Barry Nelson, Senior Policy Analyst, Water Program, San Francisco
World Water Day is an appropriate time to mark the start of a new era in the history of California water policy. Sometimes, the start of a new chapter in our collective history is captured by a single, dramatic event – Columbus’ arrival in the New World, the invention of the light bulb or putting a man on the moon. But often, history unfolds slowly, with dozens of related developments. It’s easy to overlook a dramatic change when it comes incrementally. That’s the case in California water policy today. But the Golden State is covered with dozens of signs pointing to a new generation of water policy solutions.
Water has always been central to California’s history, much of which can be charted by the way we met our growing needs. For the past two centuries, the primary water supply strategy in California has been to find a river, build a dam, and construct an aqueduct or pipeline to provide water when and where it is needed. Today, the dam building era has drawn to a close – succeeded by the emergence of a new primary strategy for meeting future needs. Today, we have entered the era of efficiency – in which we will strive to use, and reuse, our water supplies to squeeze the maximum benefit from every drop.
Over the coming months, I’ll write a series of posts about the transition from the dam building era to the era of efficiency. This series will not be a criticism of the old paradigm. But just as the arrival of the train and the car marked new eras in transportation policy, the era of water efficiency has unmistakably arrived.
The dam building era – the hydrologic frontier — had a long history in California. The first dam I know of in California was built in 1770 – the humble five foot tall Old Mission Dam in San Diego. Very few of these old structures still stand today. The next time you’re on the Central Coast, visit the lovely Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. At the bottom of a tranquil valley filled with spectacularly diverse displays of indigenous California plants, you can still find an 1807 masonry dam built to serve the “Queen of the Missions”. The dam has long since filled with cobbles and gravel, but it’s still there, as is the tiny aqueduct that carried water to the mission. A few miles away, at the door of the mission, you can still see the other end of the aqueduct – a lion-headed water spout that poured into a water trough or lavanderia – a two century old laundromat.
From this humble beginning, dams rapidly spread across California. We live in a dry state, but it still holds hundreds of creeks and rivers – all of them untapped, two centuries ago. The Gold Rush accelerated the pace of water engineering. Then, at the start of the 20th Century, the golden age of dam building began. Initially, cities built ambitious projects that still slake the thirst of Los Angeles, San Francisco and East Bay communities. Then, starting in the Great Depression, California became a world leader in water engineering. Hoover Dam – which serves California, but is upstream from the state line — was the world’s first mega dam. Then came the massive Central Valley Project and the State Water Project. Today, the Department of Water Resources Division of Safety of Dams regulates nearly 1,200 dams and a web of pipelines and aqueduct reaches across the state. Together, this is the most complex plumbing system on the globe.
The old paradigm served California well. Without water infrastructure, the development of California’s modern cities, economy and thriving agricultural industry would have been impossible. That infrastructure came at a significant environmental cost – but at the time, it also represented cutting edge engineering technology. Mark Reisner’s classic Cadillac Desert serves as a chronicle of the golden age of dam building in the West.
It’s a common observation – a complaint by some – that we’re not building new dams in California. The truth is that we are still building a few “off-stream” reservoirs – Diamond Valley east of Los Angeles, Los Vaqueros Reservoir in eastern Contra Costa County and Olivenhain Dam north of San Diego. But California water agencies are now investing the vast majority of their resources in different tools. In light of this transition, complaining about the lack of contemporary dam building is a little like complaining that we’re not building enough buggy whips or slide rules any more.
The primary reason for this transition is simple – across California, our rivers have hit “peak water”. These rivers have hit limits for reasons as diverse as the water rights of other states, tribal rights, air quality concerns and collapsing fish and wildlife populations. In one case after another, we have decided – for good reasons — that we must reduce the water we take from every major river system in California.
The history of the last twenty years is a timeline of rivers hitting limits, from the Klamath and the Trinity, to the Bay-Delta, Owen River, Mono Lake and the Colorado River. Simply put, we’re not building many traditional dams now because we can’t cost-effectively squeeze more water from our rivers. And, we can’t solve this problem simply by tapping into our groundwater. State-wide that resource is overtapped as well. At the start of the 21st Century, California is out of rivers and the hydrologic frontier has closed.
If I had to pick a single date to mark the beginning of this new era, it would be October 1, 2009. That’s the moment when the Bureau of Reclamation opened the valves on Friant Dam, allowing water to flow down a reach of the San Joaquin River that had been dry for 60 years. Below, you can see this dramatic moment when the water began flowing down a dead – or perhaps just a dormant – river. Today, one of the state’s largest rivers is coming back to life. This is not a passing moment, as indicated by the decision by Friant farmers to join NRDC and fishermen in opposing a congressional proposal to dry up the river again.
Because the age of efficiency doesn’t depend primarily on taking more water from damaged rivers, this new phase in our history offers the opportunity to restore rivers while we invest in new water supplies. In this new era, rather than destroying rivers, we’re starting to rebuild them.
Another development suggests that this transition is an irreversible one. Water managers know that California is expected to be a drier place in the coming century. The U.S. Climate Change Science Program, for example, has predicted that California will be 5-10 percent drier in half a century. The Colorado River, an important source for Southern California, could be 10 to 25 percent drier.
Across the state, dozens of water managers have triggered an explosion in innovation in the past decade. That’s what this series will be about. This is not a story about diminishing expectations. Quite the contrary, building the water infrastructure of the past Century required a remarkable effort by water managers and state and federal agencies using the best available technology. In the coming century, we will see a similarly ambitious effort employing a new generation of technology. I’ll grant you that a groundwater clean-up program or code changes requiring more efficient dishwashers don’t make for a ribbon-cutting event as dramatic as that for an old fashioned dam. These solutions don’t involve as much concrete. You can’t see them from space. But they work.
That’s what this series will show – new ideas and new technology. Looking back at the past couple of years, I’ve written about quite a few of these solutions already. For example:
- California farmers are moving from thirsty, lower value crops like cotton to higher value crops, grown using more efficient irrigation technology.
History can be hard to see up close. Over the course of the coming year, I’ll write a series of posts about this new generation of water solutions. This will not be a wish list of proposed projects, or studies about long-term potential supplies. Rather, this will be a series about innovative water management projects that are happening on the ground today – building a virtual river of new water supplies, and rebuilding healthy rivers across the state. Together, they will offer convincing proof that this new era is not just starting – it’s well under way.
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