Shaping water storage in California

By Jay Lund, Maurice Hall and Anthony Saracino

With the continuation of California’s historic drought and the recent passage of Proposition 1, the potential value of additional water storage in the state is an area of vigorous discussion.

In a new study released today, we look at the different roles of storage in California’s integrated water system and evaluate storage capacity expansion from what we call a “system analysis approach.” This approach emphasizes how new storage projects, both above and below ground, can work in combination with one another and in concert with the broader water management system.

Surface water reservoirs provide benefits by capturing water when it is more abundant and storing it for times of greater water scarcity (most commonly storing water from California’s wet winter for its dry spring and summer, but also providing some ability to save water for short droughts). Groundwater in California provides larger capacity storage for the longer term, such as for multi-year droughts, and is a substantial source of water and seasonal storage in places where surface water is limited.

In California’s vast and interconnected water system, storage projects should not be evaluated in isolation. Instead, storage should be considered and analyzed as part of larger portfolios of infrastructure and management actions, including: various water sources; various types and locations of surface and groundwater storage; various conveyance alternatives; and managing all forms of water demands. Such an integrated, multi-benefit perspective and analysis would be more valuable and would be a fundamental departure from most ongoing policy discussions and recent storage project analyses.

Our study and earlier work shows that the ability to utilize additional water storage in California is finite and varies greatly with its location, the availability of water conveyance capacity, and how the system is operated to integrate surface and groundwater storage, conveyance and water demands.

At most, California’s large-scale water system could potentially utilize between 5 and 6 million acre-feet of additional surface and groundwater storage capacity, and probably no more. The limitation stems primarily from a lack of streamflow to reliably fill larger amounts of storage space.

Major water storage expansion proposals

In the long term, this limitation is likely to tighten with a drier climate, though it can loosen somewhat with wetter and more variable streamflows.

The most promising new storage projects would provide annual water deliveries of 5-15 percent of the new storage capacity. Said another way, a storage project with 1 million acre-feet of storage capacity would likely provide an average of only 50,000 to 150,000 acre-feet of new supply a year.

Our study also demonstrates that the water supply and environmental performance of additional storage capacity are greatest when surface and groundwater storage operations are integrated and coordinated. The benefits and likely cost-effectiveness of coordinating surface and groundwater storage and conveyance operations greatly surpass the benefits of expanding storage capacity alone. Integrated operation can expand annual water delivery to as much as 20 percent of the increase in storage capacity.

This does not necessarily mean that the benefits of expanding surface or groundwater storage capacity exceed their substantial costs; we did not delve into benefit and cost calculations. But there is enough water and water demand to take advantage of up to about 5 or 6 million acre-feet of additional surface and groundwater storage within the Central Valley, were this capacity available and in the right places.

This new storage volume would increase California’s total water supply by at most 5 percent and, if targeted appropriately, could provide more reliable supplies for farms and cities as well as more flows at the right time and place for fish and wildlife.

However, expanding water storage is no panacea by itself; it must be combined with other system improvements and actions in an integrated portfolio approach to California’s water system.

Integrated water management and Delta water deliveries


More integrated water management greatly increases water deliveries. This graph shows average delivery increases for various Delta conveyance assumptions and combinations of four surface and groundwater storage expansions in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. Sources: Historical climate data, CalLite water model (described in appendix of storage study)

More integrated water management greatly increases Delta water deliveries. This graph shows average water delivery increases for various Delta conveyance assumptions and combinations of four surface and groundwater storage capacity expansions in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. Sources: Historical climate data and the CalLite water model described in appendix of storage study

Water infrastructure programs purposely designed and implemented to work with other parts of the water system and other water management actions can significantly outperform individual projects in achieving objectives for water supply, healthy ecosystems and flood protection — under a variety of climate conditions (Harou et al. 2010; Connell-Buck et al. 2011; Ragatz 2013).

Studies examining water storage and water management generally should explicitly consider the potential for integrating surface and groundwater storage, as well as conveyance and water demand management for water supply, ecosystems and flood protection. Recent state groundwater legislation could be instrumental in supporting such coordination regionally and locally.

The benefits of integrated management are clear. A transformation is needed in how agencies and stakeholders think about conducting water infrastructure studies if California is going to squeeze the most benefit from our water infrastructure investments, including the Prop. 1 funds.

Jay Lund is director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. Maurice Hall is California water science and engineering lead for The Nature Conservancy and Anthony Saracino is a water resources consultant in Sacramento.

Jay Lund talks about water storage study

Further reading

Connell-Buck, C.R., J. Medellín-Azuara, J.R. Lund, and K. Madani, “Adapting California’s water system to warm vs. warm-dry climates,” Climatic Change, Vol. 109 (Suppl 1), pp. S133–S149, 2011

Hanak, E., J. Lund, A. Dinar, B. Gray, R. Howitt, J. Mount, P. Moyle and B. Thompson, Managing California’s Water:  From Conflict to Reconciliation, Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco, CA, 500 pp., February 2011

Harou, J.J., J. Medellin-Azuara, T. Zhu, S.K. Tanaka, J.R. Lund, S. Stine, M.A. Olivares and M.W. Jenkins, “Economic consequences of optimized water management for a prolonged, severe drought in California,” Water Resources Research, doi:10.1029/2008WR007681, Vol. 46, 2010

Krieger, J.H. and H.O. Banks (1962), “Ground water basin management,” Cal. Law Review. V. 50:56

Lund, J., A. Munévar, A. Taghavi, M. Hall and A. Saracino, “Integrating storage in California’s changing water system,” Center for Watershed Sciences, UC Davis, November 2014

Lund, J.R. and T. Harter (2013), “California’s groundwater problems and prospects”, CaliforniaWaterBlog, Jan. 30, 2013

Lund, J.R. (2012), “Expanding Water Storage Capacity in California,” CaliforniaWaterBlog, Feb. 22, 2012

Lund, J.R. (2011), “Water Storage in California,” CaliforniaWaterBlog, Sept. 13, 2011

Ragatz, R.E. (2013), “California’s water futures: How water conservation and varying Delta exports affect water supply in the face of climate change,” Master’s thesis, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, UC Davis


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Aquatic plants: unsung but prime salmon habitat

Photo by Carson Jeffres/UC Davis

A Chinook salmon in Big Springs Creek near Mount Shasta. Photo by Carson Jeffres/UC Davis, 2012

By Robert Lusardi and Ann Willis

For decades, California’s management and restoration of salmon and trout populations have focused on principles rooted in coastal redwood streams, mostly fed by rainfall runoff. These concepts portray ideal salmonid habitat as deep pools, shallow riffles and “large woody debris,” such as fallen trees and limbs.

Recent studies on spring-fed streams challenges this mindset. The findings strongly suggest these streams should play a larger role in the recovery and management of sensitive cold-water species, particularly salmonids.

