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A Briefing on California Water Issues

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Editor’s Note: California and water. The two always have been and always will be inextricably linked. No resource is more vital to the state's prosperity or steeped in more controversy.

This briefing issue is produced by the Water Education Foundation to provide the public with a short overview of the current key issues in California water. There is a need for a fair and balanced portrait of these critical topics because decisions on these controversial issues affect everyone in the state.

It is important for Californians to know the views of the three main interest groups -- agricultural, urban and environmental -- who have a stake in management of our water resources. It also is necessary to learn about the issues facing governmental officials who oversee water management. The mission of the Foundation is to provide impartial coverage of water issues to lead to a broader understanding and resolution of water problems. California water issues can appear overwhelmingly complex and controversial. Through the Foundation, we try to open the door to understanding these issues so that Californians will be able to best manage and protect this precious resource.

We believe that learning about water will help you determine what decisions should be made regarding these important issues.

People interested in more in-depth information on these current water issues and other topics are encouraged to subscribe to Western Water magazine, published bi-monthly by the Foundation, or refer to the Foundation's Layperson's Guide series. The publications can be ordered through our online store.

Rita Schmidt Sudman, executive director, Water Education Foundation


A Briefing on California Issues

Updated March 2004 Glenn Totten

As the nation's most populous state, California faces many complicated and compelling problems. Although polls have shown the public's top concerns are education, job security, crime and immigration, water fuels the economy. Proper management of the quality and quantity of the state's "liquid gold" is critical to California 's well-being.

  Since the days of Mark Twain -- who is said to have coined the phrase "Whiskey's for drinking; water's for fighting over" -- cities, farmers and environmentalists have battled over who will control California 's water. The three powerful political factions have effectively turned the water issue into a stalemate by blocking one another's agenda.

Yet the critical question of how -- or if -- the state's limited water supply can be stretched to meet future needs remains. The fundamental controversy surrounding California 's water supply is one of distribution. The decades-long conflicts between competing interests over the use of available supplies have been exacerbated by the state's swelling population and periods of drought.

According to U.S. Census Bureau figures, California ’s population currently is estimated at 35.5 million, and is projected to hit 49.3 million by 2025. In its 1998 California Water Plan update, the state Department of Water Resources (DWR) forecast a gap between water supply and demand ranging from 2.4 million acre-feet during normal years up to 6.2 million acre-feet in drought years by 2020. (An acre-foot of water is about 326,000 gallons -- enough to cover an acre of land, about the size of a football field, 1 foot deep and meet the average needs of between one and two residential households.) A new state water plan with updated supply and demand projections is expected to be completed in 2004.

In addition to satisfying the basic needs of residential customers, demands for more reliable and higher quality water supplies continue to come from the state's agricultural industry, businesses, manufacturers and developers. At the same time, protecting water quality, which may impact water allocation, is of fundamental importance to people, fisheries, wildlife and recreational interests.

Within California, there are two major arteries serving as the sources of surface water for urban and agricultural areas: The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (Bay-Delta) and the Colorado River.

The Delta serves as a major water source for approximately two-thirds of the state – over 22 million people. The region is fed by two major rivers: the Sacramento from the north and the San Joaquin from the south. The mixture of fresh water from these two waterways and numerous tributaries combine with salty ocean water from San Francisco Bay to create the largest estuary on the West Coast of North America. Massive pumps at the southern end of this marsh pull approximately 5.5 million acre-feet annually of fresh water from the entanglement of waterways and sloughs southward to Central Valley farmland via the Central Valley Project and ultimately, to the southern California region via the State Water Project.

The massive Colorado River winds its way through the southwestern United States before terminating in the Gulf of California in Mexico . Along the way, the river provides water to seven states including California , with each state's water use determined by the Colorado River Compact of 1922. According to the compact, California is permitted to use 4.4 million acre-feet of the Colorado annually, but for over a decade, California has been using well beyond that. As water conditions have tightened in several of the other states, the secretary of the Interior has demanded that California reduce its use of the Colorado River - a major challenge to river water users.

Adding to the increased emphasis on water conservation, water management in the northern part of the state has, for the past several years, been driven by the struggle to balance water needs and environmental protection in the Bay-Delta.

The Sacramento River endangered winter-run and spring-run Chinook salmon are anadromous fish that travel down river, through the Delta to the Pacific Ocean and back to complete their life cycle. The federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) requires modification of water project operations and restriction of water exports to protect the salmon. Further pumping constraints were imposed to protect the tiny Delta smelt, a threatened fish found only in the Delta, thus adding more fuel to the water distribution controversy among farmers, environmentalists and cities.

California 's capricious climate fluctuates between flood and drought, which significantly impacts supplies. A six-year drought between 1987 and 1993 was followed by five years of above-normal precipitation from 1995 through 1999. Another dry cycle occurred between 2000 and 2002, but thanks to late-season rains the water year that ended in September 2003 had near-average precipitation.

Drought can wreak havoc on the state. The 1987-1993 drought served as a wake-up call to many. It highlighted the fact that if available supplies are not used more efficiently and/or expanded, overdrafted groundwater basins, water rationing for urban users, fallowed farmland and lost jobs loom on the horizon. Several western states, including many in the Colorado River Basin , are experiencing serious drought. Reservoirs along the Colorado River are at 30-year lows. The dry conditions have the potential to affect the availability of surplus flows from the Colorado River upon which California depends (see Colorado River section).

In addition to the hydrologic drought, some water interests complain about the imposition of a "regulatory" drought. A number of contractors' water deliveries have been cut back during average rainfall years to meet the requirements of federal laws that aim to preserve the state's dwindling native freshwater fisheries and riparian-dependent species.

In order to resolve the stalemate over the limited water supply and ever-increasing demand, a coalition of federal and state agencies with management and regulatory responsibilities in the Bay-Delta -- a critical link in the water supply system – was formed in 1995. This coalition, now called the CALFED Bay-Delta Authority, has made significant progress in several areas, such as groundwater storage, environmental water account, ecosystem restoration, water conveyance and water recycling. Voter approval of Proposition 50 in November 2002 will keep state funds flowing to CALFED, but supporters have had a harder time getting federal support.

The federal government has dipped its toe into another divisive California water issue – the amount of water the state can take from the Colorado River. The Bush administration took a hard line during negotiations with southern California water interests to finalize a plan to reduce use of Colorado River water. When those talks failed to yield an agreement acceptable to federal officials, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said she would hold California to its 4.4 million acre-foot allocation starting January 1, 2003.

