California Drought

Houseboats are moored on a shrinking arm of the Oroville Lake reservoir, which is now at 25% capacity because of the drought. (Mark Ralston / AFP/Getty Images)

By Rong-Gong Lin II
June 7, 2015

A panel of water experts on Sunday mapped out the challenges California faces in meeting future demands for water at a time when water sources are under stress and future supplies appear uncertain.

The panel, speaking at the Los Angeles Times book club, agreed the problems are serious and multifaceted: groundwater reserves underneath California’s Central Valley are estimated to have been depleted by 125 million acre-feet since the first wells were drilled more than a century ago and as water demand is forecast to outstrip supply coming from the Colorado River in the coming decades.

“What we’re really looking at is about a 20% problem of our supply being lost to climate change and over demand, and that’s huge,” said Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District, at a discussion of the book “Cadillac Desert,” by Marc Reisner.

Among some of the challenges California is set to face, experts said at a panel moderated by Los Angeles Times Publisher Austin Beutner at the city’s Hyperion Treatment Plant:

Unsustainable use of groundwater. Water levels are getting lower underground, some wells are going dry, there’s a need to drill even deeper wells, and California until last year had no regulations on groundwater pumping, said David Hayes, former deputy secretary at the Interior Department under Presidents Clinton and Obama. “We’re clearly pumping unsustainably, and it will be a while before that law fully kicks in,” Hayes said.

Pumping river water through a sick delta. Southern California gets a huge portion of water by turning on giant pumps that cause one of the state’s largest rivers, the San Joaquin, to flow artificially backward in an environmentally sensitive delta. “That creates all sorts of challenges to the endangered species, with fish, migrations,” Kightlinger said.

There’s a potential solution: Building tunnels that would allow water to be pumped from the water-rich Sacramento River around the delta, instead of through it, said Mike Sweeney, executive director of the Nature Conservancy in California. But how big do you make it? Big enough to get water down south during years of floods? Would that give Southern California an excuse just to take all the water it can even during dry years?

“Northern Californians don’t trust you guys,” Hayes said to laughter. “And with some good reason.”

Less flexibility on farms during droughts. Up until 15 years ago, it was easier for the Metropolitan Water District to pay farmers to leave their fields fallow during droughts so cities can use the water. Not anymore. California’s farmers have increasingly focused on lucrative almonds, walnuts and pistachios as other crops got cheaper following the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. But almond trees need to be watered all the time and doesn’t offer the flexibility of row crops where fields can be left fallow during dry years.

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