Researchers at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences found that trout in spring-fed streams grow faster than those reared in runoff streams in the same watershed.

Aquatic macrophytes in the spring-fed Shasta River. Photo by Robert Lusardi

Aquatic macrophytes in the spring-fed Shasta River. Photo by Robert Lusardi/UC Davis

Surprisingly, they suggest that trout benefit not only from the stable flow and temperature regimes of spring-fed streams but also from another dominant – yet much underappreciated – habitat feature: aquatic plants.

Known as macrophytes, these rooted vascular plants provide similar benefits as pools, and large woody debris.

As fish habitat, this woody debris provides structure, velocity heterogeneity and refuge from predators [1]. It also has been shown to increase habitat area and reduce competition between fish [2]. Similarly, biologists have long recognized pools as superior salmonid habitat for providing predator and thermal refuge, velocity heterogeneity and improved food resources [3].

Invertebrates in macrophyte habitat on Shasta River. Photo by Carson Jeffres/UC Davis

Hydopyschid caddisfly larvae spin nets to gather food in macrophyte habitat on the Shasta River. Photo by Carson Jeffres/UC Davis

Spring-fed streams generally lack the high volume flows of runoff streams that transport woody debris and scour pools. As a result, scientists and resource managers have paid less attention to the physical habitat dynamics of spring-fed systems than to other beneficial factors such as streamflow and water temperatures.

Macrophytes grow in many spring-fed streams and are largely a product of naturally occurring nutrients, stable flow and temperature, open canopy and low gradient. These plants provide many of the same benefits to trout and salmon of the more classic redwood streams type habitat.

Underwater tour of Big Springs Creek, by Carson Jeffres/UC Davis

On the Shasta River, a large spring-fed tributary to the Lower Klamath River, the UC Davis researchers conducted an experiment to understand the potential benefits of macrophyte habitat on juvenile steelhead trout.

Presented with multiple habitat types, steelhead overwhelmingly selected macrophyte habitat during spring and summer foraging. The researchers found that macrophyte habitat provided abundant food – the plants also are important for invertebrates – and refuge from high-velocity currents. This suggests that the use of macrophyte habitat allowed trout to gorge on seemingly unlimited food while exerting minimal energy.

Juvenile coho salmon in Big Springs Creek, by Carson Jeffres/UC Davis

Unlike more classic habitat forms, the effects of macrophytes on trout and salmon operate at larger spatial scales. Additional research on the Shasta River and elsewhere has shown that macrophytes increase stream water depth and wetted habitat area, and can reduce water temperature through shading [4]. Other studies have shown that macrophytes reduce competition between individual fish through visual isolation and increase fish density [5].

These broader benefits may be particularly important for salmonid populations in California during late summer and early fall, when flows in runoff streams typically decline and water temperatures rise.

Insect casings in Big Springs Creek, by Carson Jeffres/UC Davis

It’s no surprise that spring-fed streams such as Hot Creek in the eastern Sierra historically boasted some of the highest trout densities in California. Likewise, Shasta River historically supported 50 percent of the Klamath Basin’s Chinook salmon, even though it accounts for only 1 percent of the basin’s annual streamflow [6].

Pacific salmon recovery efforts in the Lower Klamath River drainage often focus on spring-fed systems such as the Shasta River because they provide flow stability and optimal thermal habitat for rearing salmonids.

While many factors contribute to fish production, macrophyte habitat has received far less attention for its beneficial effects on trout and salmon. Fully understanding such species-to-species interactions as those between plants and fish is important and will assist salmonid conservation planning and recovery.

Robert Lusardi is a post doctoral scholar in ecology at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences and a California Trout-UC Davis Wild and Coldwater Fish Researcher. He studies stream ecology and food web dynamics of volcanic spring-fed ecosystems in Northern California. Ann Willis, an engineer who coordinates research programs at the Center, has done extensive fieldwork monitoring the restoration of Big Springs Creek.


[1] Crook, D.A. & Robertson, A.I. (1999) Relationships between riverine fish and woody debris: implications for lowland rivers. Marine and Freshwater Research, 50, 941-953.

[2] Sundbaum, K. and I. Naslund. 1998. Effects of woody debris on the growth and behaviour of brown trout in experimental stream channels. Canadian Journal of Zoology-Revue Canadienne De Zoologie 76:56-61.

[3] Nielsen, J.L., Lisle, T.E. & Ozaki, V. (1994) Thermally stratified pools and their use by steelhead in Northern California streams. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, 123, 613-626; Rosenfeld, J.S. & Boss, S. (2001) Fitness consequences of habitat use for juvenile cutthroat trout: energetic costs and benefits in pools and riffles. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 58, 585-593.

[4] Champion, P. D. and C. C. Tanner. 2000. Seasonality of macrophytes and interaction with flow in a New Zealand lowland stream. Hydrobiologia 441:1-12.

[5] Eklov, A.G. & Greenberg, L.A. (1998) Effects of artificial instream cover on the density of 0+ brown trout. Fisheries Management and Ecology, 5, 45-53.

[6] National Research Council (NRC). 2004. Endangered and Threatened Fishes in the Klamath River Basin: Causes of Decline and Strategies for Recovery; Wales, J. H. 1951. The decline of the Shasta River king salmon run. Bureau of Fish and Wildlife. California Division of Fish and Game

Further reading

Gregg WW, Rose FL. 1982. The effects of aquatic macrophytes on the stream micro-environment. Aquatic Botany 14: 309-324.

Beland KF, Trial JG, Kocik JF. 2004. Use of riffle and run habitats with aquatic vegetation by juvenile Atlantic salmon. North American Journal of Fisheries Management 24: 525-533.

Fausch, K. D. 1984. Profitable stream positions for salmonids – relating specific growth rate to net energy gain. Canadian Journal of Zoology-Revue Canadienne De Zoologie 62:441-451.

Jeffres, C., Aug. 24, 2011. Benefits of growing up in a spring-fed stream. California WaterBlog.

Lusardi, R. A. 2014. Volcanic Spring-fed rivers: ecosystem productivity and importance for Pacific salmonids. PhD dissertation. University of California, Davis.

Lusardi, R.A. 2013. How to save salmon: location, location, location. California WaterBlog

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Groundwater security, for the long term

Photo by Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources

Imported Colorado River percolates into Coachella Valley’s aquifer, replenishing 40,000 acre-feet of water annually. Photo by Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources

By Lauren Adams

Under recently enacted legislation, local agencies in California are required for the first time to manage groundwater pumping and recharge sustainably.

The law empowers local groundwater agencies to manage and use groundwater “without causing undesirable results,” leaving it up to them to determine how to best achieve this goal. Within the next six to eight years, agencies in groundwater basins subject to critical overdraft must adopt plans that put these areas on a path to sustainability by 2040.

A major factor complicating such long-term water planning is climate change. Failing to account for a changing climate will put agencies at risk of “undesirable results,” even if they are otherwise well prepared.

