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California’s Water Pathology

Speaking at the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board’s once-every-other-month meeting in the north Santa Rosa burbs on January 30th, California State Water Resources Board member Steven Moore characterized California’s drought as a natural disaster of epic proportions.

“This is our Hurricane Sandy,” he told the North Coast’s five regional board members.

In spite of a few solid drenchings in the past week, as well as a relatively wet February across much of California, the drought is indeed leading to some serious dislocations in many areas of the state, especially for farmers.

We have San Joaquin Valley almond farmers pulling thousands of acres of trees and chipping them to sell to power plants.  Cattle ranchers in Bakersfield and elsewhere in the region are selling their stocks en masse as grasslands dry up and hay prices stratify.  Fields across the US’ most prolific agricultural region lie fallow.

The idea that the drought is a natural disaster, as opposed to a human-engineered catastrophe (or, better yet, a capitalist-engineered one), papers over the real causes of the state’s water crisis: California’s insanely wasteful and destructive water system.

California already leads the nation, by far, both in its number of large dams and reservoirs and in their storage capacity.  More than 1,400 state and federal dams and their reservoirs are built to capture 42 million acre feet of water, almost sixty percent of all the state’s water runoff (runoff being water that flows in streams, creeks, and rivers).  Private dams capture much of the remaining water.

So, with regard to the dislocation of San Joaquin Valley farmers, here’s another way of framing the story: California has captured immense volumes of mostly Northern California water in the last several decades to irrigate cotton, pistachios, and pasture to grow them in the Southern California desert, and that massive water subsidy is not fully available this year.

Given the fact that the ecological fabric that supports life on the planet is being brutally eradicated, with an estimated 200 species going extinct everyday worldwide in the biggest wave of extinction perhaps since the Cretaceous era, you might figure the lack of water that this massive amount of water infrastructure leaves over for non-humans would be something of a concern.

A regional poster child is the Central Coast Coho Salmon.  This iconic species, which at one time lashed local waterways into whiteness with its dense runs, ranges from southern Humboldt County to the San Lorenzo River system in Santa Cruz.  Nowadays, the US Environmental Protection Agency classifies them as endangered.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) classifies them as “extirpated or nearly so” in the Russian River system, owing to the depredations of suburban development, the wine industry, the timber industry, and other agribusiness (not that the CDFW acknowledges the historic cause).

The drought is preventing the salmon from leaving for the ocean or swimming upstream to spawn as part of their annual reproductive migration.  Most of the small creeks and streams flowing into the ocean along the coast are now sandbars that grow in the mouths of the rivers due to the aforementioned water impoundments and lack of snow runoff.  Biologists have warned that this situation could be the tipping point that renders the coho extinct.

It’s not only salmon, of course.  As journalist Dan Bacher noted in a piece at last month, called “The Emptying of North California”:

“The Department of Fish and Wildlife’s fall midwater trawl surveys, initiated in 1967, the same year the State Water Project began exporting water from the [Sacramento-San Joaquin] Delta, document the steep decline of Delta fish species. They reveal that the population abundance of Delta smelt, striped bass, longfin smelt, threadfin shad and American shad declined 95.6%, 99.6%, 99.8%, 97.8%, 90.9%, respectively, between 1967 and 2013, according to Jennings. The 2013 abundance estimates for Sacramento splittail, a native minnow, were not released, but results from 2012 reveal that splittail abundance indices have dropped 98.5% from 1967 levels.”

In spite of the record drought, Governor Jerry Brown continues his plan to build two enormously destructive peripheral tunnels to divert Sacramento River water under the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) and to expand the water-intensive oil extraction process of fracking (hydraulic fracturing) for oil and natural gas in California.

The Twin Tunnels, as they are called, would divert prodigious volumes of water from the Sacramento around the periphery of the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta.  They would hasten the extinction of Central Valley salmon and Delta fish populations, as well as imperil salmon and steelhead populations on the Trinity River, the largest tributary of the Klamath River.

From there, the water would enter the largest network of water storage and transfer systems ever engineered: the State of California’s already-existing water infrastructure.   This system of dams, reservoirs, power plants, pumping plants, canals, aqueducts, siphons, tunnels, gates, and other water control structures would convey the new influx of water from Northern to Central and Southern California, including San Francisco Bay Area water providers like Santa Clara Valley Water District.

A corollary scheme involves raising the Shasta Dam, already California’s seventh highest dam, by up to 18.5 feet.  Doing so could theoretically increase water storage behind the dam by about 13 percent.  The dam captures water from the Sacramento, McCloud, and Pit Rivers.  It is the cornerstone of the Central Valley Project, which provides much of the water to irrigate the desert agricultural plantations I alluded to before.

Raising the dam would correspondingly expand the Shasta Reservoir, which would destroy the remaining stronghold of the McCloud River’s original people, the Winnemem Wintu.  It would also flood thousands of acres of the Shasta-Trinity National Recreation Area, which includes the habitats of numerous important and special status wildlife species.

In a roundabout way (no pun intended), all of that brings us to our local drought poster child: Willits.  The modest-sized inland Mendo municipality has experienced a wave of publicity across the past month, with hundreds of articles highlighting the tenuous state of the city’s water supply.  Willits Mayor Holly Madrigal is rubbing elbows in Sacramento with high-ranking state officials.  Willits received a major share of the focus of a secretive meeting between local, state, and federal officials in Ukiah last week.

Yet, the greatest water hogging project occurring in the Willits Valley, ie Little Lake Valley, the Caltrans Willits Bypass (a project moving forward primarily because it is a boon to the construction industry) is being systematically omitted from discussions regarding the town’s water use.

