California Water, the Central Valley and why the Delta Smelt?

I have tried for months to write a (1bio) story about the water situation in California.  I want to blame my procrastination on the amount of information I need to digest, the speed at which things change, new reports emerge and other tasks claim my time.

But those are not the real reasons. Unlike global topics like biodiversity or the latest IPCC report this subject is too close to home, too personal, too emotional, too complicated.  Decisions like where are we going to settle, what should we advise our family to do, will our health suffer if we stay where we are?

Questions like that must be similar for millions around the world.  For us it’s a reasonably simple problem; more or less comfort, more or less money. The climate refugees drowning in the Mediteranean have arrived at a different answer at the stark extreme of the equation.  Yes, that’s an alarmist view, but I hope it can lead to some tough questions – to ourselves and to our representatives.

What is the California water story?  In a nutshell (almond or walnut…):

  • Too little water supply – and likely to be less.
  • Too much water demand – and likely to be more.

The problems are fully documented elsewhere.  So what are the solutions?

  • Run some pipes from water rich states. (Initial reactions from those states are not entirely enthusiastic and the economics are not there yet.)
  • Move away – become water refugees

We need to ask some fairly simple questions:

  • Is our lifestyle sustainable? Must we have green grass in a desert climate?
  • Do we want to live in our air conditioned, comfortable little prisons as the heat and air-quality outside become unbearable?

We have the power to select our future. We can’t return to an idealized past. The idyllic Central Valley of marshes, lakes and pools, antelope and elk, bears, wolves and mountain lions is gone.  We do need industrial agriculture to survive, but we need an intact biosphere even more. Somehow, very soon, we need to find a balance.


Quotes and Links:

“How do you measure 100m dead trees and the risk to forest fires that could be attributed to that drought? How do you measure the death of 95% of the Chinook salmon? How do you measure the impact on poor communities who were left without water? We don’t put dollar values on these things, and so we don’t directly see or feel the impact.”

Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute, (Quoted in From dust bowl to California drought: a climate scientist on the lessons we still haven’t learned “)


“Citing as a pretext the supposed need to protect a three-inch baitfish called the Delta smelt, environmental organizations filed a succession of lawsuits beginning in the 1990s that forced the state to divert billions of gallons of water away from farmers and families…80 percent of the water from the Sierra Nevada snowpack is dumped into the Pacific Ocean, but if that number were merely reduced to 75 percent, there would be plenty of water for everyone—farmers, cities, and the environment.”

Devin Nunes, U.S. Representative for California’s 22nd congressional district. (Quoted in A Warning from California)


“This land and its water have gone mostly to the proposition of making a few men very wealthy and consigning generations of others, especially farmworkers, to lives in the dust.”

Mark Arax, Fresno, CA writer (Quoted in California’s Central Valley, Land of a Billion Vegetables


And what about the poor Delta smelt?  His fate is in our hands. Unless it’s too late already? (Fresno-area candidate for Congress wants to declare the Delta smelt extinct)


What’s the 1bio story? – I don’t have one…

Would love to read yours

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