October 15th, 2013
With 23 million Californians depending on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for freshwater, everyone agrees the system is in dire need of repair. According to Jay Lund, director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, “probably about 45 percent of all the water used in California either comes directly or indirectly from the Delta.”
The system is delicate and vulnerable, but people may not be willing to change their habits and use less.
“Let’s try to continue to get as much water out of the Delta as we always have – I think that’s the consensus,” said Los Angeles Times reporter Bettina Boxall. “Nobody wants to give up anything.”
Former Deputy U.S. Secretary of Interior David Hayes disagreed, saying “the emerging consensus actually is that the status quo was unsustainable and things have to change.”
Kip Lipper, Chief Councilor for Energy and the Environment in the Office of the Senate Pro Tempore, also known as the 41st Senator, said agreeing on a comprehensive solution for the Delta may not be possible, but he was hopeful about alternative efforts.
“California has a lot that it could do in terms of recycled water, water conservation, storm water capture,” Lipper said. “A lot of the new or perhaps not-so-new opportunities to manage water locally and regionally would relieve that stress on the Delta.”
The fundamental problem is the huge pumps that pull six million-acre feet of water annually that changes river flows, according to Hayes.
“If you're a salmon trying to head for the San Joaquin or even the Sacramento, good luck,” Hayes said.
Because so much water has been diverted from the Delta for agriculture, it has had devastating effects on its wildlife and natural resources.
“The certainties are this is not a sustainable system, Lund said. “It's a system in which we have more invasive species, continued decline in resetting of ecosystem to something that's not favorable to the endangered species”
Climate change also presents a number of uncertainties, from decreasing snowpack to variations in the water itself.
The financial uncertainty is huge, with estimates for the project in the $25 billion dollar range, according to Lipper.
“The hope is that perhaps that public process, which already has begun in robust fashion in the last several months frankly, will lead to either a breakthrough consensus or not or potentially a desire to put some things on the ballot,” Hayes said. “Let's hope that it leads to a bigger middle than we've had traditionally here in this issue.”
Boxall said completion of the project rests on who is going to pay and how much water is going to come out. Fishery agencies will not offer a guarantee and contractors require a certain amount of water and the project “goes by the precept of the beneficiary pays,” she said.
In debating the issue, many people assume the water is “all going to lawns and swimming pools in Southern California, and that simply isn’t true,” Boxall said.
“Southern California has actually done a much better job than you all up here have in terms of conservation,” Boxall said. “The population of Southern California has grown by about four million people in the past 20 years and Southern California is using the same amount of water – the population of Los Angeles has grown by more than a million people in the past 20 years and it is using the same amount of water.”
While urban areas have had water restriction goals set in the past, agriculture has resisted such measures, according to Lipper.
“The cheapest water, in this case, is the water that's going to be conserved,” he said.
Lund agreed that Southern California has done a good job of conserving water, but noted that urban usage is not the biggest player.
“I think we spend a lot of time talking about urban aspects, urban water use, but we have to understand that only about 20 percent, 15 percent to 20 percent of all the managed water use in California is urban,” Lund said. “If you want to talk about real water conservation, real water use reduction, you have to talk about agriculture but that's a very different process.”
One option could involve water marketing, in which areas with excess water sell it to areas in need. Some companies are looking at the role of desalination in California’s future.
“I think for urban areas there is some potential for brackish water desalination because it costs about $400 an acre foot,” Lund said. “It's mostly about economics...the cost today depends on who you talk to and ranged between $2,000 and $3,000 an acre foot...two or three times the wholesale cost of water in Southern California today.”
An acre foot is enough water for about two or three households, he said.
The speakers also discussed the potential for groundwater extraction.
“Certainly the recycling has been terrific and storm water and all that but there are limits,” Hayes said. “As long as we have 19 million people in Southern California, on that coast, there's going to need to be imported water.”
They agreed the future of water in California involves higher prices and higher uncertainty, and spoke about how individual efforts can make a difference over the long run.
“I'm very proud that I do not have a blade of grass in my property.” Boxall said.
- Danielle Torrent
The Commonwealth Club of California at Sheraton Grand Sacramento
October 15, 2013