Alexis Madrigal thoroughly examines California’s water politics, which the state’s drought has inflamed. He covers a lot of ground, including the mechanics of the water operation:
Moving so much H20 from north to south requires tremendous amounts of energy: the two projects [the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project] alone consume nearly five percent of all the state’s electricity. The San Joaquin River, which naturally flows north and west, flows backward during irrigation season. Water released from the Oroville Dam in the Sierra mountains takes 10 days to travel the whole State Water Project, branching across to the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, then down the Central Valley and over the Tehachapi mountains, and then into a pipe along the edge of Los Angeles to the Inland Empire, where eventually, after everyone’s taken the water they’ve paid for, what’s left fills a small lake on the edge of what was once known as the Great American Desert.
For a long time, the system has worked. But the infrastructure is getting old, the political arrangements that underpinned it are breaking apart, and climate change is threatening droughts and sea level rise—all of which terrifies powerful farmers and big-city water managers south of the Delta.
Some relatively good news:
Even with the worst conceivable climate change, the kind of global warming that brings 70-year droughts to California, the state might do okay.
That seems counterintuitive, but that’s what Jay Lund, who heads the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, loves about his model of the state water system, CALVIN. He and his colleagues ran a range of climate scenarios through CALVIN, asking for a look at what very dry, very warm scenarios might do to the state’s water system out to the year 2100. The results were shocking.
Basically, in CALVIN’s rendering of the future, the state’s economy is fine. “It was amazing how little the damage was to the state’s economy,” Lund said. That’s because the state’s cities sail through. First, they can afford to pay for water at quite high prices, so the economic gravity built into the model sends it their way. But it’s not just buying water from agricultural interests or through the State Water Project that saves them: a whole portfolio of nascent water ideas bloom.
Agriculture does not fare quite as well, but the state’s agricultural production only falls 6 percent. That’s despite increasing urbanization of agricultural land and, in the driest scenario, a 40 percent reduction in water deliveries to the Central Valley. “The farmers are all smart people and they’ll cut back the least profitable stuff,” Lund said. They’ll also fallow land, according to CALVIN—roughly 15 percent of the irrigated parcels currently farmed today, or 1.35 million acres.
(Photo: A car sits in dried and cracked earth of what was the bottom of the Almaden Reservoir on January 28, 2014 in San Jose, California. By Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)