit the Sierra Nevada Mountains and are dispersed over a crest 430 miles long and descend through thousands of square miles of watershed, there are still disasters like the catastrophic levee break at Jones Island in 2004, or the near disaster at Lake Oroville in 2017. But in the packed coastal cities, there’s no margin for error.

The opportunity, however, is tantalizing. If Californians could somehow capture all this runoff, there would be abundant water in a state that has coped with chronic water shortages for several decades. A 2022 study by the Pacific Institute evaluated the opportunity to harvest storm runoff in California’s coastal cities. The authors concluded that California’s urban “stormwater capture potential is 580,000 AFY in a dry year to as much as 3.0 million AFY in a wet year.” The Pacific Institute based their estimates on the average amount of rainfall hitting California’s urban areas. But can engineers design systems to capture whatever the skies deliver?

Steve Sheldon, a director and former president of the Orange County Water District, used a metaphor to describe the challenge. “You can’t build a freeway with so many lanes that it is smooth flowing at 5 p.m. every day during rush hour,” he said, “it would be too big the rest of the time.” John Kennedy, OCWD’s executive director of engineering and water resources, was more explicit, saying “we would have to build billions of dollars of facilities that would only be used in very wet years.”

Kennedy emphasized how stormwater capture is very specific to each region, and in that regard, OCWD’s service area in the northern half of Orange County is fortunate. In an average year, they capture about 75,000 acre feet of baseflow from the Santa Ana River, in addition to harvesting another 55,000 acre feet of storm runoff.

So-called incidental percolation from rain contributes 60,000 acre feet per year to their groundwater basins, and the agency built the biggest water recycling plant on the West Coast, allowing it to reuse 130,000 acre feet of wastewater every year. With a total demand for water at 390,000 acre feet, OCWD only has to import 70,000 acre feet per year from the State Water Project, less than 20 percent.

Orange County also has the benefit of uncontaminated aquifers with an estimated storage capacity in excess of 60 million acre feet. The county is able to divert storm water into 1,500 acres of OCWD owned percolation ponds, where up to 2,500 acre feet per day will settle into underground aquifers. During heavy storm runoff this is only about 25 percent of what’s coming down the river, but it’s unlikely OCWD will be investing in more land for percolation ponds, considering they operate in some of the most densely populated, expensive real estate on Earth.

To capture more storm runoff, OCWD’s current approach is to create more opportunities for incidental percolation by encouraging conversion of impermeable surfaces to permeable surfaces. By doing this, the district estimates they can increase annual rainfall driven aquifer replenishment from 60,000 acre feet to 80,000 acre feet per year. This would lower their water importation requirement to 50,000 acre feet per year. If the California Coastal Commission had approved the proposed Huntington Beach desalination plant, which was designed to produce 55,000 acre feet of fresh water per year, northern Orange County would be completely independent of imported water.

For an urban area on the relatively arid Southern California coast to achieve water independence is an extraordinary feat. While desalination and wastewater recycling ought to be part of a diverse and resilient portfolio of water supply infrastructure investments, the big numbers are still found in what falls out of the sky. Which brings us back to Los Angeles County. Can enough megatonnage of atmospheric river rainfall be harvested to slake the thirst of this megapolis?

It’s a tough problem. Not only because these intermittent deluges deliver torrents that are barely contained in a 400 foot wide and 35 foot deep concrete culvert they still call the Los Angeles River. Also, because it’s not just how much water has to be processed, it’s what’s in the water. Consider this excerpt from Los Angeles Waterkeeper, “LA’s water watchdog,” describing what happens during a major storm:

“In Los Angeles, our concretized LA River and all its tributaries turn into the city’s largest sewer, carrying pesticides and herbicides from our homes, oils, and grease from our roads, heavy metals and other toxins from Los Angeles’ businesses, and trash, bacteria, and other contaminants from local communities straight into our waterways.”

That’s quite a spew. In Orange County, runoff travels over less mileage of contaminated surfaces on its way to aquifer storage, and those contaminants are filtered as they percolate, diluted within the aquifer, then treated again when pumped up for use. Many of the aquifers in the Los Angeles Basin, on the other hand, are contaminated.

Despite the additional challenges, Los Angeles County is systematically pursuing many of the same strategies as Orange County, but on a much larger scale. On average the county has successfully harvested 200,000 acre feet per year of stormwater, about 15 percent of the total demand. In this most recent and rather extraordinary rainy season, LA County Public Works estimated that stormwater capture at groundwater recharge facilities totaled over 500,000 acre feet.

At the same time the Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power has begun groundwater remediation with the ultimate goal of relying on these massive aquifers to store millions of acre feet of imported water, recycled wastewater and storm runoff. In the meantime, long-standing efforts are now accelerating to “unpave” the city, especially upstream where the runoff doesn’t hit as many surface contaminants.

The number of ways to increase the percentage of permeable surfaces in a city as big as Los Angeles is only limited by one’s imagination. Solid concrete driveways can be replaced with a durable combination of gravel and pavers. Underground culverts, surreptitious tributaries feeding the LA River can be “daylighted” and lined with plants that filter contaminants at the same time as the original pipe or concrete is replaced with gravel, allowing for percolation as well as runoff along the entire length.

Cisterns with permeable bottoms can be buried underground in parks. Fed by storm drains, they can fill up with storm runoff, then slowly empty as the water percolates. Along major watercourses, treatment wetlands and recharge basins can be integrated into neighborhood and regional parks.

It isn’t clear, even with all of this, whether or not Los Angeles can ever harvest all of its storm runoff, or, more to the point, can ever become water independent without relying on a combination of imported water and desalination. But over the next few decades, independence of imported water is exactly what they’re planning.

Through aggressive conservation programs, total water demand in Los Angeles County has dropped from nearly 2 million acre feet per year at its peak around 20 years ago to an estimated 1.35 million acre feet today. Bruce Reznik, executive director of the influential advocacy group LA Waterkeeper, claims additional conservation measures could bring total demand down to 1.12 million acre feet per year, a drop of another 17 percent. But where will the water come from?

Today, Los Angeles County already recycles 134,000 acre feet of wastewater per year, with plans to increase processing capacity to just over 500,000 acre feet. The county intends to double its stormwater harvesting to eventually average 270,000 acre feet per year. While most all of this stormwater is stored in aquifers, the county currently withdraws an additional 270,000 acre feet per year from aquifers through existing natural recharge.

The difference between total demand and the contributions from these various sources is made up for by imports from the State Water Project and the Colorado Aqueduct. Water imports into Los Angeles County have averaged around 800,000 acre feet per year in recent years, but with completion of planned projects and additional conservation those imports are projected to drop to well under 100,000 acre feet per year.

What California’s south coast cities are doing to achieve water independence is impressive, and stormwater capture is on track to become the primary source. In Orange County, between base-flow capture, storm-water capture and capture through natural percolation, 49 percent of their water comes from local rain. That total is estimated to increase to 54 percent. In Los Angeles County, harvesting local rain currently supplies 30 percent of their total demand, with that increasing to 48 percent when planned projects are completed.

There are obvious, life affirming synergies that come with many stormwater-harvesting projects. In South Los Angeles, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Park has a new turf soccer field that covers a filtration system that is fed by storm drains and directs water into an underground aquifer instead of straight to the river. Bringing back actual living grass playing fields – which percolate – instead of yet another toxic, fuming, volatilizing, plasticine heat-island generating outdoor rug, is a tremendous example of how retaining water and rewilding urban spaces are mutually reinforcing benefits.

