California Urban Water Use Restricted While Regulators Give Oil Industry Two More Years To Operate Injection Wells In Protected Groundwater Aquifers

Lambert here: What could go wrong?

Mike Gaworecki is a San Francisco-based journalist who writes about energy, climate, and forest issues, His writing has appeared on BillMoyers.com, Alternet, Treehugger, Change.org, Huffington Post, and more. He is also a novelist whose debut “The Mysticist” came out via FreemadeSF in 2014. Originally published at Desmogblog.

With snowpack levels at just 6% of their long-term average, the lowest they’ve ever been in recorded history, California Governor Jerry Brown has announced new regulations to cut urban water use 25%, the first ever mandatory water restrictions in the state.

California is in the fifth year of its historic, climate-exacerbated drought and, per a recent analysis by a senior water scientist at NASA, has only one year of water left in its reservoirs, while groundwater levels are at an all-time low.

The Golden State’s towns and cities only account for about 20% of all water used for human purposes, however (including residential, institutional, industrial and commercial uses). Agriculture uses the other 80%.

Half of the produce grown in America comes from California, yet 2015 is likely to be the second year in a row that California’s farmers get no water allocation from state reservoirs. In some parts of the state, agricultural operations have pumped so much groundwater that the land is starting to sink.

Governor Brown’s executive order has been criticized for not including restrictions on groundwater pumping by agricultural operations, but Brown defended the decision, saying that hundreds of thousands of acres of land were already lying fallow because of the state’s water crisis.

There’s another industry conspicuously exempt from California’s new water restrictions, though. “Fracking and toxic injection wells may not be the largest uses of water in California, but they are undoubtedly some of the stupidest,” Zack Malitz of the environmental group Credo says, according to Reuters.

Water use by the oil and gas industry — primarily for fracking — is on the rise around the country, though in California fracking takes significantly less water than in places like Texas or Pennsylvania. Just how much water fracked wells are using is currently not known, however, because reporting requirements for water used in the oil development process, signed into law late last year by Governor Brown, do not begin until the end of the month.

Though it may not use as much as elsewhere, water use for fracking in California is still significant. Up to half of all new wells in California are fracked, and Reuters reports that they sucked up some 70 million gallons of water last year. That’s about 214 acre-feet — seemingly miniscule compared to the 34 million acre-feet used for agriculture in an average year, but given how dire California’s situation has become, it’s more than the state can afford to lose. Once water is used for fracking it must essentially be removed from the water cycle forever.

Still, the far more serious risk to California’s waning water supply posed by fracking is on the other end, when the produced waters from oil wells and toxic fracking fluids, among other hazardous wastewater, must be disposed of. And as it turns out, California has been doing a particularly poor job of managing the oil industry’s waste stream.

Aside from climate change and the historic drought, there is another crisis impacting California’s water supply: State officials with the Department of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) have admitted that they improperly permitted as many as 2,500 injection wells to operate in groundwater aquifers that should have been protected under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

Fracking flowback has been found to contain benzene, toluene, and other cancer-causing chemicals in concentrations well above safe limits and is an increasingly prevalent part of the oil industry wastewater being injected into protected groundwater aquifers. That has prompted a coalition of over 150 environmental, health, and public advocacy organizations to call on Governor Brown to use his emergency powers to issue a moratorium on the controversial well-stimulation technique, much as he has done to lower water consumption.

There is not yet any evidence that drinking water supplies have been contaminated by oil industry wastewater, but a group of state legislators, after holding a hearing on the disastrous state of California’s Underground Injection Control Program, sent a letter to Governor Brown calling for the immediate closure of all 2,500 wells illegally operating in protected aquifers. “The decision to allow thousands of injection wells to continue pumping potentially hazardous fluids into protected aquifers is reckless,” they wrote.

But officials at DOGGR apparently disagree. A draft proposal of emergency regulations for reining in California’s out-of-control Class II Underground Injection Control Program issued by DOGGR last week would allow the vast majority of the wells to continue operating until February 2017 as the agency tries to secure exemptions from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

There is also an October 2015 deadline to get an exemption for wells operating in aquifers with water containing less than 3,000 milligrams per liter of total dissolved solids (TDS), but that would only affect about 170 of the illegal wells in question.

The emergency underground injection regulations will go to the Office of Administrative Law on February 9, after which Californians will have five days to comment on the proposal. But environmentalists are already weighing in — and the reviews are not favorable.

