Monday, December 2, 2019


Water is a huge issue in California, particularly in Southern California. We get an average of about 11 inches of rain a year, and we're at the end of the Colorado River, and everyone north of us takes their water before it gets down to us. That's a simplification, but water rights are a big legal issue throughout California. I am going to interpolate much of an article my son wrote about water issues in California, prompted by a water emergency right here in my own little town, where we got so much rain over the Thanksgiving weekend (which meant that 10 of my grandchildren could not go outside and things got wild)! Apparently as a result of the unusually high rainfall, our covered reservoir was  affected in such a way that some residents reported brown or greenish water coming from their taps. The city issued the first ever boil water advisory and closed all eating establishments in town, and made cases of drinking water available to residents. I picked mine up yesterday afternoon since I had stockpiled enough gallons of water to hold me until I could get home from church. Our water appears to be clear, so we've been able to take showers, but we have to used the bottled water for drinking, cooking, and brushing teeth, and the boiled water for washing dishes. I'm just glad it happened after we had cleaned up most of the Thanksgiving dishes created by the 20 people who were here and all the food they prepared!
This was actually a small emergency compared to the very serious affair with which my son opened his article.
High water risin', the shacks are slidin' down 
Folks lose their possessions and folks are leaving town 
-Bob Dylan (High Water)
A scene reminiscent of the opening of an Avengers movie unfolded in Oroville, California, this February. Water from the record rains in California threatened to overflow the tallest dam in the nation. A hole in one of the emergency spillways, designed to prevent this from happening, meant that the torrents of water cascading down the spillways overflowed and poured down hillsides and into the Feather River below. The National Guard was ordered to be prepared to mobilize, and close to 200,000 people were ordered to evacuate the area, as people feared their town being obliterated by a giant flood. In some ways, California has hit the lottery in the past two months, a state ravaged by drought received large amounts of rain, prompting people to proclaim an end to the drought, and more importantly an end to the unseemly brown medians in Beverly Hills.  The surplus of water in California has suddenly forced people to address the threat of the decay of the massive amounts of infrastructure required to make California not only livable but farmable. The Oroville dam incident is not a random isolated incident; it is the first of many possible issues that face the state when it comes to water.
Take a stroll by the roaring banks of the LA River, and you’ll notice something strange. The roaring is from the freeway right next to it, as the LA River is mostly a (sometimes) wet concrete patch. Southern California relies mostly on other places for its water. The water that rushes out of your faucet in Los Angeles, has to navigate not only miles of piping, canals and aqueducts, but also a vast legal bureaucracy. This is due to the distance the water must travel. Welcome to the wild, weird and wonderful world of water in California, where a public agency almost caused war between California and Arizona in the 1920s, and where currently the state might build a four story high and 35 mile long tunnel, that would dwarf the Chunnel between Britain and France.
In Southern California the majority of our water comes from either the snowpacks in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, or from the Colorado River. Your individual city purchases that water from the Metropolitan Water District(MWD). Think of the MWD as the Costco of water; they purchase the water in bulk from the State Water Project(SWP). In fact, according to Brad Jensen, from the San Gabriel Valley Economic Partnership, you could count up to ten agencies that your water goes through before reaching your tap. In short, water is not a simple process in California, because of the massive amount of infrastructure, energy, and money required to provide enough water for farms and cities. When this infrastructure, as in the case of the Oroville Dam, starts to fail, California has a major crisis both for its citizens and for the economy that relies on vast acres of farmland. The Don Pedro reservoir in the San Joaquin Valley, has filled more quickly than expected, and officials are trying to lower levels, before more storms hit. While both these would cause tremendous problems, it is nothing compared to the potential disaster facing the California Delta. 
It is not an exaggeration to say that almost every part of the state is affected by the California Delta. Start talking about it and you’re going to make someone angry. The California Delta is where the rivers carrying fresh water from the Sierras meet the salty ocean water. The Delta helps keep salty ocean waters from continually pushing inland. Originally the Delta was a giant marsh, and in the mid 19th century farmers began draining and reclaiming the land for farm use and building levees to keep the seawater at bay. Since then it has been incredibly lush farmland, with one slight problem. By draining the swamp the ground level has lowered considerably. This means that large parts of farmland now sit far below sea level. This means that if these levees were to break in an earthquake, the incredibly fertile farmland would be flooded and gone forever. It would also cause a large problem, as the California Delta is a hub for the water coming from the Sierras, before continuing on to Southern California faucets. For years the state government has been seeking a way to try and make the water delivery system to Southern California more reliable, and the most recent effort is the Twin Tunnels Project. This project aims to build two large thirty-five mile long tunnels, to more efficiently transport water from the Sierras to Southern California. This would avoid the threat of a levee collapse decimating fresh water supplies. The downside of this solution, is that large amounts of fresh water that currently flow to the Delta would now be rerouted. This means for farmers in the Delta that they would have less water for irrigation. The tunnels would benefit farmers along the route of the tunnels who would receive more water. Delta farmers argue that their water rights, which go back to the founding of the state, would be violated by the tunnels. Whether this is a good solution or not, one thing that can be agreed upon, is that something has to be done to keep California's water infrastructure from crumbling.
The way water moves from sources to our homes in Southern California, frankly bores people. It requires the use of words like water authority, special district, private wholesaler, and aquifer. These are not interesting, eye popping words, like knife fight, kablooie, or Kardashian, but if we do not understand how water reaches us, we risk major problems. We risk being like the younger sibling playing Monopoly, who sits in a daze, as his older brother glibly explains the rules at a rapid pace, while moving his piece around the board, telling us all the while he’s doing what’s best for us. The problems facing California water are numerous, but by raising our awareness of how we get this vital resource, we can help enact change and improvement in an ever changing world.
Because the Colorado River goes through five different states, the water rights had to be divided among the five states. The Colorado River Compact of 1922 outlined who got how much water from the river. The problem with this compact was that it was made during unusually high water levels in the river. This meant that when the river went back down, states who took water out after other states found themselves with less water than had been promised. So in 1934 when the MWD began construction on Parker Dam along the Colorado River, Arizona was vehemently opposed to the idea. It would mean California would have the ability to store more water, and since Arizona had to wait until California took water out of the river before they could, it meant Arizona would be left with even less water. According to Scott Harrison of the LA Times, Arizona then proceeded to dispatch a National Guard battalion to prevent construction from being completed on the Parker Dam. The 100 troops not only prevented the construction of the dam but also a trestle bridge as well. The Supreme Court then sided with Arizona and said the Governor had every right to use the National guard, and it wouldn’t be until 1938, and numerous compromises later that the dam would eventually be built. 

So although our mild excess of rain has caused some difficulties, it is only a small indication of some of the larger issues at stake. In the meantime, I've got to get back to folding the Christmas programs for our choir's concert this year, which will actually be finished before the dress rehearsal, something that has never happened since I took on the programs.  Kudos to our choir director who did not wait till the last minute to choose the music we will present!

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