As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.

History 383 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer

Discussion Guides - California's Water Policies: Who controls, distributes, and consumes this scarce resource?

"Whiskey is for drinkin', water is for fightin' over" - Mark Twain

Map of California water system

Introduction. Today we enter into what many feel is the single most important crisis in California - the prolonged drought that by 2015, was in its fourth devastating year. While we spend the next two day examining the history of California's water issues, we will quickly learn that water is yet another of California's resources that Californians thought was plentiful and inexhaustible. But just like gold, timber, and oil, water today is not only more scarce than these other valuable resources, but it has become the subject of what many people call the California water wars.

Discussion Goals:

  1. To understand the basic terminology related to water in California.
  2. To study the terminology and realities of drought.
  3. To examine the history of water resources and water policies in California.
  4. To discuss the basics of contemporary water use and water sources throughout the state.
  5. To examine the current problems related to water usage and water resources in California, as well as possible solutions.

Cold Call: 18th cold call for required reading - Introduction and Goals #1 and #2 in the discussion guide for today at

Goal #1: To understand the basic terminology related to water in California

Depending on where you live in California, your water may come from a nearby well or river. Or it may travel hundreds of miles to reach your tap. Millions of Californians rely on complex delivery systems such as the State Water Project or the federal Central Valley Project to bring water from distant sources. Those systems were developed to supply our cities, farms, businesses and the environment with adequate water year-round. The systems are necessary because California's Mediterranean-style climate means we receive little or no rain for months at a time. The ability to store and move water has made it possible for California to grow and prosper.

From the very beginning of California's history as an American state, the controversy surrounding water scarcity has been about control, acquisition, distribution, and consumption. So, just what is the basic terminology related to these water issues?

To decide who gets to take available surface water, California developed a hierarchy of water rights.

When farmers know where they are in the heirarchy, they can make educated economic decisions about what to plant. If they know they are likely to get water, they can plant more water-intensive crops. If they think they might not get as much in drier year, farmers can plant more drought-tolerant crops. Some farmers with senior rights will plant more profitable crops on fields where they have more access to water and save other low-yield crops for fields with junior rights. But during a drought, things change. When water supply is estimated to be lower than normal, California's water board can curtail rights which revokes the ability of rights holders to draw their allotted amount of water. This is where the hierarchy comes in, because the rights are curtailed from the bottom up, starting with the most junior rights holders. Needless to say, the conflicting nature of California's water right system has prompted dozens of legal disputes over its use.

So where does our water come from? When most of us think about water, we think about either consuming or bathing/swimming in it. But few of us think about where it comes from. So, as we begin our discussion of California water policies, it is important to ask ourselves - Where does our drinking water come from? So much of our water comes from aquifers that contain groundwater, as well as surface water such as rivers and streams that, in turn, can be artifically stored and distributed through dams and reservoirs or distributed through irrigation.

Goal #2: To study the terminology and realities of drought

Pictures of Oroville Dam in 2011 and 2014


Even before the 2015 devastating drought, in any given year, California faced between 4-6 months of drought in some regions of the state. But just what is a drought? According to the USGS website on the California drought ...July 2015 map of california drought

"A drought is a period of drier-than-normal conditions that results in water-related problems. When rainfall is less than normal for several weeks, months, or years, the flow of streams and rivers declines, water levels in lakes and reservoirs fall, and the depth to water in wells increases. If dry weather persists and water-supply problems develop, the dry period can become a drought."

California’s Mediterranean climate means that drought is not an unfamiliar experience in the state. Following are a few of the most well-known and recorded droughts in California history:

The roots of the current water crisis lay deep in California's history, as explained in The Sacramento Bee on May 28, 2015:

"The problem isn't that no one foresaw the drought. The problem is that no one has been able to solve an underlying issue that is simultaneously less scary and also much harder than a dry spell: California's convoluted water system and intractable water politics. Designed piecemeal over the last century, going back to a time when Los Angeles had one-sixth its current population, California's system for managing water doesn't just make it tough to deal with shortages — in some ways, it encourages inefficiencies and waste. This is partly an engineering issue and partly a political Map of california reservoirs in 2015one, but it's become a huge dilemma for a state struggling to adapt to unprecedented drought. Much of the bickering today around California's water crisis can be traced back to this underlying systemic issue. Many people accuse farmers — especially its almond growers and cattle ranchers — of using too much water. Farmers, in turn, blame environmentalists for placing undue restrictions on water use. Others fault golf courses and overwatered lawns. Economists say California could better manage its water if only it were priced properly. There's some truth to all these points. But it's worth understanding California's incredibly complex water system in order to grasp why all these conflicts have arisen — and why fixes are so difficult."