A figurative cloud hanging over California is the prospect of global climate change and what it might portend for the state’s water future. Several scenarios predict temperature rises of between 3 degrees Centigrade and 5˚C by 2090, which could change precipitation patterns in the state and the timing of runoff. Temperature increases and rising sea levels also could raise salinity in the Bay-Delta, potentially affecting many species that have adapted to its unique habitat.

Various public interest and environmental groups, urban water agencies and irrigation districts are working to find solutions to California 's water problems. Innovation is a key component in this solution, and practices such as water recycling, desalination and water marketing are becoming the water jargon of the future. But as with every proposal, there are glitches. A stumbling block for water recycling thus far has been the lack of public trust over science's ability to clean wastewater to the point of potability. Likewise, water marketing has met with obstacles due to lack of a defined market. Desalination faces cost and environmental hurdles. Discussions will undoubtedly continue in the areas of growth, expanding urban supplies, water conservation, the Bay-Delta, water marketing, agricultural drainage and water needs for fish and wildlife.


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A critical challenge for the water world has been to provide more water to protect and restore fish and wildlife. Societal values have evolved over the last century from an ethic of conquering nature to one of coexisting with it. This fundamental change in values, combined with the passage of strict state and federal laws protecting endangered species and their habitat, and lawsuits by environmental groups to enforce these laws, has impeded most conventional water development for the last two decades.

Since the Gold Rush, California and the American West have been transformed from vast, sparsely populated open spaces into one of the world’s leading regions for food production and manufacturing. Much of that development was made possible by tapping the region’s abundant natural resources, especially water, and putting them in the service of human needs.

That rapid and intensive development has made significant changes in the natural environment. Fish populations have been depleted, wetlands drained and rivers forced into artificial channels. Dams and levees have altered natural water flow patterns. Native species of many plants and animals have declined, and in some cases become extinct. Water quality has been impaired by pollutants from mining, urban sources and agricultural activities.

Widespread interest in environmental restoration is a relatively recent phenomenon. Its roots date back to the 1960s and 1970s with enactment of federal legislation such as the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968 and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973. Together with companion laws enacted in California , these measures helped create the legal apparatus for protecting endangered native populations of wildlife, fish and plants that has since expanded to encompass broader restoration objectives. The ESA prohibits actions that harm listed species or disrupt their normal pattern of behavior. Many threatened and endangered species live in riparian areas, and the ESA mandates have led to the alteration of dam operations, water diversions and pumping facilities.

Most recently, debate has raged over attempts to amend a collection of California laws known as the fully protected species statutes. Those statutes predate California ’s ESA and prohibit even incidental take of 37 species of birds, mammals, reptiles and fish. By contrast, both the federal and state ESA laws allow a certain amount of “take” for some endangered species under certain circumstances and when mitigation efforts are undertaken to offset the killing of the species. However, species listed under the fully protected species laws cannot be killed or have their habitats destroyed.

Movement toward changing the fully protected species laws occurred in 2003, when former Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation (SB 317, Kuehl) that authorizes take of endangered species in order to facilitate the broader goals of conserving irrigation water in the Imperial Valley and transferring some of that conserved water to urban uses. The law was part of a three-bill package that enabled the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA), a complex accounting of the rights of several California water districts to use Colorado River water. Other bills in the package put the onus on the state for environmental restoration of the Salton Sea and provided a mechanism for funding the restoration work.

In the Delta, CALFED’s Ecosystem Restoration Program (ERP) is intended to address a variety of issues such as water diversions and land use changes that have affected native fish, wildlife and plants. The ERP, along with the water management strategy, also is designed to assist with the recovery of endangered species found in the Bay-Delta.

A key component of the ERP is its focus on adaptive management. Adaptive management can help bridge the gap between scientific theory and actual results by allowing for scientific research, test programs and monitoring of pilot restoration projects. For example, scientists would identify a goal, such as increasing Delta smelt populations, and a range of options to achieve that goal. These actions would then be monitored to determine if they are meeting the goal. If not, they would be modified.

Some of the typical ERP actions identified by CALFED include acquiring water from sources throughout the Bay-Delta’s watershed to provide flows and habitat conditions for fishery protection and recovery, improving Delta outflow during key periods, constructing setback levees, developing assessment, prevention and control programs for invasive species, and modifying or eliminating fish passage barriers, including the removal of some dams and construction of fish ladders and fish screens at other dams.

The ERP proposes that between 132,200 acres and 158,200 acres of land within the Delta be converted to wildlife habitat or other uses, of which 120,000 acres to 151,200 acres is estimated to be farmland. CALFED officials hope their acreage estimates are high and that less farmland actually will need to be converted for ecosystem restoration. Specific Delta islands on which CALFED is restoring fish and wildlife habitat include Staten, Prospect, Twitchell and Sherman islands, and McCormick-Williamson Tract. Stage 1 funding is estimated at $1.3 billion, including $200,000 for the Environmental Water Account. An additional $300,000 has been identified for the Science Program. Click here for the Foundation's Briefing on the Bay Delta.

Other actions identified in the ERP include, but are not limited to, proposals to:

  • Implement large-scale restoration projects on selected streams and rivers, including Clear Creek, Deer Creek, Cosumnes River , San Joaquin River and Tuolumne River , in cooperation with local participants.
  • Improve fish passage through modifications or removal of the following locally owned dams: small diversion dams on Butte Creek; eight Pacific Gas & Electric Company diversion dams on Battle Creek ; McCormick-Saeltzer Dam on Clear Creek; Woodbridge Dam on Mokelumne River ; and Clough Dam on Mill Creek.
  • Restore habitat in San Pablo Bay, Suisun Bay and Suisun Marsh and the Yolo Bypass including tidal wetlands and riparian habitat.
  • Improve salmon spawning and juvenile survival in upstream tributaries by purchasing up to 100,000 acre-feet of water per year by the end of Stage 1. Some of these flows may be contributed to the Environmental Water Account (EWA).
  • Complete protection and restoration of the Sacramento River meander corridor as part of the Sacramento River Conservation Area/SB 1086 program.
  • Implement an invasive species program, including prevention, control and eradication elements.
  • Improve dissolved oxygen conditions in the San Joaquin River near Stockton , where dissolved oxygen in the river dips below state environmental criteria, causing a migratory block for salmon and threatening other fish.

Since efforts to restore the winter-run salmon were initiated in the late 1980s, an increase in their numbers has been recorded. Many attribute the boost in numbers to above-average precipitation, instream flow increases and non-flow measures to aid the salmon.

