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Published on May 13th, 2015 | by Roy L Hales


California’s Current Water Crisis Is A Man-Made Problem

May 13th, 2015 by  

Earthjustice attorney says tough questions need to be asked

Originally Published on the ECOreport

According to Earthjustice attorney Trent Orr, California’s current water crisis is a man-made problem. It is the outcome of the mid 20th century notion that equates progress with giant public works projects and assumes that we can engineer our way out of all sorts of problems, including living in a drought-prone state. This doesn’t work.


According to Orr:

There is a lot we can do. The problem is we have significantly oversubscribed our water system. More water is contracted for in any given year from California’s federal and state water projects than falls as precipitation by a factor of as much as five times. These water contracts have provisions that say in case of drought the government water projects will cut contractors back from the delivery amount set in their contracts, but the very fact that water has been committed in a certain amount on paper creates expectations. Then the water contractors say, “We’ve made a deal for 100 units of water and we’re only getting 25 this year. We’ve been cheated.” Well, the problem isn’t that they’re being cheated, the problem is that the system of allocation is unrealistically generous, allocating on paper many times more water than is produced in a given year. The drought should be a wake-up call for everyone. We need to ask some very hard questions about where and how we allocate our water.

California’s  and the surrounding marshes and grasslands were once hailed as the “American Serengeti.” The area was home to billions of waterfowl, elk and grizzly bears, and lay at the heart of abundant salmon runs. That world was already disappearing by the late 1940‘s, and the giant water projects of the 50’s and 60’s were devastating to the environment of the Delta and the rivers that feed it.

“We have re-plumbed the vast watershed of the Central Valley so that water moves very differently than it did in its natural state,” said Orr.


The “canary in the coal mine” for the Delta ecosystem is the Delta smelt. It was once one of the most abundant fish in the Delta, but is now “perilously close to extinction.”

A whole series of other fisheries are collapsing. All but one salmon run is on the endangered species list.

“There seems to be a disconnect between the economic health of the state and economic health of the agribusiness,” said Orr.

He added:

Does it make sense to be planting thousands of acres of almond trees, in a portion of the Central Valley that is practically a desert, when we know we are a state that has these cycles of drought? This should be a zone where you plant annual crops. Then in drought years you either let the land go fallow or plant less water-reliant crops. You don’t have that choice when you are talking about a permanent crop of trees.

Though California’s agricultural sector only accounts for 1.5% to 2% of the state’s economy, it consumes 80% of the state’s water.

The more fresh water that is pumped from the Delta and shipped south, to nourish agribusiness in the arid southern Central Valley, the more salt water intrudes into the Delta from San Francisco Bay. So Delta farmers who have long tapped directly into the Delta for their irrigation water are now getting increasingly salty water! In a dreadful irony, these farmers, once located next to a natural supply of fresh water, will eventually be unable to use the increasingly salty water. Meanwhile, fresh water pumped out of the Delta upstream will continue to be sent south to arid, far less suitable farmlands at an enormous energy cost.


Making matters worse, prior to last Fall, California was the only western state that did not regulate the use of groundwater. Thus, the state had no requirements for reporting how deep wells were, how much water was drawn out of an aquifer, or how that water was used. Now groundwater management legislation is in place, but the goal is to achieve sustainability by 2040. Some wonder if this is too little, too late.

There are a lot of decentralized, lower cost approaches that could help effectively increase our water supply,,such as increased efficiency of irrigation systems, recharging aquifers, reuse of treated wastewater, and urban capture of rainfall. But our government clings to the paradigm of we’re going to fix our water problems by massive, costly engineering projects: creating two giant tunnels through the Delta, building energy-intensive desalination plants, and raising the dam of the largest reservoir in California by another 18.5 feet at a cost of several billion dollars. The decision makers who manage our water seem addicted to big infrastructure and don’t seem to think of more cost-effective solutions like recharging the existing aquifers, which already exist underground. Nor do you need to build a dam to increase efficiency of irrigation, require water reuse, and capture urban storm water, when there is storm water, and store it for various purposes.

“There are a lot of things that can be done, and we’re not on the verge of running out of water if we begin to manage it more rationally,” said Orr.