Glen MacDonald, the John Muir Memorial Chair in Geography at UCLA, writes that the current drought "is exceptional and should be seen as an historical turning point. Indeed, California is moving into new - and worrisome - territory for three reasons: rising heat, which causes increased evaporation; the continuing depletion of groundwater supplies; and growing water shortages on the Colorado River, the main external source of water for Southern California".

He further explains:

"First, there is the heat. Although the current precipitation deficit cannot be attributed to global climate change, the record-breaking high temperatures of 2014 can be. These elevated temperatures produce increased evaporation from reservoirs and exacerbate irrigation demands ... 2014 is indeed off the charts. This combination of low precipitation and high evaporative losses fuels the crisis now being faced ...

Second, increased reliance on groundwater has been an important mechanism by which California coped with past droughts. However, the groundwater resources of the state are displaying clear signs of unsustainability. Over the past 150 years, agricultural and domestic extraction has caused water table depths to fall by 100 or so feet in some instances, and the deep aquifer water level to decline by even greater depths in parts of the San Joaquin Valley, one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world. In some places the land surface itself has subsided by more than 20 feet. The current drought has led to increased demands on groundwater in regions such as the San Joaquin Valley, where more than 2,400 well permits were issued in 2013 as the drought hit home ... In 2014, more than 1,400 domestic water supply problems largely related to groundwater were reported in California, with more than half in the San Joaquin Valle ....

The third concern is the Colorado River. The Colorado is the largest single source of water for Southern California, but it is primarily fed by precipitation Photo of Lake Meadfrom far-away sources in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. The Colorado water has served to mitigate the effects of local droughts. Each year, 16.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water is apportioned to the states of the Colorado Basin and Mexico. California has been allotted the largest share of the river's water, some 4.4 million acre-feet each year ... Like most of the Southwest, the Colorado River basin has also experienced generally hot and arid conditions over the early 21st century. The flow of the Colorado River has declined and the water stored in its massive reservoir system has dropped precipitously. Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the U.S., now stands at 37 percent of its maximum capacity. The Bureau of Reclamation recently projected that by January 2017 the surface elevation of Lake Mead will have fallen to below 1,075 feet above sea level. This will invoke a federal water shortage declaration and a reduction in water appropriations to Nevada by 4.3 percent and Arizona by 11.4 percent. Although California with its senior rights will not take a cut, it is conceivable that there will be political and public pressure on California in terms of its senior rights."

One last cautionary note is important about depleting groundwater. As noted above, when there's less surface water during droughts, many farmers begin to pump water from underground aquifers where water has built up over many decades. Unlike in other western states, the rules on pumping water from California's aquifers allows anyone to draw as much as they want, as long as it's for what we already learned about - a "beneficial purpose." During the current drought, a study conducted in 2014 by UC Davis found that California's farmers have been replacing about three-fourths of lost rainfall with groundwater. Consequently, California's groundwater has been vanishing at a shocking rate. While pumping groundwater has helped farmers avoid immediate disaster, a longer-term problem has now arisen. These underground aquifers aren't easily refilled because they were built up over many years. And as these aquifers get drained, the land above them starts sinking, which means they can't hold as much water in the future. In short, farmers are losing a crucial buffer against both this drought, if it persists, and future droughts.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. We need to understand the history of water resources and water use in California to will shed some light on the the real ramifications of the current drought.

Goal #3: To examine the history of water resources and water policies in California

As we learned on the first day of class while discussing California's diversity:

These basic problems have been remedied in large part by the construction of the most complex and sophisticated water storage and transport system in the world. However, before this complex system was developed, a great deal of conflict evolved around the creation of water policies - all of which are related to the very complex question - Who will control, distribute, and consume our state's water? These policies, in turn, evolved into what many have called California's water wars. These policies and wars have centered around several issues:

The history we are about to study resulted in policies that move water over great distances to accommodate the diverse needs of the state.This has created intense regional rivalries in California. These feuds have historically divided the state - north against south, east against west, environmentalists against water developers, agriculture against cities. We can get a quick glance at these divisions through this video - "To build or not to build?" These water wars will be part of our chronological discussion.