Recovery, however, is far from complete and some fish populations continue to decline. Another Chinook population - the spring-run - has dropped from around 1 million to a few thousand. The spring-run Chinook is listed as threatened under the ESA. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries arm (NOAA Fisheries) lists the central California coho salmon and coho stocks in northern California as threatened. Steelhead trout populations are listed as endangered in southern California and threatened in the south-central California coast, central coast, the Central Valley and in northern California . The fall and late-fall runs of Chinook salmon on the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers are presently candidates for listing.

The Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA), passed in 1992, provides assistance to the environment. The law reallocated 800,000 acre-feet annually (600,000 acre-feet in dry years) of CVP yield to restore valley fisheries. Additionally, the act ensured annual instream flows for the Trinity River and Central Valley wildlife refuges, but restoration plans have been controversial. Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt signed a Record of Decision in December 2000 to increase flows in the Trinity River from about 340,000 acre-feet annually – about 25 percent of its historic flow – to 369,000 acre-feet in a dry year to 815,000 acre-feet in a wet year. However, a federal judge ruled in December 2002 that the department must reconsider the plan to weigh the effects it will have on power generation and endangered species downstream in the Bay-Delta. The judge gave Interior four months to re-evaluate its plan, but environmental groups and two Indian tribes that fish the river are considering an appeal.

The Trinity is a tributary of the Klamath River, which became a flashpoint in Fall 2002 in the fish vs. farmers dispute over water in the Klamath Basin that straddles the California-Oregon border. An estimated 33,000 adult Chinook salmon died on the lower Klamath in September 2002, some say because of upstream water diversions for irrigation. A January 2003 report by the California Department of Fish and Game concluded that reduced releases of stored water to the Trinity and Klamath rivers in 2002, combined with high densities of adult fish returning to spawn, likely caused the fish deaths. Reclamation has created a voluntary water bank in the Klamath Basin to collect water from land fallowing, groundwater substitution and other methods to be used to meet needs of endangered fish.

Another species of fish, the Sacramento splittail, has been the center of controversy since being listed as threatened under the federal ESA in February 1999. That action prompted a lawsuit by state water contractors, and in 2000 a federal district court judge invalidated the listing. The decision stated that NOAA Fisheries’ predecessor agency failed to consider opposition to the listing by state Department of Fish and Game scientists and data showing record or near record high abundance of splittail in 1998. The ruling also stated that the fisheries agency failed to adequately explain how it reached the conclusion that the splittail is threatened with extinction. USFWS delisted the splittail as a threatened species in September 2003.

Habitat management plans to protect biodiversity – the variety of plant and animals species and their interaction -- are vying with the controversial ESA single-species approach. The biodiversity approach, adopted by Interior, allows landowners who have endangered species on their property and agree to a habitat conservation plan to avoid having to take additional steps to protect a listed species. The plans are seen as a way to provide landowners with more economic certainty. However, critics say habitat plans are being used as a means to get around the ESA protections.

A state-initiated habitat conservation plan was developed in southern California after the gnatcatcher, a song bird that lives in coastal sage scrub, was listed as threatened under the federal ESA. Real estate developers vigorously opposed the bird's listing. Under the Natural Communities Conservation Planning (NCCP) program, parcels of sage scrub will be conserved but development of other parcels will beallowed.


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By July 2003, California 's population was estimated at 35.5 million people, reflecting the tremendous overall growth experienced during the past decade. Water demand in urban areas is expected to increase in average water years from its current 8.8 million acre-feet annually to 11.4 million acre-feet by 2020, according to 1998 projections.

A buzzword emanating from state and federal levels is so-called "smart growth" or, the idea of allowing growth while protecting and ensuring resources. Areas such as the Central Valley have experienced population booms over the past decade, leading communities and governments to try to protect against the possibility of over-population, including impacts to the state's finite water supply. Although the state's growth has been closely tied to water development, it was not until recently that local land use agencies and water districts were required to communicate about the impacts of proposed development projects on water supply.

Responding to the demand of continued growth on the state’s limited water resources, policy makers authored legislation to ensure surface and groundwater supplies are adequate to meet budding development. SB 672 (Machado) requires the State Water Plan to incorporate greater emphasis on regional and local solutions to meet community water needs. SB 221 (Kuehl) requires officials to make the determination, prior to issuance of a final subdivision map, that 20-year water supplies exist to meet the needs of new housing developments of 500 homes or more. Finally, SB 610 (Costa) expands the requirements that public water purveyors prepare water supply assessments early in the land use planning process. All of the bills became law on Jan. 1, 2002.

Some people contend that, in addition to more efficient water use, the state's economic future depends on constructing new water storage and transfer facilities and adding to the State Water Project (SWP). The SWP is one of two major state water delivery systems and has not been completed as planned. The cost and regulatory process involved in new projects, however, are formidable. Water shortage is just one of many problems stemming from rapid population growth. Urban sprawl -- including into vulnerable floodplains – also brings traffic congestion, air pollution, environmental degradation and declining services.

Continuing to develop in the state's floodplains is a significant concern because of risks to lives and property. Many of the alluvial valley areas of California are extensively developed, and flooding in these areas has caused billions of dollars in damage. Building in these high-risk areas continues because development pressures supersede flood safety concerns.

California is the most urbanized state in the nation, and most of the projected growth will occur in the Central Valley and south coast region. The 18-county Central Valley population is projected to reach 13.8 million by 2040 - a 64 percent increase from today's population of 9 million. Recent population growth in California cost the state 500,000 acres of farmland lost between 1988 and 1998, according to the University of California Agricultural Issues Center. Some consider the conversion of land to urban development a threat to agricultural production and the region's air quality.

One of the biggest battlesinvolving water and growth has centered on Newhall Ranch, a large residential/commercial development planned for northwestern Los Angeles County . Although the project won approval in 2003 after years of debate, critics raised questions about its potential impacts on the Santa Clara River watershed and whether water supplies will be adequate for the 21,000 new homes. A judge in late 2003 found environmental documentation for the project adequate.

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Many urban water managers worry about California 's water supply reliability during an extended drought. For this arid region of the United States , it is not a matter of if a drought will occur, but when. Keeping water in the state's elaborate network of canals, reservoirs and aquifers is of the highest importance for a state so dependent on water for its economic stability.

Though California has not faced a multi-year drought since the early 1990s, fears remain over the devastating impacts a prolonged shortage of water could have on the state. Drought-proofing the state has become a serious priority at every level of the water hierarchy. The need for a solution when an extended drought occurs was emphasized by the 1987-1993 drought, which highlighted the vulnerability of many regions in the state, particularly southern California and the central coast.

