Groundwater Zero: We’re Worried About the Drought. But Not as Worried as We Should Be.

By Glen Martin

The drought is worrisome, of course. In response to state demands for a 25 percent reduction in urban consumption, municipal water districts are enforcing strictures on usage. Homeowners have steeled themselves, however unwillingly, to withering lawns and wilting hydrangeas. Most people have seen the news reports about some kind of fish or another dying in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta. And we’ve all heard that the cost of our baby salad greens is going to skyrocket, which can really bollix up menu plans for balanced and healthy meals.

But the real problem is that people aren’t worried enough, says Gray Brechin, a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Department of Geography, the founder and project scholar of the Living New Deal Project (co-sponsored by Berkeley) and an author best known for Imperial San Francisco, an examination of the wide-ranging influence of prominent San Francisco families on the environment and economy over the past 150 years.

This blithe disregard for the catastrophic implications of the drought is manifest even at UC Berkeley—which should be setting the standard for an appropriate response, says Brechin.

“The quads are still lush and green,” says Brechin. “They’re still being irrigated. In the gym, there are little signs requesting water conservation because of the drought, but people are still taking 20 minute showers. It’s deeply discouraging, given that this is one of the greatest research and educational institutions in the country.”

Brechin maintains that contrary to general public reaction, the current drought is much more than your average run-of-the-mill crisis. It has the potential for truly apocalyptic consequences. Another year or two of low rainfall, he observes, and many of California’s reservoirs will hit “dead pool”—that point at which water can no longer be obtained through gravity. Further, already overdrawn state aquifers will be tapped out.Gray Brechin

“We’re already seeing it in the land subsidence at various places throughout the San Joaquin Valley,” says Brechin. “As aquifers are drawn down, the overlying land collapses, and that’s not a small thing. It points to permanent damage to the structure of the aquifer, to a reduction in its water-holding capacity. Even if the rains return, the aquifer will be severely limited in the amount of water it can hold.”

And the environment? It’s already going down the tubes, and fast, says Brechin.

“The destruction of the Delta is well underway,” says Brechin, citing studies by Russian hydrologist Michael Rozengurt demonstrating that estuarine ecosystems collapse whenever freshwater exports top 25 to 30 percent. “Currently, Delta exports are at 50 percent,” says Brechin. “Our water exports—most of which go to corporate agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley—are dooming Bay/Delta fisheries.”

What’s needed, says Brechin, is a Manhattan Project mode of response that emphasizes conservation, water recycling, stormwater harvest, rigorous metering of both surface water and groundwater—and agricultural land retirement in the western San Joaquin Valley and Tulare Basin. Brechin was one of the first academicians to study and warn about the implications of intensive irrigated agriculture in the western San Joaquin Valley.

“It was clear to me from the start that it would be a toxic disaster because of the selenium, arsenic, boron, salt and other elements and compounds in the soils,” says Brechin. “All those materials are mobilized by irrigation and the regular flushing required to remove salt from the root zone, and the resulting tailwater ends up in the waterways of the San Joaquin Valley, causing massive pollution all the way to San Francisco Bay. That’s how we ended up with the Kesterson disaster in the 1980s (referring to the death of thousands of birds at Kesterson Wildlife Refuge due to selenium poisoning).”

By retiring such “impaired” lands, says Brechin, several million acre-feet of water could be conserved per year (an acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough to support two large households annually).

But instead of responding in a fashion suited to the situation, says Brechin, the state is focused on promoting massive infrastructure projects and accommodating powerful agribusiness interests.

“Governor Brown’s Twin Tunnels is simply a retread of the Peripheral Canal that he unsuccessfully pushed during his first terms in the 1980s,” says Brechin. “It will saddle taxpayers with billions in new debt and do nothing to increase water supplies—it would be strictly a trans-Delta conveyance project. What it will do is assure the ultimate destruction of the Delta, in that it will make it easier to export ever-increasing amounts of any water that does exist to the south.”

Indeed, Brechin says, he is deeply perplexed by the Governor’s general approach to the water crisis.