California has already experienced shifts in runoff from spring to winter. Scientists predict continued shrinking in snowpack and increased variability in temperature and precipitation, resulting in more frequent heat waves, longer droughts and more intense floods.

For groundwater, this means demand will rise in dry times, particularly for irrigation, and recharge will be less consistent. In times of water scarcity, groundwater provides more than 60 percent of water supply in some regions, compared with about 38 percent of California’s total water supply in normal years.

Modernizing and sustainably managing groundwater basins lays the foundation for climate change readiness, but more actions can be taken. The key is to make the system more reliable.

Adaptation strategies such as groundwater banking and managed aquifer recharge can help. But for the long term, to protect against more erratic water availability under climate change, a thoroughly integrated approach to water management is needed.

Groundwater basins in overdraft. Source: California Department of Water Resources, 1980

Groundwater basins in overdraft. Source: California Department of Water Resources, 1980

Managing groundwater, surface water and stormwater systems conjunctively, along with innovative water efficiency and conservation strategies, will help stabilize if not increase the amount of water available for use.

For example, Orange County Water District reports that implementing an integrated approach to water resources management allowed the district to more than double yield from their groundwater basin. Clearly defined groundwater rights make management more secure so people can trade water if they so choose.

At the least, managing for climate change will help local groundwater agencies prepare for natural climate variability. Recent analysis of tree rings in central California found that in the past 2,000 years the region often experiences periods of 14-16 years of overall wetness or dryness – a duration that exceeds many of todays’ water-planning horizons. Managing for natural variability, such as 14-16 years of below-average dryness (or, better, for droughts lasting more than 100 years as occurred in medieval California), will make it easier to manage other local problems, such as evaporative losses.

Taking a long-term approach to groundwater management will result in more resilient groundwater basins and a more secure water system for California.

Lauren Adams is a graduate student in water resources engineering and a 2014 fellow with the Integrative Graduate Education Research and Traineeship (IGERT) program at UC Davis. She was an organizer of an IGERT workshop in April on California groundwater and climate change. IGERT fellows Amanda Fencl and Katie Markovich contributed to this blog.

Further reading

California Senate Bill 1168, Senate Bill 1319, Assembly Bill 1739. Three-bill legislative package known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014

California Department of Water Resources. 2014. California Water Action Plan

California Department of Water Resources. 2014. “Managing an Uncertain Future”. Vol. 1, Chapter 5, California Water Plan Update 2013

California Department of Water Resources. 2014. “Conjunctive Use Management and Groundwater”. Vol. 2, Chapter 8, California Water Plan Update 2013

Groundwater Sustainability Plans: New Territory or Untrodden Ground?” Western Water Blog. Stanford University. Oct. 27, 2014

Hayhoe, Catherine, et al., 2004. “Emissions pathways, climate change and impacts on California,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). 101 (34). 12422-12427

Hutchinson, Adam. 2014. “Conjunctive Use and Aquifer Recharge”. Presentation to CCWAS IGERT workshop, April 16, 2014

Kretsinger, Vicki, Thomas Harter and Tim Parker. “Modernizing California’s Groundwater Management”. California WaterBlog, June 22, 2014

Lund, Jay and Thomas Harter. “California’s Groundwater Problems and Prospects”. California WaterBlog. Jan. 30, 2013

Meko, David et al., 2014. “Klamath/San Joaquin/Sacramento Hydroclimatic Reconstruction from Tree Rings”. Draft Final Report to the California Department of Water Resources

Souza, Christine. “For Groundwater, Local Management Proves Effective”. AgAlert. Aug. 6, 2014

Taylor, Richard et al., 2013. “Groundwater and Climate Change”. Nature Climate Change. 3. 322-329

The Future of Groundwater in California’s Changing Climate”. Workshop organized by the Climate Change, Water and Society IGERT, UC Davis. iTunes podcasts. April 16, 2014

Upcoming Event


California’s Yolo Bypass is a grand experiment in reconciliation ecology, a new approach to species conservation.

Rather than restore the engineered Sacramento River floodplain to some natural state, scientists and conservation groups are exploring exciting possibilities for a re-engineered landscape that allows native species and human uses to coexist.

Their research indicates the floodway would make a productive salmon nursery and seasonal feeding ground for water birds at little or no cost to farmers.

The Dec. 9 symposium brings together several of the key investigators — engineers, ecologists and economists — for a daylong public discussion on how farming and floods might be reconciled with fish and fowl.

Sponsors: Delta Science Program | UC Davis Center for Aquatic Biology & Aquaculture | UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

Tuesday, Dec. 9,  9 am – 5 pm
UC Davis Conference Center, Ballroom B
Free and open to the public
Watch for agenda at

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Trick or treat? Aliens at the door

gobie copy

By Chris Bowman

Many of the alien species invading California’s lakes and streams would make for wickedly good Halloween costumes.

gobyTake the Shokihaze goby, Tridentiger barbatus (above and right), a native of Asian now common in Suisun Bay and the lower Sacramento River. Its spiky stubble of whisker-like barbels about the mouth and cheeks defines “ugly.” And its eyes, ringed with heavy mascara and seemingly misplaced near the top of its head, are downright spooky.

The goby’s barbels, however, are not nearly as charmless as those of the channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus), shown below.Catfish


Then there’s the red swamp crayfish (Procambarus clarkii), aka Louisiana crawdad. Never mind the pinchers. The eyes are not only beady; they’re freakishly mounted on moveable stalks that slide independently along the side of the head. The dagger-like snout also makes this clawed carpetbagger especially hard to cuddle.

Beware Halloween night of  trick-or-treaters masquerading as freshwater aliens. If true to form, they’ll trick you even if you treat them.

didymoAlthough highly prized in Cajun cuisine, the red swamp crayfish wreaks havoc in rice fields of the Central Valley by burrowing several feet into rice checks and levees, weakening the earthen banks and causing erosion.

Another alien trickster is this microscopic algae, or diatom, to the right that looks innocently whimsical with its bottle-shaped body.

But Didymosphenia geminata (“Didymo” for short) can pull an underwater prank akin to toilet-papering your trees. It coats riverbeds with thick and slimy brown mats, choking off bottom-dwelling organisms that fish eat.

No wonder this invasive species is nicknamed “rock snot.” In the photo below, the South Fork Yuba River looks as though it has a serious sinus infection.


Rivers with stable, dam-regulated flows are particularly susceptible to infestation. Peek, who has snorkeled many California streams as a biologist with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, calls the South Fork Yuba “rock-snot Armageddon.”

He says the river sometimes looks like it is polluted with toilet paper as pieces of Didymo mats slough off and drift downstream.