Photo Credits: Trent Orr, Attorney with Earthjustice; Map of California’s Central valley; An almond farmer stands in his Central Valley grove. Fracking sites, including one next to the farm, have proliferated; All images courtesy Earthjustice

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About the Author

is the President of Cortes Community Radio , CKTZ 89.5 FM, where he has hosted a half hour program since 2014, and editor of the the ECOreport, a website dedicated to exploring how our lifestyle choices and technologies affect the West Coast of North America. He writes for both writes for both Clean Technica and PlanetSave on Important Media. He is a research junkie who has written over 1,600 since he was first published in 1982. Roy lives on Cortes Island, BC, Canada.

  • RussiansArePigs

    easy solution. The midwest experiences heavy flooding from rain and melting snow. Build pipelines from these areas and pump the water to California. California can process the water and pump it back into all of the water systems. End of story.

    • Bob_Wallace

      You probably don’t have a future as a comedian.

  • Bogey

    My daughter is a bean counter for a large family farm in the central valley. Most of the water farmers use is run off and supported my reservoirs in the foot hills and mountains. Only in dry times do they pump water which is much more expensive. The west side of the valley was suppose to be off limits to farming because there is no ground water but Sacramento allowed foreign farm groups to put the land in production. With no snow for four years the water storage is empty and ground water in the foothills is almost gone.
    There are several issues, first the two largest cities (LA and San Fran)get their water from the north and the eastern Sierra mountains and provide NO storage for run off in wet years in their area. Second, the farmers are changing crops grown from cotton and vegetables to high water usage nut trees. This is the kick,,,most of the products are shipped overseas. They had to send everything to Houston this year because of the dock strikes. They have to correct ALL these issues if they want to solve the problem.

  • Matt

    So times these comments wander a bit.
    Problem CA uses too much water.
    Solution start charge all users for all/any water use. And lower use (raise cost) during dry periods.

    Does that change the rules? Yes. Would it impact farmers that have deep drills? Yes.
    Note that this doesn’t mean that technology isn’t used to help. When the water cost more people will use technology to reduce use.

  • eveee

    The entire problem is political and goes back a century. The farmers wanted unmetered water and they got it. The politicians needed farmers to get elected and thats how it works. Watch the movie Chinatown.
    There is still unmetered water. Any commodity that is free will be used wastefully. The present situation is the direct product of that.
    Western Water Wars are famous. The fact that California prior to last Fall did not regulate groundwater is part of the same problem.

    • Matt

      1-2% of CA economy uses >80% of it’s water. And they are exporting it, when you export the food you exported the water.

      • eveee

        Yes. And that is a terrible way to use water when its scarce. Export it? Good lord. Thats what unmetered water does to economics.

  • Wayne Williamson

    Like others have said, California needs to put in a lot of desal plants and hopefully solar/wind to power them. There is no reason to reduce our standard of living…the tech is here and now…..

  • Benjamin Nead

    Sorry, liuping. Everything I’ve ever seen citing beef is that it’s an amazingly wasteful and destructive way to feed oneself. Factor in water for the life of the animal, amount of water required to grow the corn or alfalfa to keep the animal alive, and the environmental waste of industrial feedlots, etc. . . .




  • Ivor O’Connor

    Strangely enough they are building new housing communities in California everywhere you look.

  • Doug Cutler

    I’m a bit dizzy after that but still a vegetarian.

  • john

    With a strong El Nino forming it is just possible that some rain will fall the only hope in the short term for the South West of USA

  • Benjamin Nead

    Probably true that almonds should, instead, be grown in places like Georgia (abundant sunshine but – unlike California – also abundant rain.) It’s been noted that it takes a gallon of water to produce one almond. However, I heard on the PBS NewsHour recently that it takes a whopping 106 gallons of water to produce 1/4 pound of beef (that’s the protein equivalent of a single almond.) The elephant in the room (well, one of them anyway) is the meat-rich diet that Americans have moved towards in the last half of the 20th century and one we’ve helped spreading into the Third World. Nobody likes to talk much about “legislating” what we eat, but it’s fairly obvious that our contemporary modern day meat-rich diet is going to be unsustainable moving into the future.

