California Water Wars: The View from the Mountains

150 150 Justin Ewers

Stream in Owens Valley near Bishop. (Photo credit: Frank Kovalchek via Flickr)

Few Californians understand the crisis in the state’s water system—and fewer still appreciate how much this indispensable pillar of the state’s economy impacts the state’s rural regions, the source of the vast majority of the California’s water.

While most of the water Californians drink comes from north of Sacramento, about 80 percent of the water’s users are in the south.

The water systems built to get it there, meanwhile, were designed to only serve 17 million people. Yet, those systems now serve a population twice that size, one that will likely grow three times the size before a modern system can be installed.

This crisis has not escaped the attention of Steve Frisch, president of the Sierra Business Council, an organization committed to empowering the Sierra region’s economy and conserving its environment.

“Water is an issue that is just never going away in California,” said Frisch.

“Water is the number one commodity exported by the Sierra Nevada by far,” added Frisch. “When we talk about securing a safe and secure source of water for all Californians, that has to include us, too.”

There are times when this rural perspective is lost in the heated conversation about water issues in California, where people have been squabbling over this vital resource for decades.

“No matter what we do, there’s always going to be this dynamic of shifting water from north to south,” says Frisch. “There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s a necessity.”

Tunnel Only One Piece of Puzzle

This fight was renewed this summer when Gov. Brown announced plans to proceed with a $14 billion tunnel system that would divert water around the Bay Delta to move it more easily to the southern half of the state where residential, industrial, and agricultural users account for that 80 percent of usage.

Brown’s decision was portrayed as another chapter in the water wars between North and South, with Central Valley agriculture in between. The story is not as simple as this, however, insists Frisch. 

Working together with a group of stakeholders from across California brought together by the California Economic Summit, Frisch and his colleagues are aiming to broaden the conversation about the state’s water infrastructure. 

Not only are they working with the governor and other key players to integrate the state’s two main water efforts, the Delta Stewardship Council and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, they are also pushing to ensure that the state takes immediate steps to address its water problem literally at the source: In the mountains, where the vast majority of the state’s water comes from.

Beyond Obsolete

The problem is the system the state created in the 1960s and 70s to address this issue is no longer up to the task. Frisch points to the State Water Project, a water management system that provides water to 25 million Californians by moving it from the Sierras to the state’s urban areas. 

The system’s primary source is the Feather River in northern California, which produces about 2.3 million acre-feet of water each year. But Frisch says the contractual rights to this water add it up to more than 4.2 million acre-feet per year. 

“So the technical ability to draw from that river system is almost double what it’s providing,” says Frisch, who attributes this discrepancy to rosy estimates of the river’s capacity in the 1960s. “That gap is only going to grow under the impact of climate change over the next 30-50 years.”

The governor’s tunnels around the Delta may indeed provide a more regular supply of water from north to south—partly addressing this problem—but Frisch insists the tunnels alone are not a comprehensive solution. 

“The big question we need to ask ourselves is this: Are we over-promising what the Delta can provide in the long-term and making the same mistake we made with the Feather and other rivers all over again?” he said.

The political fight over the tunnel, a project which could end up costing as much as $30-$50 billion, has only just started and the construction could take 20 years. While that conversation is important, Frisch said there are steps we can take to save water now:

  • Better management of California’s upper watersheds: Frisch believes there are two immediate investments the state can make to improve its water situation: thinning the Sierra’s overgrown forests to reduce the risk of wildfires and restoring natural systems like mountain meadows that can hold water more efficiently than man-made reservoirs. “The natural storage capacity is in the mountains,” says Frisch. “It’s a lot cheaper just to keep it there.”
  • Water conservation: “Although we talk a lot about water conservation, we’re not putting that much money into it,” says Frisch, who maintains that a widespread effort to reduce per capita water use would realize water savings far more quickly than a peripheral canal or tunnel.
  • Groundwater recharge: “We’ve been depleting our groundwater supplies for 100 years,” says Frisch. “What we should be doing is investing in the infrastructure we need to replace that water and bring it back to its original levels—that’s a huge solution we should be looking at.”

Frisch is optimistic that this perspective will not be lost in the next round of water wars. 

“I know Gov. Brown says his primary objective is to get stuff done, and I’m a huge supporter of the governor,” says Frisch. “But let’s get the right stuff done. If our insistence on ‘right now’ means we make the wrong choices, we’ll pay for it for 100 years. Then we’ll have to go back and fix that just like we’re trying to fix what we’ve got now.”


Justin Ewers

All stories by: Justin Ewers