Friday, May 12, 2017

The drought is only “sort-of” over

The politics of the drought makes the drought need to be over.

It is a win for Jerry.

And some small bits of progress in water and infrastructure management.

From the heavily limited US view of the “politically realistic” the drought management has been a roaring success and I would be stunned if certain political resumes are not now decorated with the bureaucratic medals of valor that will advance careers.

The hydrology of the state of California still suffers some major inconvenient truths.

The aquifer is depleted and still not well managed.

Under California is, or maybe was, a giant fresh water lake where agribusiness takes well water.

Up here on the surface we have full, or fuller dams, green hills, a high snow pack and in a way the drought is over. Underground our largest water reserve is way down and there is no plan to replenish it or even do that much to keep the agricultural sector from drilling where they wish, as deep as they wish and pumping beyond any sustainability.

Aquifer water is normally among the cleanest. Ours is not. Water filters down through the soil and arrives at the aquifers without biological contamination. Chemical contamination on the other hand travels all the way down. In California that includes the aftertaste of MTBE gasoline additive still in the system, industrial farming chemicals, contamination from everyday combustion engine vehicle use, other industrial chemicals and chemicals used in fossil fuel exploitations, especially in hydraulic fracturing.

Our Central Valley was once mostly wetlands where industrial farming did not need to drill very deeply to exploit pristine, clean, groundwater. A century later those wells run ever deeper to water ever drying soils that are accumulating metals and salts.

Recent droughts have made things worse, and many hand-to-mouth actions were taken by agricultural businesses to fix their problem for themselves that made our collective problems much worse and harder to repair. We have no serious plan to replenish that aquifer or bring ourselves to any kind of water cycle sustainability.

California had a structural problem with water use before most of us were born. With the dams, channels, canals and pipelines around out state we have one of the largest water infrastructure systems in the world and yet it is not enough for our 40 million people nor reliable for our agriculture and fish hatcheries. 

The Oroville Dam scare woke a lot of people up to what some people have been saying for a long time only to be stonewalled by state water management. We should give thanks for what Friends of the River attempted to make right before there was a disaster. We should listen to what such expert groups are saying now and we should figure out how obvious problems were allowed to fester and how legitimate, fact based, public concern was ignored.

A lot of what we have in water infrastructure is not in good shape, and some of it was conceptually bad from the start. Right now the drought is “over” and most of the dams are full, but some are not. To jump into Lake Shasta would probably still kill you from the fall, and things are better. Two years ago the fall would have certainly killed you. In many places we are taking too much out of the dams, spending the reserves in good times, lacking the reserves in bad times. Governor Edmund Brown Jr. would be well advised to think of water the way he thinks of money. (Water really flows, for dollars it is just an expression). We have an average amount of supply of water. There are ways to budget it, save it for a non-rainy day, and think of how to collect up more of it.

Right now we have surpluses of water in many places and no serous way to get it into our largest water reservoirs, the aquifers. We also have still have dams where we still ask too much of them and cannot use them to capacity for the hydroelectric power that would abate fossil fuel use.

Now that we are facing climate change, we need to think about how these already bad averages and cycles will be affected. It is called Global Warming for a reason. That does not mean consistent warming everywhere, or consistent drying everywhere.

Describing our water resources in a way that is simpler than it really is we have most of our central valley reserves in the snow pack and the aquifer, with the dams in the east mostly catching snow pack run off creating a second tier storage and the dams in the north west being more part of the Pacific North West higher rain pattern. To the east we take water out of a larger, multi-state river system.

The snow pack, the Great Basin and the areas around Humboldt and Del Norte will all be affected by climate change and we should make our plans to deal with the worst case estimates. In good years we will not use everything we have, but on bad years, that conservative planning will pay off, and bad years are part of the natural cycles of weather. Climate change certainly means that the ups and downs will get more extreme.

One of the reasons we don’t catch what we need is deforestation. Deforestation includes brush, undergrowth, smaller trees, wild lands and one should not just think of big sequoias and other pines.

Reforestation does not increase the water supply or cause more rain unless there is so much of it that it causes a cooling effect. Reforestation DOES affect how long the water stays around and where it goes and what kind of impact it has on infrastructure.

There is a thing called the run-off rate, (or flood speed) in watershed management. When the area uphill from a river system and its feeder streams is only farmland and housing, then the water rushes off quickly, usually taking precious top soil with it. When the river is high and looks muddy, that's an unhealthy watershed without proper forest cover. We lose topsoil creating dirty water that is bad for marine life and it carries with it all the toxins and trash of our agribusiness/industrial society causing even more damage.

