Water in California

A briefing on the state of water policy in California contains a passage that I think is illuminating when it comes to the relationship between humanity and the natural environment in general:

Californians hate rain but love water, so three-quarters of them live in the arid south, spurn the wet north where three-quarters of the rain falls, and expect water to come to them by pipe, canal or aquifer, preferably courtesy of the taxpayer.

That sort of brute force approach will become harder and harder to sustain as we give up fossil fuels, both because of their growing scarcity and because of the damage they do to the climate.

U.S. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu has already raised questions about what climate change will do to California’s water supply, particularly as higher temperatures lead to a loss of summer snowpack.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

7 thoughts on “Water in California”

  1. Also from the briefing:

    Climate change is already showing up “in the data”, says Mr Quinn. The snowpack of the Sierra Nevada, California’s most reliable water-storage system, is shrinking and may stop yielding predictable run-off in the spring and start producing sporadic and unusable, not to mention disastrous, floods. The delta is already below sea level and, as the sea rises, it may be submerged. Even today the south is a desert wherever irrigation does not reach. It will become even drier.

  2. People in Arizona hate rain but love golfing, so they build big houses in the desert and pump out water to keep the grass alive…

  3. Sensibly, there is at least no grass at the Ain Nakhl golf course in Saudi Arabia:

    “One surface feature of Abqaiq which is not found in Ghawar (or other more remote oil fields) is a residential area complete with a golf course (alas, not with grass). This is the Abqaiq compound, one of several housing facilities provided by Saudi Aramco for its employees. While this close location does have its benefits, there are also safety issues which do present constraints on oil field development.”


  4. “Californians hate rain but love water, so three-quarters of them live in the arid south, spurn the wet north where three-quarters of the rain falls”

    This is an interesting observation. I wonder what the population distribution of California was in pre-modern ties. I expect the same population distribution did not exist and perhaps even First Nations populations in California were concentrated in what is now the northern art of the state.

    In British Columbia, First Nations communities were concentrated were it rained most as it was easiest to live off the land. There was no thought to pipelines and aquifers supplying water from afar.

    There is now the expression “One Hundred Mile Diet” . Perhaps we should encourage the “The One Hundred Mile Drink”.

  5. California legislature passes major water changes

    Wyatt Buchanan,Marisa Lagos, Chronicle Sacramento Bureau
    Wednesday, November 4, 2009

    The California Legislature passed a sweeping, multi-billion dollar overhaul of the state’s water system this morning, after an all-night session on a plan that has been years in the making.

    The water package consists of five major parts:

    — A new seven-member board to oversee the Delta. The board would consist of gubernatorial and legislative appointees, along with the head of an already existing Delta commission. The board could approve a controversial peripheral canal to channel water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

    — A 20 percent conservation mandate for urban areas, with credits for cities that have made significant conservation efforts. Agricultural entities will have to follow best practices for water use.

    — New regulations to monitor groundwater levels throughout the state.

    — Increased penalties for illegal water diversions, though the penalties and enforcement were significantly weakened from the original plan.

    — A $11.14 billion bond to pay for the overhaul. Three billion would be set aside for new water storage, which could be reservoirs, along with more than $2 billion for restoration of the Delta ecosystem. Other monies would pay for water recycling, drought relief, conservation and watershed protection projects, among other uses. The bond requires voter approval.

  6. “The National Park Service sums up the problem: “In an “average” year, the amount of water flowing out of Lake Mead exceeds the amount of water flowing into Lake Mead.”

    Now, that’s a bit of a “duh” statement, but it’s important to remember that the problem really is that simple. There’s no black magic going on here, just basic math. Part of the problem is an ongoing 12-year drought that’s limiting inflow from snow melt in the Rockies. But, as seen throughout Lake Mead’s history, droughts come and go. The really worrying issue here is on the demand side.

    Decades of population growth have led to increased water demand in the Southwest. Take, for instance, Las Vegas, which gets 90 percent of its water from Lake Mead. Back in the 1940s, fewer than 9,000 people lived there. In 2006, the population was estimated at more than 550,000, and growing. Rapidly.

    Multiplied throughout the region, that added demand means the tolerance for expected drought fluctuation becomes more brittle. And if the cycle of drought and rain doesn’t behave like it has in the past—a change some scientists say you can see happening now, and others say is likely under climate change scenarios going forward—it puts more people at risk for water shortage.”

  7. Snowpack in the northern Rocky Mountains drying up
    June 10, 2011 10:46 AM

    Snowpack in the northern Rocky Mountains has declined over the past 30 years more than at any other time in a least 1,000 years (30-year decline is old news, 1000 year perspective is new). Snowmelt from the Rockies provide water for at least 70 million people. Snow is also melting weeks earlier in the American West. Some consequences of earlier snowmelt (of less snow) are drier forests, more wildfires and less water for people in a West heating up and drying out.

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