“In light of the Governor’s order to implement a 25% reduction in urban water use, these regulations on the oil industry are especially lacking,” Clean Water Action said in a press release sent to DeSmogBlog. “The state is still allowing oil companies to inject toxic chemicals into usable groundwater — all while asking Californians to cut back our water use.”

“During the worst drought in California history, state officials think the emergency is that the oil industry will be inconvenienced if it can’t continue polluting our underground water,” Center For Biological Diversity attorney Vera Pardee said in a statement. “The real emergency is the ongoing injection of toxic oil waste into protected water sources that everyone agrees violates state and federal law. That must be stopped immediately.”

Pardee argues that the emergency regulations themselves are in direct violation of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, which protects water of less than 10,000 mg/L TDS. “Given the growing drought problem in our state,” Pardee says, “we may well have to clean up every such source to make it sufficiently clean to drink.”

While throwing water away on fracking is especially shortsighted, oil isn’t the only fossil fuel contributing to the water crisis in California: coal- and natural gas-fired power plants still provide more than half of the state’s electricity, and both require substantial amounts of water, as well.

Michael Goggin of the American Wind Energy Association told Motherboard, “Replacing all of California’s remaining fossil generation with wind energy would cut water consumption by around 20 billion gallons annually, or roughly 45 days’ worth of the savings provided by the household water use restrictions announced … by Governor Jerry Brown.”

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

59 comments

  1. Moneta

    While I see this as a sign from Mother Nature that too much activity is happening in Ca which should get redistributed across the US, most seem to be focused on micromanaging the system to maximize water use. IMO, micromanaging will just increase water use and kick the can…

    When I was a child, strawberries in the winter meant compote in mason jars. Every time I eat one of those mutant strawberries that don’t look or taste like the ones we get here in June, I wonder how many more decades until we are forced back to pickled beets as our source of vitamin in the winter.

    1. Ned Ludd

      Decades ago, I worked the early-morning produce shift at a worker-owned grocery co-op. The farmers would arrive with their produce, picked the previous day or two, and what the co-op stocked would vary according to what was available and in-season. The co-op sold organic, and every summer I could purchase an unbelievable bounty of delicious fruit, grown locally without toxic pesticides.

      That co-op is long gone, displaced by the “community co-ops” that were managed to compete with Whole Foods. These co-ops buy from giant distribution centers that prefer conducting business with large “organic” agribusiness, with their reliability and year-round supply. Today’s mutant organic berries and fruit are bred for shipping and storage – and not for taste or nutrition.

      I can buy tasteless strawberries all year-long, and in the summer these community co-ops sell fruit grown by large agribusiness corporations in distant states that drain aquifers. The taste (and nutrition) has been drained from the fruit in the quest to store and ship it long distances without spoilage. The fruit is picked unripe by exploited workers, long before it arrive in the brightly-lit bins at the “local” co-op.

      Everything Better Is Purchased At The Price Of Something Worse

      1. Brooklin Bridge

        Step one: Increase population to levels almost impossible to sustain
        Step two: Make a virtue of this insanity by constant propaganda and ideology and laws. Heh, heh, call it Democracy.
        Step three: Exploit until the rot bursts the whole thing wide open. Until just one more morsel woofed down by the fat man (John Cleese serving the morsel ) makes him and everything with him go boom!
        Step four: In the meantime, make the process of rot so seamless that no one can tell when one step begins and another ends.

        Ah…, the smell of American capitalism in the morning.

    2. Brooklin Bridge

      The imbalance in every thing we touch brought about by our economic system of mindless ruthless greed driven efficiency is at the core of every single instance of abuse. We should never have gotten to a point where a single state produces half of what we eat. It’s just insane on so many levels. And putting exceptions for fracking over those for citizens is simply par for the course, as is our system of government and our system of allowable think patterns which we call the main stream media.

      As it stands, there is simply no way this human line of evolution is going to end well.

    3. jrs

      It WILL NOT be distributed throughout the U.S.. That’s not how this global neo-liberal world works. It will be outsourced to other countries. Ever noticed all your produce is coming from Mexico? Half the produce in a California supermarket comes from Mexico! But does Mexico really have that much water? Really I don’t know. Maybe their aquifers haven’t been depleted for a couple decades like California’s have (although worse recently, the process has been going on for decades). Want agriculture distributed throughout the U.S.. Find a new economic paradigm, this one will not produce that.

