Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
California Seeks a More Resilient Water Supply as Familiar Sides Battle for Access
dan_walters
By Dan Walters, CalMatters Commentary
Published 2 weeks ago on
June 6, 2024

As climate change, economic shifts, and environmental awareness converge, California's long-standing "water wars" may be reaching a critical juncture, with a new study predicting a significant reduction in the state's water supply. (CalMatters/Semantha Norris)

Share

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

California is a semi-arid state in which the availability of water determines land use, and in turn shapes the economy.

Dan Walters Profile Picture
Dan Walters

CalMatters

Opinion

That, in a nutshell, explains why Californians have been jousting over water for the state’s entire 174-year history.

The decades of what some have dubbed “water wars” may be approaching a climactic point as climate change, economic evolution, stagnant population growth, and environmental consciousness compel decisions on California’s water future.

A new study, conducted by researchers at three University of California campuses, projects that a combination of factors will reduce California’s water supply by up to 9 million acre-feet a year – roughly the equivalent of all non-agricultural human use. They include effects of climate change, new regulations to stem the overdraft of underground water, reducing Colorado River diversions, and increasing environmental flows, especially those through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

In an average year, around 200 million acre-feet of water fall on the state as rain or snow. Evaporation and percolation take most of it, leaving about 80 million acre-feet to be divvied up among three major uses. Agricultural irrigation and environmental flows to the ocean are roughly equal at around 35 million acre-feet while residential, commercial and industrial users take the remainder.

The latter is not only the smallest of the three uses but has been remarkably stable – even declining somewhat, despite decades of high population growth – thanks to intensive conservation programs.

The Real Conflict: Agricultural Interests vs Environmentalists

Although water officials constantly beseech Californians to limit their personal consumption of water, the real conflict in recent years, particularly during periods of drought, has pitted agricultural interests against environmentalists over the flows needed to nurture fish and other wildlife.

Environmentalists have pressed state water officials, particularly the Water Resources Control Board, to compel farmers to reduce diversions from rivers to enhance flows. Agriculture is also being squeezed by new restrictions on tapping aquifers via wells. Moreover, California’s largest-in-the-nation agricultural sector has also been shifting from seasonal crops to nuts, grapes and other permanent, high-value products, which need year-round watering.

“Good management and policy for this situation requires organized serious attention and consistent long-term policy, without complacency or panic,” the UC study concludes.

The new study bolsters a 2022 policy paper issued by the Newsom administration calling for 4 million acre-feet of new water storage, another 1.3 million in savings through conservation and reuse of wastewater, and new supplies from desalination and other processes.

The study also arrives as legislation that would set new targets for increased water supply, Senate Bill 366, makes its way through the Capitol with broad support from water interests of all varieties.

Slow Progress and Unresolved Water Rights

It’s one thing to point out that California faces a potential water supply crisis and should be earnestly trying to avoid the effects, but actually doing something confronts two steep hurdles: the glacial pace of water projects of any kind, and unresolved conflict over water rights, some of which date back to the state’s founding in 1850.

The Sites Reservoir exemplifies the former. The western Sacramento Valley project, which would add 1.5 million acre-feet of off-stream storage, has moved closer to reality in recent years after seven decades of sitting on the shelf. Ditto for the long-planned canal or tunnel that would bypass the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The notion of a comprehensive, long-range program making California’s uncertain water supply more resilient sounds great, and the clock is ticking. However, it assumes that officialdom has the legal authority to make it happen.

Until and unless the issue of water rights is resolved, the much-discussed reallocation of supplies – more for environmental flows and less for agriculture – will remain stalled.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

Make Your Voice Heard

GV Wire encourages vigorous debate from people and organizations on local, state, and national issues. Submit your op-ed to bmcewen@gvwire.com for consideration.

RELATED TOPICS:

DON'T MISS

Quiet Administrative Change Advances Far-Right Israeli Minister’s Effort to Control West Bank

DON'T MISS

NYC Audit Says Shotspotter Gunfire Detection System Is a Waste of Money

DON'T MISS

Ohtani Hits 21st Homer, Smith and Freeman Also Go Deep in Dodgers’ Victory Over Rockies

DON'T MISS

Give-and-Take Between Dyer & Council Yields a Fresno Budget. What’s In It?