These externalities point to a deeper question. When measured purely according to the value of the additional water captured, investments in stormwater harvesting quickly reach a point where, as Kennedy at OCWD put it, “the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.” But what if those investments are bringing the additional benefits of living systems that make a city a healthier and more alluring place for people and wildlife?

Positive externalities generate intriguing cost-benefit equations. How much is it worth to plant new green roofs on top of old concrete buildings? What about buildings designed strong enough to actually grow trees on their roofs? Notwithstanding how in Los Angeles those roofs would compete with helipads, swimming pools and the now ubiquitous solar panels, is the juice worth the squeeze?

In a provocative interview published in 2022 by the Yale School of the Environment, urban ecologist Eric Sanderson describes ways to “weave nature back into the urban fabric.” Sanderson’s ideas may be on the fringe of what is practical, but his concept is sound. Rewilding a city can introduce resiliency from storms and droughts, but also provides a deeper human benefit. Just like replacing concrete with mass timber, astroturf with grass, and underground culverts with daylighted streams, more nature, along with more nurturing architecture, are how cities become welcoming habitats instead of human warehouses.

The people designing the water future for California’s south coast cities are doing an impressive job, but they might wish to consider the positive externalities of surplus water. What if Los Angeles County planned to increase their water supply by 17 percent, instead of planning to reduce it by 17 percent? Both outcomes are well within the scope of feasibility, even if the more generous choice might cost more. But what is it worth, for example, to continue to use recycled wastewater to guarantee perennial flow in the Glendale Narrows?

It’s not just the kayakers who benefit. It’s the sightseeing public, the diners on the overlooking terraces, the grateful residents, the lucrative revitalized local culture. What is the economic and human benefit of creating a plethora of urban/wildland interfaces deep inside a city, using entirely artificial sources of water? How much water is actually lost, if after traversing the Narrows, this water finds its way back into spreading basins that double as birdwatching habitat? What if, in a prodigiously extravagant gesture, the entire Los Angeles River were to achieve perennial flow, all the way to the ocean, all year around?

Many of California’s most cherished natural assets are artifacts of human intervention. These managed gems can be enhanced, and new ones can be created, without attenuating the amenities that make life pleasant. It is not a zero sum game. It just depends on how you invest the money, how you design your monumental plumbing, how you harvest the pouring rain.

This article was originally published by the Pacific Research Institute.

The Fate of the Klamath Basin is the Fate of Rural America

The Klamath River is the biggest river in America that nobody’s ever heard of. Easily the largest river between the mighty Columbia on the Oregon–Washington border and the Sacramento–San Joaquin River, which drains California’s Central Valley, the Klamath watershed covers a whopping 12,000 square miles.

From its headwaters in southern Oregon, the Klamath runs south through high desert before bending west to traverse deep canyons in California’s coast ranges, eventually finding the ocean just south of Eureka. Historically, millions of salmon ran up the Klamath each year to spawn in the cool gravel beds of its upstream tributaries. Today these salmon populations are reduced to a small fraction of their historical numbers, and attempts to revive salmon populations on the Klamath have triggered a war for the watershed’s future.

On one side are environmentalists and state bureaucrats, who have brought to the battle unlimited funds for lawfare and punitive regulations. On the other side are farmers and ranchers who have operated for over a century in the region, attempting to survive on thin profit margins in an era of increased costs and the relentless regulatory assault on their ability to subsist.

To begin to understand the war for the future of the Klamath, one must recognize the differences between the upper and lower watersheds. They are distinct ecosystems with differing topography, geology, climate, water quality, and species. Historically, much of the water running down from headwaters in Oregon into the upper Klamath River never made it into the lower river and hence to the ocean. Instead, year after year during floods, runoff overflows the riverbanks and pours south into the Tule Basin, a vast wetland that straddles the border between southern Oregon and northeast California.

This all changed with the Klamath Project, a series of dams, canals, and levees constructed just over 100 years ago to reclaim rangeland and wetland for farming. In all, the project created over 200,000 acres of farmland. The rich soil and mild, high-altitude climate yield some of the finest-quality barley, alfalfa, oats, wheat, potatoes, onions, and garlic in the world. The centerpiece of the Klamath Project is the Link River Dam, which regulates the volume and downstream flow of the Upper Klamath Lake. And herein the conflicts begin, with farmers prioritizing diversions into the upper basin to irrigate their crops and maintain wildlife refuges, while also recharging aquifers, and environmentalists demanding that more water be allowed to flow downstream in hopes of a healthier aquatic ecosystem for salmon.

The farmers, lacking the financial resources of powerful environmentalist NGOs and state bureaucracies, have not been able to fund the army of consultants, academic experts, and litigators that would be necessary to effectively resist the state and federal edicts that redirect upper Klamath runoff downstream. But they nonetheless make a compelling case for themselves. It begins with the volume and quality of water they’re fighting over.

The topography of the upper Klamath was defined over the past half-million years, as volcanic eruptions generated lava flows that intersected the river, depositing phosphate-rich ash that leeches contaminants into the river to this day. This water has historically stayed mostly in the upper basin, where it is adequate for farm irrigation and the native fish species that are adapted to it. By channelizing the upper Klamath and sending most of the water downstream, the phosphate-rich water nourishes algae blooms that deplete the oxygen and harbor parasites, both of which are harmful to salmon.

Which brings us to the plans to remove four mid-river dams. Situated along a stretch of rapid drops in elevation, crisscrossed by lava flows, the J.C. Boyle, Copco No. 1, Copco No. 2, and Iron Gate Dams are positioned where the Klamath transitions from its upper to its lower watershed. After the Iron Gate Dam, the river runs unobstructed 193 miles to the Pacific Ocean.

If the dispute over water allocations in the upper Klamath is a slow and one-sided war of attrition, demolishing these dams — resulting in a radically transformed, free-flowing river — is the culmination of a bitter fight that has raged for over 20 years, and even now the outcome is not certain.

In November, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) granted a license to Klamath River Restoration Corporation (KRRC) to demolish the dams. Their original operator, PacifiCorp, had been looking for a way to get rid of them ever since being ordered by FERC in 2007 to install fish ladders on the “fish-killing” dams. Facing a cost to install fish ladders that would exceed the cost of removing the dams, PacifiCorp managed to avoid both by ceding control of the dams to KRRC, in a deal that shifted the estimated $450 million cost of dam removal to the taxpayers of California and Oregon.

Will Removing Four Dams Do More Harm Than Good?

Removing the four dams has some obvious attendant harms. Over 70,000 households purchasing cheap hydroelectric power from these dams will face much higher utility rates, as their power will now have to be imported from wind farms and coal-fueled power plants in Wyoming. The water stored behind these dams was used to maintain stable summer flows in the lower Klamath, and once they’re gone, environmentalists will call for more restrictions on water allocations for farmers upstream in order to reserve water in the Upper Klamath Reservoir for summer releases into the lower river.

But is using upstream water to maintain summer flows in the lower Klamath helpful? Environmentalists claim more water in the river is necessary to disrupt the parasites that live on the riverbanks and attack salmon. But farmers claim that less flow in the summer dries out the riverbanks and kills the parasites.