      1. Andrew Roth

        There’s been huge growth in export-oriented agribusiness production around the Colorado River delta, just downstream from Yuma, and in even drier parts of Baja California. There were recently major farm worker strikes in San Quintin, BC, which provoked heavy-handed suppression by riot police. I.e., Americans are buying imported produce from parts of Mexico that are even drier than the Central Valley.

        I’m unfamiliar with export agriculture production in wetter parts of Mexico.

    4. ewew

      Actually, CA population flow is neutral, with large numbers of the original Caucasian and African-American populations fleeing the high prices, horrible traffic, and limited jobs. The massive population growth is expressly immigration related.

    5. Rosario

      You are touching on the really uncomfortable point of large scale economies and their often irrational direction via politics and society. California is a completely manufactured boom state. Though only somewhat more manufactured than most states or regions in the USA. Most of New England’s economic foundation is old, built on the merchant marine and slavery (a dirty secret even today). The south(east), land speculators and enslavers turning coin on slavery and the cotton boom, all post aboriginal expulsion and pre-US Civil war. The midwest, German-Irish or poor land-hungry Anglo immigrants and railroads, again all built on the bones of aboriginal people. Most of the west’s economic flower bloomed with large public works projects in the 1930s. Now it is wilting, or dead, depending on who you ask. It may be unfair to critique the decisions made then as the scientific understanding of our interaction with the regional or global environment was insufficient, but unfortunately, the result is the same. May this be a lesson learned, stick to what we have unless the complexity of our wit surpasses that of nature itself.

  2. John

    Nothing insane about that. /s

    Seriously though, I’ve come to believe that this society deserves every last bit of Hell we are headed for.

    1. jgordon

      Such blithe stupidity of humanity as is on display in California likely accounts for the clockwork fall of civilizations our species regularly undergoes. There is some mathematical law that says that the size of a group of humans is inversely proportional to the collective IQ of said group. Therefore as successful groups grow in size their stupidity likewise grows–until they manage to destroy themselves. At which point the survivors will regain their formerly dormant mental faculties, allowing for the advent of new social structures (until those eventually collapse in time in turn several generations hence).

  3. craazyboy

    I guess if your choice is to either pump waste fracking fluid into ground water aquifers, or lug it up the Sierras and deposit it on top of the snowmass, the groundwater choice is more cost effective. These guys may be smarter than we give them credit for.

  4. Brooklin Bridge

    I had been wondering about the break down of that 20% urban usage, but when searching on the net, came up instead with this more general break down that includes water usage for “environmental” purposes (which includes making water potable).

    When you examine water use within the interconnected network of California that feeds farms and cities, use is roughly 52 percent agricultural, 14 percent urban and 33 percent environmental. While a big difference, even this overstates the environmental take.

    When you account based on net water use—meaning water that is lost to evapotranspiration or salt sinks and not returned to rivers or groundwater for alternative uses—this translates to 62 percent agricultural, 16 percent urban and 22 percent environmental. And some of that environmental water is used to keep water quality high enough for drinking.

    http://californiawaterblog.com/2011/05/05/water%E2%80%94who-uses-how-much/

    It would still be interesting to see the breakdown of urban usage as I suspect water saving measures enacted by California trend most heavily on private citizens, who use the least, but who also as usual have the least power to do anything about it.

    That said, I’ve never understood the whole phenomenon of watering lawns and towns that have actual lawn laws about when to cut one’s grass and how green it must be strike me as sheer insanity, like towns who prohibit clothes lines because they are unsightly. Good grief, what sick puppies.

    If the measure of terrorists hatred (“they hate us for our freedom”) is based on the result of our tendency to over regulate ourselves while under-regulating our powerful institutions, they must love us to pieces.

    1. craazyboy

      I noticed some weird incentives for the homeowner here in AZ. We have a significant snowbird population. You would think when you lock up the winter residence and head up north, you wouldn’t have a monthly water bill to pay. Not so, you get billed a monthly minimum which may be on the order of $60. They tell you that is because you are paying for the infrastructure, whether you use a drop of water or not. This minimum would also apply even if you got your water usage way down. The rules certainly work different for AG and frackers, it seems.

      1. cnchal

        Several years ago, the water billing in our area was switched to a similar system. Even if you use no water, you get a very hefty bill.

