Look at how much water the environment wastes!

Photographer: Blaine Harden/The Washington Post/Getty Image

Greedy Environment Steals California's Water

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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There’s this thing called “the environment,” and it’s using up as much as half of California’s scarce water. Pretty greedy, huh?

This is one way to interpret the California Department of Water Resources’ data on how water is used in the state. Here’s the breakdown on average water use from 2001 through 2010:

Add together the four environmental categories and you get 47 percent -- more in some years. People in California agricultural circles like these numbers a lot better than the 80 percent agriculture, 20 percent urban water-use breakdown usually cited in the media.  But what exactly does it mean that “the environment” uses 50 percent of California’s water?

Writing in the National Review a couple of weeks ago, Devin Nunes, a U.S. representative from the Central Valley farm town of Tulare, put it like this:

Farmers do not use 80 percent of California’s water. In reality, 50 percent of the water that is captured by the state’s dams, reservoirs, aqueducts, and other infrastructure is diverted for environmental causes. Farmers, in fact, use 40 percent of the water supply.

That second sentence is incorrect, unless you count free-flowing rivers as part of that state “infrastructure.” The denominator here is all the water used by California’s residents, businesses and farms (of which agriculture takes about 80 percent and municipal and industrial users about 20 percent), plus all other water flows upon which the state has identified some sort of legal claim, mostly for purposes of environmental protection. It’s not that the water is “diverted for environmental causes.” It’s that it is not diverted to farms and cities, largely for environmental reasons. 

Still, water is water, and it is indisputable that if hadn't been for the rise of environmental movement in the 1970s, more of it probably would be flowing to the state’s farms and cities instead of out to sea. From the 1850s through the 1970s, California drained its swamps, dammed its rivers and built long aqueducts and pipelines to move water from where it was abundant  to where it was not. Since the controversial completion of the New Melones Dam on the Stanislaus River in 1978, though, this great California water development machine has mostly ground to a halt, and in some cases even gone into reverse. As a result there are those, such as Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, who blame the state’s water shortages on “overzealous liberal environmentalists who continue to devalue the lives and livelihoods of California residents in pursuit of their own agenda.”

In the face of such rhetoric, it’s worth taking inventory of where all the environmental water really is going, and what would be involved in wresting it away for the benefit of Central Valley farmers and Orange County lawn-waterers. As you can see from the above chart, by far the biggest environmental use of water is for Wild & Scenic Rivers -- rivers, streams or segments thereof that have been designated by the state, the federal government or both as too nice to dam. Dig a little deeper into the 2013 California Water Plan Update, and you find that 93 percent of this water use transpires along California’s very wet northern coast, which is separated from the Central Valley and its water infrastructure by mountain ranges that get higher and more rugged as you head north.

The three biggest rivers that flow into the Pacific along the northern coast are the Klamath, the Eel and the Smith. In the 1950s and 1960s there were tentative plans to dam all three and send the water south. A major Klamath tributary, the Trinity River, was in fact dammed in 1962 and much of its water diverted into the federal Central Valley Project.

The Eel River also came close to being dammed after a devastating flood in 1964. But Ronald Reagan, who became governor in 1967, refused to give the go-ahead. The location envisioned for the dam, while pretty good for water-supply purposes, would have been little help against floods, and it was hard to square the costs of the projects with the likely benefits. What’s more, the dam would have flooded an Indian reservation. “We’ve broken enough treaties with the Indians already,” Reagan reportedly said at the time. In 1973, after California passed its Wild & Scenic Rivers law, Reagan added the Eel to the list.

Reagan’s successor as governor, Jerry Brown, made increasing commitments to protect northern California rivers in his attempt to muster support for the Peripheral Canal (more on that in a moment). As part of this campaign, he asked Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus to designate the Eel, the Klamath and the Smith as federal Wild & Scenic Rivers -- meaning it would take an act of Congress to dam them. Andrus complied just before leaving office in 1981.

So … three substantial California rivers have been declared effectively off limits for reasons both economic and environmental. I don’t think anybody, including Nunes or Fiorina, is seriously campaigning to dam them. I didn’t hear a single Central Valley farmer bring this up during my visit last week.

