California Struggles to Solve Its Water Problem

The state's water "superhighway" may dead end in a delta.


The system that moves water from relatively wet Northern California to arid Southern California is like a superhighway that's hundreds of miles long, but is slowed by about 40 miles of dirt roads in the middle of it.

That's how Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, described the state's main water problem during a media tour Monday of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta hosted by MWD and state water officials.

The water agency and the Brown administration are touting a multibillion-dollar project to bypass those "dirt roads" by building a set of massive tunnels underneath the Delta, which is — to continue the highway analogy — the equivalent of a giant interchange.

Currently, water meanders through the area, held back by aging levees, to a pumping station at Tracy, where it is channeled through the agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley to the state's southern metropolises, including San Diego. The pumps are routinely slowed down because of disputes over the health of an endangered fish called the Delta Smelt.

The Delta is the West Coast's largest estuary — a 1,300-square-mile area with waterways, wetlands, islands, orchards, and marinas. The tin-roofed houses, historic mansions, and erector-set-looking drawbridges evoke images of the Louisiana bayous. It's one of my favorite places on Earth.

If you flip a California map on its side (Pacific Coast at the bottom), the Delta is the low-lying area where water gathers after it flows out of the mountains before it drains out the San Francisco Bay. It has long been Ground Zero in the state's water wars. The last battle was a losing attempt in 1982 to build a "peripheral canal" around it.

The tunnel plan is so big it might be visible from space, but it doesn't necessarily promise more water to the south. Instead, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan offers a more predictable water supply by solving the problems that lead to the pump slowdowns.

Supporters say that the tunnels would protect against earthquake risk given that the current levees are poorly engineered and susceptible to devastation. The state can't afford to do nothing, they argue. But there are plenty of opponents.

"It's the best science money can buy," chided Cathy Hemly, of Greene & Hemly farms near Courtland. "I have a sincere distrust about their assumptions." Her farm will be devastated by the plan, which she sees as the death-knell for the area. She and other tunnel foes followed the bus and politely handed out information at tour stops.

These critics say supporters are scaring the public over earthquakes given that the Delta is not particularly earthquake-prone. They want the state to instead invest in a less-costly process of shoring up the levees.

At one stop, California Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Charlton Bonham acknowledged that there's lots of uncertainty about how the plan will evolve. "We in the habitat community have never tried anything this big before."

Uncertainty is a given in huge projects, but locals say they were cut out of the discussions and that they are concerned about a project that treats them, their farms and their towns as a disposable byproduct to advance a greater good.

No one knows what it ultimately will cost, either. State infrastructure projects are notorious for cost overruns. Water users (i.e., ratepayers) would pay for the $14-billion tunnels, but the total $25-billion project depends on a coming water bond and federal funds to pay for habitat restoration.

The first proposed route paid little mind to local concerns. The new route is more sensitive, but still would restore habitat by flooding more than 15 percent of Delta farmland, with eminent domain a possibility for land acquisition.

The tour bus pulled over near Walnut Grove, where officials gathered around a cross channel. Officials seemed oblivious to the historical town up the road — Locke, built in 1915 by descendants of the Chinese immigrants who built the levees.

That was emblematic. In their rush to undertake a big dig, officials are ignoring the region's heritage and its people. The state needs to fix its water problems, but Delta residents aren't the only ones who should worry about the tunnel plan.

NEXT: What We Talk About When We Talk About the Debt Ceiling: Nothing Much, Sadly.

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  1. Schadenfreude California. You people should probably move somewhere else. Reason could open an office in Waco, Texas where they would have plenty of water and not have to pay state income taxes.

  2. Here’s an idea: Don’t live in a fucking desert!

    1. +1 Sam Kinison

  3. Cut the water lines to the cities in the deserts. Shoot anyone who tries to leave. The problem will solve itself.

  4. Sam Kinison addressed a similar issue with world hunger.

    Seems to me that the same logic could, perhaps, be applied to water…

  5. All water utilities should be private and unsubsidized. Let people pay the direct cost of living where they want to live.