Anthony Intiso, a local businessman who filed a lawsuit in December 2022 to halt demolition of the dams, believes that removal will cause not only economic harm but environmental havoc. One of the primary arguments in Intiso’s case is that the State of California, by making use of Proposition 1 (2014) funds to help pay the demolition costs, is violating the terms of that measure, specifically that “no monies and no actions shall be used to adversely affect the values of a wild and scenic river.”

Intiso told me that in the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the dam removal — an 823-page monstrosity — “adverse effects are listed over 280 times.” There clearly are serious environmental impacts to removing dams this big. Congressman Doug LaMalfa, whose district encompasses the dams, said in a press release that, “at a minimum, there is 20 million cubic yards of sediment behind the four Klamath hydroelectric dams, some of it toxic. To put this in perspective, that is one dump truck load, every minute of every day for six years without stopping. If the federal government is wrong, as they were by 3 fold with the Condit Dam removal project, there could be triple on Klamath, more like 60 million cubic yards.”

The problem with this amount of fine sediment is not only that much of it may be contaminated with accumulated and naturally occurring phosphorus and nitrogen from the upper Klamath, but that as the dams come down and it is released into the river it will smother the gravel beds where salmon typically lay their eggs. It will take years if not decades to completely disperse this sediment, and meanwhile it will be incredibly destructive to all aquatic species in the river.

There are serious questions that have never been answered to the satisfaction of farmers, ranchers, other long-time residents, and wildlife biologists concerned about the entire Klamath watershed’s ecosystems. An anadromous species, salmon live in the ocean but must return to freshwater rivers to deposit their eggs in gravel streambeds. There isn’t strong evidence that salmon ever spawned further upstream than the Iron Gate Dam, because it is already nearly 200 miles upstream from the ocean, and because it is at the beginning of a series of sharp increases in elevation that salmon would most likely avoid. In fact, in what is clearly a denial of geologic history, part of the remediation project requires blasting a so-called voluntary passageway through natural volcanic barriers upstream from Iron Gate and created by prehistoric lava flows, just to enable salmon to swim further upstream.

Additional evidence that salmon have not spawned in the upper Klamath watershed is found in the presence of the redband trout, a species considered “outside the range of anadromy” (meaning it lives too far from the ocean to migrate downstream and back). This species may have evolved in the upper Klamath watershed after lava flows changed the hydrology of the river and made downstream migration impossible.

Another unanswered question is how the river may have functioned historically before the blocking levees were constructed early in the past century to prevent winter flood runoff from watering the Tule Basin. How much water from the upper Klamath was ever supposed to naturally reach the lower Klamath? And with so much emphasis on more water for the salmon downstream, how will the Tule Basin wetlands and aquifers avoid destruction, along with the farming economy?

Alternatives to Dam Removal on the Klamath River

From a topographic point of view, the dams on the Klamath River are just extensions of volcanic barriers and elevation shifts that already prevented salmon migration. The fact that “voluntary passageways” must be blasted through lava barriers on the river after the dams are removed ought to be a giveaway. The likely scenarios if the project proceeds — downstream, millions of tons of toxic sediment, and upstream, the destruction of farming but also wildlife refuges as more water is directed into the lower river to try to wash out that sediment — are hardly better environmental outcomes.

Instead of removing these dams, imagine what might be done with nearly $500 million (aside from simply saving it). There are more cost-effective mitigation projects that might help the salmon.

For example, on the aptly named Salmon River, a major tributary of the lower Klamath, banks could be regraded to restore the narrow channel that was lost in the devastating flooding of 1964. Some of the salmon decline can be traced to that event, which altered the tributary’s hydrology, making it wider and slower and hence warmer and less hospitable to salmon migrating to their spawning grounds.

Another approach would be to periodically restrict fishing and disperse the populations of seals and otters that prey on migrating salmon at the river’s mouth.

In general, focusing on the lower tributaries, which have always been the primary sites of salmon spawning, would be a far more productive use of resources. If the naturally occurring, nutrient-rich flow coming downstream from the upper Klamath is damaging the aquatic ecosystems, the solution isn’t to flush the river with even more flow from the upper Klamath. The solution is to limit the flow from the upper Klamath, using that water instead to recharge the aquifers, restore the wetlands, and in so doing preserve the farming economy in the Tule Basin. After all, historically, water was never reserved from the upper Klamath to send downstream to the lower Klamath. In fact when the upper Klamath reached even moderate flood stage, all the excess water flowed into the Tule Basin. That’s where it used to go, and that’s where it should stay.

Why Are Special Interests Determined to Demolish Dams on the Klamath?

This is perhaps the most difficult question of all. No reasonable observer would deny that sometimes it is appropriate to remove an old dam. But even if removing these dams on the Klamath does yield environmental benefits, it will take several decades and cost a staggering amount of money. So what’s really going on?

Richard Marshall, president of the Siskiyou County Water Users Association, expressed a sentiment I heard often when researching the matter. “The long-range liberal concept is people should be living in cities, where it is easier to service people,” he said. The goal is to “depopulate rural areas. We have a rural lifestyle, and there are people running our government today who think rural communities are outliers and everyone should be in cities where you can have central sewer and central water systems.”

When I spoke with him, Congressman LaMalfa echoed Marshall’s comments, lamenting the impact that extreme environmentalism is having on his district. “Farming, ranching, and hydroelectric are all industries being killed in Siskiyou, and environmental groups fundraise off this,” he said. “The leaders draw six-, seven-digit salaries to run these groups. People send $25 to some organization, then they have the stickers with the pandas on their cars, and they feel good.”

But they don’t always get it right, these environmentalist stewards. The misguided focus on saving salmon while disregarding other species within the Klamath watershed and inviting a cataclysmic disruption to the river that will likely wipe salmon out for years to come, the failure to recognize that in history the excess water in the upper Klamath never made it downstream but instead flooded the Tule Basin or that salmon never spawned in the upper watershed, the indifference to more effective solutions to help the salmon on the lower-basin tributaries, the disregard for the fact that responsibly managed cattle actually help ecosystem health: All this and more bespeaks a madness, a thoughtless momentum, a movement that has lost its balance and its integrity.

What’s happening in the Klamath Basin is far from unique. The fact that it is happening in a place where not only are the economic costs devastating, but the environmental benefits are dubious at best, should concern not just rural America but all of us.

This article originally appeared in the National Review.

Why California Insists on Wasting Its Scarce Water Supply

With the nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, drawn down to historic lows, the seven states that use water from the Colorado River have failed to agree on how to adapt to its dwindling flow. The impasse pits California against everyone else. If California’s political leaders had the political will, they could solve the problem for every member of the Colorado River Compact by developing infrastructure to use untapped sources of water. But to do that, the state Legislature would have to stand up to a powerful environmentalist lobby that views humans as parasites and demands rationing as the only acceptable policy.

Unlike anywhere else in the American Southwest, California can rely on so-called atmospheric rivers that saturate the state with enough rain to supply the state’s farms and cities with adequate water. Even in drought years, these storms blow in from the Pacific, hit the ramparts of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and dump tens of millions of acre-feet of runoff into the streams and rivers. Californians can, and must, agree on new infrastructure solutions that will safely harvest more of this water for human consumption.

