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California urged to resolve delta, water issues — fast

A backpacker gazes at Lake Mead, which has reached critically low levels. (Photo: Oceanfishing, via Shutterstock)

Disputes over California’s fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta, the troubled heart of the drought-stricken state’s water system, must be resolved immediately because what happens there affects the western region, a top water expert says.

Pat Mulroy, the former leader of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, delivered a bluntly worded warning to attendees at the California Water Policy Conference in Claremont, saying the linkage between the Delta and much of the West is clear, “yet many here in California still don’t see the connection.”

“Let’s be honest; nothing has changed. We are still locked in the same battles we were locked in a year ago, two years ago.”

“In order to fix the larger problem facing the entire region, California has to resolve the Bay Delta issue. The two are interconnected. Everyone up and down the Colorado River is watching what California’s doing in the Bay Delta, because what happens in the Delta matters in Denver,” said Mulroy, a nationally known expert on western water issues who headed southern Nevada water agencies for decades during a period of explosive growth.

But despite the severity of the drought, nothing has been done, Mulroy told her California listeners.

“Let’s be honest; nothing has changed. We are still locked in the same battles we were locked in a year ago, two years ago. In the meantime conditions have gotten worse. Every single one of is responsible. Every single one of us could have let go of our innate dislike for certain regions and our innate dislike for certain mindsets.”

Numerous disputes in the Delta include court decisions on species protections, environmental degradation, a controversial plan to drill 35-mile-long tunnels through the Delta to move northern water to the south, and state and federal pumping practices, among many, man other issues.

Mulroy gave no specific suggestions about what to do. She also did not mention actions taken in California, including voter approval last year of a $7.5 billion water projects bond and $1 billion in emergency drought plans announced last week by the governor and legislative leadership.

“Is California really going to exit the global food chain?

She noted that in Nevada, the pain of the drought has worsened this year, leaving Lake Mead at a “critically low elevation.” If the elevation at the water line falls below 1,075 feet, she said, there will be no water available from the lake for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which wholesales water to districts serving most of the south state.

Officials at the San Diego County Water Authority disputed Mulroy’s assertion.

“In fact, California water agencies, including MWD, would continue to receive normal deliveries even if the Lake Mead elevation falls below 1,075 feet, the SDCWA wrote in an email. “Shortage is only triggered if the level of Lake Mead is below 1,075’ on January 1 of any given year.  So, it’s possible that the elevation could temporarily dip below 1,075’ during a calendar year, but if the level is above 1,075’ on January 1, no shortage is triggered.”

San Diego officials added that if a shortage is triggered, “the first cuts are sustained by Arizona and Nevada — not California…”

Meanwhile, in central and northern California, some farmers have been forced take fields out of production because of a lack of water.

“Is California really going to exit the global food chain? Does California really believe that exiting the global food chain is not going to have consequences in other parts of the world? It is. You can’t add two billion people to the planet and not think about global food supply,” she said.

Despite her pessimism, Mulroy said she was optimistic about significant agreements in the Colorado Basin, such as the interim shortage guidelines, as inspiration and hope for finding compromises and moving forward.

“What’s happening (is that) the urban areas are buying water and they are putting it in Lake Mead with no one’s name on it,” Mulroy noted.

“Think about the concept. You protect the system in order to avoid it going into shortages – not to benefit yourself alone but to benefit the larger system.”

Mulroy urged leaders to take action now. “Our world is changing; everything is changing around us,” she said. “Can we get along with one another long enough to help mitigate against the environmental impacts? Because just saying ‘no’ won’t do it. Just saying no won’t solve the problem.”

“Agreements can’t be made in perpetuity anymore, because we don’t know what perpetuity looks like anymore,” she said. “But we can put processes in place that allow us to adapt as we have to.”

Ed’s Note: Adds response from San Diego County Water Authority to Mulroy’s assertion about potential shortages being triggered, 9th-10th grafs. Chris Austin, the founder of Aquafornia, is the award-winning editor of Maven’s Notebook, a blog devoted to state water policy. She is a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly.


