Saturday, August 1, 2015

LBz Drought Dilemmas

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The drought is ever present in California and presses upon my mind at every turn. My last blog provided historical factoids about California’s water. This entry will address my personal responses to the pressures of water - or the lack thereof.

Last year, Californians were asked to vote on Proposition1, a 7.12 billion dollar bond for California’s water system. A “tunneling project to secure delivery of fresh water from the State's abundant north to its thirsty south and Central Valley agricultural industry.” (The abundant north balked knowing that SoCal has been more aggressive in water storage, currently has more water than we and seems to suffer fewer restrictions.) But that is an entirely different issue. 
The Bay Delta Conservation Plan proposed boring a parallel set of 37-mile-long x 33ft i.d. tunnels (60km x 10m) directly under the Delta. They are sized to deliver 9,000ft3 to 15,000ft3 of water per second and would feed water from the Sacramento River in north delta, to a set of massive Federal and State-owned pumping facilities in the south delta. There water is lifted into the delivery canals of the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project. Study data is available at The Bay Delta Conservation Plan website.
Nearly $17,000,000 was donated toward the Prop1 cause while a paltry $98,000 worked for its defeat. Understand that California’s water system is archaic and crumbling. Our water rights system is arcane and unjust.  The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is part of the largest estuary on the West Coast and ground-zero for California’s water wars. It is a vitally important ecosystem and the hub of California's water supply system, providing water for more than 25 million Californians living between the Bay Area and San Diego (or 2/3 of the state’s population) and irrigates some 3 million farmland acres in the San Joaquin Valley. The drought has brought everything water from simmer to boil.
“We can't just cross our fingers, hoping for the best in the Delta,” Governor Brown said. “Fish populations are at an all-time low. Bold action is imperative.” 
I agreed but felt completely unqualified to vote on the fate of the Delta. We knew southern Californians would vote for Prop1 and they outnumber northerners by many. My question was - should I vote for it? 
Delta denizens were adamantly opposed but I had no confidence they could see beyond local biases and a not-in-my-backyard mentality. A small feeder fish called the Delta smelt surfaced in discussions.
I studied the pros and cons of the initiative and talked to two in-the-know. One woman worked on the public information piece for the Governor’s office. She explained it quite simply. The pumps in south Delta are so strong they reverse the flow of the San Joaquin River and obviously, can suck fish into the system. In times of low water, they can’t be run. In times of water excess - when pumps could be run - fish are nearby and prohibit pump use. At those times, the proposed tunnel intakes positioned in north Delta would allow water  excesses to be syphoned off without endangering fish and damaging the Delta ecosystem.
I spoke with a federal biologist working on the Delta smelt. “Why should we care about the Delta smelt?” I asked. 
“Because its the bottom of the food chain,” she said, “And if it goes extinct, it will alter all life and health of the Delta. I’m not allowed to have an opinion but if I did, I’d vote no.”

Protecting the smelt became the rallying cry of those opposed. Both the Nature Conservancy and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), conservation organizations to whom I regularly and generously donate, supported Prop1. I cast an equivocal vote for Prop1: to “authorize $7.12 billion in general obligation bonds for state water supply infrastructure projects, such as public water system improvements, surface and groundwater storage, drinking water protection, water recycling and advanced water treatment technology, water supply management and conveyance, wastewater treatment, drought relief, emergency water supplies, and ecosystem and watershed protection and restoration.” It won with a resounding 67% of the vote.
I thought I voted for tunnels… but according to the NRDC, Prop1 “does not advance the State’s $25 billion flawed Bay Delta Conservation Plan, the proposal to build two massive tunnels under the Delta and divert unsustainable amounts of water.” 
You get my angst in California voting? Its hard, really hard to cast an intelligent vote around here despite studying the issues more than most.

Watch this 3:38 minute Delta Flow animation at It is highly informative albeit likely biased. Nonetheless, the tidal fluctuations and the need to mitigate salt water incursions are made clear.
Salt water incursion into the Delta is problematic. If you did not stop to watch the video above - do so now. As I write, a temporary, 800-foot dam is being constructed in the Delta to prevent the salty Pacific from creeping inland and contaminating drinking water. This strategy was utilized effectively during the drought of 1976-77. The dam will be removed in November (when we hope/pray El Niño brings rain). The entire project will cost tax payers a cool $28-mil. How will this help? It will allow California’s northern reservoirs to release less water for flushing the Delta to prevent salt water incursion.
Outflow from Folsom Lake was recently increased to help flush the Delta, compensating for decreased outflow by Lake Shasta - whose waters are being diverted to protect the local salmon run. Folsom Lake is the source of water in my house and water conservation is key. 
They’ve asked us to let our “lawns go gold” and use the water for trees. If I wash my car, I pull it up on my lawn. I also capture some of my gray water for plant irrigation. The City of Folsom is replacing median strip landscaping with wood chips and shutting off irrigation. Their plan for watering city trees is insufficient however, and many have died over the last year.

California’s oaks (I believe these are blue oaks - Quercus douglasi), notoriously adverse to summer watering, are dropping yellowed leaves and showering the ground with Hail Mary acorns. All our trees are stressed after multiple years of drought and dry winters. 
I wondered about watering the oaks and hunted online. I found a study conducted by the University of CA. They followed 165 oaks in a regional park near Stockton from 1978 - 1992, (all non-drought years and immediately following the drought of 76-77). Some oaks were watered; some were not. By 1992, 73% of non-irrigated trees were in serious decline or dead. An additional 24 trees were selected  for drip irrigation. After five weeks, 11 of 12 (92%) irrigated trees had new growth, while only 2 (17%) of the non-irrigated trees showed similar growth. After one year, all irrigated trees continued to thrive while their non-irrigated cohort declined.
Their conclusions: Under periods of prolonged drought, supplemental irrigation of established oak trees may prevent their decline and death. If irrigation water is applied well away from the tree root crown area but within the tree rooting zone, even frequent summer water application may not be detrimental to established oak trees. 
So now I water the oaks of my cul-de-sac circle and yard in a careful, prescribed manner and under the cover of darkness.

