How Serious is California’s Water Crisis and What’s Causing It?

Water is of central importance to our community’s future. We provide in-depth answers to a few deceptively simple questions about California’s water. Plus, resources on where to learn more.

Correction 3.17.22 10:29 am: “An earlier version of this article incorrectly described a professional affiliation of The Maven’s Notebook. We have updated the article for accuracy.”

Marc Dadigan is Shasta Scout’s Associate Editor. He’s covered California water issues as a freelance journalist for regional and national outlets for more than 12 years. He’s also a PhD student in Native American Studies and Human Rights at UC Davis, with a focus on Native American people’s protection of California waterways and the hidden history of the state’s mega-dams. 

In simplest terms, what’s causing California’s lack of water?  

The current “crisis” is due to a myriad of factors, but most important are several years of historically low rainfall and the unsustainable groundwater pumping that’s occurred for decades throughout the state, especially in the Central and San Joaquin Valleys.

Water supply problems for California communities are more related to water use and water distribution than a lack of water, though the historic dryness has certainly exacerbated the stress on the system. The somewhat good news is that a lot of the state’s water challenges are still human-induced and can be addressed by the decisions and changes we make. When you see fear-inducing photos circulating of parched reservoirs, it’s important to remember those images are not simply the result of the low rainfall but also operational decisions by water managers, who admittedly face political, legal and regulatory constraints.

It’s estimated that, on average, 80 percent of human water use in California is allocated to agriculture (though that statistic is contested by some). Some agricultural industry supporters and others argue that “farm water is water for food,” but this is an overly simplistic claim. The damming and diversion of rivers to support California agriculture has sacrificed sustainable food systems such as salmon for preferred Western farming styles and crops. Exports of river water to supply farming harms fisheries that once provided a bountiful food supply. 

And while some farmers grow fruits and vegetables that end up on the tables of Americans, others become millionaires by internationally exporting valuable commodities like almonds and rice grown with taxpayer-subsidized water. Additionally, farm land in the Central Valley, which often receives North State river water, is often poorly suited for irrigation-based farming, causing it to become contaminated with selenium.

Some scholars and activists are critical of the California agriculture industry for continuing to grow crops that draw in high profits but are extremely ecologically destructive. That’s why, they argue, the number of acres of almonds – a notoriously water-guzzling crop – continues to climb during extreme drought. 

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The lack of available water right now should be prompting us to ask more nuanced questions about how we use water for food. Given how climate is changing our new water normal, where and what kind of agriculture should California support? How do we transform California’s industrialized agriculture into food growing enterprises that are more climate change resilient and more just? And what would viewing healthy rivers as food sources mean for the state’s people and economy? 

How bad is California’s lack of water right now? 

Long-term droughts are not unusual for California, but the current rainfall levels are at a historic low. A recent UCLA study made a lot of headlines with its conclusion that we’re currently suffering the driest period in 1,200 years.  And another study indicated that climate change accounts for about 40 percent of the current drought’s intensity.

While California’s network of dams and pipelines were built on the idea that significant rainfall in the North could be transported to the South to establish farms and cities, climate change is making this look increasingly unsustainable. It’s worth noting the early 1900s decision makers who advocated for the damming of California embraced utopian visions of transforming arid regions of California into real-life Gardens of Eden for white family farmers. Our water system’s foundations were likely not based on sound science or economics, even by the standards of the time.

But it’s important to remember that annual precipitation doesn’t determine the entirety of California’s water supply. There are also aquifers and other groundwater supplies that can be extremely drought resistant. Those sources are particularly important to protect given the current lack of rain.

But for decades, California has lagged behind other states in regulating groundwater pumping. A new law requires that groundwater restrictions be put in place by 2030, but many are skeptical about the process and whether too much damage will be done before it takes effect. That’s because, for some time, unrestrained mining of groundwater has occurred when allocations of water from the North State were reduced in response to low rain and snowmelt. In Southern California, farmers have pumped so much groundwater that some places in the San Joaquin Valley are sinking

Protecting aquifers is important. The Pit River Tribe has been fighting to protect a giant underground aquifer from the potential contamination risked by a corporate plan to frack geothermal wells in the Medicine Lake Highlands. According to one study by a geologist, water in that aquifer percolates underground for somewhere between 20 to 40 years before it emerges at Fall River springs. That aquifer alone contributes more than 1.4 million acre feet annually to the Sacramento River watershed.

In another example, the Winnemem Wintu Tribe and environmentalists successfully fought against the proposed Crystal Geysers bottling plant in Mount Shasta because they also feared that drilling for spring water would disrupt drought-resistant underground water systems. 

When there’s not enough water in California, who gets the water and who decides?

California has a much maligned water rights system, under which there are “senior” and “junior” rights holders. Senior rights holders are far less likely to have to make sacrifices or face restrictions to their access to water from rivers, reservoirs and other sources. Junior water rights holders, however, may have to scramble to buy water from senior rights holders, as we saw with local water districts last summer.