    1. Aw shit! Next you’re going to say that flood insurance should be privatized so the cost actually reflects the risk! Why do you only want to allow the super-rich to live in these places? Why do you hate poor people?

      1. Hate poor people? He’s telling SoCal to move to Detroit! The poor people in Detroit will reap money like crazy!

    2. That’s not such an easy thing to make work in CA.

      CA exists the way it does in large part because of the massive state infrastructure projects, the water system really being the main one.

      Northern CA is a little to wet to be good farming. The southern Central Valley is considerably too hot and dry, and the Delta was too marshy.

      Build massive aqueducts, dams, reservoirs, and pumps, and drain the north to water the south, and you’ve got the most productive farmland on Earth.

      The “cute little towns” with such rich cultural hertiage in the Delta are an extreme example – those towns could not be there if it were not for the state draining the swamp and keeping it drained via the pumps.

      The SoCal folks don’t actually get much water from the Central Valley system – theirs comes mostly from the Owens Valley and the Colorado River, which aren’t tied into this issue.

      CA water rights is an exactly an area where the scale of the operation, the uniqueness of the landscape, and the scarcity of water make a call to privatize the whole thing a little meaningless.

      How would you even begin to do that? I’m not being rhetorical – I’m genuinely curious.

      1. I have gradually come to the conclusion that there is not one single project better undertaken by government than the people directly involved. Why? Because in the end, it comes down to people doing something; government is not magic pixie dust which suddenly makes the impossible possible, and the difference between government backing and private backing is the motivation.

        Government workers are motivated to protect their jobs and expand their bureaucracies.

        Private workers are motivated to keep their damned business afloat by doing such good work that others will hire them for other projects.

        It makes all the difference in the world.

        1. I understand that.

          My question is, how would you go about implementing that in CA’s water system right now today. What would be the first step?

          1. If you have to ask that, you didn’t understand what I wrote. I would leave government entirely out of it, which also means I would leave it entirely to the people in SoCal who want the water to make an offer NorCal can’t resist. For me, you, or any other disinterested party to fret over that solution is pointless.

            1. I understood what you wrote.

              You can say “government should stay out of it” all you want, but that’s like saying the solution to a spilt glass of milk is not to spill the milk.

              First, it is not NorCal vs. SoCal – again, SoCal does not get its water from NorCal – that’s CA mythology.

              The question you’re avoiding is “who’s water is it?” Who has a right to claim ownership and sell it?

              You folks who don’t live in an arid climate in which ALL of the water comes from somewhere else have serious trouble understanding how this works in CA. You can’t just dig a well and take the water, because even when you do that in CA you are taking the water FROM somebody.

              We can, however, and do, form water districts to manage these resources, precisely because it has enabled the development of one of the world’s strongest economies. Should we not be allowed to do that?

              Believe me, I would like it to be simple, because this is a serious issue in CA, but in this case I really don’t see that knee-jerk cries of “privatize!” have anything to do with the actual situation.

      2. “CA exists the way it does in large part because of the massive state infrastructure projects, the water system really being the main one.”

        So? That’s their problem. They shouldn’t have been so stupid to dig themselves in to a hole. Privatize that shit.

        1. Thanks for the well-thought-out advice. We’ll all just go die now.

          The question at hand is, WHAT are you actually proposing by way of privatizing it? The government sells the dams and aquaducts? To whom?

          Plus, do you like food? Because if you live in this country, most of your food comes from here. Stop being so stupid as to eat our food, and we’ll stop being so stupid as to manage our water resources.

          1. There are profitable privately owned or managed water service utilities all over the country. Yes, privatize the ones in California and let property owners pay if they want water piped to their house or business, or put in their own well. As for the dams and reservoirs, if nobody wants them because they are not profitable to maintain, let them decompose. Maybe a privatized reservoir would be profitable to supply water to distribution mains.

            Let farmers find their own solutions to drainage or irrigation, and pass those costs on to consumers. No industry is entitled to exist as a result of skewed market incentives. So if food from California ends up costing too much in a free market, fuck em.

            1. If you’re saying “put in their own well,” you just don’t understand how water works in CA.

              Let the dams decompose? Really? This, to you, really seems like the best thing to do?

