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What Are Water Allocations for the Environment?

Figuring out how much water different users in California get is a tricky business. One statistic says that 50 percent of the water captured by our rivers goes to the environment, but here’s a look at what ‘environment’ really means and why the numbers can be misleading.

Written by Alastair Bland Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Every year, on average, about 200 million acre-feet of water falls from the sky and lands in the state of California. Roughly 70 million acre-feet drains into river basins, of which 40 percent, in an average year, will go to farms, 10 percent to industries and cities, and 50 percent to the environment, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

The notion that water is allocated to the “environment” is one that has long frustrated water policy analysts. They see the statement as a gross simplification of what water is, what it does, how much there really is of it and who it benefits.

“The premise that there is environmental water and that there is water that’s for people implies that people don’t benefit from the environment and that environmental water is some sort of luxury that we can’t afford right now,” says Jon Rosenfield, a conservation biologist with the Bay Institute.

Reserving water for the “environment” means, usually, allowing it to flow to the sea. Sometimes, though, even “environmental” water winds up in farm fields. It may, for instance, be released from a reservoir for the benefit of migrating salmon swimming against the currents downstream. Then, once the water has served its environmental purpose, it may be captured farther downriver by farmers. This scenario has occurred recently in the American River, with water being released from Folsom Lake specifically to assist the migrating salmonids; afterward, it may be captured downriver by pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Especially during drought times, water allowed to flow to the delta may appear like a waste to farmers and their lobbyists. Johnny Amaral, Westlands Water District’s deputy general manager of external affairs, expressed this sentiment in a written statement released on February 19.

“Despite the much needed rainfall and the snowpack, which in some regions has caused flooding and property damage, more than 504,000 acre-feet of water has been released out to the ocean … uncaptured, unused, and gone forever,” said Amaral. The water he is referring to was released between December 1, 2015, and February 14, 2016, for the benefit of delta smelt and Chinook salmon. “Some call it Lost Water … I call it WASTED WATER,” Amaral wrote.

But, Rosenfield says, there are many public benefits that come with allowing a certain fraction of the Central Valley’s rivers to flow uninterrupted to the sea, including clean drinking water, recreation opportunities and biodiversity. Salmon populations, Dungeness crabs and herring – each an economically valuable part of the ecosystem – depend on a healthy, functioning estuary.

Even farmers themselves depend on a minimum flow of water through the delta and out to sea. Such movement of freshwater provides a barrier against salt water that would otherwise intrude inland and, in what would be a considerable disaster, enter the delta pumps that provide water for millions of acres of farmland and major cities.

Rosenfield points out that the idea that water is being provided for the environment suggests that it was, originally, somewhere else.

“It’s not like we’re giving 50 percent of the water to the environment,” he says. “We’re taking 50 percent of the water out of it. It’s like someone coming along and saying, ‘well, we’re only taking 50 percent of your blood, so what’s the big deal? Why can’t you share?’”

Publishing statewide averages on how much river water is used for agriculture and how much is used for the environment is misleading, says Jeanette Howard, associate science director at the Nature Conservancy.

“Since water is extremely localized in its expression, breaking it down by hydrological region is the only way to get at true water use,” Howard says.

The North Coast’s rivers, she explains, “are not plumbed, except for the Trinity River, which gets diverted into the Sacramento.” Most water in the Eel, the Gualala, the Smith and other short but fast-flowing watersheds reaches the ocean. The North Lahontan basin, Howard says, is also not connected to a major water conveyance system.

This means that, in many rivers elsewhere, the proportion pumped toward human use is much greater than the statewide average of 50 percent. For instance, 64 percent of the San Joaquin’s flows in 2010 were diverted onto irrigated cropland and 6 percent toward urban use, according to data from the California Water Plan 2013 update. In the Tulare River basin the same year, 79 percent of the river’s water was pumped onto irrigated agricultural land and 5 percent into towns and cities. Very little was reserved for “environmental” use.

The PPIC states that the statewide average breakdown, excluding the North Coast region, is 33 percent environmental, 53 percent agricultural and 14 percent municipal.

Gayle Holman, a spokeswoman for Westlands Water District, says that during the drought, much less water has been allocated to agriculture than normal. Farmers are surviving the drought, she says, partly by fallowing land, partly by purchasing water from senior rights holders in the Sacramento Valley and partly by pumping it out of the ground.

Top image: A visitor to Folsom Lake, Calif., on Jan. 9, 2014, walks his dog down a boat ramp that is now several hundred yards away from the water’s edge. (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press)

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