About 20 million Californians get some portion of their water from the SWP -- the state's major distribution system for urban water supplies. The 29 water agencies that buy SWP water have contracted for long-term deliveries of about 4 million acre-feet of water. The existing facilities, however, allow the SWP to deliver between 2.5 million and 3.5 million acre-feet in a normal water year and 1.1 million acre-feet in dry years. Faced with delivery uncertainties, some water districts have taken out insurance in the form of off-stream storage facilities.

Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), the state's largest water wholesaler serving 17 million people, built a new off-stream reservoir in Riverside County to nearly double its surface water storage capacity. Completed in 2000, the $2 billion Diamond Valley Lake stores 800,000 acre-feet of water.

In 1997, Contra Costa Water District completed construction of an off-stream reservoir at a cost of $450 million. The Los Vaqueros Reservoir holds 100,000 acre-feet of water. Most of the water is for emergency supplies and to improve the quality of Delta water exported to Contra Costa County that can become salty during summer months and droughts. In March 2004, local voters approved a measure that will allow the district, in conjunction with state and federal agencies, to continue studying the feasibility of expanding the reservoir to 500,000 acre-feet. This is one of the surface storage proposals under study through the CALFED plan.

New reservoirs are expected to be used in conjunction with alternative sources, such as wastewater recycling, water conservation, water transfers, groundwater banking and, for some coastal communities, seawater desalination. California has some 200 water reclamation facilities that recycle about 450,000 acre-feet a year. The treated wastewater is used in a variety of ways, ranging from irrigation to groundwater recharge. It is anticipated that another 162 recycling plants will come on line this decade. These projects, which are mostly in southern California , are expected to produce up to 1 million acre-feet of recycled water annually by 2020.

There have been some problems associated with gaining public acceptance of water recycling projects. The so-called "yuck factor" has, in several instances, killed entire water recycling projects. In 1998, San Diego dropped a recycling proposal because of public resistance. Similarly, the Dublin San Ramon Service District in the Bay Area scrapped plans in 2002 to inject purified, recycled water into its groundwater basin for later recovery as drinking water. Instead, the district will use the recycled water for landscape irrigation.

Developing alternative sources of supply -- from increasing storage capacity to expanding reuse of recycled wastewater –- is not a panacea for meeting all the anticipated demand, but helps close the gap between supply and demand. The Orange County Water District is expanding its water recycling program. With help from a $30 million Proposition 13 grant, the district’s Groundwater Replenishment System plans to inject about 75,000 acre-feet annually of highly-treated wastewater into the local groundwater aquifer. When completed in 2007, the replenishment system will produce about 72,000 acre-feet of water per year to help offset water imports from northern California .

In addition to rising water demand, urban water agencies face water quality issues. Surface water and groundwater supplies have been contaminated by both manmade and natural substances. The most significant threat to water quality is nonpoint source pollution, which includes runoff from city streets, construction sites and agricultural fields, leaking underground storage tanks, accidental spills and abandoned mines. Controlling nonpoint pollution is very difficult because it does not come from a single source.

The federal Clean Water Act (CWA) regulates both surface water and groundwater quality and is enforced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The CWA was amended in 1987 to include a requirement that states develop nonpoint source pollution assessment and management programs.

A key part of the effort to combat nonpoint source pollution are total maximum daily load (TMDL) regulations. According to the EPA, TMDLs are "a calculation of the maximum amount of a pollutant that a water body can receive and still meet water quality standards." Even as states, including California , have been adopting TMDLs for specific water bodies (nearly 3,000 in 2002), EPA has been unable to settle on a consistent framework for the program. In December 2002, former EPA Administrator Christie Whitman withdrew a July 2000 TMDL regulation, calling it “unworkable.” Whitman said her action would not stop implementation of the TMDL program, and she promised to work on ways to improve it. The California State Water Resources Control Board and its nine regional boards are continuing to adopt and enforce TMDLs.

Federal and state laws regulate drinking water in the United States , which is generally the best in the world. EPA oversees drinking water quality for the nation, while in California the Division of Drinking Water and Environmental Management in the Department of Health Services (DHS) oversees state drinking water laws. After spending two decades focused on the long-term health effects of chemical contaminants and removal of such pollutants, public water officials increasingly have turned their attention to microbial concerns such as cryptosporidium and giardia. Officials with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are conducting studies to determine the percentage of gastrointestinal illness cases that are due to drinking water consumption.

But chemical contaminants remain a concern, with new ones such as MTBE and perchlorate seeming to emerge every few years. Those two recently joined arsenic and chromium 6 as priorities for water quality and drinking water standards. Chromium, a naturally occurring element found in the earth’s crust, also is released by some industrial processes such as chrome plating and paint coloring. California ’s DHS regulates chromium 6 in drinking water at a maximum contaminant level of 50 parts per billion (ppb). The department was supposed to establish a primary drinking water standard for chromium 6 by January 1, 2004, but can’t act until it receives a recommendation from another state agency.

In a similar vein, arsenic has generated interest and concern from the water community. Also a naturally occurring element, industry, mining and agriculture all have contributed arsenic to California ’s water supply. On Oct. 31, 2001, Whitman of the EPA announced a new arsenic drinking water standard of 10 ppb. Drinking water purveyors have until 2006 to be in full compliance with the rule.

MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether), a clean air gasoline additive, is not regulated by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. It has been detected in some lakes due to inefficient two-stroke engine motor boats and watercraft and in groundwater supplies because of leaking underground fuel tanks. Some communities have had to shut down wells because of MTBE contamination. MTBE is a suspected human carcinogen because of studies linking it to leukemia, lymphoma and liver and kidney cancers in animals, but the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) has concluded that MTBE does not meet the definition of a human carcinogen under Proposition 65.

Alarmed by the reports of water supplies contaminated by MTBE, state officials banned the addition of the chemical to gasoline as of January 1, 2004. California set a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for MTBE of 13 ppb in May 2000. Although EPA has not set a drinking water standard for MTBE, since 2001 the agency has required all large water systems to monitor and report the presence of MTBE. The likely replacement for MTBE is ethanol, derived mainly from corn.

The newest chemical contaminant of concern is perchlorate, which is used in rocket propellants, road flares and fireworks and in auto air bag inflation systems. Very mobile once it gets into water, perchlorate has been turning up in an increasing number of California groundwater sources, mainly in Los Angeles , Riverside and San Bernardino counties. OEHHA issued a draft document for scientific review in December 2002 that proposed a drinking water public health goal of between 2 ppb and 6 ppb for perchlorate. DHS has issued an advisory action level of 4 ppb until a drinkingwater standard is established.