    Also . . . aquaponics (ie: a closed hydroponics system with fish emulsion fertilizing
    the plants and the plants, in turn, giving off nutrients for the fish to live off of) is estimated to use an astounding 90% less water than conventional soil farming.
    Not all plants can be grown this way, but most can. Aquaponics systems are scalable and can work outside in temperate climates. It’s organic (has to be, otherwise it would kill the fish fairly quickly) and, if you don’t mind “retiring the plant filters from time to time” (ie: eating the fish,) this is certainly the best way to go about fish farming . Off-grid power for the required pumps between fish tanks and plant grow tanks can be supplied by solar PV, which can be strategically placed above the fish tanks to shade that part of the system.

    Large scale desalinization should certainly be explored, but it still appears to be the most far off and expensive solution. Getting urban dwellers to be more water conscious is never a bad thing, even though they consume only 20% of the water currently. Getting agriculture to be much more water conscious is a higher priority
    since they use the other 80%. Everyone should be moving towards a more plant-rich diet.

    • Mint

      You can’t seriously think that one almond has the protein of a quarter pound of beef…

      • Benjamin Nead

        OK, some correction, as was working off memory, Paul Solmon’s PBS Newshour report from April 30 states that it’s 12 almonds
        (not one) that would be an equivalent amount of protein to 1/4 pound of beef. My mistake. Transcript of program here . . .


        But I remembered correctly that it is 106 gallons of water to get that quarter pound of beef. 12 gallons of water vs. 106 gallons. That’s still an astounding difference.

        • Kyle Field

          oh yes, cattle is also one of the other products of the central valley though I’m not clear where the grain they are fed is grown (and thus, the majority of the water that goes into beef).

      • liuping

        Yeah, that sounded odd to me too so I looked it up.

        Maybe he’s thinking 1 ounce of almonds has as much as 1 ounce of beef, which is at least closer, though still wrong (streak = 8.66g protein/oz, Almonds = 6g protein/oz).

        There are approximately 23 almond per ounce. or 92 per 1/4 lbs. So it really 92 gallons of water vs 106 gallons for beef, but that would be 10 grams less protein.

        To get the same protein as 1/4lbs of beef, it would take 5.78 oz of almonds, or 132 gallons of water. 🙂

        Almonds are just not a good source of protein per gallon of water. Chicken or eggs are much better.

  • This is a typical anti-technology article. As mentioned, the real problem is the wrong pricing of water that allows things like rice to be grown. Desalination requires nuclear plants, and maybe we should ease up on those in California. 🙂

    • Kyle Field

      Desal doesnt require nuclear plants…it does require power though. Nuclear plants on the other hand do require fresh water (which Diablo power station achieved through desalination). With california’s abundance of sunshine, solar PV is a natural pairing with desalination plants and could easily meet the need if intelligently paired with desal as part of the solution.

      • sjc_1

        Diablo uses fresh water in the steam turbines, but that is condensed and reused.

        They use sea water for cooling, that is where the desal could be done. They would have to use multistage evaporator/condensers, which take space and cost money.

        Half the desal water in the world is made this way.

    • eveee

      How would pricing help unmetered use?

      • Unmetered is free. As with cities, the higher the price the more pressure to put in meters instead of the unmetered flat rate. We just went through this in Toronto.

        • eveee

          Schwarzenegger instituted a plan to meter all use. Its not yet complete. And California just started regulating groundwater use. Its a little late. A backward and inefficient system is already the legacy of past abuses. And the groundwater table is tapped to very low levels.
          Unbridled consumption at its finest on view for all to see the result.
          Its gonna take a lot more than residential water restrictions to fix a broken agricultural system that is a water hog.

  • Marion Meads

    With the cost of production of water now being possible at less than $500 per acre-ft from megadesalination plant, California should invest in building massive desalination infrastructure for irrigating farmlands instead of building bullet trains.

    Israel’s cost is at about $700 per acre-ft, but using Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s very cheap perforated graphene made from methane, that is 100 times more energy efficient than that used by Israel, the cost of producing water should be less than half, at about $350 per acre-ft.

    For me, this is not a crisis at all, it is the lack of priority on the most important industry which feed the nation. Both the Federal and the State should invest on building supermassive desalination plant. They can get the water below the plankton zone, and then return the brine to the farther deeper zones outside of the littoral zones to minimize environmental impacts. They could also divert some of the brine water to the salt lakes or abandoned salt mines, and they can mine for minerals such as lithium, other minerals and phosphates that would become more concentrated.

