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

May 21, 2015
by Glen Martin
Trinity Lake drought

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.”

Gray Brechin

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.

“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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