Another emerging contaminant concern is NDMA, or N-nitrosodimethylamine, first observed in a northern California drinking water well in 1998 and since found elsewhere. Like perchlorate, NDMA is used in rocket fuel production, but also has a variety of industrial uses and can be a byproduct of a drinking water disinfectant, monochloramine. NDMA is a known animal carcinogen and a suspected human carcinogen. DHS has set an action level of 10 parts per trillion for NDMA, but no MCL has been established yet.

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For hydrologists, an important tool is a “water balance,” a comparison of water supply to use. A water balance published by DWR in its 1998 update of the California Water Plan (Bulletin 160-98) forecasts a statewide total net demand of 80.1 million acre-feet in an average water year met by a supply of 79.9 million acre-feet in 2020, a deficit of 200,000 acre-feet. Under drought conditions, the projected imbalance increases to 2.7 million acre-feet. DWR expects to complete an update of the water plan in 2004.


In the past, the traditional way of closing the gap between supply and demand has been to increase supplies -- either by building new facilities such as dams or by tapping underground aquifers. But building new facilities is costly, and such projects face strict environmental review before they can be approved. Groundwater resources, although abundant in many areas of California , are overdrafted in some places and take time to replenish. And overpumping groundwater can lead to subsidence, an often irreversible collapse of the earth’s surface overlying an aquifer, or saltwater intrusion into coastal aquifers. Conservation is an option that can cost-effectively stretch uses of available water and help preserve groundwater resources. State officials estimate that a combination of urban and agricultural demand-management programs, land fallowing, water banking and voluntary rationing during droughts, and permanent land retirement in areas with poor drainage could reduce net water demand by a total of 3 million acre-feet by 2020.

Agriculture uses about 75 percent of the state's developed water, and environmentalists have long contended a 10 percent reduction in irrigation water use could free up enough water to permit decades of urban population growth. Since the 1980s, state agricultural water consumption has remained relatively stable at around 9 million irrigated acres. At the same time, improved farming techniques have led to an increase in per-acre production.

The Agricultural Efficient Water Management Practices Act resulted in the development of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) by which signatory irrigation districts and water agencies committed to adopt a number of mandatory and conditional efficient water management practices (EWMPs). The MOU, which to date has been signed by 50 agricultural water representing 4.7 million acres, requires signatory water suppliers to submit water management plans to the Agricultural Water Management Council comprised of one member from each signatory agency. In addition to the six “universally applicable” EWMPs, there are a dozen “conditionally applicable” EWMPs that may be adopted by signatory agencies on an as-needed basis, subject to cost/benefit analysis. These measures include construction and operation of tailwater reuse systems, automation of canal structures, and installation of water meters to measure the volume of water delivered to individual water users. Accurate water use data are considered critical to the design and operation of effective water management plans.

Water demand has also has been affected by the CVP Improvement Act (CVPIA), which fundamentally changed CVP operations by putting the protection of fish and wildlife on an equal footing with irrigation and flood control. Built in the 1940s, the federal CVP is the largest water storage and transfer system in the state. It stores up to 12 million acre-feet and delivers 7.3 million acre-feet annually, 90 percent of which is used to irrigate about 3 million acres of farmlands south of the Delta, with the remaining 10 percent of CVP water used for wildlife refuges.

The full impact of the CVPIA, however, is just now being felt. A management plan for the dedicated yield for environmental purposes was released in late 1997 but did not require the total 800,000 acre-feet of project yield to be allocated annually. The plan became the subject of a lawsuit and was eventually thrown out by a judge. In July 1999, a trial was held on the use of the 800,000 acre-feet of water and Interior developed a new accounting plan. The plan contains several methods of accounting for upstream reservoir releases and Delta outflow. The plan was ultimately approved by the court and farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley could see water supply cutbacks as high as 50 percent.

Conservation of farm irrigation water is a key part of a water transfer between the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) and the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) that is included in the QSA. A portion of the money paid by SDCWA for IID water will go to help Imperial Valley farmers improve irrigation efficiency on their crops. Some of the water conserved by increased efficiency or land fallowing will be transferred to urban users in San Diego .

DWR concluded that by 2020, irrigation efficiencies and increased conservation could reduce net demand by about 300,000 acre-feet. An additional 200,000 acre-feet of water could be conserved by retiring some farmland with serious drainage problems on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley . A bill passed by the state Legislature in 1998 will pay $200 million to finish lining the All-American and Coachella canals (which transport Colorado River water to the Coachella and Imperial valleys) and help by increasing irrigation efficiency and water conservation.

On the urban side, a 2003 report by the Pacific Institute said California could postpone development of major new water sources by cutting its urban water use by one-third through a combination of efficient technology, policy changes and improved public education. Most of the projected water savings could come from wider use of existing technologies such as low-flush toilets, more efficient outdoor irrigation and water-saving clothes washers, according to the institute.

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The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is a 1,153-square-mile region located where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers converge and flow into San Francisco Bay . The Delta is a vital link for the state's water supply. Forty-two percent of the state's annual runoff flows through this maze of islands, marshes and sloughs. State and federal water facilities located in the south Delta pump water to supply farms and cities in central and southern California, providing water to about two-thirds of the state's population. These projects and local facilities also provide about 60 percent of the water used in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Delta is a highly productive agricultural region because of its flat topography, mild climate and abundant water. Its waters support 28 native and 28 non-native fish populations, in addition to the salmon and steelhead populations that migrate through the estuary.

Farm interests, cities and environmental groups have battled for decades over the Delta's water and the health of its ecosystem, but at the end of 1994 they joined with state and federal agencies in a process to develop long-term solutions to protect the Bay-Delta. They agreed on a set of interim water quality standards that require water exports to be reduced by about 400,000 acre-feet in average rainfall years and up to 1.1 million acre-feet in drought years. The accord provides cities and farmers with more water supply certainty because it assumes the outflow will adequately protect ESA-listed and other declining Delta fish species. If additional water is needed to protect ailing species, the federal government will provide any water presumably purchased from willing sellers above and beyond the amount set forth in the plan.

Five years of studies and discussion coordinated by the CALFED Bay-Delta Program culminated in a 1,200-page plan for the Bay-Delta announced in August 2000 by top state and federal officials. A 54-page Framework Agreement provided an overview of a seven-year, $8.7 billion program designed to give each of the major stakeholder groups – urban, agricultural and environmental – something. The agreement offered ideas for how to increase water storage and water conservation, improve water quality and restore ecosystem functions through a broad array of projects. But none of the interests got everything it wanted.

The CALFED plan itself is extremely comprehensive; the solutions it outlines will not be implemented overnight, and it will take time to see results. The Ecosystem Restoration Program alone calls for over 600 different actions in all the regions of the Bay-Delta watershed. Other elements are equally complex. How to ensure the plan stays on course over the next 30 years given the cycle of political administrations in California and Washington, D.C., remains a major issue.