The Colorado crisis underscores California’s grotesque failure to upgrade its water infrastructure for the 21st century. Since 1980, Californians have endured five droughts, and politicians are predicting worse in the future. With groundwater aquifers dangerously depleted and access to Colorado River water imperiled, rationing won’t be enough. It isn’t as if water abundance isn’t possible in California. The state’s 2021-22 water season recorded some of the lowest total precipitation ever. But in a single month, December 2021, well over 100 million acre-feet of rain fell during the one big storm that hit the state that year. If California had the capacity to capture more of that water, it would have been enough to supply full allocations to Golden State farmers and avoid rationing in cities. As it is, during this current water season, one of the wettest on record, politicians continue to warn Californians that “the drought isn’t over.”

There are two major projects that could unlock millions of acre-feet of new water for Californians. The first is to eliminate nutrient pollution in the San Francisco Bay, which feeds toxic algae blooms that kill aquatic life. The solution so far has been to dilute the nutrient loads in the bay by requiring massive diversions from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta—a little like flushing a toilet. But upgrading the urban wastewater-treatment facilities surrounding the bay would eliminate nutrient pollution, permitting more delta water to be directed to California’s farms and cities—a lot more water.

This rainy season started in October 2022. By the first day of spring, March 21, the net outflow (after pumping) from the delta into the bay was 11.6 million acre-feet but the state had only pumped 1 million acre-feet into the California Aqueduct, and the Federal Bureau of Reclamation had only pumped 826,000 acre-feet into the Delta-Mendota Canal. Despite record precipitation, the state had diverted only 13% of flood-level delta outflows into southbound aqueducts.

In late March and early April, as rain continued to pour in California and the biggest snowpack in decades began to melt, California’s water officials actually reduced pumping. Their reason? To protect endangered fish and maintain sufficient flow to flush out the nutrient pollution in the San Francisco Bay.

Even in a year with extraordinary rain and snow, California’s environmental extremists have done their utmost to prevent water managers from filling reservoirs, allow pumps to operate at capacity to fill the southbound aqueducts, and allow farmers to get their full water allocations so they can use runoff to irrigate instead of pumping already depleted groundwater. But even if California’s state government weren’t dominated by extremists, California’s water infrastructure would be stretched to the limit.

The second major project, then, would be for Californians to build new ways to extract and store water from the delta during atmospheric river events. A new technique, already demonstrated on the Tuolumne River, creates channels in some of the delta islands so that huge perforated pipes can be installed under a gravel bed. Fish aren’t endangered by such installations. This water could be rapidly transferred to aquifers south of the delta via surface percolation and deep injection. Unused aquifer capacity in the San Joaquin Valley is conservatively estimated at more than 50 million acre feet.

If Californians were willing to harvest additional millions of acre-feet from storm runoff in the Sacramento-San Joaquin watershed, and had the means to do so, they might not need any water from the Colorado River. This is how California can give back not only its share of Colorado River water, but cover its annual deficit of 2 million to 4 million acre-feet. Other states in the Colorado Basin might help fund these projects. Thinking big solves big problems. It’s time for California’s state Legislature permanently to solve the challenge of water scarcity in the American Southwest.

This article was originally published on May 6, 2023 in the Wall Street Journal.

California Holds the Key to Western Water Security

Dams and aqueducts on the Colorado River make civilization possible in the American Southwest. But for the last 20 years, as a prolonged drought has gripped the region, withdrawals from the river have averaged 15 million acre-feet per year, while inflows into Lake Mead and Lake Powell have averaged only 12 million acre feet per year.

For the first time since these reservoirs were built nearly a century ago, the relentlessly escalating quantity of water demanded by the cities and farms of the Southwest, combined with years of drought, have brought the levels of remaining water to dangerous and unprecedented lows. As of May 8, 2023, only 7.7 MAF remains in Lake Mead, and only 5.8 MAF remains in Lake Powell.

Despite months of negotiation, the seven states that draw water from the Colorado River have failed to come to an agreement on how to adapt to its dwindling flow. The current deadlock pits California against the other six states – Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, and Arizona. But if they had the political will, California could solve the whole problem for everyone.

The Federal Bureau of Reclamation, which operates these massive reservoirs, has the option to impose its own solution if an agreement isn’t reached between the states. Starting this year, it has called for overall annual withdrawals to be reduced by 2 to 4 million acre feet. In the short run, one way or another, this goal will be achieved. But in the long run, more water from new sources is required, and the only place that is possible is California.

Chronic water scarcity in general, and the Colorado crisis in particular, underscores California’s grotesque failure to upgrade its water infrastructure for the 21st Century. The last big dam in California was built in 1980, part of a remarkable system of reservoirs and aqueducts constructed mostly in the 1950s and 1960s. But since 1980 California’s population has grown from 23 million to nearly 40 million, and its neglected water infrastructure is no longer sufficient.

Since 1980, Californians have endured five droughts. The response of California’s state legislature has been to emphasize conservation over construction of more water supply infrastructure. And to-date that response has been adequate, assuming you’re ok with indoor water rationing, mandated “water efficient” appliances that cost too much, don’t last very long, and don’t work very well, no more outdoor landscaping, and millions of acres of intermittently fallowed farmland.

With policies like this, it comes as no surprise that California’s politicians are predicting even worse droughts in the future. They refuse to make any significant investments in water supply infrastructure. But conservation alone has reached the practical limit of its benefits. With groundwater aquifers dangerously depleted and access to Colorado River water imperiled, rationing isn’t going to be enough.

The good news is that with smart investments in new infrastructure, water abundance is possible in California even in dry years. Its 2021-22 water season had some of the lowest total precipitation on record. But during the month of December, 2021 well over 100 million acre feet of rain fell during the one big storm that hit the state that year. If California had the capacity to capture more of that water, it would have been enough. As it is, during this current water season, one of the wettest on record, politicians continue to warn Californians that “the drought isn’t over.”

What California can rely on, unlike anywhere else in the American Southwest, are these so-called atmospheric rivers that saturate the state with enough rain to easily supply farms and cities with adequate water. Even in drought years, one or two of these storms blow in from the Pacific, hit the ramparts of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and dump tens of millions of acre feet of runoff into the streams and rivers. Californians can, and must, agree on new infrastructure solutions that will safely harvest more of this water for human consumption.

Balancing the needs of ecosystems with the needs of civilization is never easy, but there are two major projects that could unlock millions of acre feet of new water for Californians. The first is to eliminate the nutrient pollution in the San Francisco Bay. Lining the Bay and its estuaries are 37 urban wastewater treatment plants. Their discharge, cumulatively totaling nearly a half-million acre feet per year, is clean, but still has a nutrient load that leaves the waters of the Bay vulnerable to toxic algae blooms. Feeding on the nutrient rich water, in July 2022 one of these blooms, the largest in recorded history, spread through much of the San Francisco Bay, creating a dead zone that persisted for months and killed millions of fish including endangered salmon and sturgeon.

For an investment of around $12-$15 billion, these water treatment facilities could be upgraded to eliminate nutrient pollution. The solution to-date has been to dilute the nutrient loads in the Bay by requiring massive flows from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. If that was no longer necessary, more water could be withdrawn from the Delta for California’s farms and cities even in dry years. On average, tens of millions of acre feet flow through the Delta each year during storms that could be diverted and stored if there were a safe way to do so.