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  • Owens Valley

    This from the woman that supports pumping rural Nevada and sending water by a pipeline to Las Vegas.
    Time for big urban areas to STOP approving developments if they don’t have the water. Time for state governments to step into the planning realm if local governments don’t have the courage to say no to developers.
    Time for a re-focus on human population growth and its inevitable consequences of loss of species and destruction of landscapes.
    We in the Owens Valley know what happens when an aqueduct joins a rural and urban area and water production capacity is increased – There will always be a insatiable desire for more exploitation, and citizens are required to constantly be on alert.
    Take it from us, Northern California – Don’t put in new Delta tunnels.

    • Nature Commission

      I agree that its time to address one of the underlying demands for water, which is development. There are limits to everything and it seems very clear to us at Nature Commission that the idea of packing more people into areas that have bumped into genuine natural resource limits needs to be “rethunk”. Technology can be used to solve some of these issues, but the question remains whether it should be used to escape the simple reality of balance with the land.

    • LIZ

      People will go where the water is…if Southern California is stuck in this drought much longer guess where we will be moving?

  • Public Trust Water

    The narrative that CA must feed the world is part of the problem. The expansion of big water users like almonds and wine grapes are not critical to food supplies. And we have investment funds coming into the Central Valley. Let’s do away with the old narratives and start being honest about water exploitation and profiteering.

  • DiscusBS

    When you consider the background of Mulroy, a person who sought to steal or take water from other regions and states for essentially Las Vegas, it gives you an idea of the validity of such a conference and its goals. Feeding the world with almonds, almond milk, walnuts and pistachios would be okay if California was not largely a desert region. Agriculture has driven much of the expanded population demand with illegal immigration of which less than 10% now work in farming but still need water. Since California agriculture uses over 85% of California’s available water supply and California’s water supplies have dwindled dramatically under the current scheme, it follows that agriculture should be the institution that must be reigned in and controlled. California agriculture is not responsible for feeding the world and never has been. That is simply a ploy foisted upon us after focus testing by their many public relations firms that constantly lobby for more of California’s limited water. It is time to just say No to California Agriculture’s insatiable demand for their drugs of choice, water, fertilizer and excessive pesticides. The world and California will be a safer place when the ideas of sustainable farming practices and the principles of good stewardship of the land are followed as they used to be before the large corporate farms took over.

  • NDKnow

    The man made drought is based on the unproven theory that a variety of smelt, Hypomesus transpacificus transpacificus, (whose very name means “found all around the pacific”) was endangered by pumping from the Harvey O. Bank pump which delivers water to the California Aqueduct. This disregarded the first 20 years of the pump’s history in which the smelt numbers increased to the highest numbers counted. Over the next 20 years of the pumps history, smelt loss coincided with outbreaks of salmon virus, chemical spills, “restoration” projects for waterways, and dumping of municipal sewage.
    Turning the pumps off did not restore smelt numbers which plummeted without the flow of water required for smelt reproduction – yes the smelt need the pumps! When legal action restored pumping smelt numbers increased.
    Recent legal action has caused the government to double down on pumping by turning off both the California and the Federal aqueduct.
    One of the crops with world wide importance coming from the valley was cotton – the seed produces a highly nutritional cooking oil, which in the past, was exported to the Middle East. Part of the social disruption occurring in Egypt and other nations was caused by the increase in food costs and especially cooking oil prices.
    Another major export crop was onions. Because of bad weather conditions in India which affected local production, the man made drought contributed to a price raise such that what would by 8 onions would only buy 1. For people whose wages are a few dollars a day, this increase was devastating.
    California peaches, plums, cherries, grapes (and raisins) nuts, tomatoes, fresh, canned, and in condiments feed the world, as does California’s salad vegetables. California is the US major producer of Asian Vegetables and cabbages, and the Delta itself is a major rice exporter. A rice monopoly, which caused a vicious increase in the rice used by the poorest nations, was broken by a good Delta rice harvest. . It is ignorance to dismissed the importance of California’s agricultural.
    This newest water cut off will again impact the homes and businesses big and small that receive the majority of the aqueduct water. The initial cut off shut down water delivery to schools, hospitals, prisons, and fire departments, resulting in human deaths. Indeed, there will be few green lawns, or green money in California except to those who have now been encouraged by the Governor to raise prices for water! .

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