Selected Chronology of Water History

The First Era: Private control of water. The control, distribution, and consumption of water fell to private parties - first the missions and pueblos - and later mining and farming entrepreneurs.

Spanish and Mexican rule in California - Both Spanish and Mexican rule recognized the pueblo water rights allowing the first users of water - missions and pueblos - the unrestrained right to divert it from a stream and use it for domestic needs and irrigation.

1849 - Miners began to divert water from streams high in the gold country, carrying it through wooden flumes, dropping it through penstocks Photo of water use during hydrolic miningto generate hydraulic pressure, and then using the pressurized water to blast away hillsides containing valuable ore. The miners then washed the debris through sluices to separate the gold from its surrounding sediment.

1850 California's first constitution legalized the "riparian" doctrine of water rights giving those owning land bordering a stream the full rights to reasonable use of the water while owners of land that did not border streams had no rights to the water. This effectively allowed a tiny number of landowners who owned land along water courses the sole right to divert water, thus monopolizing and leaving downstream owners with nothing.

1851 - California's Legislature adopted the "prior appropriation" doctrine of water rights which allowed to be transported far from the original river or stream. This "finders-keepers" rule allowed the first users of water the unrestrained right to divert it from the stream.

1855 In Irwin v. Phillips, the California Supreme Floods, Droughts, and Lawsuits Court was asked to decide whether the miners' rule of prior appropriation or the common law doctrine of riparian rights should apply. The court recognized that the custom of the miners worked well in practice and was commonly accepted as the most fair and efficient means of apportioning water in times of shortage and therefore adopted the rule of prior appropriation as the law of the state.

1860s - Private parties controlled the distribution of water in Southern California and San Francisco.

1862 - A series of Pacific storms drenched Northern California and the Central Valley, encouraging a few farmers in the San Joaquin valley to bring the rivers under control for irrigation. This furthers the privatization of water use - whoever could afford to construct irrigation systems could become large crop farmers. Throughout the state, pubically-financed irrigation system were considered to be socialistic.

1868 In response to the regular flooding along the Sacramento River and its tributaries due to hydraulic mining practices, the California legislature authorized the creation of local reclamation districts that allowed landowners to join together and levy property assessments to fund construction of land reclamation and flood control projects. This legislation encouraged the formation of hundreds of reclamation districts throughout the state.

1870 60,000 acres of California land was irrigated through private means.

1873 The first public investigation of California's water resources began when President Ulysses S. Grant commissioned Colonel B. S. Alexander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to survey the Central Valley's irrigation needs. Alexander recommended systematic development of the Sierra watersheds.

1878 California created the State Engineer's office and its first state engineer completed a comprehensive study that recommended flood control and navigation improvements on the Sacramento, Feather, Yuba, and Bear rivers and in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Overall, the report concurred with the Alexander report that the waters of the Central Valley should be pubically developed for the benefit of the state.

The Second Era: Public control of water through local and state agencies . During this era, irrigated acreage increased exponentially around the state, cities expanded their local water supplies, and groups of water users organized themselves locally into irrigation districts and mutual water companies.

1880s and 1890s As Central Valley agriculture greatly expanded, farmers without access to surface irrigation turned to the aquifers beneath their lands. Farmers and Southern California cities also began to rely heavily on groundwater, initially tapping artesian springs and later pumping water from the dozens of basins that underlie the region. While access to groundwater had been limited by 19th Century technology that used windmills and steam engines for irrigation pumps, late 19th century drilling technology and gasoline- and diesel-powered pumps became more widely available, allowing farmers to pump more water from greater depths. By the early 20th century, wells in some cases exceeded 300 feet. The new pumps lowered groundwater levels below the depth of neighboring pumps.

1886 Lux v. Haggin found two giant land interests fighting over control of the flow of the Kern River. The state supreme court decided that the riparian rights of downstream landowners superseded the appropriation rights of upstream water users. In essence, appropriation rights continued to exist alongside the riparian system, but in almost all cases, they would be inferior in priority to the rights of the riparians. In cases of conflict, riparians would be entitled to "the natural flow of the watercourse undiminished except by its reasonable consumption by upper [riparian] proprietors."

1887 The Wright Irrigation Act authorized the formation of local irrigation districts, gave them the power of eminent domain (to condemn private water rights and irrigation facilities for public use), and empowered the new districts to levy taxes and sell bonds to build reservoirs and canals. The Act launched an era of local governmenal development and control of water resources.