DON'T MISS

This Giant Freshwater Fish — North America’s Largest — Gains California Protection

DON'T MISS

Superstar Boxer Canelo Alvarez Will Speak at Hispanic Foundation Gala at Table Mountain

DON'T MISS

California’s Budget Process Has Once Again Become Secretive and Needs Reform

DON'T MISS

Scorching Temperatures Will Raise Heat Risk This Weekend. How Hot Will It Get?

DON'T MISS

Hanford Hospital Settles With State AG in Controversial Stillbirth Cases

DON'T MISS

Kern Pistachio Grower Ordered to Pay $30 Million in Groundwater Pumping Case

UP NEXT

Ohtani Hits 21st Homer, Smith and Freeman Also Go Deep in Dodgers’ Victory Over Rockies

UP NEXT

Give-and-Take Between Dyer & Council Yields a Fresno Budget. What’s In It?

UP NEXT

This Giant Freshwater Fish — North America’s Largest — Gains California Protection

UP NEXT

Superstar Boxer Canelo Alvarez Will Speak at Hispanic Foundation Gala at Table Mountain

UP NEXT

California’s Budget Process Has Once Again Become Secretive and Needs Reform

UP NEXT

Hanford Hospital Settles With State AG in Controversial Stillbirth Cases

UP NEXT

Kern Pistachio Grower Ordered to Pay $30 Million in Groundwater Pumping Case

UP NEXT

Donald Sutherland, Iconic Actor of ‘M.A.S.H.’ and ‘Hunger Games,’ Dies at 88

UP NEXT

California Voters Lose a Shot at Checking State and Local Tax Hikes at the Polls

UP NEXT

The Supreme Court Upholds a Tax on Foreign Income Over a Challenge Backed by Business Interests

Give-and-Take Between Dyer & Council Yields a Fresno Budget. What’s In It?

12 hours ago

This Giant Freshwater Fish — North America’s Largest — Gains California Protection

14 hours ago

Superstar Boxer Canelo Alvarez Will Speak at Hispanic Foundation Gala at Table Mountain

14 hours ago

California’s Budget Process Has Once Again Become Secretive and Needs Reform

14 hours ago

Scorching Temperatures Will Raise Heat Risk This Weekend. How Hot Will It Get?

14 hours ago

Hanford Hospital Settles With State AG in Controversial Stillbirth Cases

15 hours ago

Kern Pistachio Grower Ordered to Pay $30 Million in Groundwater Pumping Case

15 hours ago

Tulare County Bust Uncovers Large Cache of Illegal Guns and Drugs

15 hours ago

Former Fresno Council Candidate, Business Partner Convicted in Multi-Million Dollar Fraud

16 hours ago

Donald Sutherland, Iconic Actor of ‘M.A.S.H.’ and ‘Hunger Games,’ Dies at 88

17 hours ago

Quiet Administrative Change Advances Far-Right Israeli Minister’s Effort to Control West Bank

Israel is putting key responsibilities in the occupied West Bank under an administrator who answers to a hard-line government minister, Beza...

10 hours ago

10 hours ago

Quiet Administrative Change Advances Far-Right Israeli Minister’s Effort to Control West Bank

11 hours ago

NYC Audit Says Shotspotter Gunfire Detection System Is a Waste of Money

11 hours ago

Ohtani Hits 21st Homer, Smith and Freeman Also Go Deep in Dodgers’ Victory Over Rockies

12 hours ago

Give-and-Take Between Dyer & Council Yields a Fresno Budget. What’s In It?

14 hours ago

This Giant Freshwater Fish — North America’s Largest — Gains California Protection

14 hours ago

Superstar Boxer Canelo Alvarez Will Speak at Hispanic Foundation Gala at Table Mountain

14 hours ago

California’s Budget Process Has Once Again Become Secretive and Needs Reform

14 hours ago

Scorching Temperatures Will Raise Heat Risk This Weekend. How Hot Will It Get?

MENU

CONNECT WITH US

Search

Send this to a friend