Inevitable Changes to Water in California

By Jay Lund

A shorter version of this piece originally appeared as an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee.

“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” (anonymous)

Water is always important for California, as a dry place with a boisterous economy and unique ecosystems. A growing globalized economy and society historically drive changes in California’s water management that rarely occur quickly or without controversy. Water policy in California has always been about making and resisting change.

California has done comparatively well. Its water system sustains the world’s 7th largest economy of 39 million people with some of the world’s most profitable agriculture in one of the world’s drier places. And California (barely) preserves more of its native ecosystems than most other regions globally with Mediterranean climates, where native ecosystems often have been simply eliminated. California’s successes have not been born from complacency, but from continuous striving and conflict.

California water faces major inevitable changes. These changes are driven by efforts to end groundwater depletion, by sea level rise, global warming and the loss of snowpack, accumulating salts and nitrate in groundwater, new invasive species, and continuing population growth and evolution of California’s globalized economy and agriculture.

The state must prepare for these changes to support a strong economy and a healthy environment, while easing transitions for vulnerable groups.

  • The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will export less water and have more open water. The Delta will remain California’s most central and difficult water problem. Some Delta islands and levees are financially unsustainable. With land subsidence, sea level rise, increasing seepage, and earthquakes, their agricultural value is limited and repair costs are high. Some of the most subsided lands in the central and western Delta will permanently flood without unrealistic levels of state subsidies. Delta outflow requirements already reduce water available for Delta water diversions. New flow requirements and climate changes seem likely to further reduce water diversions both upstream and within the Delta. Upstream users will continue to remove much more water than do Delta water exporters and in-Delta water users. Ending groundwater overdraft in the Central Valley will increase demands for water from the Delta.
  • The San Joaquin Valley will have less irrigated agricultural land. The Central Valley south of the Delta is a huge productive agricultural region that currently relies on water from the Delta imports, groundwater overdraft, and reduced outflows from the San Joaquin River. Reductions in those sources will decrease water available to this region by 2-5 million acre feet per year, requiring the fallowing of 500,000-2 million acres of this region’s 5 million irrigated acres. Some of this land will be retired due to salinization and urbanization. Continued shifts to higher value crops, especially orchards, will help maintain agricultural revenues and jobs, as they have during the drought.
  • Urban areas will use less water, reuse more wastewater, and capture more stormwater. Water supply risks and costs will drive cities to use less and capture more local water. These changes will improve water supply reliability and free some water for agriculture and environmental uses, at some cost. But not all actions are equally effective. Water conservation, reuse, and stormwater capture are all effective in coastal areas, which drain to the sea. Reducing landscape irrigation is more effective for inland conservation.
  • Some native species will become unsustainable in the wild despite protective efforts. A warmer climate, combined with continued water and land stress and the dilution of wild genetic stock by hatchery fish and invasive species, will make some native fish species unsustainable in the wild, despite concerted restoration efforts. The entire range of native plant and animal species in California faces similar risks. Not all can be expected to survive. This threat challenges our endangered species laws and their implementation and demands more attention to effective ecosystem management.
  • Groundwater in many agricultural areas will become more contaminated. Modern agriculture applies large quantities of nitrogen fertilizer, much of which enters groundwater as nitrate, a threat to drinking water. Despite improving fertilizer efficiency, farmers often cannot reduce nitrate discharges enough. Ending all nitrate pollution today would leave decades of past discharges flowing toward drinking water wells. This problem is not unique to California, and it is especially worrisome for small, poor, rural communities.
  • Water solutions and funding will become even more local and regional. As federal and state governments experience diminished funding and capability, local and regional agencies are more motivated to address and fund most water problems. Making state and federal regulations more efficient, effective, and supportive of both local and statewide interests in public health, the economy, and environmental protection is a major challenge.
  • Water will be managed more tightly and formally due to economic and environmental pressures. California’s 2014 groundwater legislation will lead many areas to form groundwater sustainability agencies, which will need to account for and manage groundwater, and all water, more tightly. Less cumbersome court, groundwater rights, and water accounting procedures are needed to support this process. In the end, all parties will be more secure in their rights, but the transition will reduce pumping and add costs in problem areas.

Most of these changes will be accompanied by prolonged angst, studies, controversies, and expense. The details of how each change is managed are worth many millions of dollars to individual stakeholder groups. Forward-looking actions can reduce the pain and improve the prospects for water supporting the kind of society, economy, and environment that Californians desire. As always, facing change and thoughtfully preparing for the inevitable will be better than wishfully thinking that California can avoid change.