In Governor Jerry Brown’s “State of the State” address in which he declared a drought emergency in January, he highlighted wetlands restoration as a main priority for “mitigating” the drought’s impacts. The Willits Bypass is causing the largest wetlands destruction by acreage of any North California project since World War II.  The Brown administration, California officials, the mass media, and Willits city officials are united in silently declaring that this destruction is unworthy of mention in the context of conversations concerning Willits and the drought.

Granted, Willits gets its water from reservoirs, not from groundwater, which is what wetlands destruction and freeway construction impact.  But Willits is now in the process of hooking up its water system to groundwater sources as an emergency back-up due to the drought.

In response to local criticism, Caltrans spokesperson Phil Frisbie, Jr. has recently been touting the new Caltrans party line regarding the drought, including via a Facebook post: “Caltrans' Willits Bypass will not significantly impact the over 11 BILLION gallons of groundwater (by the most conservative estimate) available in the Little Lake Valley.”

But what matters most in discussions of groundwater aquifers is not so much aquifer  supply as groundwater recharge.  Aquifers recharge very slowly, usually at rates of 0.1 to 0.3% per year.  Their primary recharge mechanism is wetlands.

If water draws from the aquifer exceed aquifer recharge, the groundwater table lowers.  For example, the groundwater table in Chico dropped 15 feet from 1978 to 2011, according to Butte County records.

When the water table drops below stream beds, the result is what is referred to in regulatory jargon as a "losing stream.” In the early-‘90s, Outlet Creek (the headwaters of which are on the north end of Little Lake Valley) began recording precipitous drops in its stream gauge readings, even though rainfall stayed relatively high.  If the groundwater is not fully recharging, the water table drops. If it gets below stream level, surface water disappears, with obvious implications for life in the streams.

In November, the State Water Resources Control Board sent Caltrans a violation notice warning Big Orange of a possible “cease and desist order” if the transportation agency didn’t get funding for its Willits Bypass mitigation plan in order.  The Water Board’s goal, Executive Officer Matt St. John assured Caltrans, is to “help Caltrans succeed.”

Success in this case means the largest wetlands destruction in Northern California in a half-century.  It also means implementing one of the most expensive environmental “mitigation” projects in recent memory, which may only cause further watershed harm.  It means stripping trees and vegetation in a 150-foot-wide band from creek crossings across a six-mile stretch of Little Lake Valley, thus filling in and heating up these waterways.  And it means drawing millions of gallons of waters from valley wells for dust control and compaction.

St. John’s statement is not so much an indictment of him as of the power dynamics governing our society in general.  This system is set up to help those with superior wealth and power succeed.  It is not, by contrast, set up to help anyone else succeed, least of all non-human species.

Outlet Creek, where Caltrans is destroying 89 acres of wetlands to construct the Willits Bypass, has been the longest remaining run for Central Coast Coho salmon up until now.


  1. Phil Frisbie, Jr. March 5, 2014


    Thank you for your article. I was especially interested in the stats about groundwater recharge. Caltrans’ 4 million gallons of groundwater used last year is about 0.04% of the 11 billion gallons (minimum) available. That is well under your worst estimate of recharge 0.1%. However, the recharge rate must be MUCH higher in the Little Lake Valley according to a document published by the California Department of Water Resources (CDWR) ( The CDWR document states that a study performed in 1986 estimated that about 650 million gallons of groundwater were being used each year (likely for farming/cattle) and another 650 million was flowing into streams during the dry months. Together, that would mean that about 12% of the groundwater was being used each year, assuming the most conservative estimate of 11 billion gallons available. However, the document also says since the late 1950s water levels have shown typical seasonal fluctuations with no long-term trends (not dropping), so recharge is at least 12% .

    And regarding recharge: According to the CDWR document, and further explained in this thesis paper (, most of the groundwater recharge in the Little Lake Valley occurs in the south end of the valley, not in the north seasonal wetlands. There are two main reasons for this: the sediment layers in the valley tilt downward to the north, and the north contains layers of dense clay.

    The older sediment layers in the valley are exposed in the south, and extend deeper to the north. Water can easily enter at ground level in the south of the valley and move north and downward following these permeable layers. But water in the seasonal wetlands trying to flow downward is impeded by the layers of clay on top of the older layers. These clay layers are the same that caused Caltrans to use wickdrains to speed up settling.

    Caltrans is not filling in or heating waterways. In fact, Caltrans will be planting native vegetation along miles of streams which have been degraded by a century of human activities, and installing fencing to prevent grazing cattle from continuing to damage these streams. The water quality for fish will be greatly improved by these and other mitigation measures.

    Finally, Caltrans is only permanently impacting (filling over) 40 acres of seasonal wetlands for this first phase and another 20 for the second phase, for a total of 60 acres. The other ~30 acres will only be temporarily impacted, for example, while constructing the viaducts.

  2. Ron de Mammalo March 5, 2014

    Will the geniuses ever realize that they are beyond yesterday, today, and tomorrow in all they are about as the times are in for major changes which we should be more prepared but alas are not as our system is mostly not working on the goals that we the people need to have now in 2014 not to continue the ways of the industry of which everything was to be taken with nothing left to give…?!

  3. Jane Eagle March 23, 2014
    Excellent documentary, especially for those unaware of the water crisis we are deep into, along with deep denial of any problem. Scientists estimate within 50 years there will be NO snow anywhere in California. But hey, no problem!

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