4/14/15: Who Gets Water in California?

How much does the environment lose?

Californians use over 38 billion gallons of fresh water every day. Governor Brown’s April 1 decision to mandate 25% urban water conservation has sparked public debate over exactly who uses that water and how. Currently, 79% of the total is used to irrigate 10 million acres of farmland, and 18% supports municipal and industrial uses (1, 2, 3, 4). Many Californians are now realizing what we’ve known for a long time – that while urban conservation is essential, any major reforms in our state that are aimed at conserving water to support human uses and reduce our water footprint must first and foremost tackle the agricultural sector.  

There’s been an effort in recent times–particularly by agricultural interests–to reframe the issue away from how much water Californians use for different purposes and instead toward how much water is used compared to some supposed amount (between 20 and 50%) dedicated to environmental uses by being left in streams and rivers or inundating wetlands. Environmental water is difficult and often less relevant to quantify. For example, how should water used for environmental protection be quantified when that water can and will be diverted later for human use downstream? It’s not clear what such comparisons actually reveal about California’s water allocation issues, or how to resolve them – more often, the use of these estimates is simply intended to distract attention from the fact that we divert far too much water from our rivers and estuary.
Indeed, asking “How much water does the environment use?” is the wrong question. It’s like asking, “How much air do you use?” in order to justify sucking more and more air out of the room. The fact is that we all benefit from the water quality and ecosystem services provided by flowing rivers, productive estuaries, and functional wetlands. When healthy, these aquatic environments produce clean drinking water and allow for non-consumptive beneficial uses of water including recreation, transport, and the food produced by fisheries. To compare consumptive human uses of water with environmental water “use” is misleading. Our aquatic ecosystems, and the vital services they provide, will collapse if flows fall below critical thresholds. For the most part, the more water we leave in the system, the more all Californians benefit from vital environmental services. Plus it takes fewer resources to micromanage our ecosystems when we support their natural resiliency.
The right question is, “How much water does the environment lose – and how much can it afford lose before ecosystem services are disrupted?” In the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary and its watershed, how much of the natural runoff actually makes it to the Bay? In Water Year (WY) 2015 (which began on October 1, 2014), only 44% of unimpaired flow has reached the Bay so far. On average over the last four decades, during the critical February-June period, only 47% of total Delta outflow was left instream—far less than is needed for a healthy Bay-Delta.
Not only during the drought, but year-in and year-out, the estuary already gives up far more than the 25% that the governor recently mandated for this extreme drought year. The reality is that California diverts more water from its aquatic environments than would be permitted in most places in the nation, or the rest of the developed world. The end result is that six native fish populations are listed as endangered by the state and/or federal governments. Endangered species are only the most obvious evidence of damage to the ecosystem services that benefit all of us. If our rivers and the estuary can’t support historically abundant native life forms, it’s a sign that our activities have done tremendous damage to the life support system.
What’s needed for a healthy Bay-Delta? According to the State Water Resources Control Board’s 2010 flow criteria report – the most comprehensive assessment yet done - 75% of Delta outflow to San Francisco Bay and 60% of San Joaquin basin inflow to the Delta are necessary to protect public trust ecosystem resources. The fact that current environmental regulations fall so far short of these thresholds is a major reason the Bay-Delta ecosystem is collapsing; the fact that even these minimal protections are being suspended in WY 2015 is cause to suspect that one or more native fish species may go extinct this year.

Do environment regulations cause water shortages?

In addition to casting natural flows as just another use next to agriculture and urban use, agricultural interests often complain that their supplies are significantly reduced because of environmental flow regulations – regulations that are designed to preserve habitat and ecosystem services and prevent endangered fish species from going extinct. Is there any truth to this claim? The numbers show how our lopsided water management prioritizes human uses. 

During water year 2014, a mere 45% of the calculated unimpaired Delta outflow made it to the Bay. Almost three quarters of that outflow was needed to maintain salinity control, in order to allow fresh water to be exported from the Delta by the giant pumps of the State Water Project (SWP) and federal Central Valley Project (CVP) and to be diverted by farmers and cities in the Delta. Only about 18% of the total outflow was used for ecosystem services protection. 

The impacts of flow requirements to protect salmon and Delta smelt and their habitat from being destroyed were similarly modest. Endangered Species Act (ESA) regulations to protect Delta smelt have not controlled exports for a single day since 2013. ESA protections for Chinook salmon, steelhead, and green sturgeon limited export pumping on just 33 days in 2014. Furthermore, it’s important to understand that, while critical endangered species needs are addressed with as little water as possible, critical public health and safety needs are taken into account with a generous margin of error. Delta exports are never required to drop below 1500 cfs, which adds up to about 1.1 million acre-feet of water each year. The minimum critical public health and safety water each year in 2014 and 2015 was 180 TAF for the CVP and 330 TAF for the SWP – a total of 510 TAF, just half the minimum pumped in any year.
So in the end, far from prioritizing fish over people, California diverts much more water than is sufficient to maintain a healthy environment for people and nature, and bends over backwards to avoid disrupting water deliveries by minimizing controls on diversions that are needed to protect our endangered native fish species. This lopsided state of affairs has led directly to the extinction crisis we’re facing in the estuary today.
Next: Who actually gets water in the agricultural sector? And how do they use it?

  1. Jeffrey Mount, Emma Freeman, and Jay Lund, July 2014, Water Use in California http://www.ppic.org/main/publication_show.asp?i=1108
  2. Jeffrey Mount, May 2011, Water—Who uses how much? http://californiawaterblog.com/2011/05/05/water%E2%80%94who-uses-how-much/
  3. USGS NWIS Water Use in California, 2010 http://ca.water.usgs.gov/water_use/
  4. Maupin, M.A., Kenny, J.F., Hutson, S.S., Lovelace, J.K., Barber, N.L., and Linsey, K.S., 2014, Estimated use of water in the United States in 2010: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1405, 56 p., http://dx.doi.org/10.3133/cir1405.
  5. Howard, Tom, 2015 February TUCP Workshop presentation to SWRCB