California’s Water Storage Crisis: The Battle at Temperance Flat

Months without rain in California have given notice that the state does not have enough water in storage to get through really bad dry periods, especially in the San Joaquin Valley. Farmers in eastern portions of the Valley, around Fresno, are particularly vulnerable.  My new blog looks at a highly controversial plan to build a new dam, called Temperance Flat, in the upper San Joaquin River behind the Federally operated Friant Dam.  Farmers want it; environmentalists oppose it; water officials and politicians line up on both sides of the issue. It’s a fascinating story, rooted in one of the most painful chapters in California water history.  Blog follows:

 

        Down the spine of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains south of Yosemite, huge granite peaks stand shoulder to shoulder more than 13,000 feet high, with no passage through them. Only hikers can cross the rugged range for more than 200 miles.
Banner Peak and Thousand Island Lakes mark the headwaters of the San Joaquin
River in the Ansel Adams Wilderness.    Photo by Alex Breitler
       These tall mountains – the Southern Sierras – extending from the San Joaquin River watershed east of Fresno to the southern edge of Sequoia National Forest, epitomize California’s erratic water supply. In wet years, so much water pours down the mountains that its volume would scare the daylights out of any creature without wings. In drought years,  meager streams cannot fill the reservoirs.

A Year Like No Other

      “This year, no one has water” said Mario Santoyo, assistant general manager of Friant Water Authority near Fresno, a unit of the Federal Central Valley Project that provides irrigation for 15,000 farmers in eastern San Joaquin Valley. “The public has no idea how bad this is going to be….there will be nothing,” said Santoyo glumly. Friant Dam distributes water to more than a million acres of fertile fields that lie mostly east of highway 99, from Madera to Kern County. The area produces more crops per volume than any other in the nation.
      Behind the dam, Millerton reservoir was dangerously low as of Feb. 7, and Friant’s managers were scouring the state to find more water. We were on a boat on Millerton, touring the site of a proposed new dam, Temperance Flat, that could rise at the back end of the lake, more than doubling storage in the reservoir. (Because of its position in low hills, Friant Dam cannot be raised).
      Temperance Flat is one of the most controversial storage projects in California. Farmers want it; environmentalists oppose it; Federal officials have left it on the shelf for years. But this year, in the wake of California’s epic drought year, the project is alive and well. Like nothing else, these months with no precipitation have driven home the awareness that California does not have enough water in storage to get through really bad dry periods.

Watered States

CSA steer Richard Walker contributed his perspective to this East Bay Express piece on the state’s water crisis last week:

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California’s Thirsty Almonds

How the water-intensive crop is helping drive the governor’s $25 billion plan to ship water to the desert.

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Dan Errotabere’s family has been farming the dry soils of the western San Joaquin Valley for nearly a century. His grandfather primarily grew wheat and other grains. His father grew vegetables and other annual crops almost exclusively. But in 1999, Errotabere decided to plant his first almond tree. Today, almonds account for more than a quarter of his 3,600-acre farm.

“Out here it’s nothing but topsoil,” he told me during a tour of his property late last year. He added that his land is especially good for growing nuts.

If there’s enough water.

Errotabere’s farm resides within the Westlands Water District, a barren landscape southwest of Fresno that gets very little rain — even in non-drought years. The average annual precipitation in the district is just eight inches, and the region suffers from poor drainage, high levels of toxic minerals in the soil, and salt-laden groundwater. “It’s really an area that should have never been farmed,” said Richard Walker, a retired UC Berkeley geography professor and an expert on agricultural economics.

Yet Westlands is almost all farmland, thanks to water from Northern California and the Sierra Nevada that the federal government pumps out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and ships south through a series of canals and aqueducts. Throughout the 20th century, this massive transfer of water turned a large section of California desert into a bountiful — and profitable — farming region.

But ever since freshwater began flowing to the dusty west side of the valley, the landscape has been in constant flux.  …”  Read the whole article here….

Tunnel Project Totters Financially; Fixing Up Current Conveyance Gets More Water

The Brown administration’s plan to dig giant water tunnels under the Delta looks financially precarious, like a bus hanging out over a cliff. It’s economic benefits have been seriously challenged and there is no agreement yet whether the people who stand to profit are willing to pay for it.  State water contractors in the San Joaquin Valley and southern California who want this pricey project, called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan or BDCP, are promising economic benefits based on a supposed threat that, without the tunnels, future water exports will plummet.

A central problem for tunnel promoters is that if their predictions are wrong about sinking water exports – if future water deliveries through existing Delta channels continue as they are today, and especially if they improve, the economic value of the tunnels would evaporate.  Several sources consulted for this report believe that water exports could be improved in the near future, with new fish screens that are in current testing, plus some modifications of through-Delta channels. That, combined with new storage south of the Delta to take excess water in wet years, could either make tunnels unnecessary or reduce their size.

Read more here

Water in the Sunshine State

The water world is on tether hooks awaiting the Brown Administration’s plan for a peripheral canal due out in July.  As Patricia McBroom reports in her new post on the California Spigot, the forces that oppose the canal have gathered their strength, while many watch and shake their heads in wonderment at details that seem to ignore all the best science.

Meanwhile, stakeholders have joined together without state officials in near-term action plans that should protect California citizens from catastrophic failures of the water system.  You could call it democracy in the commons.

From the article:

Who wants to pay for a tunnel that delivers less water than is available through the current setup?

That question echoes through the airwaves, along with rumors that the Brown Administration plans to weaken laws protecting fish to get its version of the peripheral tunnels built.

On Wednesday, a powerhouse coalition of 38 environmental, fishing and San Francisco-Bay Delta organizations wrote to U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar warning him that “It would be folly for the Department of Interior to follow the State of California down this risky path” and urging him to dissuade the state from this “poorly conceived and destructive plan.”

But which plan?

Click here to read the piece in its entirety.