By: Maryana Pinchuk
Smoke and fire may have been in the air (literally) in California these past few weeks, but water is never far behind as a subject of concern for residents of the state. Earlier this month, while fires raged from Los Angeles to Sacramento, my colleague Renee and I accompanied staff from the Municipal Water District of Southern California, as well as other water utility staff and interested citizens from Southern California, on an inspection trip to learn more about the California State Water Project.
As Municipal Water District of Southern California Director Larry McKenney pointed out at the start of our trip, the state of California has the 5th largest economy globally (just ahead of Britain), and its productivity depends largely on the mostly water-scarce state’s ability to move water. The State Water Project is a system of dams, pumping stations, reservoirs, and aqueducts that conveys water from a small water-rich area in the northernmost part of the state to the dry but highly populous communities in the middle and south. The project is the largest provider of water and power in the state, and one of the largest in the world.
This sophisticated system of water conveyance begins in the Feather River near Sacramento. Water from the river collects in Lake Oroville and passes through Oroville Dam before proceeding on to the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta. The water then travels down the California Aqueduct to the San Luis Reservoir, where it is pumped further south to meet the water needs of Southern California communities, including Los Angeles and Santa Barbara to the west (via the Castaic and Pyramid Lake reservoirs), and San Diego and Orange County to the east.
The State Water Project may not exactly be the most well-known tourist attraction in the state, but it is the secret engine that powers some of the most iconic features of California, from the glitzy pools of Hollywood to the more modest groves of California almond trees – a crop that, like asparagus, melon, cotton, and other local cash crops, thrives in the dry and temperate Mediterranean-like climate of the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta.
Almonds, we learned from longtime Delta resident and farmer Joe Del Bosque of Del Bosque Farms, are a cousin of the peach tree, and farmers have learned to graft almond saplings to the hardier peach roots, which are less susceptible to rotting in heavily irrigated soil. But the ingenuity of the Delta farming community is meeting its match in the precarious ecology of the Delta, where a system of levees built in the 1800s to turn marshland into farmland is beginning to show its age, and where soil erosion and earthquakes threaten the $50-billion-a-year agricultural business.
Over breakfast in the state capital, with the lingering smell of smoke providing an uncomfortable reminder of the increasing danger posed by climate change and extreme weather, we were shown a presentation about the challenges facing the Delta in the next 50 years. We watched a model simulation of the probable effects of a major earthquake – long overdue in the area – on water quality in the Delta. We all winced as the model showed the levees disintegrating and a cloud of salt water from the San Francisco Bay pumping steadily eastward hour by hour. According to the simulation, by the end of a week after the initial quake, all of Southern California’s water supply would be rendered non-potable.
To address the very real possibility that gradual (through levee erosion) or sudden (through a major quake) salinization may one day cripple the Delta leg of the State Water Project, the Municipal Water District of Southern California is proposing to create a set of tunnels through the area. This would ensure that fresh water could continue to be channeled through the Delta to consumers in the south, even if the Delta were flooded with brackish water. The proposal, called the Water Fix, has raised objections from some conservation groups that argue against diverting flow from the rivers in the area. However, others contend that what the wildlife that already struggle to thrive in the agriculturally-dominated waterscape of the Delta need is not higher throughput in the rivers, but other conservation practices – e.g., fish weirs and controlled flooding of fallow farmland to allow fish fry to mature in a predator-free environment before returning to the river system – that are not incompatible with the Water Fix.
We wrapped up our trip with a visit to the Jensen Water Treatment Plant, the last stage that State Water Project water passes through before being delivered to SoCal customers. In the hills to the north of the plant, the Los Angeles Aqueduct (not part of the State Water Project) delivers an additional supply of water from Mono Lake to the city of Los Angeles. As evidenced by the heated history of that water infrastructure project, culminating in the legendary California “Water Wars” depicted in the 1974 noir film Chinatown, controversies around water are far from new in this state. And yet, through over a century of conflict over water rights and allocation – as well as the additional issues posed more recently by increased water scarcity – California’s water infrastructure has continued to rise to the occasion and meet the ever-growing needs of the state and its residents. California’s water supply may seem precarious, but water utilities and their staff are certainly used to facing and overcoming challenges, and the successes of the past point to hope for the future.