        The water you do use is very cheap however, and conserving water makes no “economic” sense as one might save a few pennies by being efficient with water. The reason given why the system is skewed this way, is that if the billing were based on water consumption, people would conserve and the local water fiefdom would be starved of money.

        The other thing that is disconcerting is that over 20% of the water treated and put in the pipes is lost to a rotting system that leaks at almost every junction, which means we dig very expensive holes to fix individual leaks that are too big to ignore.

        It is a mess, and a fair sized culprit is a decision made a half century ago to install pipes that were cheaper at the time, but don’t stand up to time.

        1. craazyboy

          Things never work right.

          If “because markets” might actually work in this case, they could rejigger pricing to price water costs, including infrastructure, and perhaps even make it a progressive price curve which would reward conservation, because markets.

          But no. Now they throw communism at us.

          Yeah, decaying infrastructure is worrisome. Plus if we find out we also need what amounts to a desal plant at your local landlocked neighborhood water company to make polluted water potable.

      2. Brooklin Bridge

        Heh, heh, here in taxxichusetts, I think our water bill, at least in the fair city of Worcester, is determined by the latest gambling binge of the city governors on one of their frequent debaucheries down in N.J. or Connecticut. Soon it will be determined instead, by the latest debaucheries right here at home. Progress.

        Anyway, trying to come up with an explanation of water cost that relates to the amount of water one uses would require a lot more than Crazyman’s ability at math. Taxxichusetts, the state where ethics is as shiny (and as thick) as gold leaf.

        1. Brooklin Bridge

          In well heeled suburbs (the ones with lots of heels), on the other hand, they give it away. If this is communism, it’s the special kind that raises just the corners of the lips of the wealthy when ever they think (never talk) about it.

    2. Danny

      It varies between regions and cities, but about 60% of municipal supplies in California go toward landscaping. The push to cut water usage is mostly aimed squarely at that stat.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        Part of that household landscaping could be ‘agriculture.’

        People grow fruit trees and vegetables.

        Lawns make oxygen and absorb CO2.’

        Parks are nice in the concrete jungle we live in.

        Now, swimming pool water – that’s waste.

  5. human

    Every time I drive through New Haven, I am struck by the juxtoposition of the areas lone operating wind turbine turning in view of the several dozen oil storage tanks situated about the harbor. Sad.

  6. direction

    Hello from the rainy part of California (we even had snow this week). Fracking fluids leaking into aquifers greatly concerns me so thanks for the links, But a little bit of leakage is nothing compared to the 6 billion gallons of waste pumped into to aquifers on purpose. http://www.nbcbayarea.com/investigations/Waste-Water-from-Oil-Fracking-Injected-into-Clean-Aquifers-282733051.html

    In terms of water use, I believe most injection water is already non potable so it’s not as much of an issue. Correct me if I’m wrong, forgotten where I read that.

    and as for Jerry Brown, what was that hit single from 1979? What were Jello Biafra’s prophetic words? “I am Governor Jerry Brown/My aura smiles and never frowns/Soon I will be President/….Die on organic poison gas/Serpent’s egg’s already hatched/You will croak, you little clown/When you mess with President Brown” California Uber Alles.

    1. hunkerdown

      I guessed “Kill kill kill kill kill the poor”. That Jello was quite the prophet. Try some of his spoken word stuff if you haven’t already and you get the chance.

  7. Vatch

    Simply astonishing. Fresh drinking water is so obviously more important than petroleum or natural gas, yet government and business continue to destroy our valuable fresh water. Aren’t the California voters paying attention? Are they spending all of their time watching sports and the Kardashians? I don’t mean to be hard on just Californians, though. The voter turnout in the recent Chicago election was a dismal 40%, and the turnout in Ferguson, Missouri, was a pathetic 30% (and that was a huge improvement over the previous municipal election!). Perhaps the typical American is happy being the modern equivalent of a serf.

    Failure to vote is a huge endorsement of the status quo.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      Ah but this is just part one. In part two, The Great Privatization, we get to see the same people (same owners, different corporations) that rendered drinkable water a super scarce commodity, claim ownership and sell it back to us in ever decreasing size gulps of ever increasing cost.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        “Marie, can you get him some wine to go along with the cake!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

        We don’t need water. We have wine.