When an area has better ground cover it takes longer for water to make it from rain to river, it is filtered by the forested areas and comes in cleaner. Look at a stream in a redwood park for example. The water is clear, even after the rain. In certain geological areas, that rain water that is being held up in forest cover never goes to the stream, but instead seeps into the ground and goes to the aquifers.

So, we have a state that is currently wet and green, but letting good water rush off while underground we have a serious shortfall and some contamination problems and in the mountains we have a snow pack that may now melt at a faster rate. 

There are some things that can be done and can be done quickly.

We can move from drought consumption thinking to environmentally sustainable thinking in our water use. This drought showed that we know how to save water, there is no reason to stop. 

The Brown administration has called the drought “over” but called on us to keep up the water saving efforts. I agree wholeheartedly.

Moving to a form of water use more in keeping with the different climate areas of our state and its different local biomes should include some changes in what we grow, how we make parks, home landscaping, gardens, etc.

The drought measures should not end, they should become our new normal. 

The use of native plants and low water landscaping would help a lot and we Californians would stop having front yards that look like New England and start having green spaces around us that look more like Mexico, of which we were once a part.

Greywater use needs to become the required standard, the zoning and the code and the State should step in and just make it legal everywhere and mandatory in most places. Our shower, sink and cleaning water can increase our urban and suburban tree coverage at the same time we will be returning tap water to the environment in a way that it can use.

There are ways to make ground water capture zones. Fresh water can be pooled into wetland reserves over deep well perforations, with sand and rock for filtering, in a way that can speed up clean replenishment of the aquifers. Probably the best way to do this is spread out around the state in many small projects, some of which would be fed by diverting water that cannot be held in Sierra Nevada dams. Probably the worst way to do this is with some high energy injection pump systems.

It would be very interesting to ask the hydrology experts and environmental biologists for some aquifer replenishment plans that were based more on science than political expediency or economic opportunism, try out a few models, and then repeat the more successful ones around the state. It will take years, but they will be years well spent. The rewards will be decades long.

Reforestation that targets the watersheds, controls soil erosion and helps aquifer replenishment needs to be a priority. There need to have woodland buffer zones around the water ways and on sharp slopes. Rain that falls needs a chance to soak in keeping that water around a while longer and letting it flow cleanly into the streams and rivers where our salmon run. The top soil needs to be protected.

Global warming is going to change which plants thrive where, and since plants don’t walk, swim or fly, reforestation might be a big part of how we keep our forest communities with a healthy mix and protect part of the spectrum of trees and plants from extinction.

At some point sooner or later we will learn to pipe our sewage back up hill and put it back into the environment. Instead of being a waste that we treat and dump, it needs to become a resource that we put to use. There are ways of treating sewage using natural plants in ponds. From there waste water can be used to grow lumber, fiber for paper, cotton etc. and then join the rest of the water cycle evaporating, seeping down to the ground water or becoming part of the healthy run off. 

Again, a lot of work has already been done on exactly this kind of natural methods to treat waste water right here in California. The government of California needs to be putting out requests for proposals for some small scale tests and eventually build up to where we make use of the sewage from our large urban areas.

As an avid hiker, I am enjoying the lush green of my favorite parks and the lands around them. But even as my boots are getting muddy, I know that our drought isn’t really over, all we have now is a moment of respite. 

More dry times are coming. We need to be ready for them.


  1. An excellent summary call to action and some good ideas. I would add the following:
    1. the economics of agricultural water are still dysfunctional, with incentives that don't help preserve water or use it more carefully. E.g., with the aquifer depletion, rice and cotton are poor crop choices.
    2. Opposition to building additional catchment and storage reservoirs is still widespread, especially compared to, e.g., Colorado.
    3. Personally, I think global warming is a scam (that should become clearer in the next 10 years or so), but planning for worst-case drought and deluge scenarios is very wise, since the climate is going to change whatever we humans do.

  2. There are other serious problems with the CA water system:
    1. 80% of wells tested in the areas where fracking is done showed contamination by fracking chemicals; since these are highly toxic, this is worrisome for people, animals, and crops in the affected areas. Bottled water is a pathetically inadequate solution. Companies must be required to do much more to protect citizens' water supplies, to use less toxic chemicals, and to fully remediate any harm done
    2. Salt-water incursion has been a serious concern, particularly in So CA, as the local water table is diminished by being tapped for irrigation and sea water then infiltrates into the land. The agricultural land will ultimately become unfit for growing due to excessive salt unless solutions are found. This should be a priority.
    3. Totally agree that replenishing ground cover is an urgent need as well as creating a plan for much better long-term water management. All planning should start from a base that the water is a public resource and that no private water rights or corporate contract can out-weigh public benefit.