Mountain watersheds can survive without the Delta, but the Delta cannot survive without the watersheds. The waters that form creeks and streams in the Cascades and Sierra Nevada mountains and join to create the great rivers that flow into the Central Valley provide water to more than two-thirds of the residents of the State and more than two million acres of highly productive farmland. Freshwater releases from upstream of the Delta help control salinity levels in the Delta for the benefit of fish and farming.
“Talk is often about the need to fill Folsom Lake, Lake Oroville, or Shasta Lake. It is as if the water magically bubbles up from the ground and appears in those reservoirs. It doesn’t. Water reliability begins upstream.
A mountain watershed is the region where snow falls in the higher elevations and rain falls in the foothills. The snowpack acts as a giant storage reservoir, holding the moisture in the cold months and releasing it as the temperature warms. As the snow melts, vegetation and soils absorb the water as it percolates into the ground, while the excess flows to fill the creeks, streams, rivers and reservoirs. The water captured in the reservoirs is stored and then later released, timed for necessary urban, agricultural, environmental and recreational beneficial purposes.
For over a century, this has been the general weather pattern in the Cascades and Sierra Nevada mountains, with varying wet and dry cycles. However, climate scientists have indicated we may be experiencing greater variability in our weather patterns. This includes longer dry cycles and wetter and warmer wet cycles in the future. With the likelihood that we are facing substantially smaller snowpacks in future winters, we need to protect, preserve and expand other forms of water storage in the mountain watersheds. We need to restore our mountain meadows and protect our forest soils. That includes preventing major forest fires that leave the ground unable to absorb water, removing sediment in the bottom of existing reservoirs, and the raising of dam heights for reservoirs where feasible. We also need more storage, treatment and conveyance facilities.
When the California Legislature passed the 2009 Delta Reform Act, the legislators found that the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and California’s water infrastructure was in crisis, and existing Delta policies were not sustainable. With more than 200 State and local agencies with responsibilities and authority in the Delta, resolving the crisis required fundamental reorganization of the State’s management of Delta resources.
In focusing on conditions in the statutory Delta, the California Legislature left out any consideration of the mountain watersheds and the ecosystems that provide the water to the Delta.
The Delta Reform Act established the Delta Stewardship Council to implement “a specified strategic plan relating to the sustainable management of the Delta.” The Delta Stewardship Council adopted two co-equal goals from the legislation: “providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem.” “The coequal goals shall be achieved in a manner that protects and enhances the unique cultural, recreational, natural resource, and agricultural values of the Delta as an evolving place.”
In focusing on conditions in the statutory Delta, the California Legislature left out any consideration of the mountain watersheds and the ecosystems that provide the water to the Delta. In doing so, they unknowingly tied the hands of State agencies to develop a “statewide” comprehensive, integrated water system approach by drawing a circle around the statutory Delta with focus on creation of a Delta Plan, and not considering a larger Delta Watershed Plan.
No matter where conveyance through the Delta is engineered; east – west, or north – south, large or small, if does not rain or snow in the mountain watersheds there will be no water to convey.
The Delta serves many purposes today. One of them is acting as the switchyard for conveying water from northern California to the south through the State Water Project and Central Valley Project. Additional diversions taken from the Delta go to the Contra Costa Canal, the North Bay Aqueduct, the City of Vallejo, and more than 1,800 agricultural users. In addition, the waters flowing through the Delta continue to provide important water quality and ecological benefits.
While we cannot survive without it, either individually or as a civilization, water is something we have learned to take for granted. However, the severe cutbacks and conservation measures that are now required as a result of the current drought may provide an opportunity to look closely at California’s entire water system, from raindrop or snowflake in the headwaters, to turning on the tap.
Reservoirs provide flood protection and reduce pressure on downstream levees. Off-stream surface storage facilities can slow water down and hold it for release later in the year
When I travel to southern California, I am often told, “We need significant amounts of water from the Delta.” If Californians are not familiar with the Delta, they do not make the connection that the water does not originate in the Delta. Even in Sacramento, talk is often about the need to fill Folsom Lake, Lake Oroville, or Shasta Lake. It is as if the water magically bubbles up from the ground and appears in those reservoirs. It doesn’t. Water reliability begins upstream.
Water is more valuable now than ever before because of the drought, increased population demand and climate change. All water storage options should be on the table. We need to maintain and enhance our existing infrastructure, both natural and manmade. Besides the much needed investment in our watersheds that will enhance the State’s water supply and water quality, there are multiple regional and statewide benefits to be gained by raising and dredging reservoirs, injecting water into the ground during wet seasons and banking it for dry years, desalting sea water, recycling our waste water, capturing our storm water, and improving water efficiency practices and advanced water treatment technologies. We need more storage, treatment and conveyance facilities. Properly placed, off-stream surface storage facilities can provide water supply, hydropower, recreational opportunities and environmental benefits
Our forefathers built the existing water infrastructure and managed our forests for a different time, fewer people and less complex purposes
Reservoirs provide flood protection and reduce pressure on downstream levees. Off-stream surface storage facilities can slow water down and hold it for release later in the year. Higher elevation reservoirs, whether new or expanded are critical to keep our rivers from drying up, provide recreational opportunities, improve downstream Delta water quality, enhance groundwater sustainability, help protect endangered species migrations, and keep salt out of the Delta. On the human side, reservoirs provide water for people, businesses, tourism and agricultural industries. Bottom line, we need to consider and implement all feasible and cost-effective options.
Our forefathers built the existing water infrastructure and managed our forests for a different time, fewer people and less complex purposes. It is now time to adapt to the changing climate and population demands, and move forward with as much vigor and foresight as they did.
It is now up to the Legislature to pass a comprehensive statewide “water” bond package that will provide water reliability assurances for all of California, and ecosystem restoration and protections, not only in the Delta, but also in the watersheds that supply the vast majority of the State’s water. No matter where conveyance through the Delta is engineered; east – west, or north – south, large or small, if does not rain or snow in the mountain watersheds there will be no water to convey.
Mountain Counties Water Resources Association calls on the Legislature to expand the co-equal goals to include the mountain watershed areas in balancing statewide water supply and environmental needs.
Now is the time to set California’s water future on the path to the future. That includes incorporating the mountain watersheds in statewide policy. On behalf of Mountain Counties Water Resources Association, I appreciate the difficult task the Legislature has and trust that its members will measure up to the challenge.
Ed’s Note: John Kingsbury is Executive Director of the Mountain Counties Water Resources Association. The group’s website is www.MountainCounties.com. This commentary originally appeared here in Maven’s Notebook.