Meanwhile, at Folsom Lake, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is building a barge with multiple pumps  capable of drawing water from a nearly-depleted lake should water levels fall below the permanent intake pumps. 
I consider this drastic and something to consider when one opts to water a lawn. Don’t wait for the city to do their part or your neighbor or the people in Granite Bay with acre lawns. We can all do something and I can let my lawn go dormant and use the water to keep our oaks alive.

Meantime, WalMart bottles water from the Sacramento Municipal Water Supply at 99 cents for every 748 gallons and sells it for 88 cents per gallon. (And they say California has an inhospitable business climate?) Do the math.
The reasons to dislike this multi-billion dollar corporation whose workforce is decidedly part-time to avoid providing benefits and paying a living wage, thereby encouraging them to subsist on public assistance… well, for me, that’s just enough reason to boycott their enterprise outright. Socially aware Starbucks has moved its Ethos water bottling operation out-of-state.

While I would like to demonize Walmart (and did), they present a dilemma in much the same way that almond trees do. Recent local radio ads tout, “An almond tree is not unique in its water needs.”
The sustainable almond growers and Almond Board report that 6,500 almond growers farm 760,000 acres and grow nearly 100% of US almonds and 80% of the world’s almonds. Almonds add more than 100,000 jobs, $11 billion to the state’s economy and are California’s largest export. I water my sycamore to provide house shade and it provides NO income though undoubted contributes to energy cost savings. If an almond tree consumes approximately the same in water and provides the state with jobs and income, it doesn’t seem wise to shut that spigot off.

So how then do we ask Walmart to move its water bottling operation out-of-state? Nestles and Arrowhead also bottle water in California. And what about locally-owned Alhambra?
What will I do if the dregs of Folsom Lake tastes nasty? Several friends in Carmichael have switched to bottled water for that very reason, their usual municipal water sources are depleted and the current mix is distasteful. The water table is dropping and some neighborhoods near Fresno no longer have  running water. Water is trucked in by the municipality and public showers have been opened. Can you imagine? What if that was mi casa or su casa? It very well could be!

One climate model predicts a fifty-year drought and that in just two decades, there will be no skiing in California. Squaw Valley (1960 Winter Olympic site) and adjacent Alpine Meadows ski resorts must have missed that memo as they made an April announcement a to link both parks with a high-speed gondola.
I went skiing at Squaw last winter. It was rocky; my hiking boots would have been more useful and appropriate. It was a scary and disconcerting sight.
I camped in Sequoia National Park (NP) in March. The General’s Hwy linking Sequoia to King’s Canyon NP, typically closed for snow, was open all winter. Same for Tioga Pass, the east-west mountain pass across Yosemite - open all winter. Virtually NO snow was visible from the Yosemite Valley floor as I gazed across its expanse in February. And while all of that is most unsettling, it does nudge me into rethinking park access and “off-season” backpacking.

Climate models also predict a 2015 El Niño winter. Historically, a strong El Niño brings powerful storms and lots of rain to the West Coast and Southwest. Good news; right? 
“The great myth is that El Niño will be the great drought buster,” says Bill Patzert, climatologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena and one of the world's foremost experts on El Niño. He explains that typically dry SoCal’s infrastructure is built to move excess water quickly seaward. NorCal’s water infrastructure is built to capture snowmelt. El Niño winters are wet and warm leaving little snowpack. Rainwater capture will occur only when El Niño rains over a reservoir and its tributaries. Rainfall in the foothills directly replenish now depleted aquifers but don’t look to El Niño as savior.

I wonder about property values (think retirement fund) and what living in a drought blighted area might be like. Do I even move forward with terracing my back hill for planting if irrigation could be prohibited or prohibitive?

Several idioms seem sure: change is inevitable, resistance is futile  and attachment is the source of suffering.
The Buddha saw that people's ignorance of the nature of change was the cause of suffering. We desire to hold on to what we value, and we suffer when life's inevitable process of change separates us from those things. Liberation comes, he taught, when we are able to sever our attachments to the transient things of this world.
A steady shower of yellow-brown leaves flutter earthbound from the oak under whose canopy I write. My fifty-foot sycamore is encircled by a soaker hose. Stone cairns mark the watering sites 10-feet from six Quercus douglasi. My oven timer beeps and I rise to move a small sprinkler from tree to tree - a task that has consumed my morning.

Tomorrow morning I drive to Yosemite for a week of volunteerism with the Yosemite Conservancy. There we are maintaining trails, filling convenience trails and restoring the NP preferred trail in a little-known, high-country sequoia grove. I plan to head for Tuolumne Meadows on Wednesday, my day off.

This is what life looks like when its working and from my corner of the ring.

Be not attached, dwell in the inquiry and have a namasté.


  1. Well informed and well done! I want to share this with friends who have not read your blog. Thank you for your investigative work.

  2. Very well-researched. I appreciate that. And you echo my opinions in this matter. Water is still being wasted. Many believe the "powers that be" will take care of this and habits don't have to change.

    Southern California is a pig for water. Median strips and community maintained landscaping areas are overwatered. Those on slopes pour water into the street and down the drains. Maintenance companies aren't being held accountable for irrigation problems. And the City of Simi Valley has approved landscape plans (ours in particular) that are unreasonable and unsustainable in a drought-prone ecosystem. The cavalier attitude persists, and residents are powerless. Sigh.

    1. I certainly think that governmental agencies need to set the example and have multiple avenues in changing our behaviors.