“Gov­ernor Brown’s Twin Tun­nels will as­sure the ul­ti­mate de­struc­tion of the Delta, in that it will make it easi­er to ex­port ever-in­creas­ing amounts of any wa­ter that does ex­ist to the south.”

“He declared a 25 percent reduction on urban use, but no reductions for agriculture, which uses 80 percent of the state’s developed water,” he says. “Right this minute, thousands of acres of new almonds—a crop that uses a tremendous amount of water—are being planted in the western San Joaquin Valley. So far, Water 2.0 is really about Jerry Brown 2.0. Jerry Brown 1.0—the ‘small is beautiful’ Jerry Brown—seemed to understand the limits of natural resources, and the implications of those limits for society. But Jerry 2.0 is more like his father, Pat Brown. Pat built the State Water Project, which delivered—and still delivers—cheap water to agribusiness. With the Twin Tunnels, Jerry appears intent on capping that legacy.”

Adding to Brechin’s frustration is the transfer of the Water Resources Center Archives from Berkeley’s College of Engineering to the University of California at Riverside and the California State University at San Bernardino. This is no small thing, Brechin emphasizes. Information is power, after all, and with the dissemination of the archives, the ability of researchers and average citizens to understand and affect water policy has been diluted.

“These archives were mandated by the state legislature in 1956 to serve as the definitive repository for all information on California’s water,” says Brechin. “They were an incredibly valuable and widely used resource. Plus, the archive librarian, Linda Vida, held monthly colloquia that were heavily attended by researchers and policy-makers. Now the archives have been sent to two separate universities that are relatively difficult to reach. The material is not adequately maintained, and the colloquia have been discontinued.”

But back to possible Mad Max scenarios: What will happen with another year or two of scant rainfall? First, says Brechin, expect agricultural deliveries to be terminated, agribiz muscle notwithstanding. When push comes to shove, the cities ultimately will wield more power and influence than corporate farmers in the western San Joaquin, most of whom have junior water rights claims.

And after that?

“Well, we might look to Buenos Aires for an idea,” says Brechin. “It’s about to run out of water. I gave a talk at a San Francisco breakfast club last year, and a developer approached me and asked what I think would happen if Lake Mead reaches dead pool. I said we’ll have to evacuate Las Vegas. He laughed, and said ‘That’ll never happen.’ But it could easily happen. Because Lake Mead is where Las Vegas gets its water. And when there’s no water—well, there’s no water.