There are plenty of ways Californians can develop new ways to extract and store water from the Delta during atmospheric river events. A new proposal calls for constructing channels in some of the Delta Islands and installing huge perforated pipes under a gravel bed. By decentralizing the water withdrawals with many of these installations, fish would be protected. This water could be rapidly transferred to aquifers south of the Delta via newly discovered underground flumes that would permit rapid injection. Unused aquifer capacity in the San Joaquin Valley is conservatively estimated at over 50 million acre feet.

Other ways that Californians could harvest more water are as well documented as they are neglected. Build more reservoirs. Collect, treat and store more storm runoff in urban areas. Recycle and reuse 100 percent of urban wastewater. Build desalination plants on the California coast. Upgrade and expand California’s network of aqueducts, pipelines and pumping stations, so that every year, millions of acre feet of safely harvested water could supply not only San Joaquin Valley agriculture, but also Imperial Valley agriculture.

This is how California can give back not only its share of Colorado River water, but cover the entire 2-4 million acre foot deficit. Other states in the Colorado Basin might help fund these projects. California’s state legislature has an opportunity to solve forever the challenge of water scarcity in the American Southwest. Doing so would be consistent with the spirit that built this state; a spirit that embraces freedom and prosperity, and turns dreams into reality.

This article originally appeared in the California Globe.

Cleaning Bay Source Pollution Will Enable More Delta Diversions

On February 21, the California State Water Resources Control Board waived environmental regulations in order to permit more storage in Central Valley reservoirs. This came a week after Governor Newsom temporarily suspended environmental laws that prevent reservoir storage if flow through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta falls below 58,000 acre feet per day.

A guest opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, published immediately after Newsom’s action, warned of dire consequences. “Newsom just declared war on San Francisco Bay” was its thundering headline, claiming Newsom is waging “a generic war against the realities of California’s hydrology that cannot be won.”

According to environmentalists, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta’s “estuarine ecosystem is highly dependent on the amount of fresh water that flows into it from the watershed.” And while this is undoubtedly true, current environmentalist concerns ignore two important facts.

First, flows into the Delta this season have been unusually robust, and will remain so even if more water is reserved for reservoir storage. According to data posted online by the California Department of Water Resources, so far this rain season (10/01/2022 through 2/26/2023), after withdrawals for storage, net flow through the Delta has totaled 8.3 million acre feet (MAF). This is compared to only 3.6 MAF for the same period in 2021-22, 2.0 MAF for the same period in 2020-21, 3.5 MAF in 2019-20, 7.0 MAF in 2018-19, and 3.2 MAF in 2017-18. The last time the Delta’s net flow was greater than it has been so far this year was during the epic storms and flooding of 2016-17, seven years ago.

At the same time, and unlike 2016-17, storms continue to blow into California, and the Sierra snowpack’s water content currently stands at 144 percent of normal in the north, 185 percent of normal in the central Sierra, and an incredible 219 percent of normal in the southern mountains. There is plenty of water this year for everyone; the Delta, other aquatic ecosystems throughout the Sacramento-San Joaquin watershed, the reservoirs, the aquifers, the farms, the cities.

But another critical fact eludes environmentalists who condemn Newsom’s decision to permit more water storage: the role of inadequately treated wastewater causing deadly pollution in the San Francisco Bay. Environmentalists, themselves perhaps failing to recognize “the realities of California’s hydrology,” demand unrealistically high net flows through the Delta and into the Bay in order to dilute and wash out to sea the pollution that should never have entered the Bay to begin with.

The San Francisco Chronicle, back in September 2022 offered clarity on this issue in an article with the unsubtle title “Poop and pee fueled the huge algae bloom in San Francisco Bay. Fixing the problem could cost $14 billion.” The author went on to write “While scientists suspect climate change played a role in triggering the bloom, what fueled it is not a mystery. Algae blooms need food to grow, and this one had plenty: nutrients originating in wastewater that the region’s 37 sewage plants pump into the bay.”

The problems with nutrient pollution in the San Francisco Bay are well known. A 2022 report by the Bay Area Clean Water Agencies (BACWA), after extensive research, estimated the total nutrient rich wastewater discharge into the Bay to average nearly a half-million acre feet per year (figure 4.1, page 15). Nearly all of that water, by the way, is imported from the State Water Project and hence is itself dependent on reservoir storage.

Sources at BACWA confirmed the roughly $14 billion cost estimate to upgrade wastewater treatment in the San Francisco Bay region, but emphasized the complexity of the task. Each treatment plant differs in terms of the chemistry of the wastewater inflow, the technology currently in place to treat it, and the viable options available to upgrade the treatment processes. But here is where environmentalists, if they truly wish to balance the needs of the environment with the needs of civilization, could play a much more productive role.

Instead of continuously fighting for more restrictions on water withdrawals for storage, environmentalists could fight harder to expedite the planning and approval process for upgrades to wastewater treatment plants. They could help by supporting and participating in efforts to secure funding through regional and state bond financings, allocations from state and local government operating budgets, and accessing federal infrastructure funds. As it is, environmentalists often come out of the woodwork to oppose new infrastructure projects, even those that will correct far more problems than they will create.

Several years ago, when co-writing a lengthy report on rebuilding California’s infrastructure, one of the water experts I was collaborating with, who was only temporarily residing in California, made a candid observation. She said “we are taking short showers so giant corporations can grow almonds in the South San Joaquin Valley.”

There’s a lot to unpack in that statement, because it contains more than a grain of truth. But it reflects a mentality that is as seductive as it is paralytic and divisive. Water management in California is incredibly complex, and every time solutions are framed in the language of us-vs-them, nothing gets built. Water markets and more investment in conveyance can resolve any perceived imbalance whereby the biggest agribusiness concerns use up so much water that city dwellers must submit to rationing and ecosystems are compromised. But that solution only works against the backdrop of water abundance, and water abundance can only be achieved when Californians invest in a water infrastructure that is upgraded to meet the requirements of the 21st century.

Environmentalists need to consider the possibility that financial special interests in California, not only including some of the bigger agribusinesses, but even more so investment hedge funds, want water scarcity. They want scarcity to buy up and consolidate distressed farm properties, and as hedge funds, to reap higher returns as the water rights on the land they’ve purchased become more valuable. Environmental protection is not a priority for these investors, it’s a cover story. Are these the special interests with whom environmentalists want to make common cause? Because that’s what’s happening, and not only in the world of water.

It would be helpful to have an honest appraisal of just how much water could be harvested from the Delta during storm seasons if nitrogen pollution in the San Francisco Bay were eliminated. An authoritative report from the Public Policy Research Institute (PPIC) in 2017 included a revealing finding. They estimated “uncaptured water” flowing out of the Delta, in excess of ecosystem requirements, averaged 11.3 MAF per year (ref. page 13) over the 1980-2016 period. To be sure, PPIC pointed out this average included very dry years when there was almost no uncaptured water, and as well that “ecosystem requirements” have been continuously increased.

This trend, continuously increasing requirements for ecosystem water, has farmers and urban water agencies understandably frustrated. But even if that 11.3 MAF estimate of average annual uncaptured Delta flows were cut in half for the sake of ecosystems, it would still represent an additional 5.6 MAF per year of available water that Californians currently lack both the regulatory framework and the physical capacity to safely withdraw and store. That, along with upgrading every urban wastewater treatment plant in the state, ought to be the shared goal of anyone driven to opine on water policy in California.- most definitely including environmentalists.