Increased water recycling, water conservation, water transfers, millions of dollars in additional habitat restoration projects, and improvements in Delta levees also are included in the 30-year, $10 billion package. Legislation was signed in 2002 to establish a permanent governing structure for CALFED, the California Bay-Delta Authority. It will oversee implementation of CALFED with a diverse group of state, federal, regional and public members holding power to issue contracts and distribute funds; track progress on implementation of the program; coordinate with federal agencies on budgetary actions; promote partnerships with local interest to implement the program; and oversee implementation of the program’s science element.

A test of the cooperative attitudes fostered by CALFED is expected to come during 2004, when a plan to increase pumping in the South Delta undergoes environmental review. The plan, formally called the Project Integration Proposal, calls for pumping more water into storage during wet periods for later use. Supporters say the plan would preserve Delta water quality yet make more water available to CVP and SWP contractors, but some Delta farmers and environmental groups are skeptical.

Another major Delta issue is drinking water quality. About 22 million Californians receive at least a portion of their drinking water supplies from the Delta. Because the region was once a swamp, it has rich, organic soils containing compounds that are the building blocks for suspected human carcinogens called trihalomethanes, or THMs. THMs are disinfectant byproducts formed when chlorine is used to treat drinking water. Water utilities have spent large amounts of money to find ways to reduce THMs without increasing the risk of microbial agents in drinking water.

Concerns were further raised by two Department of Health Services studies released in 1998. The studies suggested a link between pregnant women in their first trimester who drank tap water with high levels of THMs and an increased risk of miscarriage. Special attention was paid in the studies to bromodichloromethane, a THM that forms when chlorine combines with bromides -- such as those found in the Delta -- during the chlorination at the treatment plant.

Water agency representatives point out that the limitations of the water quality database in the study mean that its conclusions are subject to a large degree of uncertainty. Federal rules limit THMs in drinking water to 100 ppb.

Environmental groups say the byproducts are more of a threat than what is suggested by existing studies, pointing to their analysis of water quality and health data that reveals a link between high rates of birth defects and miscarriages and regions with high amounts of chlorination byproducts.  Such high chlorination would not be necessary if drinking water sources were cleaner, the groups say.

Environmental health experts believe the link between the byproducts and the possible harm to unborn children is suggestive, not conclusive. High levels of byproducts are nonetheless of concern, according to researchers. EPA in 2002 instituted stricter standards for seven byproducts: five haloacetic acids, bromate and chlorite. Also required is a one-fifth reduction in allowable THM levels.

In addition to these complex water quality issues, the 1,100 miles of levees that protect Delta islands and channel water through the maze of Delta sloughs are unstable. Levees are highly erodible and susceptible to failure by erosion, seepage, earthquakes and land subsidence. If massive failure occurred, salt water would flood many Delta islands, forcing Delta water users throughout the state to rely on stored supplies. Water deliveries to southern and central California would be seriously disrupted.

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Southern California is facing a decrease in the water supply provided by the Colorado River -- one of the most controversial and heavily regulated rivers in the world. Allocation of the lower Colorado has been fought over for decades and involved interstate compacts, a U.S. Supreme Court decision, a treaty with Mexico and federal and state legislation. The lower Colorado 's flow is divided between Arizona , California , Nevada , several American Indian tribes and Mexico . As other states in the Colorado basin have increased their use of the river’s water, and drought has gripped the region, pressure has mounted on California to cut back its chronic overuse.

The six California water agencies that receive Colorado River water have continually used about 800,000 acre-feet more than their combined annual 4.4 million acre-feet share of Colorado River water. The water districts are IID, Palo Verde Irrigation District, MWD, which built the 242-mile long Colorado River Aqueduct that transports up to 1.2 million acre-feet of flow to its users, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, SDCWA and Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD).

Citing growing demand from other states along the river, the Interior Department warned California for several years that it could not continue to overdraw its annual allotment of Colorado River water. In response to Interior’s warnings, California drafted a Water Use Plan for the Colorado River (known colloquially as the “4.4 Plan”) to reduce its consumption of the Colorado River back to its 4.4 million acre-feet apportionment. The plan relied heavily on water conservation in the agricultural sector and water transfers to the urban sector. Under the proposed plan, up to 800,000 acre-feet of water would be conserved via dry-year fallowing agreements, canal seepage recovery, groundwater banking, conjunctive use and desalination of drainage water, and an American Indian water rights dispute would be settled within the state (16,000 acre-feet to the San Luis Rey Indian tribe located near San Diego).

After nearly a decade of contentious negotiations, the southern California water agencies, federal officials and state representatives reached a landmark accord in late 2003 on a new division of Colorado River water known as the QSA. The agreement defines, or quantifies, each agency’s rights to water from the river, a process that allows for water transfers among them. The biggest such transfer, and a linchpin of the 4.4 Plan, is one between IID and San Diego of up to 200,000 acre-feet annually (possibly 300,000 after the tenth year). Imperial Valley farmers served by IID signed up in late 2003 to fallow land (take land out of production) or conserve irrigation water to free up water for the transfer.

The QSA and the 4.4 Plan may mark a turning point in California water annals. Successful implementation of the two will require unprecedented cooperation among historically antagonistic southern California water agencies to trim back excess Colorado River water use. Cutting usage back to 4.4 million acre-feet per year by 2016 is likely to require creative solutions that will include conservation, water transfers and land fallowing. If the agriculture-to-urban water transfer is successful, however, it could prove to be a model for transfers elsewhere in California and the West.

A key issue in the QSA negotiations was the fate of the Salton Sea, which is sustained mainly by irrigation runoff from Imperial Valley and Coachella Valley farms. As the negotiations proceeded, some feared that land fallowing or conservation could decrease the amount of water flowing to the sea, causing it to shrink and become saltier. Water agencies involved in the talks feared they could be held legally liable if the Salton Sea environment deteriorated. A 40-mile-long inland lake, the Salton Sea already is 25 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean, yet provides vital habitat for some 400 bird species.

QSA negotiators came up with a creative way to fund Salton Sea restoration efforts and ease concerns about legal liability. State legislation enacted in 2003 puts the legal liability for protecting the Salton Sea environment on the state of California . It also provides a creative funding mechanism to pay for Salton Sea restoration under which IID will sell surplus Colorado River water to the state for $175 per acre-foot, which in turn will sell it to MWD for $250 per acre-foot. The “profit” realized on the sale will be used to fund Salton Sea restoration work.