When there are water shortages, water districts, organizations, or individuals who have rights to receive water can sell water they’ve been allocated on an open market that’s overseen by the State Water Control Board. Unfortunately, there is no easy way for the public to track where water is moving due to allocations or sales. There is also very little regulation of the environmental and equity impacts of moving water around like this. While some analysts think a more highly tuned market could address water shortages, others argue that turning water into a profit-making commodity makes it more difficult to make the reforms needed for climate change. 

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As I’ve written about previously in Shasta Scout, the old California water rights system plays a significant role in how water is allocated and who receives it. But the doctrine that governs these water rights was not developed to promote equity, water quality, getting water to communities who need it the most, or even achieving efficient economic goals.

Many of these rights are tied to pre-1914 land and water claims that were made during a chaotic and violent period of history. Other senior right holders, such as the Sacramento Contract Settlement Contractors, acquired their rights through decades of negotiation with federal authorities. These were not open, democratic processes, to say the least.

While some argue that a water right is just another form of private property and should be honored as such, many believe the current water rights system is archaic and inadequate to fairly, equitably and judiciously govern water use. Indigenous communities in California, for instance, argue that they have been discriminated against in the current water rights system. They are advocating for reforms to the system that would make it less racially discriminatory.

Is letting river water flow into the ocean “unused” a “waste”?

As was addressed in our article about the documentary One Word Sawalmem, many in California, especially powerful and wealthy Western agricultural interests, tend to view water as a resource that only has value for certain economic activities like irrigation, power generation and municipal use. This, of course, is contrary to the world views of many Indigenous people and others for whom river flows have spiritual, cultural, nutritional as well as economic value.

The idea that river water that flows to the ocean is a “waste”  stems from disconnecting the well-being of people and the well-being of rivers, which people rely on for drinking water.

Because of diversions for agriculture and hydropower, many rivers are flowing far below their natural historic flows. But reservoir and hydro-dam operators could be lobbied or forced to extract less water from rivers through policy changes, legislation or lawsuits. Stronger flows for rivers would increase the health of fisheries, which could someday be a bountiful and far more sustainable food supply than some crops. Many people, especially up in the Klamath River and Trinity River regions still rely on subsistence fishing, and, thus, need strong river flows to feed their families.

And strong river flows are also not only essential to ecological health, but also to our drinking water quality. For instance, low flows due to drought and management decisions have contributed to harmful algae blooms on various rivers and in the Sacramento Delta Region. A lack of fresh river flows in the Sacramento Delta also can lead to high salt levels that contaminate water for Delta communities and farmers.

In general, poor drinking water quality throughout the state and region is a vitally underreported story. This study from Shasta County indicates there are many local waterways “impaired” with potentially harmful levels of toxins, and Shasta Lake has already been labeled “mercury impaired.” 

Where can we learn more about California water issues and how to contribute to ensuring access to clean and safe water for people and animals throughout the state?

Here are some great sites to learn more about California Water issues. If you like Twitter, use the #cawater hashtag and you will find a cornucopia of fascinating tweets from scientists, farmers, activists and scholars.

Maven’s NotebookMaven’s Notebook does a nice job aggregating important water news from around the state and providing daily updates. It also has several explainer pages about different water projects, controversies and issues. I recommend checking out their beginner guides

Water Talk Podcast — Hosted by water scientists who desire to make science more understandable to the general public, this podcast features in-depth interviews with a really diverse cast of scholars, public officials, decision-makers, activists and scientists.

Save California Salmon and their West Coast Water Justice podcast — Save California Salmon is a tribally led non-profit grassroots organization which advocates for river and fisheries protections. They also provide a lot of helpful explanatory resources to help citizens get more involved in what can be very confusing and complex government processes that determine how water is distributed throughout the state. The vast majority of the California water discourse is led by white professionals, and Save California Salmon is one of the few organizations elevating Indigenous and grassroots voices in the conversation. 

Water Hub at Climate Nexus — This an interesting communications platform that is trying to promote positive and solutions-oriented stories regarding water challenges. 

Cory Copeland is a state water scientist, who is a very relatable and informative fellow for all things water on Twitter. Be forewarned, once you start diving into the #cawater nerd threads on Twitter, you may never be the same. 

Dan Bacher — A longtime angler and river advocate, Bacher is a Sacramento-based investigative writer who does strong work investigating the conflicts of interest, influence of lobbying dollars, and power dynamics behind California water governance. 

SJV Water — If you want to learn about the perspectives about agricultural interests and water in the San Joaquin Valley, I recommend checking out this emerging, independent news organization.  

Brad Hooker, Agri-Pulse journalist — For news about and for the agricultural industry, Agri-Pulse is an interesting source. 

Marc Dadigan is Shasta Scout’s Associate Editor. His writing has been published in Reveal, Yes! Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, High Country News, and Indian Country Today. He welcomes your emails at [email protected]

Do you have feedback? Email us, or join the community conversation at Shasta Scout’s Facebook page.

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