Photo by Ryan Peek/UC Davis

A section of the South Fork Yuba River infested with Didymo, or rock snot. Photo by Ryan Peek/UC Davis

The Uruguay water-primrose (Ludwigia hexapetala) boasts bright yellow flowers and may be viewed as an attractive addition to California wetlands. But under the right conditions, the species grows explosively to clog waterways. Among other problems, the aquatic plant can harbor mosquitos carrying West Nile virus, as the dense patches shield the insects from pesticide spraying.

Amber Manfree, a scientist now with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, wades through a jungle of water primrose in the state Laguna Wildlife Area of Sonoma County. Photo by Julian Meisler

Amber Manfree, a scientist now with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, wades through a jungle of Uruguay water-primrose in the state Laguna Wildlife Area of Sonoma County. Photo by Julian Meisler


Microscopic view of a freshwater jellyfish collected by an angler at Lake Clementine in early October. Photo by Ryan Peek/UC Davis

The drought seems to have invited a ghostly invader to some California lakes. Earlier this month, boaters began reporting blossoms of freshwater jellyfish (Craspedacusta sowerbii) in the much depleted Lake Oroville and other diminishing reservoirs in the northern Sierra foothills.

Jana Frazier, a Department of Water Resources spokeswoman, told KNVN news of Chico that the warming low water levels “seems to trigger a good bloom of the jellyfish.” The translucent, quarter-size creature is a friendly Halloween ghost with a stinger too small to penetrate human skin.


A southern watersnake eats many different freshwater fish species such as this sunfish. The non-native snakes are invading California waters, posing a threat to native fish, amphibians and reptiles. Photo by J.D. Willson/University of Arkansas

Invasive water snakes are slithering into the Sacramento area. An estimated 300 snakes of two species — the northern or common watersnake (Nerodia sipedon) and the southern watersnake (Nerodia fasciata) — have been found in Roseville and Folsom, and at least 150 have been seen in Long Beach, according to a recent UC Davis study. Though nonvenomous, the snakes are not picky eaters. Biologists are concerned they will spread and prey on the giant garter snake and the California tiger salamander — both on the federal endangered species list — and the foothill yellow-legged frog, an amphibian of special conservation concern.

Whether slithering or slimy, ghastly or ghostly, several of California’s alien water species can be an ecological nightmare. If only they were as scared of us as we are of them.


A Shokihaze goby recently caught in Suisun Marsh. Photo by Amber Manfree/UC Davis

Chris Bowman is communications director at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. He occasionally invites freshwater aliens over for dinner, once they are cooked.

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Flagging problem dams for fish survival

Lake Shasta

Shasta Dam is one of 181 “high-priority” candidates for Section 5937 enforcement because of its potential to alter Sacramento River flows critical to Central Valley Chinook salmon. Photo by Paul Harnes/ California Department of Water Resources, Jan. 16, 2014

By Ted Grantham and Peter Moyle

This drought year, as in those past, California water regulators have given away to cities and farms some river flows critical to fish and wildlife. It’s a dicey tradeoff considering most of our native fishes are in trouble even without the drought.

There are, however, legal backstops to prevent harmful reductions in fish flows, even during a drought as severe as this one. They include the “beneficial use of water” section of the California constitution, state and federal endangered species acts, the public trust doctrine – and one rarely applied state regulation specifically aimed at preventing loss of fish through the operation of dams.

Adopted more than a century ago, Section 5937 of California Fish and Game Code explicitly requires dam owners to release enough flow “at all times” to keep fish “in good condition.”

To this day, however, many dam owners have not met this requirement and the state has not enforced the rule. This is perhaps not surprising given the vast number of dams in the state – more than 3,000 – as well as the high cost of changing dam operations and political resistance to allocating water for environmental purposes.

Citizen lawsuits have successfully applied Section 5937 on the San Joaquin River and a few other dammed waterways. [Listen to Peter Moyle’s story of how Putah Creek got its fish flows back (2 mins)] In other words, the rule has been implemented where conservationists’ influence in decision-making is greatest – not necessarily where fish protection is most needed.

If Section 5937 were more broadly applied to improve fish flows, which dams should get the focus of attention?

With that question in mind, the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences developed a systematic and science-based approach for evaluating and targeting dams for potential enforcement.

The newly published method screens dams for evidence of inadequate downstream flows for sustaining healthy fish populations. It provides a scientific basis for dam operators, natural resource managers and policymakers to perform water “triage” — setting management priorities for dams requiring the most urgent attention.

Screening of dams for potential Section 5937 enforcement. High-priority dams are identified by evidence of alteration to natural flow patterns and potential to affect sensitive native fish species. Source: BioScience

Screening of dams for potential Section 5937 enforcement. High-priority dams are identified by evidence of alteration to natural flow patterns and potential to affect sensitive native fish species. Source: BioScience

The system first screens dams subject to the fish flows law – those on relatively large rivers and streams with enough storage capacity to change the timing and magnitude of river flows.

Next, dams are filtered for evidence of alteration to natural flow patterns that could harm fish. This is because California’s native fish species are highly adapted to the natural seasonal variability of flows in rivers and streams.

For example, migratory salmon have evolved to return from the ocean to their natal rivers in the winter, when flows are high from rainfall. After spawning, their young either quickly move out to sea before the home stream gets too warm or grow throughout the summer if the water stays cool. Dams built for water supply storage and flood control can impede the migration and spawning if they capture too much of the winter flows needed for the salmon’s upstream journey or release too little water in the summer for juvenile salmon to migrate downstream or to survive instream.

Long Valley Dam on the Owens River is one of 181 California dams UC Davis researchers identified as candidates for increased water flows to protect native fish downstream. Photo by xxxx

Long Valley Dam on the Owens River is one of 181 California dams UC Davis researchers identified as candidates for increased water flows to protect native fish downstream. Photo by Stephen Volpin

To assess flow alteration, we compared flows at monitoring stations below dams with predictions of unimpaired flows – the difference indicating the degree dam operations have changed the rivers’ natural flow patterns. In the absence of downstream flow gauges, we examined the dam’s total storage volume relative to the river’s annual flow. (Studies show that dams large enough to capture most or all of the annual river flow are more likely to alter downstream flows.)

Finally, dams with evidence of altered downstream flows are screened for effects on native fish. The filter flags dams in watersheds known to support imperiled native fish sensitive to unnatural changes in flows, salmon, lampreys and splittail are among the kinds of fish highly tuned to California’s seasonal river flow patterns — fishes that would presumably benefit from water releases from dams during migration and spawning.

Using these multiple filters, we evaluated 753 dams on relatively large streams and rivers and identified 181 of them – 25 percent – as high-priority candidates for Section 5937 enforcement.

High-priority candidate dams for Section 5937 enforcement. Source: Center for Watershed Sciences Technical Report (CWS-2014-01).

High-priority candidate dams for Section 5937 enforcement. Source: Center for Watershed Sciences Technical Report (CWS-2014-01).

