Wind and Water


From the archives: Last spring, Kate and I drove out to Bethany Reservoir, just south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta at one of the key points in the state’s complex water system. The site is also on the lower eastern slopes of the Altamont Pass country, a big wind-generation site. Pondering the state’s water story and how to tell it–do you take the narrative back to Genesis and/or The Big Bang and talk about where water itself comes from, and how long would it take from that point to get to a discussion of a salmon in the river?– I thought of that visit tonight. Here’s a shot of a wind farm virtually on the bank of the Delta-Mendota Canal–part of the federally developed Central Valley Project–just southeast of Bethany. Whatever you happen to think of the way the water systems were built here and the damage they have caused to salmon and other parts of the old California environment–the engineering is never less than impressive and sometimes beautiful.

The aqueducts move water through a combination of gentle flow and brute force: huge quantities of water are lifted from pumping stations to artificial lakes like Bethany. Then gravity takes over, and the water flows down the manmade rivers to the next set of pumps, maybe 60 or 100 miles away, and the process is repeated. (One of the more surreal sights in the state is along Interstate 5 as the highway climbs the Tehachapi Mountains. The aqueduct runs along the highway, and the water is pumped up nearly 2,000 feet through a pair of above-ground tunnels.) One beauty in the aqueducts is the way they follow the contours along the border of the Coast Range hills to the west and the great valley to the east. The engineers had to work with and respect the lay of the land here.

(Here’s the satellite view, with the hills in their full-on golden summer hue. The image shows Bethany Reservoir. The water comes in from a channel at the northwest corner, having been pumped out of the Sacramento River to a holding basin called Clifton Court Forebay. The California Aqueduct flows out to the south and east (below and to the right). Drag the map to follow the course of the aqueduct. In this image, the California Aqueduct is on the left and the Delta-Mendota Canal is to the right.)

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Big Bathtub II: ‘Wasted’

The state periodically produces a document called the California Water Plan. It has been coming out in one form or other regularly or irregularly since 1930. It's part catalogue of the state's water resources, part status report on climate, rivers and the plumbing system that eases the thirst of farms and cities, and–as I read it–part marketing brochure for our biggest water customer, agriculture, and for new dams and reservoirs to secure its water supplies. That last aspect may seem odd, but I was struck by how the draft for the next water plan sings the praises of farmers' efficiency in using every last drop of water they get. It ought to be noted that California agriculture gets about four gallons out of five of the water impounded in the state's reservoirs.

The California Department of Water Resources offers a set of summary statistics on the state's natural water supply. In an average year, the state gets about 200 million acre feet of water in rain, snow, and river flows from other states (the latter is mostly by way of the Colorado River, long a major source of water for Southern California).

Of that 200 million acre feet–probably enough water to keep China going for a year if you could save every thimbleful–100 million or 120 million just sort of goes away. It evaporates, gets sucked up by redwood trees and crabgrass and some crops, or keeps natural marshes marshy. Of the remaining 80 million to 100 million acre feet, about half is captured for urban and agricultural uses. And the final portion, sometimes a quarter or more of all water that nature provides this dry place, flows down the great valley rivers, the Sacramento and San Joaquin, and out the coastal streams and bays to the Pacific. The state website describes this outflow as necessary "in part to meet environmental requirements." It sounds responsible of us. Almost altruistic.

If you've spent enough time in the San Francisco Bay region, you can name a couple of these "environmental requirements" almost without thinking about them. One is the need for an adequate flow of freshwater to prevent the "intrusion" of saltwater into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Brackish water threatens farms there, and it also effects residential users, some of whose water is siphoned right out of the Delta channels.

Another environmental factor is fish. The installation of the vast and complex system of dams, reservoirs, canals, pumps and siphons up and down the Central Valley–but especially in the Delta–has proved deadly for the great salmon runs that used to charge in from the Pacific nearly year round. Belatedly, state and federal water and wildlife officials, at the prompting and prodding of politicians, environmentalists and their lawyers, and judges, have seen fit to set aside some of the yearly flows for the good of the salmon and other imperiled species.

But that responsible, almost altruistic-sounding side of the state's water management sometimes lets its guard down. Our governor, remarkable for his knack to say the right thing–and for seeming to never dig in and deliver on that thing–was talking last week about all that must still be done to fix California. One of his pet projects is a $9 billion program of dam, reservoir, and canal construction. When he was making his pitch for it last week, he described the water that flows out to the Pacific as a waste. It's as if he and those of like mind believe that every glassful, every ounce, ought to be put to productive–you know, human–use.

In saying that, the governor gave voice to an old, old sentiment. Fish and wildlife were never a big consideration when the rivers got plumbed. Putting water to work was the chief concern.

In 1919–90 years ago this week, in fact–the California State Irrigation Association published a tract by Lt. Col. Robert Bradford Marshall. He was a veteran of the U.S. Geological Survey who had studied rivers in California and the West and the problem of getting water where it wasn't. His 12-page report was titled "Irrigation of Twelve Million Acres in the Valley of California." The Department of Water Resources acknowledges Marshall's report as the forebear of the present-day California Water Plan by listing it as the earliest iteration of the state's great water schemes. In short, Marshall proposed building a big dam in the northern Sacramento Valley and building a series of great canals to bring water to both farm and city. Thinking about our current governor and the idea that water that flows into the ocean without having done any honest work is a waste, I was struck by the tract's introduction to Marshall's ideas:

"… Back in those early days Col. Marshall wondered why they didn't irrigate in Northern California as they were doing in Colorado, where he had surveyed the year before. And he then as a young man dreamed that dream of EMPIRE BUILDING that every man of vision at one time or another has dreamed when he views California's millions of acres parched and burning in the summer and her millions of acre feet of water pouring into the Pacific in the winter. …"

And here's Marshall himself, describing that free-flowing water and the people who apparently refused to control it:

"The people of California, indifferent to the bountiful gifts that Nature has given them, sit idly by waiting for rain, indefinitely postponing irrigation, and allowing every year millions and millions of dollars in water to pour unused into the seas, when there are hungry thousands in this and in other countries pleading for food and when San Francisco and the Bay Cities, the metropolitan district of California, are begging for water."

In a dry year like this one, you still hear voices begging for water. And the answer we hear from the governor, farm interests, and water officials is now, as it was so long ago, to capture more of the water that falls on us and put it to work.