1900 - As demand for water increased across the nation, settlers wanted to store "wasted" runoff from rains and snow for later use, thus maximizing use by making more water available in drier seasons. Westerners wanted the Federal Government to undertake water storage and irrigation projects, as well as to invest in irrigation projects in the West. Pro-irrigation planks found their way into both Democratic and Republican platforms.

1902 - The Newlands Reclamation Act, Map of Reclamation States in 1902the consequence of pro-federal irrigation lobbying, created the U.S. Reclamation Service. The Act provided for the construction of irrigation and water storage projects in the states and required that water users in the states repay the federal government for such costs. Such irrigation projects, known as "reclamation" projects, were supposed to "reclaim" arid lands for human use and in turn, were expected to encourage Western settlement by "homemaking" - making homes for Americans on family farms.

1903 In Katz v. Walkinshaw, the California Supreme Court held that the common law rule of "absolute ownership" of groundwater allowing all landowners overlying an aquifer to pump as much water as they needed, was no longer compatible with California's hydrologic and economic conditions. The court further held that all overlying landowners had rights to the "safe yield" of the aquifer - the quantity of water that could be extracted without sustained lowering of the groundwater table. Disputes among overlying owners would be resolved on the basis of reasonable use.

1913 On November 5, the first water emerged from the Los Angeles Aqueduct at a formal opening. At the time of completion, it was both the world's longest aqueduct and the largest single water project. (To follow a pictorial history of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, go to

The Third Era: Public Control of Water through state and federal agencies. At the turn of the 20th century, California had the nation's fastest-growing economy and population. Such growth required a shift in water and flood policy from local to interregional, state, and federal projects that could manage water over much larger distances.

1919 - Robert B. Marshall of the U.S. Geological Survey proposed the idea of developing a statewide water project. Marshall proposed transporting water from the Sacramento River system to the San Joaquin Valley and then moving it over the Tehachapi Mountains into Southern California. His proposal was the first step in the eventual plan for a state-operated water project.

1920s - The invention of the centrifugal pump allowed Central Valley farmers to draw hundred of gallons per minute out of the Central Valley's shallow aquifer. Farmers no longer had to build or maintain expensive canals for irrigation.

1924 - State bonds were authorized to import water through the Mokelumne Aqueduct to the East Bay communities of Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, and parts of Alameda and Contra Costa County. Construction began in 1926 and by 1929, Mokelumne River water reached the East Bay for the first time. Continued rapid growth in the East Bay communities led to a second pipeline for the aqueduct in 1949, and yet another in 1963.

1928 - An amendment to the California Constitution (Article X, Section 2) changed California water law by declaring reasonable and beneficial use was the foundation of all state water rights. Thereafter, California's policy was to prevent water waste and promote the reasonably efficient use and allocation of California's water resources.

1930 - A massive drought greatly depleted the Central Valley's groundwater, causing a steep drop in the watertable and putting 20,000 acres out of crop production. Farmers began to look for state funding for new water sources.

1931 - State Engineer Edward Hyatt introduced The California Water Plan identifying the facilities required and the economic means to accomplish a north-to-south water transfer through the creation of four dams and many reservoirs on two of California's largest rivers. It was the largest and most ambitious state sponsored plan ever introduced in the United States.

1933 The California Legislature passed the Central Valley Act, which authorized The State Water Plan proposed in 1931.Hetch Hetchy in 1912 In a special election, the California voters approved a $170 million bond act. However, the Depression intervened and no state funding could be found to begin construction of the Central Valley Project (CVP).

1934 - Hetch Hetchy Dam and Aqueduct was completed. Plagued by financial delays and difficulties in tunneling through the Coast Range, the first water from the project did not reach the San Francisco peninsula through the 150-mile aqueduct until 1934. Hetch Hetchy TodayThe photo to the left shows Yosemite Valley before the dam while the photo to the right shows it after the dam was completed.

1937 Construction on the Central Valley Project (CVP) finally began after the state asked the federal government's Bureau of Reclamaation to carry the costs. The first deliveries to Contra Costa County began in 1940, but construction continued into the 1990s. The CVP had as its capstone a large dam on the Sacramento River (at the location of today's Shasta Dam) to control the flow of the river and distribute the water to users in the Sacramento Valley, the Delta, and the northern San Joaquin Valley. A smaller dam on the San Joaquin River northeast of Fresno would divert most of that river to irrigate lands in Madera, Kings, Fresno, Tulare, and Kern Counties. Riparian water users on the San Joaquin River below the dam, as well as lands on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley that relied heavily on groundwater, would be supplied by water pumped from the Delta via a series of check dams on the San Joaquin River.