These dams span the state and represent a broad diversity in reservoir size; ownership (public, private, state agency); and function (flood control, water storage and diversions). All show evidence of downstream flow alteration and are within the range of imperiled fish populations.

One dam on the high-priority list is the Casitas on Coyote Creek, a tributary to the Ventura River. The endangered southern California steelhead trout historically spawned in the creek and still occur in the Ventura River. Currently, the Casitas Municipal Water District exports virtually all water stored behind the dam, leaving completely dry the three-mile reach of Coyote Creek between the dam and the Ventura River.

The 400-foot-high Pine Flat Dam on the Kings River in Fresno County also made it on the list because its operation has greatly changed the river’s natural flow regime, potentially to the detriment of the Kern brook lamprey, a threatened native fish species that lives below the dam.

Several Sacramento River dams, including Shasta, Keswick and Anderson Cottonwood, also are high-priority candidates because of the potential to alter river flows critical to sturgeon, lamprey and Central Valley Chinook salmon.

Identifying dams as “high priority” does not necessarily mean they are, in fact, out of compliance with Section 5937; that determination requires a closer, on-site investigation of dam operations and their effects on fish.

For example, our system flagged Dwinnell Dam on the Shasta River because of its large storage capacity relative to river inflows and its potential to harm coho salmon and other sensitive fish species. Indeed, since its construction in the 1930s, operators have diverted most of the Shasta’s flow for irrigation. The dam’s owner (Montague Water Conservation District), however, recently agreed, as the result of a lawsuit, to release significantly greater flows and to take other measures to protect fish down stream.

Our screening framework relies on relatively coarse indicators of how dams may be affecting the environment. This is because the vast majority of dams have no downstream monitoring of flows or fish population health.

Nonetheless, there is ample evidence that many large California dams likely fall short of providing adequate flows to keep fish in “good condition.” A recent study estimated that more than 80 percent of California’s native fish are at risk of extinction if present trends continue. The fate of these species depends on how we manage dams.

Strategic implementation of Section 5937 could provide reasonable protections of California’s dammed river and streams. A systematic and transparent system for monitoring, evaluating and mitigating the environmental effects of dam could help inform decisions by dam operators, fish and water managers and regulators alike. Our study is a first attempt at providing such a framework.

Ted Grantham is a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and Peter Moyle is  a professor of fish biology at UC Davis. Grantham conducted the dams study as a postdoctoral researcher with the university’s Center for Watershed Sciences.

Further reading

Börk KS, Krovoza JF, Katz JV, Moyle PB. 2012. The rebirth of Cal. Fish & Game Code 5937: water for fish. UC Davis Law Review 45: 809-913

Grantham TE, Viers JH, Moyle PB. 2014. Systematic screening of dams for environmental flow assessment and implementation. BioScience [EarlyView] Appendix 1: Hydrologic model description and performance evaluation; Appendix 2: Flow-sensitive fish species list for California; Appendix 3: High-priority candidate dams for assessing environmental flow needs for imperiled species conservation and recovery. Appendix 4: Ranking of candidate dams based on hydrologic, ecological and jurisdictional criteria

Grantham TE and Moyle PB. 2014. Assessing flows for fish below dams: a systematic approach to evaluate compliance of California’s dams with Fish and Game Code Section 5937. Center for Watershed Sciences Technical Reports (CWS-2014-01) :1-136

Grantham TE and Viers JH. 2014. 100 years of California’s water rights system: patters, trends and uncertainty. Environmental Research Letters 9: 084012

Kiernan J, Moyle PB, Crain PK. 2012. Restoring native fish assemblages to a regulated California stream using the natural flow regime concept. Ecological Applications 22: 1472-1482

Moyle PB, Katz JVE, Quiñones RM. 2011. Rapid decline of California’s native inland fishes: A status assessment. Biological Conservation 144: 2414-2423

Moyle, P.B., J. D. Kiernan, P. K. Crain, and R. M. Quiñones. 2013. Climate change vulnerability of native and alien freshwater fishes of California: a systematic assessment approach. PLoS One

Moyle PB, Marchetti MP, Baldridge J, Taylor TL. 1998. Fish health and diversity: justifying flows for a California stream. Fisheries 23: 6-15

Quiñones, R.M., Grantham, T.E., Harvey, B.N., Kiernan, J.D., Klasson, M., Wintzer, A.P., Moyle, P.B. Dam removal and anadromous salmonid (Oncorhynchus spp.) conservation in California. Reviews in Fish Biology [EarlyView] DOI 10.1007/s11160-014-9359-5

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Modernizing drought water allocations


The South Fork of the Feather River feeding Lake Oroville on Sept. 5, 2014. Photo by Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources

The State Water Resources Control Board recently solicited public comments on how to improve its drought curtailment of water rights. Here is a summary of insights and recommendations from a group of seven California water experts.

By Ellen Hanak, Jeffrey Mount, Jay Lund, Greg Gartrell, Brian Gray, Richard Frank and Peter Moyle 

This past year’s severe drought conditions meant that most users of surface water flows —agricultural, urban and environmental — had significant unmet demands. In May, the State Water Resources Control Board ordered curtailment of water rights for the first time since the drought of 1976-77 – 37 years ago.

The board followed the seniority of water rights, with riparian right-holders having first claim on the available water and appropriative right-holders following by the dates of their appropriations. Many junior appropriators were prohibited from diverting any water. With few exceptions, the board did not factor in other considerations, including the needs of fish and wildlife and public health and safety.

The experience provides valuable lessons for California, which needs to modernize drought water allocations to improve the use of scarce water resources. This will require some urgent actions for the coming year, which also may be dry.

It also behooves the state to use this experience to help establish a more robust allocation process going forward, given the increasing competition for scarce water resources in a growing state and the likelihood that droughts will occur more frequently as the climate warms and hydrologic conditions change.

In this blog, we reflect on the lessons learned from this curtailment experience and outline urgent steps the board can take to improve its regulation and management of water rights in 2015 and beyond.

Photo by Karin Higgins/UC Davis, date

Peter Moyle searches drying creek beds near Sonora for a rare native fish, the Red Hills roach. The UC Davis fish biology professor feared the species had gone extinct because of the drought. He eventually found a trickle of flowing water in Horton Creek supporting some 200 roach. Photo by Karin Higgins/UC Davis, Aug. 14, 2014

To recap, the water board encountered two significant challenges in 2014 for allocating water under conditions of critical scarcity: (1) limitations in measurement and analytical capacity for surface water availability and use; and (2) lack of clarity on policies regarding factors other than water rights seniority, including protection of public health and safety and the environment. As a result, the board invoked its curtailment process quite late in the year. It also largely failed to factor in public health and safety and environmental considerations.

On a positive note, the board was able to use newly available data on surface water diversions to estimate the total demands of right-holders within river systems. These data were required under Senate Bill X7-8, one of the policy bills enacted as part of a comprehensive water package in November 2009.