Jay Lund is director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

A longer earlier version of this piece was published in 2014 at:


This entry was posted in California Water, Drought, Water Conservation and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Inevitable Changes to Water in California

  1. Frances Griffin says:

    What is an unsustainable level of subsidies for preserving Delta agriculture when compared with the huge subsidies for shipping water south?

    Also while it is true that global warming may well cause species loss, as regards salmon, historically they recover well when there is simply enough water in the system.

    And you could have mentioned the well-documented beneficial effects of reintroducing beaver into upstream waters. [see]

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  3. Joseph Rizzi says:

    Help stop the killing of endangered species’s and the Delta by working with the state water project to install screens up to 2 miles long at the pumps. Killing life and the ecosystem is the reason why the pumps are not able to pump all the water during these wet times down south.

    • Frances Griffin says:

      We already send more water south than the system can support. There is abundant scientific evidence for this. Tunnels and pumps do not create water. There just is not that much water in the system.

      • Joseph Rizzi says:

        No scientific evidence and I would love to see you give links to your evidence because it doesn’t exist. In a drought year 12 million acre feet of water flows through the Delta. In a wet year 46 million acre feet of water flows through the Delta. SWP is looking at pumping 2.5 to 5 MAF. Plenty of water for export and fish if no harm is done in extracting the water.

      • Frances Griffin says:

        The Stare Water Resources Contol Board recommended that in wet years, maximum delta pumping not exceed 2.65 MAF.
        California Deprtment of Fish and Game,1992, Testimony on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Estuary to SWRCB Hearings on Bay Delta Water Quality Hearings , p. 11
        I would note that the document speakdsof wet years, which have been in short supply lately.

        In addition, there is the problem that water rights to California surface water are far greater than average runoff.
        Los Angeles Times
        Aug 19, 2014 – Rights to California surface water are far greater than average runoff. … the study with Ted Grantham, now a U.S. Geological Survey scientist, …

        Furthermore when salmon runs are compared with Delta water flow, it quite clear that salmon counts rise and fall with the amount of water in the Delta in a given year.

      • Joseph Rizzi says:

        Those were opinions not scientific evidence. The science behind the opinion is that the pumps are killing to many fish and aquatic life, so if no life is lost in the extraction by better designed extraction like using membrane technology like GE’s ZeeWeed or Koch’s Puron where only water is extracted (even viruses are to large to pass through the membrane).

        If killing at the SWP pumps is stopped, then next limitation would be when the pumps pull more water than is going by the river, which causes reverse Delta flows. This is not as bad a problem as Killing Delta life and a shorter and smaller pipeline to Sherman Island would fix the issue.

        Salt Intrusion also needs and can easily be addressed too, to help the health of the Delta and extracting more water by adding Tidally controlled Salinity louvers 50 feet below the water line under the Carquinez Bridge, allowing free travel for boats and fish but blocking only the salt water intrusion which salt water is heavier that fresh water. As the tide comes in the louvers would close, stopping most of the salt water intrusion. As the tide goes out the louvers would open and let out the water and silt and it does now.

      • Frances Griffin says:

        Hmm, fish kills the ONLY reason to limit exports? Sounds, pardon the pun, fishy.
        A reference would help.

        Note that there are proposals already on the table to improve the fish screens that do not involve tunnels and shipping water south.
        As we all know, the tunnels do not create more water.
        Salmon runs historically match correlate with the amount of water they have. Fish habitat is water after all.

      • Joseph Rizzi says:
        The last 100% allocation – difficult to achieve even in wet years largely because of Delta pumping restrictions to protect threatened and endangered fish species – was in 2006. Check out this article (on web page search for SWP): Or, here is a nice article on Big gulp/ little sip:

        All these agencies and articles point to limit pumping to limit destruction and killing of protected species. It there were no endangered species than pumping would not be restricted or if the extraction of water did not kill by installing membranes or much better screens. Any articles on new fish screens at SWP other than for the Water Fix?

      • Joseph Rizzi says:
        Science report on how many fish are killed by pumps. Interesting reading, and trucking fish too.

  4. Good analysis Jay. But what I and many other people I discuss long term water supply issues with is why doing something about population growth is so very seldom mentioned as component of solving the problem. Yes, I realize its a free country, but the limits are coming into view and it seems like planning should begin to include this, at least for decades ahead, if not years.

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  6. Psalmon says:

    Sea level at Alameda tide station in the Bay has not changed in 80 years. Data available at PSMSL and other locations.

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