Sacramento water agencies work together, adapting to drought and planning for a future of growth
Dr. Jay Lund, director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, is the godfather of research on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. When he says it took John Sutter eight days to wind his way from San Francisco Bay through the Delta to find the narrow Sacramento River in 1839, you can bet that’s the truth. Not until 1913 was the mouth of the river dredged to make it a mile wide. Grizzly bears roamed the wildness, feasting on an abundance of native fish, until they were hunted to local extinction. Today in the Delta, the largest estuary on the west coast of North America, only remnants remain of the natural landscape before it was irreversibly altered at the hands of people.
The Delta is a system of canals. In places, you can stand on a man-made levee with high water on one side and sunken land on the other. For 7,000 years, sediment accumulated to form deposits of organically-rich peat soil, but the last 170 years of farming have undone this natural process. About 2,300 dump trucks worth of soil is lost per day, oxidized as carbon dioxide and all told, about half of the Delta’s soil material is now gone, says Curt Schmutte, a civil engineer who specializes in Delta issues. We named plots of land in the Delta “islands,” but scientists refer to them — the majority below sea level — as “holes.”
I’m with a tour group on a hot September afternoon, and we hold onto our hats and brace ourselves as the boat tears through the water at 40 miles per hour, past invasive water hyacinth, tules, fishermen, houseboats, farmland and cattle. The Delta accumulates water from California’s largest watershed and acts as the hub of the state’s water supply system, linking water from the north to the two biggest water projects, which play a major role in sustaining the world’s sixth largest economy and much of its industry, agriculture and 39 million people.
But the Delta exists under unrelenting pressure: from land-use change, population growth, nutrient pollution from wastewater treatment plants, earthquakes, agriculture, sea-level rise and more. Even with money, there’s no silver bullet to fix this ecosystem — but there are plenty of battling sides. “It’s like a game of chicken,” Lund says. “How do you break a game of chicken?”
Was it Mark Twain who proclaimed, “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over”? When it comes to this natural resource, our state is rife with conflict. And, perhaps, in the Sacramento region, open to resolution. While the state is all-consumed with water wars, the region’s efforts toward collaboration are easy to overlook. The best example is the landmark Water Forum Agreement, which 22 water agencies from Sacramento, El Dorado and Placer counties signed in 2000 to balance the environmental and human needs of the lower American River.
Now, water agencies have joined together again to launch the River Arc Project. Proponents say the project has the potential for a groundbreaking impact. It would help recharge groundwater through a management practice called “conjunctive use.” It would also allow for ongoing growth by creating an additional source of water to lessen demand on the lower American River and Folsom Lake, which already provide drinking water to 1 million residents, says Andy Fecko, director of resource development at Placer County Water Agency. “What’s unique about our region is we’re doing this before we have a crisis.”
Duking It Out Over Water
First, to understand why it’s so unusual for a story of optimism when it comes to water, we have to understand why water in California is often tied with conflict: Our water supply is limited and dispersed unevenly. And our water rights system is often deemed “byzantine” and “antiquated.”
Throughout the American West, precipitation falls in a different place than where most of us live. Early settlers realized that towns and agriculture in the frontier could only be sustained by moving water. So we built a complex system of dams, reservoirs, canals, aqueducts, pumps and tunnels. Who exactly has access to our state’s water has been a point of contention ever since. “It’s a Western pastime to argue over water rights,” says Rita Sudman, who served for 34 years as executive director of the nonprofit Water Education Foundation in Sacramento.
California has a dual water rights system when it comes to surface water. The system incorporates both riparian rights (for those who own land next to water) and prior appropriation (“first in time, first in right”). The Water Commission Act of 1914 established the permit process for obtaining surface water and formed the State Water Resources Control Board. Those legislators failed to regulate groundwater, not foreseeing what would come decades later as most of the state battles severe drought and the Central Valley sinks in places due to over-pumped aquifers. In some places throughout the state, groundwater extraction exceeds natural recharge (something the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 aims to remedy).
Water battles led to an amendment to California’s constitution declaring that all water — surface water, groundwater, marshes and wetlands — must be for a reasonable and beneficial use, such as agriculture, commercial fishing, hydroelectric generation, municipal use, endangered species and recreation (like swimming or whitewater rafting). The definition allows for changing interpretations, and groups who perceive their interests to be in conflict — farmers, industry, environmentalists, outdoor recreationists — continually maneuver for their position to be prioritized. Arguments ensue.
Ultimately, our system works because it’s flexible, Fecko says. Californians get around labyrinthine water rights through water transfers (although experts say informal sales are inadequately tracked and come with their own problems on the open market, like skyrocketing costs for farmers whose water allotments have been curtailed). PCWA often sells surplus reservoir water to other water-strapped purveyors, which keeps rates low for its customers. The mechanisms currently in place get water to where it needs to be, Fecko says, adding, “There’s a better way to spend our time than unravel 102 years of jurisprudence.”
Areas of Agreement
The world of water districts is diffusive. We have a lot of them in California — over 1,200 and that’s only counting those elected by voters, or governed by a county board of supervisors or a city council. (That figure comes from the Legislative Analyst’s Office and is more than a decade old; other sources estimate around 2,000 districts, when including entities such as mobile home parks and mutual water companies.) The state also has 108 investor-owned water companies regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission.
Around 25 water purveyors operate in Sacramento County. These agencies work in the same river, the same watershed, the same groundwater basin. Theoretically, this poses a problem. “They each have their own boards, politics, priorities, water sources and water rights, and ways of doing things,” says Dr. Jeff Loux, an environmental planning professor and associate dean at UC Davis Extension. “Getting them to work together is a monumental task.” But, he says, that’s what the Sacramento region has done for two decades.
“We need to plan for a 10-year drought or more. If we are not planning, then we are not planning for the world we live in with climate change,” Loux says. To be able to effectively plan, agencies need to agree on stuff. They need to collaborate. “That is, to me, the place where progress gets made,” Loux says. He points to a prime example: the Water Forum Agreement.
“We’re doing good stuff, and we have the cooperation of water suppliers in the region. It’s not their primary mission to take care of the environment, but they realize it also takes care of their primary mission, which is delivering water to their customers at the lowest possible cost.” TOM GOHRING, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, WATER FORUM
Member utilities provide $3.80 per water connection per year for the nonprofit organization that oversees the agreement. “For the cost of a latte per family, we get the Water Forum,” says Executive Director Tom Gohring. The agreement outlines the management of the lower American River. Fed by the Sierra Nevada, the American River is the second-largest tributary to the Sacramento River, which empties into the Delta and eventually the San Francisco Bay. But hydraulic mining during the Gold Rush and dams built along the American River dramatically changed the geology.
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