California water conflicts heat up


In a letter published in the November 24th edition, Jessica Hall urged HCN to “take a deeper look at water issues in California.” Around the same time there were several significant developments in the world of California water. And while GOAT is not the proper forum for a “deep” analysis, we can make readers aware of those developments and point you toward sources where you can find more information.

The California legislative analyst released a report on California’s Water Supply in late October which some hope will help shake up the world of California water. The Analyst called for “fundamental changes” in California’s water rights system. Part of that reform would be state groundwater regulation and a state-run well permitting system. According to the Analyst, California is one of only two states in the West that don’t have state-run groundwater permitting. The other state is Texas which some of us consider a southern state.

The lack of groundwater regulation has allowed irrigation and other interests to exploit groundwater at will. But when a few years ago an entrepreneur announced plans to drill a well and export groundwater to Nevada counties began to step into the void, passing groundwater ordinances. But county regulation has created a chaotic situation and most Northern California counties have yet to put any system in place to regulate groundwater. As a result landowners have been able to drill unregulated wells which appear to be tapping underground streams interconnected with surface flow. This has sometimes had a dramatic effect. In the Shasta River Valley, for example, Big Springs – a volcanic spring thought to originate on Mt. Shasta, - used to flow about 120 cubic feet per second.(cfs) year around. Then the landowner where the massive spring emerges drilled two irrigation wells not far from where the Springs emerge.  Big Springs now flows at 20 cfs.

In the nearby Scott River Valley groundwater was a minor irrigation source in the 1950s and grain growing predominated. Now groundwater pumping accounts for more than half of total irrigation, alfalfa is the primary crop and flows in the Scott River have declined to the point where Chinook salmon can’t reach their prime spawning grounds even in years of average precipitation. A recent empirical study found that 61% of the decrease in Scott River flow is not the result of changes in precipitation and snow pack and is likely the result of the increased groundwater pumping.

The powerful agricultural lobby has already indicated that it will oppose any move toward state regulation of groundwater. In the past the agricultural interests have defeated bills that would have only required assessment of groundwater levels and not well permits. So don’t look for a statewide groundwater extraction permit system in California anytime soon.

The chaos in California water management is not limited to groundwater. In Mendocino County, for example, citizens and salmon activists say the state must deal with thousands of illegal surface diversion which are dewatering streams in the county and placing salmon at additional risk of extinction.

The citizens are upset because the State Water Resources Board wants to approach the problem by forming “watershed councils” rather than by cracking down on the illegal surface diversions.New wineries and marijuana cultivation are believed to be the main illegal water diverters.

Meanwhile some California citizens took matters into their own hands by filing a lawsuit that could turn out to be as important for California water management as the now-famous Mono Lake Case. Citing the Public Trust Doctrine and the state constitution’s ban on “wasteful” use of water, the California Water Impact Network and the California Sportsfishing Protection Alliance filed a seven count lawsuit on December 1st which names the California Department of Water Resources, the United States Bureau of Reclamation, and the State Water Resources Control Board as defendants.

The lawsuit asks the courts to end the irrigation of several hundred thousand acres of selenium contaminated lands on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley in order to protect the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Big pumps in the Delta - used to move water south primarily for irrigation - have been implicated in the decline of Sacramento River salmon, Delta smelt and several other species. The lands targeted as “unreasonably” irrigated are within the Westlands Water District. Even though Westlands has junior water rights and its irrigation wastewater is tainted with selenium, the politically powerful district has managed to convince the state and federal government to continue to provide it with irrigation water. 

You can find out more about the new lawsuit on line.

Meanwhile the rainy season has been late in coming to most of California and year-to-date rainfall totals are already below normal. With reservoir carryover storage also low, another drought year could make things very interesting in California this summer. While reformers hope another year of drought will provide the impetus for reform, Governor Schwarzenegger and big agriculture will seek to use water shortages to build support for new dams and reservoirs.

High Country News Classifieds