    Time and again, geological records show that California climate can go into cycles of thousand year droughts punctuated by decades or hundred years of abundant precipitation. If we are entering the thousand year drought cycle, it is normal and long overdue. So it is time to act, build those desalination plants already and lose the bullet train Governor Brown! You’ll have more legacy by saving the nation’s literal food basket.

    • Joseph Dubeau

      Technology cannot solve all our problems.
      The farmers need to practice better water management.

      “Tanimura & Antle uses drip in nearly all its fields. But about 40 percent of farmland in Salinas doesn’t do any drip irrigation at all, according to the Monterey County Farm Bureau. ”

      Why California Farmers Are Conflicted About Using Less Water

      • Kyle Field

        For me, I’m wondering why we don’t just ban alfalfa growing (15% of state’s usage and something that doesnt need to be grown in cali) and almonds (10% of state water) in the central valley. Yes, some jobs will be lost…but if we adjusted to growing crops that should be grown in a drought ridden state vs the ones that are the most profitable, we could make a huge dent in the current crisis. Just these two crops alone constitute more water usage than all residential water usage (25% for alfalfa and almonds vs 17% of state water for residential customers).

        • Otis11

          That would be a huge government intrusion – aren’t you supposed to be from Texas? And an Aggie at that? (Assuming from Kyle Field)

          I’d say just take two steps back, get an actual accurate measure of how much water the state can afford to allocate to different sources and then auction it off – let the economics sort it out. They won’t be growing alfalfa for long, and the other crops will get a lot more water efficient! And all without government mandates and intrusions!

          Plus, if there exists an economic case for creating a desalination plant to supply more water, not only will we be able to directly justify it, but it will be paid for by those who use the water and not subsidized by the citizens! Double win!

          • Joseph Dubeau

            It’s the rest of us who pay for the water not the farmers or these corporations. It’s socialize costs and privatize profits.
            Saltwater intrusion is a serious problem.

            Desalination plants are like climate change deniers.
            Time is running out.

          • Otis11

            Hmm… I don’t know how you came to that conclusion – all the farmers I know pay for their water (Except the few who pump it themselves, but then they pay for the pump and electricity – and they should have to pay for water rights even if they currently don’t).

            And I was stating that they should have to pay the same as ordinary citizens. Sell water for the price of water on the open market, and everything will sort itself out.

          • Joseph Dubeau

            “And I was stating that they should have to pay the same as ordinary citizens” No way, food would cost too much.
            If it cost 15 millions to move water from point A to point B,
            they don’t charge the farmer for that.

          • Otis11

            They should – food costs should not be put upon the tax payer, but rather the consumer. We might chose to eat more efficiently and grow food in areas where it grows better. There are many crops that don’t need such active care to grow – why should only the demanding crops be subsidized?

          • Bogey

            They pay for the water rights which LA is buying up and small farmers are shutting down. I lived in the Central valley and electricity is outrages. I had a 3 bedroom house and in July I had a 600.00 electric bill. I know small farmers with 5000.00 electric bills.

          • Kyle Field

            I’m not from Texas…my name is actually Kyle Field (from cali). I like the double play idea 🙂

          • Otis11

            Ha! Well that’s quite the coincidence!

            I actually googled it to see if there was another Kyle Field, but nothing popped up.

            Anyway, nice to meet ya!

          • Matt

            And repeal all the grandfathered senior water rights of farm that started before 1914 (now most corp farms). That are allowed to pull all the water they want.

          • Otis11

            Well, we have to be careful on that – while I support the premise, we do need to support property rights. (I’m assuming they have mineral rights?)

            If not, while I wouldn’t be supportive of stripping their water rights from them, I wouldn’t be against a large settlement with the group to buy the rights away from them. (Though it might be legal just to take it – would have to be more informed on the reason they were initially established and the wording of the law/bill/document)

        • Larmion

          Banning specific crops doesn’t seem sensible at all. Chances are almonds will be replaced by other cash crops that are every bit as water hungry. And alfalfa’s most obvious alternatives are no saints in terms of WUE (water use efficiency) either. Plus, there’s the whole government intrusion thing.