    2. jrs

      While the result of most state propositions (most not all) shows Californian’s have really good instincts and common sense, and even usually see through a barrage of advertising, basically convincing me direct democracy is worth a try (versus the “representative” plutocracy we currently have), I think it is mostly a pretty apathetic population in California. Add to that that open primaries eliminated 3rd parties in the general election (not a great proposition that one). And it IS mostly a one party state (the Dems of course). And the education system other than colleges is abysmal.

      The only thing people actually seem to protest in any quantity of protestors in this state are racial matters. Not that this country doesn’t have racial problems, but is that really going to matter when there’s no water to drink?!? Of course if you are shot by a cop before then I guess no water to drink in a decade or two doesn’t matter either … Maybe the poor must be short-sighted. The best way to address it politically IS probably to put a direct democracy measure on the ballot, of regulations governing fracking and the water supply. Sure $$$$$$$$$ will be spend against it, and money sometimes sways, it probably depends on if money also manages to capture the press and the party spokespeople (as it did for GMO labeling).

      “Are they spending all of their time watching sports and the Kardashians?”

      I think this is too easy an answer, as is blaming it all on “consumerism” and “spending all their time shopping”. Are most American’s consumer expectations excessive? Oh absolutely. But compare the time spent on “buying stuff” compared to the time spent working (oh and commuting to work). No contest. And it’s easy to plop down dead tired after work and watch t.v. (although reading a website or newspaper isn’t that hard really …) Although mostly survival is just too hard, people too profoundly isolated, etc..

    3. Lambert Strether Post author

      Then they can “purify”* it, bottle it, and sell it to us. It’s a self-licking ice cream cone. What’s not to like?

      * Possibly with the addition of “a few harmless alkaloids.”

      1. craazyboy

        Personally, I’ve been getting bullish on watermelons, but sure, lots of ways to monetize this. Not like your customers can “Just Say No” to drinking water. bwahahaha.

        I see Sheikdoms emerging in Central Valley. Why bother growing anything when you have state guaranteed water rights, and you can just sell the water for more than, say, Texas AG and FL oranges. No one will really miss the almonds or cotton that much. Grapes, probably tho.

        I see Arizona Ice Tea in the stores around here. So far, I’ve been telling myself it really isn’t made in AZ, and we just spend diesel fuel trucking who knows how many gallons of the stuff here from somewhere else. Tho it does make me appreciate the ancient Chinese wisdom of teabags that much more.

  8. Felix

    Maybe a lawyer in the audience of NC can explain why public trust is not used to stop rice growing in the Valley and injecting toxics into the water table and growing Alfalfa of all things in the Valley. There is plenty of water and it seems that the only impediment to rational use of it is legal in nature. A fee based system would work wonders it seems…… Use more…..pay more. Currently farmers with water rights are making an obscene killing selling water to the cities. Water that they did not earn or create.

    The “public trust” is a legal concept imported from Roman law into English common law. From this origin in Roman law, the concept of the public trust evolved, under which the federal government owns all of its navigable waterways and the lands lying beneath them as trustee of a public trust for the benefit of the people. The states acquired title as trustees to such lands and waterways upon their admission to the union (supra.) Historically, the trust applied only to navigation and similar uses in navigable waterways. However, in National Audubon Society v. Superior Court of Alpine County (1983) 33 Cal. 3d 419, 189 Cal.Rptr. 346, the California Supreme Court expanded the trust to include public interests in non-navigable waterways. Thus, the scope of the public trust in California is very broad.

    Any use of surface water in California is theoretically subject to the public trust. In addition, any member of the general public has standing to raise a claim of harm to the public trust. The harm alleged can be based upon a number of factors, which include aesthetics, fishery, ecological disruption, etc. If successfully argued, the application of the public trust can, in effect, amend or modify a water right.

    1. Kyle

      It’ll never happen.

      1. Litigation is exceedingly expensive.

      2. No one, or at least not enough people, want it to happen.

      When fracking began occurring in my part of the country, I asked similar questions. A neighbor set me straight, “No one wants it to happen.”

      So I began thinking it through. You see, when people find out that one of these things can make you a millionaire, they begin to experience the same cognitive dissonance that CEO’s do when watching short term profits fly over the rainbow and Congress critterz experience while watching election donations fly out the window and State governments don’t care because …revenues. Truly troubling stuff. It’s the ‘We can always move to Tahiti syndrome’. Sure, we helped wreck where we used to live, but now we have enough money that we can move away from it. Money, it makes people crazy, at least a lot of it does.