Over time, Congress added other units and facilities to the CVP: dams on the Trinity River, the American River, and the Stanislaus River; the San Luis Reservoir; an off-stream storage facility near the Pacheco Pass which allows storage of Sacramento River water pumped south from the Delta; and canals that supply water to users in the Sacramento Valley, the Bay Area, and additional areas on the western side of the San Joaquin Valley.

1941 The Colorado River Aqueduct was completed.

1945 - The idea of a State Water Project formally began with the California Legislature's passage of the State Water Resources Act. The Act created a Water Resources Board to investigate California's water resources and formulate plans to address water issues throughout the state.

1949 - Dickey Water Pollution Act became law. The Dickey Act created a State Water Pollution Control Board consisting of nine gubernatorial appointees representing specific interests and four ex officio state officials. Its duties included setting statewide policy for pollution control and coordinating the actions of those state agencies and political subdivisions of the state in controlling water pollution. The Dickey Act established nine regional water pollution control boards located in each of the major California watersheds. The Boards have primary responsibility for overseeing and enforcing the state's pollution abatement program. In 1967, the State Water Pollution Control Board and State Water Rights Board were merged to create the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB). The Board was charged with the broader field of water quality rather than the previously limited field of pollution control.

1951 - The State Water Resources Board reported that 40% of the state's harvestable river water was flowing unused to the Pacific Ocean. The Board concluded that California's greatest challenge was to redistribute water from the areas of surplus - the North Coast rivers and tributaries of the Sacramento River - to the areas of deficiency - Central and Southern California.

State Engineer A. D. Edmonston presented the California legislature with plans for the Feather River Project . The initial proposal included a state-financed multipurpose dam and reservoir near Oroville complete with a power plant, an afterbay dam and power plant, a Delta Cross Channel (i.e., a peripheral canal), an electric power transmission system, an aqueduct to transport water from the Delta to Santa Clara and Alameda counties, and another aqueduct to carry water from the Delta to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

1955-56 - California was hit by the biggest flood in almost 90 years.

Photo of 1955=56 flood

The Feather River, the Sacramento River's main tributary in the northern Sierra, rose to 250,000 cubic feet per second and flooded Yuba City and Marysville. The flood destroyed hundreds of buildings and killed at least 60 people. Such flooding provided support for A. D. Edmonston's 1951 plan to build the Oroville dam.

Cover of 1957 California State Water Plan1956 - The California Legislature created the Department of Water Resources that consolidated the water planning and development responsibilities of 52 state agencies. The State Water Plan was released.

1959 - After Pat Brown was elected Governor of California, he worked hard to pass the plan which was authorized by the Burn-Porter Act of 1959. On July 10, 1959, he signed the Act authorizing the State Water Plan.

1960 - On November 8, voters narrowly approved Proposition 1 authorizing the Burns-Porter Act by the slim margin of 173,944 votes from about 5.8 million ballots counted. Only one northern county supported the proposition - Butte County, site of Oroville Dam. The vote authorized the expenditure of $1.75 billion ($12.7 billion in 2010 dollars) for the State Water Plan and was the largest bond issue ever considered and passed by a state. Map of State Water ProjectRepayment of the bonds principle, operation and maintenance costs are paid by the state's 29 water contractors who buy the water to distribute it to their users. (To follow the entire process of the north-to-south State Water Project, go to the presentation at and begin with the 45th slide.)

1960s The State Water Project (SWP) first delivered water to East Bay counties. Napa and Solano counties began receiving water in 1968, but it wasn't until 1972 that the State Water Project water finally arrived in Southern California. The Coastal Branch Aqueduct, supplying Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, was completed in 1997. Beginning at Lake Davis in Northern California, spanning 600 miles south to Southern California, it includes 34 storage facilities, 20 pumping plants, four pumping-generating plants, 5 hydroelectric power plants, and about 700 miles of canals, tunnels and pipelines. What became known as the State Water Project consists of 23 reservoirs and over 700 miles of aqueducts, provides drinking water for 23 million people and irrigation water for 750,000 acres of farmland, and is the largest state-financed water project ever built.