          There’s a simpler solution: meter water use and put a price on it. That’ll push farmers either towards small, highly efficient market gardening operations with excellent irrigation control or towards large, extensive farms with crops adapted to the local climate.

          • Kyle Field

            Seems like subsidies for efficient watering would be in order.

          • Otis11

            Why do you need to subsidize that? You’re correcting a market condition by making them pay for a resource they are consuming but currently not paying for…

          • Kyle Field

            Plain and simply to encourage the desired behavior.

          • Otis11

            Would economics not be enough? If we charge the fair value of water for people in the city and the farmers in the field, the water use habits will change to the most optimal solution. My guess would be people would reduce their water use habits (fewer fountains, water lawns/gardens less and get more efficient water fixtures in their homes) and farmers would improve their field watering efficiencies simply because the economics dictate it. In the areas where the economics don’t justify the transition, why waste taxpayer money making the transition anyway so that we can waste that same water in other areas where it would be more economical to save it there?

          • Kyle Field

            If we assumed economics would be enough, subsidies wouldn’t exist. I see subsidies as temporary incentives to drive behavior whereas taxes (driving pricing up) is a longer term fix. Thus…I would think subsidizing drip irrigation would help shift the industry towards that (via a mass, one time incentive) whereas pricing is the longer term fix to drive reductions in usage over the long haul which we need as well. Yes, you could just drive it through pricing but offering a carrot instead of just the stick is typically better and brings results more quickly.

          • Otis11

            Valid point – subsidies would bring the change about more quickly, though at an overall higher total cost. I was erring on the economic side due to the current financial state of CA, but I guess the water issue is fairly dire as well and doing both at the same time would achieve faster results and face less resistance…

          • newnodm

            Orchards need different short term thinking than annual field crops. I agree with metering, however. That will kill alfalfa production, which is appropriate.

        • Joseph Dubeau

          After thinking about for a day, I don’t think we can tell farmers what they can or can not grow in their fields. We should not enable them to sow seeds of our ecological disaster.
          We need to practice sustainable forms of agriculture.

          If you remember the Texas drought many of ranchers sold off the herds due to lack of water.
          Ranchers rely on grass land to feed their cattle.
          Recently, this has been happen here in California as well.
          Should we be growing animal feed that is consume outside the state of California? I don’t think so. It is not sustainable! The animal feed should include the true cost of the water.

          These farmers that are taking too water out of the ground need to be hit with steep fines.

          • Otis11

            Exactly my point! Except instead of fines I think they simply need to establish a fair market price for the water so that the supply and demand at that price match. (And restricting the supply to amounts that are actually sustainable!)

        • newnodm

          It’s too soon to decide to kill the almond trees. But growing alfalfa on irrigation during a drought is absurd. If the Japanese need alfalfa, the market will adjust witha price increase and someone else (who has water) will grow it.

    • newnodm

      Israel is a small desert country. The U.S. is a huge, water rich country. High water/ low value crops don’t belong in most of California. There’s probably too much dairy that needs irrigation support too.
      People exploit what is economic at the time, not what makes long term sense. Irrigating alfalfa in a semi-arid climate with a severe water shortage makes no sense.
      Ground water was a limited resource that has been used up in many western areas, Time to move on. There is just as much water in the world as there was 1000 years ago. There’s just not enough water anymore where many western farmers want it because they used it up. No one, except ag special interest, wants to pay for massive desalination to grow field crops in inappropriate places.

  • Michael G

    This is all correct, but it doesn’t tell the half of it. The “farmers” in Imperial Valley are mostly absentee landlords usually living in San Diego while migrant workers and local managers do the work. They have been lobbying to get the 40% of the water that *isn’t* (yet) diverted to them and the heck with endangered species, free-running streams and anything else that doesn’t make them money. The biggest use of water is for alfalfa which is often highly compacted and sent to Japan (Kobe Beef) and China. #2 user is almonds and pistachios. One almond takes 1 gal of water. One walnut takes 5 gal. They could switch crops, make more money, and use less water but they all have the “no one tells ME what to do” attitude.

    I spent a lot of time looking into this and summarized what I found here:

    Humans are 95% ego and 5% brain.

    • Kyle Field

      Not all humans, thankfully 🙂

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