This article originally appeared in the California Globe.

California Can Solve the Colorado Water Deficit

I was a dam builder
Across the river deep and wide
Where steel and water did collide
A place called Boulder on the wild Colorado
The Highwayman, lyrics by Jimmy Webb

When the Hoover Dam was completed in 1935 it was the largest dam in the world, creating what was to become the largest reservoir in the world, Lake Mead. It took six years to fill, but at capacity Lake Mead held 28 million acre-feet (MAF) of water. Mead’s upstream counterpart, Lake Powell, created by the Glen Canyon Dam and completed in 1963, delivered an additional 25 MAF of storage capacity.

These massive dams bottled up some of the last downstream extremities of the Colorado River watershed, where mountainous topography permits large reservoirs. The Colorado River, 1,400 miles in length, drains a whopping 250,000 miles of watershed. Its tributaries extend eastward through Arizona and New Mexico into headwaters in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado, and north through Utah and Colorado up to headwaters in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming. Access to the water stored in these giant reservoirs made possible the growth of cities and agriculture from the California coast all the way to Tucson in southeast Arizona. Las Vegas and Phoenix would not exist if it weren’t for these dams, nor would nearly 500,000 acres of rich irrigated farmland in California’s Imperial Valley along the border with Mexico.

Today the benefits of Lake Mead and Lake Powell are imperiled. For the first time since these reservoirs were built nearly a century ago, the relentlessly escalating quantity of water demanded by the cities and farms of the Southwest, combined with years of drought, have brought the levels of remaining water to dangerous and unprecedented lows. As of mid January 2023, only 7.4 MAF remains in Lake Mead, and only 5.6 MAF remains in Lake Powell. These trends are alarming.

For the last several years, far more water has been withdrawn from these reservoirs than was recharged by river flow. Measuring the flow of river water reaching the lower Colorado each year offers clarity on just how much has changed on the supply side. When these dams were built, and well into the 1980s, the average annual flow of the lower Colorado was over 20 MAF per year. An authoritative study conducted by the Department of the Interior in 2012 calculated that the average annual flow had dipped below 15 MAF per year around 2000, dropping as low as 12 MAF in 2008. A more recent analysis published by the Water Education Foundation in December 2022 reports “the river’s average flow since 2000 has been 12.3 million acre-feet.” In 2021, gripped by an ongoing drought, Colorado Basin natural flow plummeted to 6.7 MAF, only recovering to 9.9 MAF in 2022.

Average water use when Lake Mead was full back in the early 1940s was 7 MAF per year, rising to 12 MAF per year when Lake Powell was completed in the 1960s. For the last 20 years, average annual water use has plateaued at around 15 MAF per year.

It doesn’t take a hydrologist to take these numbers and project a dire scenario. With annual demand currently at 15 MAF, and annual supply dwindling to 12 MAF, and less than that in the last few years, even big reservoirs such as these are going to lose big gulps of water every year and eventually go dry. That is exactly what’s happening. Both lakes are now approaching the so-called “minimum power pool,” where the water level is too low to flow through hydroelectric turbines, or even “dead pool,” where the level has fallen so far that there are no large conduits placed low enough on the dams to allow a useful volume of water to be released.

This is the brink on which we stand today. Notwithstanding the complex balancing act whereby Lake Powell upstream can release water, so long as it has enough, to keep levels in Lake Mead from dropping to critical levels, for the last several years neither lake has been getting enough new water from natural flows. After years of supply deficits of around 3 MAF per year, any further drop in the water levels in either lake will take away their capacity to release any water beyond whatever natural flows enter the reservoirs from upstream.

Conservation Alone Is Not a Permanent Solution

To manage water scarcity, according to the prevailing wisdom among water bureaucrats and environmentalist activists, water must be used more efficiently. But for the most part this has already been done. For example, at the same time that annual water use from the lower Colorado has been relatively stable at 15 MAF per year, the population of Las Vegas has grown from 1.3 million to 2.9 million. The population of Phoenix has grown from 2.9 million to 4.7 million, and the population of Tucson has grown from 723,000 to just over 1 million. During this same period, from 2000 to 2020, irrigated farm acreage in Arizona has remained stable at just under 1 million acres, as has agricultural water use at just over 4 MAF per year. Through increased efficiency, Arizona’s farmers have achieved this while significantly increasing yields of some of their primary crops. Average alfalfa yields, for example, now accounting for over 300,000 acres of irrigated farmland in Arizona, have risen in the last 20 years from 7 tons per acre to 9 tons per acre.

As the supply of water from the Colorado River dwindles, farm acreage will inevitably shrink. But simply accepting a drastic and permanent cutback in farm acreage in places such as Arizona and California’s Imperial Valley ignores many negative consequences. Growing food in an arid environment may seem wasteful, but this ignores the quantity of still intact wildland and rainforest around the world that will give way to the plow to replace the food that will be lost if that land is taken out of production. If water can be found to keep Arizona and Southern California farmers feeding the world, how much land will be saved somewhere else? As it is, farmers in the American Southwest have become expert at surface drip, subsurface drip, micro-sprinklers, and trickle irrigation. Center-pivot sprinkler irrigation systems are timed to operate when evaporative losses are minimized. Traditional gravity-based flood irrigation is already largely reserved for acreage where the water will reduce salinity and recharge ground aquifers.

Because so many water-efficiency practices are already established, new restrictions on urban water use and major reductions in farm acreage might eliminate the supply deficit but would require punitive levels of rationing on urban residents and create undesirable ripple effects on the national and global farm economy. Even as water planners cope with the immediate crisis, a new sense of urgency should be directed toward building new water-supply infrastructure. Of all the states that could solve this regional problem, California is best positioned to make a difference.

How California Can Solve the Colorado Water Deficit

California imports up to 5 million acre-feet per year from the Colorado River via the Colorado Aqueduct, constructed in 1933. In a crisis, even with senior water rights, California could lose some of that allocation. And California faces a similar crisis with its groundwater, heavily relied on by farmers and heavily overdrafted (for years, more water has been withdrawn than replaced), as well as with its reservoirs, depleted after years of drought. But California has options.

As we have just seen this winter, as well as in the late fall of 2021, even during multi-year droughts, tens of millions of acre-feet rain down onto California via “atmospheric rivers,” but most of the water immediately drains into the ocean. California also has an 840-mile border (not including bays or inlets) with the vast Pacific Ocean, where a limitless supply of ocean water could be desalinated to serve its coastal cities.

Despite all this potential, investments to increase California’s water supply have been incremental at best. But this can change, and if it did, not only Californians but the entire Southwest would benefit. Imagine how much easier it would be to balance the Colorado River supply deficit if Californians were no longer transporting 5 MAF per year out of the lower basin to serve Imperial Valley agriculture and Southern California cities.

From a cost perspective, most supply solutions are financially affordable but nonetheless quite expensive. For example, only about one-third of California’s urban wastewater is recycled. Construction costs to upgrade every water-treatment plant in the state that isn’t already turning sewage back into recycled water for landscaping or even for potable reuse would cost about $20 billion, and give back up to 2 MAF per year.