The Fourth Era: Conflict over the control of water. From the mid-1970s forward, the long period of water development had come to an end. For the past three decades, a series of federal and state laws as well as several court decisions ushered in an era of conflict between those who controlled and distributed California's water and environmentalists who were critical of the effects of manipulating the state's water resources.

Map of California's water features1968 and 1972 - The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 and the California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1972 protected numerous rivers that had been identified for dam projects to support the CVP and SWP.

1969 and 1970 - The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and the California Environmental Quality Act of 1970 required that new water management and flood control projects be preceded by an analysis of their potential environmental effects and include a range of project alternatives and consideration of actions to mitigate or offset any unavoidable environmental damage.

1969 and 1972 - California's Porter-Cologne Act of 1969 and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972, which constitute the modern Clean Water Act (CWA), gave power to the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to set standards for water quality and other beneficial uses of California's waters.

Chart of declining California fish population1970s - California entered into its most complex and intractable water dispute which evolved into a four-decade-long struggle to manage the decline of the Bay-Delta ecosystem. To understand the evolution of this ongoing struggle, click here.

Late 1970s - President Jimmy Carter decided to end the age of the federal water project and drafted a "hit list" of several dozen big dams and irrigation projects to defund. He was thrwartd by western agricultural interests.

1973 and 1984 - The federal Endangered Species Act of 1973, together with the California Endangered Species Act of 1984, influenced the administration of California's water resources systems as a variety of native fish species from suckerfish to salmon were listed for protection.

1973 - Governor Ronald Reagan signed a bill that included the Eel River in the California Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The legislation prevented construction of the Dos Rios Reservoir, which would have flooded ranch lands and the town of Covelo in Round Valley to augment water supplies for the SWP.

1978 - The State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) acted to protect whitewater recreation and fisheries in the Stanislaus River by denying the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation permission to fill the newly constructed New Melones Reservoir. Although the board's decision was only a temporary reprieve and the reservoir ultimately was filled in 1979, the intense public controversy made New Melones the last unit added to the CVP. After New Melones, it could no longer be assumed that development of California's rivers to supply agricultural and urban demands was necessarily the highest and best use of water.

Map of California water network1980s - California had 1,251 major reservoirs, the two biggest irrigation projects on earth, and more irrigated acreage than any other state. All but one major river in the state had been dammed at least once.

1981 - Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus added the North Coast rivers and the lower American River to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, which meant that these rivers could not be dammed without an act of Congress. Proponents of expanding the CVP and SWP had seen these rivers as the principal source of additional project water supplies.

1983 - In National Audubon Society v. Superior Court, the California Supreme Court held that, although the public trust does not trump other uses of water, the state has an obligation to protect public trust uses "whenever feasible" in planning and allocating water. Most significantly, it ruled that the state has a continuing responsibility to protect the public trust uses of Mono Lake and is not bound by past water allocation decisions that "may be incorrect in light of current knowledge or inconsistent with current needs." This ruling forced Los Angeles to release water from its dams on tributaries to Mono Lake to protect trout in the river and eventually forced the city to bypass sufficient water to protect the public trust in Mono Lake and to establish minimum stream flows in the tributaries.

1991 - The California Water Recycling Act established a statewide goal for reclaiming wastewater.

1992 - The California legislature authorized groundwater management districts and the adoption of local groundwater management plans (AB 3030). It also required that low-flow plumbing fixtures be installed in new construction of toilets and showers.

2001 - The California Senate adopted " Show me the water" laws (SB 210 and 610) that required local governments to verify long-term water availability for new developments that used local water suppliers.

2004 - California legislature required urban utilities to meter water and bill by volume used.

2006 - California legislature required urban outdoor water use conservation: outdoor sprinklers were required to meet water efficiency standards; cities and counties were required to prepare local landscape ordinances.

Photo of San Joaquin Valley Delta2009 - Delta Reform Act. (See

2012 - Governor Jerry Brown and the Interior Department proposed construction of a $23 billion, 37-mile long series of tunnels that would be buried underneath the San Joaquin Delta. It would divert water into canals that feed much of the state. Supporters said the tunnels would guarantee a stable water supply for Californians. But opponents argue the project could destroy the already fragile delta ecosystem. (See the video at

2014 - In January, Governor Brown declared a state of emergency existed with the longest drought in California's recent history.

The state legislatures curtailed the rights of junior water holders.

2015 - In March, Governor Brown announced the first-ever mandatory water restrictions, which will force cities and towns to reduce their water usage by 25 percent in the coming year (varying from town to town).