This law requires all surface water users (including holders of riparian and pre-1914 water rights not subject to the board’s permitting and licensing jurisdiction) to report their diversions to the state. Using actual diversion estimates rather than the generally much higher face value of water rights made the curtailment process fairer to more junior appropriators. This new data source, though still imperfect, is an important building block for modernizing the drought allocation process.

Earlier this year, the water board commissioned a valuable experiment in developing a more formal system for determining surface water availability and allocations. The UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences developed a pilot model of allocations on the Eel and Russian rivers, using data on flow availability from the National Weather Service and the newly available data on surface water diversions.

Source: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

A water right curtailment calculation process. Click here for demonstration of process on Eel River. Source: Drought Curtailment of Water Rights – Problems and Technical Solutions, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences 

The effort, detailed in an Oct. 15 technical comment to the board (Lund et al. 2014), provides a promising approach for systematizing the use of data on water availability and use — so California can make the most efficient use of surface water under scarcity. This approach provides a transparent method for considering available flows and allocating water according to the priorities under state law, including seniority of water rights. The state should expand this approach as quickly as possible for California’s other major watersheds. The state also needs to begin now to address the most urgent gaps in policy and measurement.

Step 1: Modernize curtailments

If precipitation in the 2014-2015 water year is below average, the board will likely be required to issue curtailments again. To make this process fairer, more timely and more efficient, the Board should:

  • Begin the curtailments planning and adjustments with a transparent technical process that forecasts full natural flow in basins are likely to seecurtailments. This process should be defined by January and updated monthly. It can rely on the expertise of the National Weather Service, which already makes routine flood-flow forecasts, and the Department of Water Resources, which assists in the forecasting. Some technical changes will be needed for low-flow forecasts. The forecasts will improve with experience. To this end, the water board should collect data to evaluate the forecasts’ accuracy.

    Predicted monthly flows in Russian River basin for (a) March, (b) April and (c) May 1977. Data from National Weather Service monitoring and flows stations. Source: "Drought Curtailment of Water Rights  -- Problems and Solutions," UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

    Predicted monthly flows in Russian River basin for (a) March, (b) April and (c) May 1977. Data from National Weather Service monitoring and flows stations. Source: “Drought Curtailment of Water Rights — Problems and Solutions,” UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

  • Continue to use reported water-use information rather than the face value of water rights in guiding assignment of curtailments. Over time, the board should develop systems for cross-checking the accuracy of data reported by water users, such as with remote sensing information (as Idaho now does).
  • Require larger water users to “call” their planned use. This would improve accuracy of curtailment calculations and make fuller use of available water. It can be done at the beginning of the irrigation season (March 1) for general planning purposes, and then on a more real-time basis as the season advances. Senior right-holders would include intended water transfers in their call for planned use [1].
  • Build a system that accounts for both discharges and diversions, because what ultimately matters for system availability is net diversions – the amount diverted minus the amount returned to the system and available for downstream use. Building on SB X7-8’s requirement to report water diversions, the state should require large users to report return-flow volumes and locations [2]. Urban users already report discharges to the state’s regional water quality control boards. It would be fairly straightforward to require large agricultural water users to do the same, especially when they discharge through canals, pipelines and other conduits. As an interim step, the Department of Water Resources might be charged with developing a default estimation method for agricultural discharges, with water diverters specifying the locations of return flows.
  • Get out in front on the curtailment process, with notifications ready by January for all surface water users, including those holding riparian and pre-1914 rights. The board also should introduce a transparent process of notifying monthly adjustments, factoring in changing water availability conditions, with the possibility of rapidly relaxing curtailments in response to improved conditions. 

Step 2: Set and implement policy on water allocation priorities for public health and safety and the environment

Senior water rights holders objected to the water board’s consideration of these needs in  its curtailment decisions earlier this year. Yet the board has a strong legal basis — indeed, a legal obligation — to account for these factors under the “reasonable use” requirement of the California Constitution (Article X, section 2) [3], the public trust doctrine [4], the Porter-Cologne Act, Section 106 of the California Water Code [5], Fish and Game Code section 5937 [6], the federal and state Endangered Species Acts [7], and other laws [8].

Dry fields and bare groves looking west toward the Coast Range, near San Joaquin, Calif. Photo by Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis, 2014

Dry fields and bare groves looking west toward the Coast Range, near San Joaquin, Calif. Photo by Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis, 2014

To better implement these policies in future water-rights curtailments, the board should:

  • Adopt policy that narrowly defines urgent public health and safety considerations affected by water scarcity. These factors would include supplies adequate for safe drinking water, sanitation and fire suppression under conditions of urgency – an amount often thought of as roughly 50 gallons a person a day. Water allocation under this provision would need to be clearly spelled out, quantified and limited to urgent conditions, when users cannot reasonably be expected to find alternative sources in a timely way. These amounts would count against other allocations to these users. The board should then prioritize these urgent needs within the curtailment process.
  • Clearly identify the priority of various environmental water uses in the curtailment process. This includes water to keep fish in good condition and to supply wildlife refuges.
  • Be explicit about the priority of environmental flows and related temperatures so water right-holders can better plan ahead. Wildlife agencies should clearly identify for the board the drought flow and temperature requirements for priority river segments [9].
  • Consider having a panel of outside experts rapidly review requests for relaxation of environmental standards to help inform its decision-making [10]. Granting these Temporary Urgency Change Petitions currently does not require a scientific assessment of the consequences for fish and wildlife, only concurrence of state and federal fish agencies.
  • Be prepared to initiate targeted, expedited administrative or judicial proceedings to halt diversions that are both unreasonable and have high impact on water supply availability.
Houseboat ramp leads to a waterless pit in the receding Shasta Lake. Photo by Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources, Aug. 25, 2014

Houseboat ramp leads to a waterless pit in the receding Shasta Lake. Photo by Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources, Aug. 25, 2014

By taking these initial steps now, the water board will better position California to cope with a dry 2015 and future droughts. Indeed, Californians should be planning every year for the possibility of a drought, since we rarely know before the late winter or early spring what the water year holds.

Over time, this system will evolve with better measurement and more routine reporting of essential information, making it easier for all water users to plan and anticipate how to manage available supplies. One medium-term priority would be to incorporate groundwater use, especially in basins with strong connections between surface and groundwater flows.

The water board, along with state and federal government generally, has been criticized for being reactive during the drought, rather than having prepared for it. We applaud the board’s current efforts to plan for a fourth year of drought before it actually occurs.

Modernizing curtailments and setting priorities and quantities for public health, safety and the environment can be addressed relatively quickly under the current urgent conditions. If it rains this winter, these preparations will be useful for the next drought. If it doesn’t, they will help the state better manage the current crisis.

Ellen Hanak and Jeffrey Mount are senior fellows at the Public Policy Institute of California.  Jay Lund, Richard Frank and Peter Moyle are professors of engineering, law and fish biology, respectively, at UC Davis. Greg Gartrell is an independent consulting engineer, and Brian Gray is a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law.


