Academic journal article Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum

Moving Water in a Highly Altered Land: California's Water Infrastructure and Environmental Degradation

Academic journal article Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum

Moving Water in a Highly Altered Land: California's Water Infrastructure and Environmental Degradation

Article excerpt

"We have acted upon the western landscape with the force of a geological agent" Wallace Stqgner, Where the bluebird sings to the lemonade springs: living and writing in the West (1)


California was once a state defined by massive free-flowing rivers--the mighty Sacramento, the meandering San Joaquin, and the vast Colorado--to name only a few. California's Central Valley was filled with millions of acres of wetlands and grasslands. Huge salmon runs flooded the rivers, and the skies were darkened by millions of migratory birds. Today, California has been called the most hydrologically altered landmass on the planet, and that characterization is true. (2) As word of California's abundant resources spread and settlers arrived, the state's free-flowing rivers, marshes, and even arid lands gave way to farmland, cities, and infrastructure including massive dams, reservoirs, and hundreds of miles of levees. That infrastructure became California's water system, which now supports thirty-nine million people, irrigates an average of 9.6 million acres of farmland per year, and powers the seventh largest economy in the world. (3)

Today, the most challenging prospect for the state is providing sufficient water to areas where humans need it most. California's climate and hydrology, which differ from any other state in the U.S., make this a difficult task. The average precipitation for the state is about two-hundred million acre-feet per year. (4) However, the actual precipitation can vary anywhere from one-hundred million acre-feet to three-hundred million acre-feet, depending on whether the year is wet, dry, or something in between. (5) Besides this large variance, precipitation normally fails to occur when and where water is needed most. (6) Though the highest demand for water occurs in the hot and dry summer and fall, most of the precipitation occurs between November and April. (7) In addition, most of the precipitation falls in the mountains in the middle to northern half of the state, far from the major urban and agricultural centers that demand the most water. (8) While parts of Northern California receive one-hundred inches or more of precipitation per year, the state's southern, drier areas receive much less, and the desert regions receive just a few inches. (9) Consequently, seventy-five percent of California's available water is in the northern third of the state (north of Sacramento), while eighty percent of the urban and agricultural water demands are in the southern two-thirds of the state. (10)

Besides surface water, groundwater is a key part of California's water supply, comprising about 33% of water used in an average year and even more in a drought, or in areas in which there is little or no surface water. (11) From a hydrological perspective, groundwater is conceptually inseparable from surface water. Precipitation soaks into the ground and becomes groundwater or later resurfaces as a spring, or in spring-fed streams or lakes. (12) Approximately thirty-eight to forty-six percent of the California's surface water comes from groundwater. (13)

To address its many water challenges and fuel its economy, California built an immense water conveyance infrastructure to move water from where it originates to where it is demanded. (14) Everywhere that infrastructure reached, farms and cities followed. (15) Unfortunately, the development of this infrastructure has had devastating impacts on the environment. Fish populations have dropped, (16) wetlands have been drained, (17) and invasive plants and species are changing ecosystems and altering native habitats across the state. (18) The consequence is that California's once thriving fish and wildlife populations, such as the mighty salmon runs, have declined precipitously, resulting in more than 300 species of plants and animals on the endangered species list and a substantial decline in migratory bird populations. (19)

Today, many species are hanging on by a thread, while attempting to adapt to a highly altered landscape. …

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