For those of you interested in your "water footprint," you may want to calculate your actual water usage prior to our next class meeting. We can open our discussion with what you found -

End of 11/5 discussion

Goal #4: To discuss the basics of contemporary water use and water sources throughout the state

Map of federal, state, and local water agencies in California

Water use. Currently, 80 percent of all California water use is for agriculture - over 9.6 million acres under irrigation - while the remaining 20 percent is for urban use.

Water sources (Adapted from Aquafornia: The California Water News Blog at ).Today, water is moved from wetter to drier areas through a network of rivers, canals, aqueducts, and pipelines. This network of federal, state, and local projects connects local water users with local, state, and federal water projects. Two massive water projects serve Map of California Water sourcesCalifornia:

Although the SWP and the CVP are the most extensive storage and conveyance projects supporting agricultural and urban water use, other major local and regional projects also store and deliver water to urban centers in the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California. The hub of both the SWP and CVP systems, and the link between Northern and Southern California, is the network of channels within the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. This conveyance hub is at significant risk of failure from flood and earthquake risks to the fragile levees that surround the Delta's man-made islands, most of which now lie well below sea level.

As this map indicates, water must be imported from numerous projects in order to serve the state's largest urban areas. State Water Project facilities are blue, Central Water Projects are red, shared SWP and CVP facilities are purple, other federally operated facilities are green, and other state or private facilities are gray.

California's vast agricultural industry also depends on large water projects.

Following are the major water systems that supply California's cities and agricultural regions. (Remember that groundwater accounts for about 30% of statewide water use in an average year; it can be up to 60% in a drought year.) These are the sources of our remaining water: Map of Central Valley Water Project

The CVP annually delivers about 7 million acre-feet for agriculture, urban, and wildlife use:

Beginning at Lake Davis in Northern California, spanning 600 miles south to Southern California, it includes 34 storage facilities, 20 pumping plants, four pumping-generating plants, 5 hydroelectric power plants, 21 dams, and about 700 miles of canals, tunnels and pipelines. To reach Southern California, the water must be pumped 2,000 feet (610 m) over the Tehachapi Mountains, which is the highest single water lift in the world.


Cold Call: 19th cold call on required reading - "Contemporary Issues Related to California's Water" at

Goal #5: To examine the current problems related to water usage and water resources in California, as well as possible solutions

Drought in California

Read "Contemporary Issues Related to California's Water" at


  1. Early efforts to control and distribute water in Cailifornia were created with little to no thought to the environmental or local economic consequences of these projects. For example, the Owens Valley was once a thriving agricultural area but became a sage brush desert with the dried up lake.
  2. Southern California’s pattern of water controling, distributing, and consuming water was continued throughout the state. Development of water supplies was considered the "highest and best use" of water in the state, closely followed by agricultural uses. Thus, we built dam after dam after dam, shifting water from one place to another and decimating the State's natural fisheries and ecological systems.
  3. While the State's first fifty years of water development was about the construction of dams and aqueducts to meet LA's and Southern California's growth needs, the second fifty years has been about coping with the environmental problems created by those projects. It was evident by the 1970's that the State faced serious environmental problems, which by the 1980's would become a crisis for both fisheries and important ecosystems including the San Francisco Bay Delta and Mono Lake.
  4. Litigation has forced major changes in water law, including the recognition that water projects must provide sufficient releases for fisheries and ecosystem protection.
  5. A series of water wars have been raging through California for over 100 years. Developments over the past several decades indicates that these water wars will intensify and become more complex. California has continued to grow, and - in the pattern first set by Los Angeles - the State agency responsible for planning California's water future, the Department of Water Resources, regularly forecasts draconian water shortages if more dams and aqueducts are not constructed to meet those needs. At the same time, environmental laws are requiring existing water projects to give some water back to the environment.
  6. California's efforts to control, distribute, and consume water have evolved through four stages, beginning with the private management of water systems, continuing with public control, and evolving into the complex system of local, state, and federal control.
  7. As the chart below indicates, California's current water infrastructure consists of a wide variety of local, state, and federally-funded projects that were adopted from the early 1900s through the 1970s. Together, these projects transformed the state which evolved from its early domination by mining to a period of dramatic expansion of agriculture and an explosive growth in manufacturing and service industries. But this mix of state and federal agencies also have made water control, distribution, and consumption management policies far more complex.
    Chart of primary state and federal agencies involved in California's water management


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