Desalination is another option, but it is roughly twice as expensive as wastewater recycling. For an estimated construction cost of $20 billion, about 1 million acre-feet of ocean water per year could be desalinated. While it is the most expensive option, desalination has the virtue of being a perennial supply of new water, impervious to drought. What other options are there?

In an era that may involve warmer and drier winters, with less rain and less snowpack, it is necessary to more efficiently harvest runoff from the storms that do hit the state. The traditional way to do this is via reservoir storage, but in-stream reservoirs — those behind a high dam directly blocking a river — cannot be allowed to fill from early storm runoff, because that would render them unable to prevent flooding if there are late spring storms. Then if late spring storms don’t materialize, there’s inadequate reservoir storage and another water shortage.

Off-stream reservoirs, by contrast, don’t block the flow of a natural river. They are typically constructed in arid valleys, and flood runoff is pumped into them during storm events. Using California’s proposed Sites Reservoir as an example ($4 billion for an annual yield of 500,000 acre-feet per year), off-stream reservoirs could capture and release 1 MAF per year for a construction cost of $8 billion. But absent the capacity to capture large volumes of storm runoff and move it into these reservoirs, where will the water come from?

A new proposal, the “Water Blueprint for the San Joaquin Valley,” authored by a coalition of San Joaquin Valley community leaders and regional water agencies, is a work in progress. The centerpiece of this proposal is to construct what are essentially gigantic French drains within channels created inside San Joaquin’s delta islands. By drawing fresh water from perforated pipes situated beneath a gravel bed in these channels, floodwater could be safely harvested from the delta during periods of excess storm runoff. Preliminary plans for this system estimate the cost at $500 million per 200-acre facility. The estimated capacity for two of these facilities would be 2 MAF per year or more, at a total cost of $1 billion.

The blueprint also relies on the construction of a central canal in the San Joaquin Valley to transport water from the harvesting arrays in the delta to underground storage. Aquifer storage capacity in the San Joaquin Valley is conservatively estimated at 50 MAF. The projected cost for this canal, including connections to the Friant-Kern, Delta Mendota, and California aqueducts, as well as facilities to recharge and recover water from the aquifers, is $500 million.

This idea has extraordinary potential. Its preliminary construction cost estimate of $1.5 billion to harvest and recover 2 MAF per year of delta runoff is a rough order of magnitude lower than any other possible solution.

Moreover, it may well be feasible to safely harvest more than 2 MAF from the delta every year. An authoritative 2017 study by the Public Policy Research Institute describes so-called uncaptured water, which is the surplus runoff, often causing flooding, that occurs every time an atmospheric river hits the state. According to the study, “benefits provided by uncaptured water are above and beyond those required by environmental regulations for system and ecosystem water” (emphasis added). The study goes on to claim that uncaptured water flows through California’s Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta “averaged 11.3 million acre-feet [per year] over the 1980–2016 period.”

For this to come from some of the most respected water experts in California is very encouraging: The average quantity of “uncaptured water” flowing through the delta that is “above and beyond those required by environmental regulations for system and ecosystem water” averages 11.3 MAF per year.

An environmentally friendly delta diversion project has several appealing aspects. Unlike the delta pumps, these extraction channels would not harm fish, nor would their operation alter the current of the delta, which brings the risk of saltwater intrusion. Their high capacity may make building the controversial Delta Tunnel unnecessary. Storing high volumes of water in San Joaquin Valley aquifers with a known capacity in excess of that of Lake Mead and Lake Powell combined would eliminate the need for more reservoirs while also making possible almost a limitless capacity to store water from wet years to use in dry years.

The Upside of Massive Investment in Water Infrastructure

The reason the government subsidized water projects during the great waves of dam and aqueduct construction in the 1930s and again in the 1950s and ’60s is because affordable and abundant water lowers the overall cost of living and doing business. It lowers the cost of food. It lowers the cost of housing. It lowers utility bills. This is an economic ripple effect that has no rival. Affordable and abundant water is a core enabler of economic prosperity.

Conservatives ought to appreciate the case for public investment in water infrastructure: Without spending on the front end on huge capital projects that smash the price equilibrium for water and make it affordable, there will be a greater need for government spending on the back end. Billions will instead have to be spent on an enforcement bureaucracy to ration scarce water, along with the enforcement hardware — such as dual residential meters to monitor indoor vs. outdoor use — and additional billions will have to be perpetually spent to subsidize low-income families that cannot afford their water bills, food, and housing.

Investing in abundance at the level of basic economic essentials — water, energy, and transportation infrastructure — is a traditional role of government. The problem with rejecting on principle the use of government funds to subsidize infrastructure is that it implies a preference for spending government funds instead on perpetual funding for the new bureaucracies that will enforce rationing and the permanent burden of subsidies for low-income families.

Equally, opposing government participation in funding water projects is to legitimize the inevitability of high prices and scarcity. Denying funding to create water abundance is to accept the premise that a middle-class lifestyle is unsustainable.

However heretical it may sound to conservative and libertarian ears, there is a case to be made that the WPA projects that gave America Lake Mead, the Colorado Aqueduct, and a host of other assets, long since paid for and which yield dividends to this day, were worthwhile investments. Perhaps if there were sufficient regulatory reforms, private investment could pay for enough new water-supply infrastructure to create affordable abundance. Don’t hold your breath. In the meantime, start moving earth. Start pouring concrete. The water is there. Let’s go get it.

This article originally appeared in the National Review.

The Underreported Reason for the Decline of Salmon

As Californians dig out from several major storms just since December, major reservoirs in the state are already filled to within 86 and 104 percent of their historical average for this date, and the Sierra snowpack sits at 205 percent of normal. With additional precipitation likely before the end of California’s attenuated rainy season, and massive projected snowmelt poised to cascade downstream later this spring, water managers are already deciding what to do with the all this water.

To the uninitiated, such a policy decision might seem obvious: Once summer is imminent, and no more storms ought to threaten to overwhelm the spillways and cause flooding down in the valley, let the reservoirs fill to capacity. Save another five million acre feet behind the dams. But when it comes to water policy in California, complexities are layered atop complexities, and nothing is obvious.

Water management in California revolves around several distinct priorities that are often in conflict. Reservoirs provide flood control and store water for delivery via aqueducts to farms and cities, but they also have disrupted the natural flow of the rivers they span. As a result of in-stream dams, the aquatic environment is irrevocably altered. California’s water managers now have to balance the water requirements for food and people against the need to preserve a viable habitat for aquatic species.

For years, controversy has flared over just how much water should be released to preserve endangered species of fish, and how much should be reserved for farm irrigation and urban water agencies. One of the most critically endangered species of fish are the native salmon. This anadromous species of fish was once so abundant that hundreds of millions would hatch from eggs in the headwaters of California’s rivers and fight their way to the ocean, then after a few years return as adults by the millions to fight their way back to those spawning grounds.

Today, many of those spawning beds in California’s upper watersheds are blocked by dams. While some streams remain unobstructed and fish hatcheries raise millions of fingerlings for release downstream each year, California’s salmon population is a fraction of what it was. There is concern the fish could disappear altogether from California’s rivers.