    2. Vatch

      Rice in drought stricken California? Rice paddies? Wow. And alfalfa? Thank you for mentioning this foolishness. Here’s an article about alfalfa, water, and California:

      http://ucmanagedrought.ucdavis.edu/Agriculture/Crop_Irrigation_Strategies/Alfalfa/

      “About 1,000,000 acres of alfalfa are irrigated in California. This large acreage coupled with a long growing season make alfalfa the largest agricultural user of water, with annual water applications of 4,000,000 to 5,500,000 acre-feet.”

      All righty, now. The surreal becomes the real.

      1. craazyboy

        I think the alfalfa may be animal feed. From a comment down below, here’s the livestock dollar volume.

        Milk — $7.6 billion
        Cattle, Calves — $3.05 billion
        Plus they don’t mention chickens, but I know there are chickens in CA too.

        So that may all be linked – the alternative may be shipping huge bails of alfalfa, or whatever it’s substitute may be, 1500miles from the plains states.

        1. direction

          craazyboy is correct about alfalfa being feed. But if you’d like more facts to feed your sense of the surreal: the biggest producers competing for California’s foreign rice markets are Egypt and Australia.

    3. Danny

      The short answer is that the public trust doctrine doesn’t override California water law. It can be used to protect nature from us, but can’t be used to take water from one group and give it to another. Doing so would qualify as a “taking” under the Fifth Amendment Takings Clause and require just compensation — because water rights are property rights. It just so happens that rice farmers often have some of the oldest water rights.
      There are other ways to limit certain uses of water. In California, all water use must be beneficial and reasonable. The State Water Resources Control Board has the power to decide what qualifies as reasonable and beneficial; however, it rarely exercises that power. It’s a rat hole few in California want to go down, so there just isn’t the political will.
      We all have a vested interest in not rocking the boat. If rice is declared an unreasonable use, what about alfalfa? Alfalfa uses between 12 and 15 percent of all water consumed in California. Much of that alfalfa is exported outside of California (e.g. to Japan for Kobe beef). If it stays in California to feed cows, it will likely force us to look at whether the practices of the cattle and dairy industries are reasonable (want to see Devin Nunes haven an aneurysm, this may be the ticket). What about lawns, which use about 12% of all water consumed in California? Rice is edible but lawns are not. You can imagine that conversations between well educated and sane adults can devolve quickly.
      So, legalizing water transfers and kicking the can down the road has been the easier compromise for all involved and is likely what will continue for the next few years until we get leadership who can step up and lead in this matter. Or the drought gets worse.

  9. Clifford Johnson

    The most provocative article I’ve read on our state’s water wars is by Ellen Brown, California Water Wars: Another Form of Asset Stripping?. Her most intriguing suggestion is untapped primary water, below common groundwater. Here she quotes an expert on primary water:
    The entire state of California could be serviced for about $800 million – less than 2% of the cost of the very controversial Delta water tunnels – and this feat could be accomplished without robbing the North to feed the South.

  10. Ron

    Browns order directed at urban water use is not a negative and needs to be tightened further including eliminating lawns and high water landscapes. Ag and business needs do trump homeowners and golf course needs for green lush lawns at this point another year or two of this drought will significantly impact business usage including groundwater pumping which is a major issue both in AG and in oil refining.

    1. jrs

      I could see AG needs trumping homeowner needs for lawns, although they probably need to be more sensible about what they grow, maybe not the almonds. Fracking needs to permanently poison the water trumping lawns, not so much so. Meanwhile everyone in California gets a message not of: we’re all in this together, but fracking can poison the water supply, but you should take a 2 minute shower, go @#$# yourself, and then go die.

      1. Brooklin Bridge

        go @#$# yourself, and then go die. -@Jrs talking about the tender ministrations of gov rationing water.

        Right, but not before you’ve paid your water bill.

    2. direction

      I live in in northern california, 2 hours from the border of Oregon. It’s a temperate rainforest here; it’s raining right now. We actually have excess water in our reservoirs but we are too far away to contribute to the central valley. Yet the city’s fountains have been dry for over a decade. Our local representatives have asked that we be excused from the emergency rationing, but we have so far been rejected and are thus forced to reduce showers and face 25% rate increases even though we have tons of extra water. Reminds me of post 911 when the small city government offices would have brown outs like Washington DC. but everyone else had electricity running just fine. Who’s scripting this? I want names.