That leaves another 16.9 percent of the state’s water to look at. Managed wetlands are just 1.4 percent, most of it along the formerly very swampy Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and their tributaries in the Central Valley, and they don’t seem to be wildly controversial -- some are actually managed by farmers. As for the more substantial instream-flow requirements (5.8 percent) for energy production, drinking water quality and fish protection, almost half of those are in north coast rivers and thus aren't accessible to Central Valley and Southern California water users. The requirements are also contingent on how much water there is, and tend to drop sharply in drought years. This is definitely something that Central Valley farmers complain about, but I have not seen evidence that it's been a huge drain on water resources during the drought.

It is the “required delta outflow,” which accounted for 9.7 percent of the state’s water from 2001 through 2010, that is the great source of controversy. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is where the Central Valley’s two big rivers meet before flowing into the San Francisco Bay;  water from northern California reservoirs also has to pass through it to get to farmers and cities to the south. Here’s the state Water Resources Control Board’s tally of the uses for the 6 million acre-feet of water that flowed out of the delta in the 2014 water year :

The “hydraulic barrier” is fresh water flows devoted to keeping salt water from the San Francisco Bay out of the delta. Before the federal Central Valley Project started storing water behind Shasta Dam in 1944 for release during the summer, salt water intruded deep into the delta once every few summers. Using water stored in federal reservoirs to prevent that from happening was a major selling point of Central Valley Project for delta farmers. It is also essential to keeping salt water from infiltrating the pumps that send water south from the delta. So it’s a little hard to see that as water being “diverted for environmental causes.”

It’s a different story with the “additional theoretical exports,” 747,000 acre-feet of water in 2014 that could have been pumped from the delta without risking salt-water incursion but wasn’t pumped mainly because of federal biologists’ concerns about what this would do to fish, endangered delta smelt in particular. The big lost opportunities come when a rainstorm floods the delta with fresh water -- and even in a drought, this still happens a few of times every winter. You can get a better picture of it from this chart:

California Water Resources Control Board

Farmers south of the delta find this enormously frustrating. The water’s there in the delta, but it can’t be pumped south because of concerns about an endangered fish that may well be doomed for reasons having little to do with the pumps. The Peripheral Canal was meant in part as a way around this. It was to skirt the delta on the east, delivering water from the Sacramento River north of the delta to the pumps at the south end of the delta, making it much less likely that those pumps would suck in either smelts or salt water.

People in the delta and the bay area were concerned that bypassing the delta would reduce the state’s interest in keeping it healthy and increase the capacity for shipping water south, so in the late 1970s and early 1980s Brown added lots of environmental commitments to the project. These turned out not to be enough to convince northern California voters, but too much for some big farmers in the southern part of the Central Valley who ended up opposing the project as well.

Now Brown is pushing for two giant tunnels to do the same job as the Peripheral Canal. State water officials have also been contemplating an off-stream reservoir northwest of Sacramento that would take in Sacramento River water when it’s abundant and pump it back out when it’s not. These projects could conceivably ease current water shortages. As best I can tell, what we’re talking about is a difference of maybe a million acre-feet of water in a drought year. That is nothing to sneeze at -- a million acre-feet of water would be enough to quench almost 350,000 of California’s 9 million acres of irrigated farmland. About 428,000 acres were taken out of production last year because of the drought. On the other hand, adding water supplies often just creates new demand -- and increased scrutiny of water projects in California over the past few decades has actually led to big improvements in both agricultural and urban water-use efficiency. Yes, "the environment" is taking more of California's water than it used to, and that's worth discussing. But it isn't exactly the water hog it is sometimes made out to be.  

  1. This is from the California Water Today chapter of the 2013 California Water Plan Update, which I don't link to in the text because it's a 56 megabyte pdf. Also, I prepared a similar but slightly different chart for an earlier column that showed applied water use instead of depleted water use. 

  2. This account is from Marc Reisner's epic Western water history,   “Cadillac Desert.” 

  3. This account is from Norris Hundley Jr.’s even longer California water history, “The Great Thirst.”

  4. California’s rainy season runs from late fall through early spring, so water totals are usually measured from the beginning of October to the end of September. The 2014 water year, then, ran from Oct. 1, 2013, to Sept. 30, 2014.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net