Maintaining a hospitable environment for salmon doesn’t merely require adequate flow in the river during the spawning run upstream, or the subsequent migration of fingerlings downstream to the ocean. The temperature of the water in the river is also a factor. Salmon don’t tolerate water hotter than around 68 degrees, which in shallow waters during a hot summer can be easily exceeded. To cope with this, more water has to be released, preferably from deep reservoirs like the massive Lake Shasta, from which the water initially entering the river is much colder.

If you care about salmon, these gyrations make sense, but during drought years they come at a cost that many of California’s farmers would consider existential. Over the past few decades, and especially over the past few years, as withdrawals from rivers for irrigation were increasingly limited for environmental reasons, farmers were forced to pump groundwater. The resultant overdraft was compounded by the fact that using river water for flood irrigation in many cases was used to replenish those same aquifers.

What frustrates many of California’s farmers is the wisdom they have acquired over generations seems to be dismissed as folklore by the experts, hired by environmentalist activists, that inform legislators and regulators. But farmers in California never wasted water. They know when the ground is thirsty and able to percolate flood irrigation to recharge aquifers. Orchardists understand the water saving benefit of drip irrigation but also understand that each year, in most cases, there is a moment when a half-foot of flood irrigation will percolate to aquifers, flush away accumulated salts, eliminate gophers, and saturate the earth for a winter cover crop.

California’s family farmers, who have watched the rivers naturally rise and fall for countless seasons, also know that in dry years the salmon don’t run. The salmon instinctively sense if the rivers and streams are running dry, they stay in the ocean, and they wait for a wet enough year to make the final journey back to their spawning headwaters.

The Underreported Variable – Bass Eat Salmon

An almond farmer in the San Joaquin Valley who once worked as a fisheries biologist is Christine Gemperle. She shared a revealing story about salmon in California’s rivers, and what may constitute a greater threat to their survival than reservoirs and warmer waters could ever be. Gemperle participated in radiotracking studies back in 2000, where they were tagging salmon smolts (youthful salmon that have migrated from their spawning grounds into estuarine waters en-route to the ocean). As they monitored the smolts, they noticed significant numbers of their trackers moving upstream. This would be completely contrary to the natural path of smolts, since their goal is to make it to the Pacific Ocean.

As it turned out, the trackers, along with whatever remained of the smolts, were in the stomachs of striped bass.

This evidence, that striped bass eat salmon, has probably been known by anglers ever since striped bass were introduced to California’s rivers over a century ago. But marine biologists have had evidence of this for over 20 years.

A recent article written explicitly on this topic, from an expert source, provides an example of current thinking on the issue of striped bass and salmon in California’s rivers. Titled “The Delta Divide: Bass Trends In Salmon Migration Corridors,” the article opens by clearly stating the problem:

“Recent research has established that very few juvenile Chinook salmon survive the migration from their birthplace in California’s Central Valley tributaries, through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and out to the Pacific Ocean. Records from rotary screw traps on the Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers show that most young salmon do not even make it as far as the San Joaquin River, still hundreds of miles away from the Golden Gate Bridge. Numerous elements contribute to the low survival of juvenile salmonids, including habitat alteration, pesticide pollution, and predation by non-native fish.”

And predation by non-native fish. But how much of a contributing factor is this predation? How decisive is it in affecting salmon populations?

That question is not answered. This article does not suggest that bass are the primary problem with salmon survival. Here’s as close as it gets: “Striped bass, on the other hand, were not frequently recaptured during this study. This lower rate of recapture is likely due to the highly mobile nature of striped bass, but future detection of tagged individuals at PIT tag antennas, in long-term surveys, or by other predator research projects, may help uncover their seasonal movement patterns. Genetic and visual analyses of the diet samples have not yet detected any Chinook salmon, but 43% of collected gut samples contained other fish, including both native and non-native species.”

Another San Joaquin Valley farmer told me the consulting firms that conduct studies of aquatic species in California’s rivers cannot point the finger at striped bass because that would undermine the larger environmentalist agenda to continue to mandate higher river flow as well as anger the bass anglers. He claimed these experts cannot be forthright because it will offend their clients.

Gemperle, in a follow up email, corroborated this farmer’s claims, writing “It is no secret that non native bass species (large mouth, small mouth and especially striped bass) eat juvenile salmon. What most people don’t know is that it was originally documented in the year 2000 and it has taken 23 years for it to be acknowledged as a huge hurdle in the salmon population’s recovery if that is even possible.”

In a November 2022 presentation by the state’s Delta Lead Scientist Laurel Larsen to the Delta Stewardship Council, titled “The Role of Water Quality in Salmon Predation,” there wasn’t a single mention of striped bass. Larsen explored competing hypotheses regarding what habitat variables render salmon most vulnerable to predation, with the common emphasis being that California’s rivers need more flow and cooler water temperatures.

In general there seems to be consistent rejection of the theory – evident in plain sight – that salmon smolts are bait for bass. In a 2016 article published by the San Jose Mercury, UC Davis researchers are quoted as saying that even if bass populations are reduced, other predators will take their place. This seems fishy. Environmental remediation invariably prioritizes removing invasive species, often going to extreme lengths to do so. Why are striped bass exempt from the environmentalist penchant for eliminating invasive alien species?

Water for Salmon, Salmon for Bass, Bass for Anglers, and Farmers Don’t Farm

One might find a clue to this mystery in the 2012 recommendation from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to triple the catch limit and reduce the size limit for bass. Experts there had clearly determined this would help with salmon recovery. But the state Fish and Game Commission immediately rejected the plan. Why?

We may begin by recognizing that every agency in California answers to special interests. When it comes to any state agency tasked with managing California’s rivers the most influential special interest is environmental activists. But there is considerable overlap between the agenda of, for example, environmentalist groups such as the Audubon Society, and groups advocating for the sport hunting and fishing industry such as Ducks Unlimited.

One can only speculate as to the discussions that occur behind closed doors between these and many other advocacy organizations, their lobbyists, their litigators, and their campaign strategists. But this powerful alliance shares a common goal: Leave more water in the rivers. Anglers want the bass protected because fishing for trophy bass is an extremely popular sport in California. Environmentalists welcome the support from sportfishing groups because it adds political weight to their ongoing pressure on water managers to prioritize water to maximize river flow and minimize river temperature.

And so this year, just as in every year, increasing percentages of available stored water will be sent down the river in hopes that will enable more salmon to survive the gauntlet of voracious bass. The cost of this choice is measured in the tens of billions of dollars. In dry years, which hundreds of years ago were just as common as they are today, the salmon simply stayed in the ocean. Now, instead of keeping millions of acres of farmland in production, in dry years California’s rivers still flow in defiance of historical precedent – in amounts inadequate to nurture healthy salmon but enough to confuse the salmon into migrating up the rivers anyway – while millions of acres of productive farmland are fallowed.

Also measured in the tens of billions of dollars, is the costly choice facing Californians in dry years: either build new ways to capture and store water, since existing systems are now geared primarily towards maintaining river flows for salmon to escape bass, or subject 40 million Californians to water rationing and the expense of completely retrofitting their appliances and killing their landscaping in order to conserve.

Against these choices, one might think the state would reconsider extending the season, raising the limit on the catch, and reducing the size limit for bass. It would cost California’s taxpayers nothing. And if it didn’t work, bass populations – a most adaptable and resilient species – would easily rebound. It’s worth a try.

This article originally appeared in the California Globe.