Restoration plans that currently appear to have the most support call for diking off the sea to shrink its size by about half and treating water flowing into the sea from the New and Alamo rivers to reduce salts. Supporters of these plans believe they would gradually improve water quality of the Salton Sea and preserve the habitat that is vital to the sea’s fishery and bird populations. Tests to determine the feasibility of shrinking the sea began in late 2003. Cost estimates for restoring the sea range from $500 million to $3.5 billion, according to federal estimates.

If nothing is done to offset the sea’s increasing salinity, scientists estimate the sea will reach the 50,000-ppm to 60,000-ppm threshold in 12 to 20 years. The sea now receives about 1.3 million acre-feet of inflow, of which about 1 million acre-feet comes from agricultural drainage. It is estimated the water transfers in the QSA between IID and SDCWA and IID and CVWD could reduce inflow from IID farms by up to 700,000 acre-feet.

Because the sea’s evaporation rate is now equal to present inflow, this reduction would accelerate the sea’s rising salinity. With the transfers, scientists believe the Salton Sea would reach the 50,000-ppm to 60,000-ppm threshold at least 10 years earlier than predicted, maybe even sooner. The sea would also shrink in size, leaving many people who now have lakefront property several hundred yards from the shoreline.


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Water marketing -- the sale, exchange or lease of water from one user to another -- has the potential to become a key tool for meeting rising water demand. Water transfers, however, can raise a host of issues because of the unique nature of water, the interdependence of many users and the traditional use of the resource.

The 1987-1993 drought brought water transfers to the forefront. Out of necessity, water agencies in 1991 arranged many short-term transfers -- exchanges for one year or less. In 1991, California became a water broker with the creation of the state Drought Water Bank. Through the bank, the state bought mostly surplus surface water from agricultural users who fallowed fields or used groundwater, and sold it to critically water-short urban, agricultural and environmental users. The drought bank was re-established on a more limited scale in 1992 and 1994.

The passage of the CVPIA also promoted water transfers by allowing CVP water designated for agricultural purposes to be voluntarily transferred to urban uses. Yet, transferring water -- in particular from farms to cities -- is an emotionally charged issue because whoever controls a region's water controls its destiny, as shown by the transfer of water out of Owens Valley to Los Angeles in the early 1990s. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power purchased thousands of acres in Inyo County in the eastern Sierra Nevada solely for the purpose of exporting water. It built two aqueducts – one in 1913 and the other in 1970 -- to transport the valley water to the city of Los Angeles . The second aqueduct exported surface and groundwater and included diversions from streams feeding into Mono Lake , a basin north of Owens Valley .

One of the major concerns over water marketing is the potential for farmers to sell their surface water and pump groundwater in its place, depleting the underground resource. There also are risks of third-party impacts to rural communities and agriculture-related industries if farmers sell their water and quit farming. Agricultural suppliers, farm workers and other related businesses can lose income, which can rock the rural community. Environmentalists are divided on the issue of water marketing. Some say that trades alleviate the need for new water projects and storage facilities and are part of he solution to meeting rising urban demands. However, there are concerns that transfers that alter water releases, may cause temperature and flow fluctuations that can harm fish, particularly salmon eggs and young fry.

Because most of California 's precipitation falls in the northern part of the state and the greatest water demand is in central and southern California , many transfers have to be routed through the Delta. Given the estuary's complex environmental and water quality problems, the State Board requires that all through-Delta transfers undergo an environmental assessment prior to approval.

Another issue is whether the source of water proposed for transfer actually augments supply. Transfers from conserved or recycled water, for example, can increase supply. Other types of transfers can reallocate or in fact decrease supply, such as where water that has been contracted for but never allocated -- known as "paper water" -- is traded.

Sensing business opportunities, private companies have tried to get into California ’s water market, but without much success so far. Companies such as Cadiz, U.S. Filter, Vidler and Western Water Co. have made a business out of purchasing land with water rights (primarily groundwater) on the premise the water will be sold to those willing to pay a premium to use it. Private companies are considered integral in establishing a viable water market in California , and as the market develops, it is possible that more and more private companies will offer their services to water users willing to pay.

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In an average year, groundwater accounts for about 30 percent of California 's urban and agricultural water supplies, and up to 40 percent in a drought year. This does not include the water required for environmental uses. More than 9 million Californians – nearly one in three – rely solely on groundwater to meet their needs, including the major cities of Fresno and Bakersfield . Along California ’s central coast, 90 percent of the drinking water comes from groundwater. Although groundwater and surface water are treated as separate resources, they are intimately connected.

In average rainfall years, Californians use more groundwater than is replaced by precipitation, stream seepage or artificial recharge programs. Annual statewide overdraft -- taking out more than is replenished -- is estimated by DWR to be approximately 1.4 million acre-feet in a normal year. The long-term decline in groundwater storage can result in lowered water tables and increased energy costs for pumping. In some basins, overdraft leads to land subsidence and can cause sea water and other contaminants to invade the aquifer.

One method of increasing water supply reliability is the joint or "conjunctive" use of surface water and groundwater supplies. More than 65 water agencies in the state operate groundwater recharge programs. The success of many of these programs, however, depends on purchasing available surface water from other users.

At the core of any conjunctive use project is a concept that many in California have resisted – groundwater management. For a conjunctive use program to succeed, water must be measured and managed as it is extracted from and/or recharged into a groundwater aquifer. Yet managing a groundwater basin, to some, equals a state-dictated system for a resource that has, historically, been considered a property right of overlying landowners. And while the state’s surface water system is designed to move water from areas of plenty to areas of need, proposals to transfer groundwater from one area of the state to another invite suspicion.

Each conjunctive use project, however, is different, with its own set of legal, political and technical challenges, and some question how much “new” water projects will ultimately yield. Where do you get the surface water to store in a groundwater aquifer? How do you determine a groundwater basin’s safe yield? How long will it take to extract the groundwater? What about overlying landowners’ rights to the native groundwater? How do you protect the quality of that native underground supply?

One significant groundwater recharge program is the Kern Water Bank in Kern County , which was transferred from DWR to the local water agencies in 1996. Under the program, available surface water from the SWP, CVP or Kern River is purchased by the six participating water agencies to recharge depleted aquifers and shallow ponds. The Kern Water Bank can store 1 million acre-feet of water using 12 square miles of recharge ponds. Much like a traditional savings account, water deposited into the bank can be withdrawn as needed.

While California uses more groundwater than any other state, it and Texas are the only remaining Western states lacking a comprehensive statewide groundwater management system. Regulation exists in some local districts or in basins that have been adjudicated by the courts, but generally there are no controls in California over extraction. Agricultural interests oppose statewide regulation for fear it would curtail pumping in drought years.

