Balancing Act: California’s water and food security

Dear Editor,

California currently produces 69% of the nation’s fruits and vegetables and 21% of all milk. Any proposed change of the state’s water usage should consider the impact on America’s domestic food supply.

Both farmers and city dwellers have dammed rivers in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to store and dispense irrigation and drinking water. Together we have altered the historic flow into and through the San Joaquin – Sacramento Delta before emptying into San Francisco Bay.

With limited supplies of surface water, pumps in the San Joaquin Valley are taking more water out of the ground than nature replaces each year. The San Francisco Bay area already discovered the impact of pumping too much water decades ago. In the early 1900s overpumping of groundwater caused land surface in some areas of downtown San Jose to sink up to 13 feet. (source: Santa Clara Valley Water District website).

The Eastern side of the San Joaquin Valley has recently experienced a similar impact with wells going dry and soil subsidence like San Jose’s experience.

As the wells at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains continue to go dry, future generations will be unable to raise crops in many areas.  Americans will have to import enormous amounts of fruits and vegetables from foreign suppliers who are unlikely to adhere to U.S. environmental and safe handling requirements.

Obviously, our ongoing depletion of groundwater is unsustainable and new restrictions are beginning to address that problem. But it is a worthwhile exercise to examine what happens to the massive amount of potential irrigation water that is diverted from the valley to sustain life elsewhere – especially in the San Francisco Bay area.

Who is using water from the Sierra Nevada Mountains including the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta?

The popular urban storyline is that farmers in the San Joaquin Valley are diverting so much water from the delta that the Salmon population will become extinct, and San Francisco Bay will become ever more saline and more toxic.

Some uninformed citizens also blame environmental problems in San Francisco Bay on the pumps on the Delta that fill the California Aqueduct which sends water south down the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. Actually, that aqueduct also supplies most of the water used by Silicon Valley on the western side of the Diablo mountains.   

As the California Aqueduct sends water south it also fills the San Luis Reservoir (alongside Hwy. 152) which in turn sends water via tunnels and storage lakes to the west side of the Diablo range. This is the primary water source for “Silicon Valley.” The southeastern side of their water district also receives water directly pumped from the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta into pipelines that traverse the East side of San Francisco Bay.

The pipelines from the San Luis Reservoir also provide water that irrigates about 64,000 acres on the west side (Hollister) of the Diablo range.

The Hetch Hetchy Dam and San Francisco

San Francisco residents guaranteed their water source when they built the infamous Hetch Hetchy Reservoir that dammed the Tuolumne River in 1923. That reservoir then fills pipelines that completely bypass the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta to supply both them and cities to the south including San Mateo and Palo Alto. That exclusive dam cuts off public access and covers a valley comparable to Yosemite.

The East Bay Municipal Utilities District provides water for Contra Costa and Alameda Counties on the East Side of San Francisco Bay. They serve cities such as Oakland and Walnut Creek.

Like San Francisco, they dammed the Mokelumne River East of Lodi in 1929 and built a 95 mile pipeline to deliver pristine water from Lake Pardee that also completely bypasses the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta.

The construction of dams, including Hetch Hetchy and Lake Pardee, reduced the ancient natural flow of water into the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta which empties into San Francisco Bay. Environmentalists often blame farmers for the reduced flow as they ignore their own impact with their exclusive dams at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The issue of pollution

Environmentalists claim that San Joaquin Valley farmers are using water needed to flush pollutants from San Francisco Bay.

The Atlantic magazine Sept. 22, 2019, carried the headline “Silicon Valley Is One of The Most Polluted Places In The Country.”

Quoting the article: “Santa Clara County has 23 active Superfund sites, more than any other county in the United States. All of them were designated as such in the mid to late 1980’s, and most were contaminated by toxic chemicals involved in making computer parts. Completely cleaning up these chemicals may be impossible.”

They, and other industries next to the water, caused the pollution dumped into San Francisco Bay – let them clean it up. Don’t blame the farmers in the San Joaquin Valley.

The impact of importing Striped Bass into San Francisco Bay

From personal fishing experience, any 3-inch fish, whether it is a Delta Smelt or a Salmon fingerling, is at the top of the menu for Striped Bass. These imported Bass decimate the ancient migration of baby Salmon (smolts) as they move through rivers to reach the Delta and San Francisco Bay to finally reach the Pacific Ocean.

Rather than blame the pumps that fill the California Aqueduct for killing the Salmon migration, perhaps environmentalists should focus on the non-native Striped Bass.

From the California Fish and Wildlife website 

 “There were originally no striped bass in California. They were introduced from the East Coast, where they are found from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Alabama. The initial introduction took place in 1879, when 132 small bass were brought successfully to California by rail from the Navesink River in New Jersey and released near Martinez. Fish from this lot were caught within a year near Sausalito, Alameda, and Monterey, and others were caught occasionally at scattered places for several years afterwards. There was much concern by the Fish and Game Commission that such a small number of bass might fail to establish the species, so a second introduction of about 300 stripers was made in lower Suisun Bay in 1882.

In a few years, striped bass were being caught in California in large numbers. By 1889, a decade after the first lot of eastern fish had been released, bass were being sold in San Francisco markets. In another 10 years, the commercial net catch alone was averaging well over a million pounds a year. In 1935, however, all commercial fishing for striped bass was stopped in the belief that this would enhance the sport fishery.”

San Francisco Bay receives numerous non-native species of plants and marine life that are often introduced in dumps of ballast water from ships arriving from around the world.

The Marin Independent Journal, Feb. 22, 2008, carried the headline: “San Francisco Bay has the most non-native species in the world.”

The ecology of the bay continues to change due to many outside sources. San Joaquin Valley farmers are not the sole source of those problems. 

Climate Change – a personal observation

I was a Boy Scout 70 years ago when our troop traveled to Fossil, Wyoming, elevation about 8,000 feet, where we could split open the shale to easily find ancient fish fossils. We probably wondered about the world that was covered by water that deep some millions of years ago. Could it happen to us?

About 40 years ago our family visited the Mesa Verda ruins near the 4 corners area of Southwestern Colorado. We were able to climb between cliffside dwellings occupied by ancient native Americans up until about 1300 AD. Scientists believe a prolonged drought forced them to abandon the area. Our recent drought made me wonder if we were facing the beginning of our own Mesa Verde event?

Or are we Californians actually causing a modern Mesa Verde event with continued over drafting of our ancient groundwater?

A book titled “The Little Ice Age” (available at Amazon) notes that era occurred between about 1300 and 1850. Thus, it had its own beginning at the same time as an extreme drought forced abandonment of Mesa Verde after being occupied for centuries.

There are some natural climate changes beyond our control.

 Jerrold H. Jensen