[1] See Water Code § 1017: “The beneficial use of water pursuant to a transfer or exchange . . . shall constitute a beneficial use of water by the holder of the permit, license, water right, or other entitlement for use that is the basis for the transfer or exchange . . . .”
[2] It may be impractical for the Board to successfully solicit water use and discharge data from all water right-holders and to process that volume of information in curtailments. Experience gained from the UC Davis pilot exercise suggests that approximately 10 percent of water right-holders account for 90 percent of water use. Therefore, the Board may choose to adopt a policy of requiring information from all right-holders, but focus curtailment efforts on a subset of rights that likely affect water availability most.
[3] The fundamental mandate of state water policy is set forth in Article X, Section 2 of the California Constitution, which declares that “because of the conditions prevailing in this State the general welfare requires that the water resources of the State be put to beneficial use to the fullest extent of which they are capable, and that the waste or unreasonable use or unreasonable method of use of water be prevented, and that the conservation of such waters is to be exercised with a view to the reasonable and beneficial use thereof in the interest of the people and for the public welfare.” In Light v. California State Water Resources Control Board (2014) 226 Cal.App.4th1463, the California Court of Appeal confirmed that the constitutional reasonable use mandates apply to all California holders of water rights (including riparian and pre-1914 appropriators), not only to post-1914 permitees and licensees. See also Water Code §§ 100, 102.
[4] National Audubon Society v. Superior Court (1983) 33 Cal.3d 403. The California Supreme Court held in National Audubon that “the state has an affirmative duty to take the public trust into account in the planning and allocation of water resources, and to protect public trust uses whenever feasible.” (Id. (emphasis added).) Public trust resources include fish, wildlife, and their habitat. (Id.) The court also noted that under California water rights law “neither domestic and municipal uses nor instream uses can claim an absolute priority.” (Id.)
[5] Section 106 of the Water Code states that it is “the established policy of this State that the use of water for domestic purposes is the highest use of water and that the next highest use is for irrigation.” Section 106.3 adds that “every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes,” and it directs the Board (and other agencies) when adopting or revising its policies. The California Supreme Court has held that these statutes “declare principles of California water policy applicable to any allocation of water resources.”
[6] Section 5937 of the Fish and Game Code directs that all dam owners “shall allow sufficient water at all times to pass through a fishway, or . . . to pass over, around or through the dam, to keep in good condition any fish that may be planted or exist below the dam.” The California Court of Appeal has held that this statutory directive is a proper exercise of the Legislature’s authority to effectuate the purposes of Article X, Section 2. (California Trout v. State Water Resources Control Board 1989) 207 Cal.App.3d 591, 622-625.
[7] State and federal endangered species acts prohibit the “taking” of any endangered or threatened species unless specifically authorized by the terms of a biological opinion or incidental take permit. (Fish & Game Code §§ 2080-2081.1; 16 U.S.C. §§ 1536, 1538 & 1539) To ensure against such unauthorized takings — and for the protection of those water diverters who might run afoul of the statutory prescriptions — the Board must include the biological and habitat needs of California’s fisheries when it determines the amount of water that is likely to be available for diversion and use by water right-holders.
[8] See Hanak et al. (2011) for a discussion of the laws noted here and the related authorities of the Board and other regulatory agencies.
[9] It is impractical to set flow and temperature standards for all rivers in all conditions. Rather, the fish and wildlife agencies should identify which river segments or wildlife refuges are of highest biological value and estimate minimum flow and temperature standards needed for preserving at-risk species within them. Grantham et al. (in press) provide a method for prioritizing regulated rivers for protection of threatened fishes and salmon runs.
[10] Such a panel should include both environmental flow experts and water resource experts, to better consider potential tradeoffs between public health and safety needs and environmental flow needs.

Further reading

Grantham, T, , J. Viers, P. Moyle. 2014. “Systematic Screening of Dams for Environmental Flow Assessment and Implementation.” BioScience. Oct. 15

Hanak, E., J. Lund, A. Dinar, B. Gray, R. Howitt, J. Mount, P. Moyle, B. Thompson. 2011. “Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation.” Public Policy Institute of California

Lund J, Lord B, Fleenor W, Willis A. 2014.  “Drought Curtailment of Water Rights – Problems and Technical Solutions.” Center for Watershed Sciences, UC Davis. Technical comments to the State Water Resources Control Board

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A tribute to California’s ‘First Lady of Water’

Rodney Davis

A former telephone operator from Nebraska, Pauline Davis became the longest-serving woman in the California Legislature and an effective advocate of local water development. Source: private collection of Rodney Davis

By Tina Cannon Leahy

As water policy consultant for the California Assembly, I occasionally research legislative history to iron out competing theories on a law’s meaning. So it was earlier this year when I visited the California State Archives to investigate the Davis-Dolwig Act of 1961.

I took a manila folder from the nice clerk and sat in the rows of small wooden desks to learn what this “Mr. Davis” and “Mr. Dolwig” had in mind when they drafted the bill more than 50 years ago.

My jaw dropped when I pulled a carbon-copied transcript of a 1960 water committee hearing fully identifying the “Davis” as Assemblyman Pauline L. Davis. A woman in the Legislature! Involved in water policy! The water committee chair, no less!

It was, as James Brown sang in the 1960s, “a man’s, man’s, man’s world” back then – and still is, for the most part, in the world of water policy. As a woman in water policy I was awestruck that a woman was tackling water policy before I was born. How could I not know? What ensued was a near-obsession to find out more.

The archives didn’t hold much, but an online perusal of UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library led to a jackpot: Davis had participated in a Women in Politics Oral History Project in the late 70′s and early 80′s but then she embargoed the release of the interview until 2010. (She died in 1995 at age 78.) The library still showed the transcript as unavailable, but a quick conversation with the library remedied that. As far as I know, I became the first public member to gain access.[i]

The memoir unfurled an implausible story: A petite telephone operator and mother of two from Nebraska who in the post-WWII “happy homemaker” era overcomes a divorce and the death of a second husband to become the longest-serving woman in the California Legislature and an effective player in the state’s notoriously testosterone-driven water wars.

Davis and Donahue

Pauline Davis with fellow Assemblywoman Dorothy Donohue in the mid-1950s. Source: private collection of Rodney Davis

Davis was an unrelenting defender of “area-of-origin” laws – protections that give counties where exported water supplies originate a future right to call on that water if the need arises. Several causes she championed and resource questions she confronted are still alive today: How do we balance the needs of different regions of the state while protecting our fisheries? Should we build a peripheral conveyance around the Delta? Who is ultimately responsible for State Water Project enhancements versus maintenance? (That last question brought me to the state archives.)