              Or are you so committed to an ideology that even a stupid and disastrous outcome is preferable to one that doesn’t follow your ideology?

        2. That would require a rewrite of the constitution. Water specifically falls under the domain of the Federal government. Oh I know it says “navigable rivers” but there’s enough wiggle room to justify that the bureau of Reclamation just control the whole works.

          The real issue, like most when it comes to water, is that the allocations are negotiated in good faith, but later altered. In this case, because of a fish’s health. New (likely unanticipated) restrictions on water put users in a bind if they were expecting the flow to remain consistent over time.

          1. Privatizing existing distribution systems would require no such change, as water has already been allocated to those systems. I know they only do it through public-private contracts rather than outright ownership, but American Water already controls many municipal water systems, and they seem to have a California subsidiary.

            1. California’s got experience with the kind of deregulation you’re advocating and that’s why there’s absolutely no way California will privatize the water distribution network for at least few generations. They privatized the electricity grid and ENRON damn near cratered the economy. That little experiment cost California $45 billion in less than a year.

          2. “The real issue, like most when it comes to water, is that the allocations are negotiated in good faith, but later altered.”

            Spot on. The Delta Smelt are a red herring, though (no pun intended). Never has an environmental cause started because of an environmental problem.

            The salmon fisheries are pissed that Delta levels are kept so low, since that means no salmon, and the pumps have actually been operating in violation of their charter (overpumping) since they began operation.

            The farms of the valley are way more important economically, so the complaints of the salmon fisheries tend to get ignored, which is why the fisheries eventually leveraged the Endangered Species Act to get the pumps shut down.

            I suspect His Jerriness then smelled an opportunity for a mega construction project (which always makes the unions happy) to calm both the salmon fisheries and the south valley farmers.

    3. I could live with this – right now, where I live, agriculture water is heavily subsidized on the backs of residential customers.

  6. Here’s something that’s been under the radar- states around the Great Lakes are receiving federal funds for putting in thousands of new geodetic elevation surveying monuments, which are basically obsolete for most engineering projects, except for something like a major water line.

    1. Under the radar for what exactly? I heard a conspiracy theory about how “they” are going to drain the Great Lakes to water the relatively-arid (and arid) Southwest and West.

      One major problem with that theory: how do you get water OVER the Rockies? The most common method of getting water from one place to another today: gravity. Pumping water thousands of miles and thousands of feet high would require a simply amazing amount of energy.

      1. There is already a massive system of water tunnels all through the Rockies carrying water everywhich way.

        1. The majority of water tunnels send water from west to east.

      2. The “height modernization” programs are under the radar in that they haven’t been noticed by media or politicians as “pork projects”. But it is easy to find the official web sites.

        The plains states and the Great Lakes states themselves are already have their eye on that water. It doesn’t have to make it past the Rockies- in fact it could let the west coast drain more water originating from the Rocky Mountain states. But yes, you can send water over the Rockies, with a pump and a siphon much more efficiently than with pumps alone.

  7. I think their plan to chase middle-class taxpayers out of the state will at least decelerate the water problem for a while.

  8. How about a referendum on giving California back to Mexico?

    1. We’d have to pay them to take it.

  9. Only in CA does a town less than 100 years old count as “historic.”

  10. my best friend’s aunt makes $67 an hour on the laptop. She has been fired from work for 5 months but last month her pay check was $13328 just working on the laptop for a few hours. try here


  11. Programs must be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute. Just turn to this way to make your dollars .,., Bay35.c?m

  12. I thought California was bankrupt. Why is anyone in the state thinking about a big capital project (unless, as I suspect, it is going to be a big Federal dollar capital project).

    1. It’ll be a bond, but they’ll probably go after federal money, too.

    2. There’s no shortage of money in California but there’s always an excess of democracy. The legislature has almost no discretion because voters stripped it of the power to raise taxes and allocated most of the general fund. The result is that there’s funding for anything if you can convince enough voters to support it. Almost every capital project in California is funded by a bond measure.

      Unrelated fact: The super-majority Democrats delivered California a surplus this year. I have no idea how.

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