  11. Oregoncharles

    I think it’s weird that I even have to ask this, but: Why isn’t the fracking “produced water” being reused for fracking? I can’t imagine they need clean water for that. There’s still plenty of leakage, including into aquifers, but recycling has to be better than dumping it into some OTHER aquifer.

    More to the point, why aren’t they REQUIRED to do that? (OK, silly question.)

  12. Lee

    I suspect a great battle is looming between the urban based economic interests and agriculture. Ag trumped mining by way of court cases and legislation as the dominant organized economic force in CA in the late 1800s. But since then the burgeoning abundance of Ag production in CA it has been outpaced by the growth of other sectors to the point that Ag represents to <2% of GSP.

    Most of the state's publicly owned water supplies are the product of massive and complex public works systems and is derived from rain and snow melt runoff. There's only a years worth of this water left stored in reservoirs. Groundwater (i.e. subsurface aquifers) belongs to those who own the land above them. Although it is estimated that there is perhaps 3 years of water in these aquifers nobody knows because landowners have not been required to monitor or report how much water to which they have access or use.

    I have no idea how long it would take or even if it would be possible or desirable for the state to wrest control from these aquifers from their current owners. Should the public get control of this water, use it up, and the drought persists for more than three years, what then?

    Food, like water and air, is deceptively cheap for most of us given its importance to survival. Much of CA's Ag production consists of what might be considered luxury foods: that is they are too costly in terms of water use, unessential for survival and replaceable with more affordable substitutes.

    California's top-ten valued commodities for 2013 are:

    Milk — $7.6 billion
    Almonds — $5.8 billion
    Grapes — $5.6 billion
    Cattle, Calves — $3.05 billion
    Strawberries — $2.2 billion
    Walnuts — $1.8 billion
    Lettuce — $1.7 billion
    Hay — $1.6 billion
    Tomatoes — $1.2 billion
    Nursery plants— $1.2 billion

    Unfortunately, the state will not (cannot?) tell farmers what to grow and this principle was recently reaffirmed in Governor Brown's recent announcement mandating reductions in residential water use.

    1. direction

      my friends in the Bay Area are looking at a 25% increase in their water rate. Water rates for agriculture here in CA are exceptionally low. Jerry Brown could raise rates state wide for agriculture but he’s in the pocket of nut farmers like his campaign contributor Stewart Resnick http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/magazine/content/10_47/b4204068352545.htm (notice Resnick also owns Fiji Water, yes)

      Basic numbers: agriculture uses 80% of the state’s water citizens use only 4%….”according to CA Dept. of Agriculture, in the midst of this extreme drought, 70,000 acres with 8.3 million NEW almond trees were planted.” We export over 70% of the almonds (we are the world’s largest producer) Do I need to not shower so that these rich guys can sell almonds overseas? really. And we export half the rice crop (third highest water use after feed and nuts). Rice paddies in a drought? That really should be unaffordable, but hey water’s cheap so why not keep using it?

      With consumer use being such a small piece of the pie, this looks very much like the manipulation of public perception to me.

      1. Lee

        Completely agree: Brown’s measures are drop in the bucket so to speak.

        But if Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and similarly well monied urban based interests get involved on behalf of their workforce and their customers things might shift rapidly. Also of interest, CA is essentially a one-party state (D) whose size places it on the national and international stage politically and economically. Natural disaster meets market economy on an epic scale. Will the phrase “heckuva job, Brownie” take on added meaning?

        Alas, I’m living in the midst of it. I and one of my children are part of the urban based economy. My other kid and another branch of the family are growers living on top of what has so far been a securely productive aquifer. They say their well-water levels are just fine and that they and the other growers in their watershed are using water efficient techniques.

    2. Danny

      The State Water Resources Control Board can determine if a use of water is unreasonable. This is the process to tell people what they can use water for, including what can be grown. It lacks the political will because it’s a rat hole that would seem to never end. If it comes to that – it may – existing political alliances and allegiances will dissolve.
      California has the legal power to control groundwater much like it does surface water. It has already taken the first steps toward controlling ground water withdrawals but hasn’t actually passed laws that truly regulate them. It’s a thorny issue that we may actually see some resolution on soon. Some parties, particularly cities in the LA area, already have adjudicated their ground water basins so have specific limits on how much each can withdraw and established rules that require ongoing monitoring and replenishing the aquifers.
      It’s worth noting that some of my most liberal and progressive friends who are the most vocal about how farmers are taking more than their fair share.