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As the surface reservoirs of Northern California are depleted, water purveyors are turning their attention to mining the aquifer systems of the Sacramento Valley. This is a repeat of what happened in the Owens Valley last century. The streams and trees of the Sac Valley require a fairly balanced aquifer to thrive, but irrigation districts are selling their river entitlements, replacing the marketed surface water with rapidly declining groundwater to continue rice operations. AquAlliance and Delta Water agencies are challenging the water heist in court.
The latest water shortages prove that we must design and build fusion energy plants with the greatest sense of urgency.
As always, Gray hits the nail on the head and brings rationality and wisdom to the water wars. If only Gov. Brown picked water/land experts like Gray, instead of the flunky political hacks/yes men/cowards who peddle whatever snake oil the governor is currently selling. Here is the true Brown Legacy: Destruction of one of the great estuaries in the World. Hey Gov, your tunnel job almost made me forget your con job during your original term in office in which you preached “small is beautiful.” I guess $25 billion dollar tunnels are “small” by your standards. But what good are the tunnels if Nature keeps the drought going a few more years? We already have 1,390 dams sitting nearly empty. More dams and tunnels won’t solve that.
“These archives were mandated by the state legislature in 1956 to serve as the definitive repository for all information on California’s water,” says Brechin. Given that the Water Resources Archives were established by statutory law, and that the law that established them has not been repealed or overturned, closing the Archives, breaking them up, and dispersing the collection between Riverside and San Bernardino is an act of executive lawlessness. Cui bono?
Moving to Oregon after 59 years in Drycalifornia.
Today the Delta is a shadow of its former self. But it’s full of leveed sunken islands that, if filled with freshwater, would make very useful reservoirs with a low risk of catastrophic failure in a big earthquake AND have no new impact on the Delta. As things stand now, that earthquake would destroy those levees for any use whatever AND the Delta as well.
There will be increasing talk to dam the Rogue River or other N. California rivers and move the water south. Las Vegas is building a 3rd intake at the bottom of Lake Mead, so unless it literally goes dry they should muddle along.
The fact that CO2 is already exceeding 400 ppm, accelerating exponentially beyond the McKibben Limit (350 OR BUST), proves that time is not only running out, the future is now. UC’s Legal Planet professors and scholars at are role models for joining together to solve the most destructive problem the human race is experiencing today. We must produce a lot more cooperation and participation by many more UC professors and scholars, in many other disciplines, to find solutions that must be implemented with the required urgency before we lose control over long-term quality of life in California, and on this planet.
Who owns California’s aquifers? In reading recent news reports about the record subsidence caused by drawing too much water from California aquifers, this question came up. The answer is that no one owns the aquifers, they are the common ownership of the people of California. So the next logical question is, why are we allowing individual and corporate entities to draw down the aquifers to the point that they are being permanently ruined for future generations? If individuals are ruining a common property of the state those individuals should be held accountable and should be charged with and required to cease the destruction. The state may lack the will to even consider addressing the situation for many reasons. As the culprits of this crime are big contributors to our political leaders we can understand the timidity of these elected officials. There is also ample reason to believe that the state would be sued for huge sums of money where it to insist that the pumping cease. How this would play out in the courts is anyone’s guess. But the case is basically very simple. Individual private entities are destroying a public resource. They are destroying a resource that once ruined can never be replaced. They are destroying a resource that present and future generations are depending upon. Any lawsuit asking for compensation from the state for stopping the pumping should be countered with lawsuits initiated by the state for damages already done. The cost of damages to those responsible for over pumping the aquifer would be substantial. The cost of repairing the aquifers which is of course impossible would be incalculable. No amount of money can ever replace a destroyed aquifer. So it is galling that we sit on our hands. It is outrageous that those robbing California of its natural resources are actually stepping up the pace of the destruction. How will we explain to our children and to their children that we just didn’t have the guts to stop a handful of people from robbing the environment and their future? Not so very long ago in California placer mining was all the rage. Placer mining did untold damage to thousands upon thousands of acres and to thousands upon thousands of miles of streams and rivers. The destruction was obvious to everyone but no one was able to stop it. Why not? Because the placer miners were mining gold and gold talks louder than all the people who were being adversely affected. The two situations are disgustingly similar.
Excellent and increasingly tragic question Lee Dekker: “How will we explain to our children and to their children that we just didn’t have the guts to stop a handful of people from robbing the environment and their future?” We keep proving that we do not have one single institution with the brains to enable us to Adapt In Time
We all need to settle down, especially Mr. Gray Brechin. First of all the water that is exported from the Delta southward goes to cities first, and then agriculture. You mentioning corporate farms in the San Joaquin? I know that all farmers incorporate for tax purposes just like nearly all business people do. I guess that make them corporate farmers. Every farm that I know of in California is run by a family. Next, I want to enlighten everyone with a simple Botany lesson. According the textbook of General Botony, by Gilbert Smith (Stanford University) by far, the greatest part of the water taken up by plants including all vegetables, tree and vine crops, is lost by transpiration from the leaves into the air. This surprisingly huge amount of water is not lost in the almonds and the shipped to China. It simple goes into air as part of the water cycle. The amount of water transpired by a plant fluctuates from hour to hour, from day to day and from season to season. The fluctuations are due largely to variations in the external conditions as well as conditions in the plant cells. But the most important driver of transpiration is the temperature and humidity of the surrounding air. Other things being equal, the drier and warmer the air, the more rapid the transpiration. This of course means that crops in the San Joaquin Valley are transpiring an enormous amount of water. How much water are we talking about? According to research, an apple tree that is 30 years old may lose 250 pounds of water in one day, or 36,000 pounds during the growing season. At this rate an acre of 40 apple trees would transpire 600 tons of water each year. And while ground water pumping is causing major overdraft problems, it is nearly 100 percent due to the fact that environmental restrictions have been a big reason that many growers experienced zero water deliveries over the last two years. Sure the drought caused a reduction, but environmental restrictions made the situation much worse.