Davis was sympathetic to the water fears of those in the Delta, stating of the 1982 peripheral canal debate, “I don’t think one geographic area of a state should rob the very thing that keeps the other area of the state alive, because in the final analysis you’re all going to sink.” The “Delta people,” she said, were “having the same problem as the counties of origin.”

Davis’ California odyssey began with a work transfer to Stockton where she tried to save her shaky marriage. The effort failed, but she stayed. Later, on a blind date, she met her second husband, Lester Davis, who was running a Democratic campaign for Assemblyman in a district covering several rural Northern California counties, from Downieville to the Oregon border.

Ms. Davis was none too pleased. Assemblyman was a part-time job that would require her husband to take a leave of absence from his better-paying work as a railroad engineer. But, as she put it, “He assured me that he wouldn’t stay in it very long so I went along with it.” Upon his inauguration in 1947, she became his sole staffer in both the Capitol and the district office in Portola, Plumas County. It gave them extra income and allowed the two to remain together in the constant shuttle between Portola and Sacramento. It was, as Ms. Davis recalled, “a very happy marriage.”


Assemblywoman Pauline Davis campaigning for re-election in 1953. Source: personal collection of Rodney Davis

But in 1952, tragedy struck. The assemblyman died of thrombosis while campaigning for a fourth term. When he still received a majority of the primary votes, turmoil ensued. Democratic party operatives implored the young widow to be the candidate. She refused, citing debt from her late husband’s primary and “the children to raise by myself,” including a toddler. She relented on a promised $5,000 in campaign donations.

No sooner did she accept the nomination than the pledges of support began to evaporate. Her backers then got the first glimpse of the courage that served her later. She threatened to withdraw unless they made good on the money, advising that they “go right across the street to the bank and borrow it.”

They did just that, but financing was only the first of her obstacles. Litigation challenging her late listing on the ballot went all the way to the California Supreme Court. Some considered her candidacy a joke. She recounted that while campaigning in Tulelake “my Republican opponent and the two men with him were making fun of me and really laughing their hearts out as I was walking down the street. So, it gave me a great deal of satisfaction to be able to take the election, because they were so sure of themselves.”


Assemblywoman Pauline Davis occupied the same seat as her late husband on the Assembly Floor – No. 68 – for all 24 years in office. Source: private collection of Rodney Davis

In her first year in the Legislature, she authored a bill requiring equal pay for equal work by women. It never got out of committee. Asked if she endured any particular hostilities, Davis said, “Oh, I encountered those when I became involved in the California water plan.”

Davis immersed herself in water policy at the very start of her legislative career. She considered water to be “so basic of all the other natural resources that I felt that it would be a necessity for me to go into the field as deeply as I could.”

She sought guidance from the Office of the Legislative Counsel – particularly George Murphy and J.D. Straus, the latter of whom she called “a perfectionist in the water field as it pertained to water rights” – and spent every spare hour she could with them.

The knowledge soon served her well. In 1956, Harvey O. Banks, an engineer, is appointed head of the new state Department of Water Resources with the task of developing the State Water Project to export water from the relatively wet north to dry south.

Davis was appalled that fellow northerners did not share her alarm over the proposed enormous transfer of natural wealth.

“My goodness sakes! You’re dealing with liquid gold!” she recalled in her oral history interview. “You’re not dealing with something that is a commodity that can be replaced, because once that water wagon leaves Northern California…it just isn’t coming back!”


A water bond debate in Redding on Feb. 28, 1960. Clair Hill, a water engineering consultant and Sen. Hugo Fisher of San Diego spoke for it. Assembly members Davis and Bruce Allen of San Jose spoke against it. Source: private collection of Rodney Davis

In 1959 the Legislature authorized $1.75 billion in general obligation bonds for construction of the State Water Project. Gov. As Norris Hundley Jr. tells it in “The Great Thirst,” Pat Brown won over Davis and other northern legislators by offering a compromise measure – the Davis-Grunsky Act – authorizing $130 million of the bond sales for development of local water projects. As Davis put it in a newspaper commentary, a “water bond issue of this magnitude should include absolute guarantees for the protection and maintenance of important recreation features, such as salmon and steelhead spawning grounds that might be destroyed by the construction of a water project.”[ii]

By 1961 DWR was pushing to dam the Feather River and create the giant Lake Oroville – in Davis’ district. She leveraged the Oroville debate to achieve her second major piece of legislation, the Davis-Dolwig Act, which requires consideration of fish and wildlife enhancement and recreational opportunities when planning State Water Project facilities. Importantly, the law also mandates that the project’s water and power contractors pay for actions to help fish and wildlife affected by the project.

By Shakespeare’s measure, Davis’ contributions to California water policy are clear: Her past was prologue. Look no further than this year’s water bond measure, Proposition 1. The two biggest fights during the drafting were how much to spend on surface water storage and whether funding should benefit the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.


Pauline Davis detonates explosives at a ceremonial groundbreaking of the Grizzly Valley Dam near Portola on Sept. 27, 1964. Source: private collection of Rodney Davis

Prop. 1 would have met Davis’ approval. Her enthusiastic support for building reservoirs earned her the moniker “Lady of the Lakes.” A news photo of the groundbreaking ceremony for the state-owned Grizzly Valley Dam in Plumas County 50 years ago shows Davis as the lone female official flanked by her grown daughters and young son, Rodney Davis, who became a state appellate court judge and is now an Episcopal priest. With a plunger, she set off the first explosive in the construction of the dam, which formed Lake Davis, named in honor of her late husband.

Davis served 24 years in the Assembly, from 1953 through 1976, as was described by former Assembly Speaker Leo T. McCarthy as “the most effective legislator in representing her district that I have ever seen.”[iii] From 1960 to 1966, she was the sole woman in the 120-member Legislature. Reflecting on male chauvinism in her oral history, Davis advised women to “learn the men’s language, study their minds, and the way they work in the political arena and in the business field, and just go forward and not let it bother you too much.”

Here’s to you Pauline Davis. Wife. Mother. Widow. Politician. Water warrior. Role model. California’s First Lady of Water.

Tina Cannon Leahy is Principal Consultant for the California Assembly Water, Parks & Wildlife Committee. The opinions expressed here are strictly her own.

[i] All quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from Pauline L. Davis, “California Assemblywoman, 1952-1976,” an oral history conducted 1977-1982 by Malca Chall, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1986.

[ii] Unattributed newspaper clipping. Personal collection of Rodney Davis

[iii] Associated Press, Pauline Davis; Assemblywoman for 24 Years, December 16, 1995

Further reading

Chall, Malca. “Pauline L. Davis, California Assemblywoman, 1952-1976,” Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1986

Video of President John F. Kennedy at Sept. 28, 1963 dedication of the federal Whiskeytown Dam near Redding, Calif. (Assemblywoman Davis can be seen on speakers’ platform, wearing a red dress.)

The Davis-Grunsky Act

The Davis-Dolwig Act

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