In 2003, DWR updated its principal groundwater publication, Bulletin 118, for the first time since 1980. In addition to summarizing groundwater resources in each of California ’s nine hydrologic regions, the new Bulletin 118 devotes considerable attention to groundwater management. Legislation enacted in 1992 (AB 3030) provided a systematic procedure for local agencies to develop groundwater management plans, and 10 years later over 200 local agencies had adopted such  plans. DWR said in Bulletin 118 that a sample of the plans indicated some are merely boilerplate summaries of existing programs and not all are being actively implemented.

The Legislature tried to upgrade the content and enforcement of local groundwater management plans by enacting SB 1938 in 2002. That law tied receipt of state funds for construction of groundwater projects to inclusion of defined components (such as objectives and monitoring protocols for groundwater levels, water quality and subsidence) in local groundwater management plans. Bulletin 118 includes a model groundwater management ordinance that local agencies can adapt to their needs.

The quality of groundwater is another concern. All of the state's groundwater basins are contaminated to some degree. Contamination usually concentrates in small sections of the basin. Serious threats to potable water supplies are contamination from landfills, leaked toxins, solvents, microbial agents, acid mine drainage and agricultural chemicals. The huge cost, complexity and time required to clean up contaminated basins has forced some communities to abandon their wells and rely on imported surface water supplies.

Some of the most widely publicized groundwater problems in California involve contamination from manmade chemical compounds. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from industrial sources, which are known or suspected carcinogens, seriously polluted wells in the San Gabriel Valley in Los Angeles County . In the Central Valley, irrigation runoff containing fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides has significantly polluted some areas. The city of Santa Monica in mid-1997 was forced to close half of its drinking wells after the gas oxygenate MTBE was found at levels exceeding recommended safety levels.

In some overdrafted coastal aquifers, seawater has intruded and impaired groundwater quality. The Orange County Water District is injecting treated wastewater to block seawater intrusion into its coastal aquifers.

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The leaching of applied chemicals and naturally occurring trace elements from agricultural soils poses problems throughout the West. It is especially acute in California . The state's $30 billion agricultural industry produces half the nation's fruits, nuts and vegetables and directly and indirectly employs one out of six Californians. Yet the environmental impact of such intense irrigated agriculture cannot be overlooked.

Drainage water can be tainted not only with pesticides but also high concentrations of salts, selenium, arsenic, boron and/or other trace elements. Decades of surface irrigation have leached selenium from soils in parts of the south and west sides of the San Joaquin Valley and the Imperial Valley. Selenium is a naturally occurring trace element that is vital to humans and animals in minute quantities but toxic to wildlife when concentrated. In 1983, the discovery of thousands of dead or deformed waterfowl at the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge alerted the public to the dangers of concentrated selenium levels. Kesterson, a western San Joaquin Valley wetlands area that was supplied with agricultural drainage water from the San Luis Drain, was closed in 1986. In 2000, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the federal government had to do something to dispose of the drainage water but did not specifically endorse a drainage canal and discharge into the Delta.

In April 2001, Reclamation filed a plan that says it will evaluate “viable drainage alternatives” with a record of decision by 2005. Among those choices is completion of the San Luis Drain, which would cost an estimated $500 million to $13 billion.

Selenium levels in excess of those deemed safe also have been found in the Salton Sea and in agricultural evaporation ponds in the Tulare Basin . In order to protect migratory waterfowl, attempts have been made to close the Tulare Lake Basin drainage ponds that have selenium levels higher than those found at Kesterson. Drainage water is the only source of water in many of these ponds, resulting in high concentrations of selenium, other trace elements and salts. Under an agreement with the USFWS, alternative bird habitat was provided in 1995 by five of the 10 pond operators to reduce the exposure of waterfowl to the Tulare evaporation ponds. According to the USFWS, about 40 percent of the alternative habitat successfully mitigated the hazards to the birds.

Subsurface drainage systems are commonly used throughout the San Joaquin, Imperial and Coachella valleys to drain excess or saline water from the root zone of crops, where dense soils prevent water from percolating into the subsurface. To alleviate problems wrought by irrigating the west side San Joaquin Valley 's poorly drained saline soils, Reclamation began constructing the San Luis Drain in 1968 to carry drainage water to the Delta. The work on the drain was halted in 1975 when concerns arose over the cost and impact of the discharge on Delta water quality and wildlife. Following a lawsuit by Westlands Water District farmers, Westlands and Reclamation entered into a settlement whereby Reclamation agreed to cooperate with Westlands on potential drainage solution studies. Eventually, an arrangement was reached whereby land shown by the studies to have drainage problems would be purchased by Reclamation and taken out of production. However, opposition by some landowners shelved the settlement.

Reclamation allowed some farmers served by the CVP San Luis Unit to use a 28-mile section of the San Luis Drain for a two-year trial period beginning in 1996 to protect the Grasslands wetlands. Negotiations with federal agencies and other stakeholders resulted in a use agreement that includes extensive monitoring, monthly and annual selenium load limits and fee assessments if those limits are exceeded. After completing the fourth year of the program in 2000, the farmers were 23 percent below their allowable discharges.

The west side of the San Joaquin Valley is served by the CVP, and Reclamation initiated a program under the CVPIA to buy and retire selenium-laden land in the area. After years of disputes and litigation, there appears to be some movement toward addressing drainage issues in the area. In December 2002, Reclamation and Westlands settled a lawsuit brought more than a decade earlier by some Westlands farmers by agreeing to pay the farmers $140 million to retire 33,000 acres of poorly drained land in Fresno County . Reclamation will pick up most of the tab, $107 million, with Westlands paying $33 million. The deal represents about 5 percent of Westlands’ total service area.

Another form of agricultural discharge, surface runoff, has emerged as a major concern for both farmers and water quality regulators. The biggest such regulator, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, historically had exempted farms from reporting runoff discharges, but in 2003 it adopted a conditional waiver that is expected to increase controls on farm runoff to nearby water bodies. The conditional waiver requires farmers to conduct monitoring individually or form watershed-based coalitions to monitor farm runoff for numerous pollutants, including pesticides, herbicides, nutrients, pathogens and heavy metals.

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As difficult as it is for California 's diverse water interests to agree on anything, most appear to realize that California will resolve its water problems only through compromise and innovative thinking. Increasingly, alternative methods of enhancing water supply will replace or augment environmentally sensitive water development projects. Using new strategies to satisfy the state's many competing demands is the challenge that the public and water managers will face in coming years.

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