  13. Dirk77

    I suspect one reason urban use is being restricted is to encourage the development of desalination plants. All big California cities are on the coast or close to it.

    1. Lee

      It may come to that but it will make water much more expensive than it has been. Still, that’s better than no water at any price.

      1. jrs

        It may come to that. But if it uses a lot of energy, and the energy is fossil fuel energy, your hitting feedback loops of the human sort pretty hard by then. More climate change -> more drought -> more need for desalinatization -> more energy use -> more climate change.

        1. Dirk77

          For you and Danny: one thought is that the farmers let a certain amount of their land lie fallow. On this they put a solar farm, the energy produced is then sent to run a desal on the coast. But I don’t know if this is feasible cost or energy wise. Does anyone have estimates of the energy needed to desal one gallon of water vs the energy produced by Si solar?

          1. Danny

            The estimates vary depending on the technology but its high no matter how you stack it up. The DOE’s Energy-Nexus report may provide some discussion of what you’re pondering and solutions you’re considering. http://www.energy.gov/downloads/water-energy-nexus-challenges-and-opportunities One tidbit you can easily find is that “[d]esalination can be 100 times as energy-intensive as treatment of fresh water.” To build plants up and down the California coast we likely need a distributed power grid with solar on every roof and over some highways or more nuclear power plants. Also, people will need to relocate even closer to the coast because the water will cost even more to pump uphill to inland areas (e.g. Downtown LA is over 250 ft up; Pasadena is over 800 ft up)
            Some farmers have already converted some of their land into solar farms to sell back to the grid operators, but I don’t think it’s much in the grand scheme of things. Farmers in the Westlands District in the Central Valley have also talked about creating solar farms on some of their lands to run a desalination plant in the nearby Delta but nothing comes of it due to logistics, water rights, environmental challenges, and (I assume) in-fighting.

          2. Danny

            @Dirk77 – The estimates vary depending on the technology but its high no matter how you stack it up. The DOE’s Energy-Nexus report may provide some discussion of what you’re pondering and solutions you’re considering. http://www.energy.gov/downloads/water-energy-nexus-challenges-and-opportunities One tidbit you can easily find is that “[d]esalination can be 100 times as energy-intensive as treatment of fresh water.” To build plants up and down the California coast we likely need a distributed power grid with solar on every roof and over some highways or more nuclear power plants. Also, people will need to relocate even closer to the coast because the water will cost even more to pump uphill to inland areas (e.g. Downtown LA is over 250 ft up; Pasadena is over 800 ft up)
            Some farmers have already converted some of their land into solar farms to sell back to the grid operators, but I don’t think it’s much in the grand scheme of things. Farmers in the Westlands District in the Central Valley have also talked about creating solar farms on some of their lands to run a desalination plant in the nearby Delta but nothing comes of it due to logistics, water rights, environmental challenges, and (I assume) in-fighting.

    2. Danny

      No, that’s not even close to the truth. Frankly speaking, we have less water than we’re accustomed to. Desal hasn’t caught on because, historically, it costs more per gallon than other water sources and it takes a lot of energy, which is why we only have a handful of smaller plants. Also, desal isn’t a panacea and can only help by providing some water closer to the coast. It won’t be able to reach much of the population further inland.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        If the Pentagon is taking all the money from domestic social programs, let’s just print more money.

        If California agriculture is using an excessive share of our water, let’s just build desalination plants.

  14. anonymous123

    Ummm…I have to wonder if this is why the entire city of Berkeley has had metallic-tasting water from our taps for the past two weeks. EBMUD told us it was drought related…that they are required by law to provide some amount of cold water to rivers so the salmon can spawn (?), and so drinking water has to be pumped from the upper layers of water in the reservoirs that, due to the low water levels, are warmer and contain algal blooms. The algal blooms are what they say is causing the metallic taste in the water, but that it’s “still safe to drink.” I’m not so sure…

  15. Jay

    The supply curve of water has shifted to the left in the past few years. What has happened to the price of water? That is right, left-wingers are deniers of the laws of supply and demand.

  16. TG

    How wonderful that post-1970 immigration policy has added over 20 million people to the state of California. Of course, all these new people have added even more to the supplies of fresh water than they consume, thus resulting in the abundance of fresh water for the average Californian. If only we could import 100 million Bangladeshis, then everyone in California would be able to have their own olympic swimming pool. Because more people means a larger pie for all. Right?

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