Expanding where Water will not Flow


As aptly titled: “Cadillac Desert”, Norris Hundley contends that in the long run, California is going to run out of water. His book came out in the late 1980’s. California went through a severe drought from 2009-2016. The seven year period was pretty standard, but the severity pretty extreme. What made it more so, was the greater demand on water in that period. Groundwater is depleted at an excessive rate, causing the Central Valley to sink from the crumbling of cavities where once water was stored. California has an abundance of groundwater, relative to its surface water capacity, but the consistent depletion, and draining of the Central Valley wetlands, changed the landscape, dramatically reduced the salmon population and other wild-life species. Theo asked the Water Commissioner once: 

“How long does it take water to percolate into the ground, get “cleaned” through the layers, and become accessible for pumping up?”  

“Twenty years,” the commissioner replied. 

“So the wet winter of 2016-17 is merely a drop in the bucket?” Theo asked.

“That is right! It will be enough for the next few years, but does not answer the question about the long-term effect. California, through Governor Brown, is trying to manage groundwater, as are riparian rights, but it will take years before those laws take effect. Meanwhile, groundwater will be pumped up at an excellerating rate, pushing the replenishing date out twenty years by each year before the laws take effect!”   

 To give it some perspective: 1,000 acre/ft of water can quench the thirst and keep 16,000 jobs in the high tech sector, vs. 8 jobs in the agricultural sector. This can be countered by the fact that California has an ideal climate for agriculture. Its soils are ideal as well, but deteriorating in places like the Central Valley due to salination as a result of pumping up water, using it, and contaminating it with fertilizer salts before the remainder settles in the ground again.  Another factor are Reno and Las Vegas, which provide 95% of Nevada’s economy, but use 10% of its water. Most water is used to grow alfalfa..!  "Nevada has no business growing alfalfa," Ben concluded.

“So,” Theo surmised: “For better water management, should cattle be raised in the East and Mid-West, and ship beef out to California? California is already shipping out water to China in the form of almonds!” 

Theo and Ben were discussing the water issues for California. They figured that in the short-run, nobody in California is going to worry about water shortages. The drought, still existing in the Los Angeles area, is decreasing in size as the rains continue to come. “For California we should be talking about short-term and long-term drought,” Ben surmised. Theo could not argue with that. The short-term drought is over for 2017 through 2018. In the middle of February (2017) everybody is still concerned about levees, dams, roads flooding out, land-slides, leaks, etc. After the winter, sometime in April, when the state will take inventory, should we look at the long-term drought, which will never end for California? California is still driving the water guzzling Cadillac. It is time to look for a more efficient operating vehicle. Maybe it is time to look for the ideal operating water system. Here are some rules: 

  1. It should not reduce natural habitat any further.
  2. It should gradually do away with special water “rights” such as the Central Valley cheap water. Water costs should be more equally shared. 
  3. Identify the current rights of various water districts. Compare those to other water districts and users. 
  4. Ground water rights needs to be managed as are the riparian rights.   
  5. What needs to be done to separate water rights from money? In other words people with money should have no more rights than the less fortunate or the State and Federal governments. 

That is where Theo and Ben ended their conversation. They were not going to solve the water problems that day...

The Last Dam in California vs. Water Space in the Netherlands


The New Melones Dam was the last big dam built in California between 1976-79. It was controversial. Environmentalists would reside in the canyon of the Stanislaus River, the deepest limestone canyon in the country, in an attempt to save it. To no avail. In the winter of 1979 the rainfall was enough to fill up the whole canyon for the first time.  With the growing population, increasing industry, and increasing irrigation for cattle feed, this was another must-have project. The Army Corps of Engineers provided the final blow again. Unfortunately the water yield was lower than expected. Even in the wet 2017-18 year, when most of the reservoirs were at 75-90%, the New Melones was only at 30-50%. Most of the rainfall that year fell in Northern California, which the New Melones dam is not part of.   

“Well,” said Theo, “here we have another project, later labeled as: ‘a case study of all that can go wrong with a project’!”  

“Then what is the answer?” Ben asked. 

“Ironically, the whole idea of needing more dams went away, and even existing dams have been, and are, demolished so the salmon can travel freely between the spawning grounds and the sea instead of becoming chopped liver through the power plant pumps,” Theo surmised. 

“And, while the California population keeps expanding?” Ben asked.

“The population has been demanding an accounting of where water was going and increasingly realized that water was really cheap, courtesy of the California and American tax-payer.  If farmers would have to pay the full price, they would not grow tomatoes in the Central Valley, let alone irrigation of cattle feed, which is the most un-economical use of California water,” Theo replied.  

“That sounds like a similar development in the Netherlands,” Ben continued. “We used to see straight canals built, for the convenience of shipping routes. We would build pretty high dikes to keep the water funneled, and be able to expand industry and towns in the area around the canal. In years of extreme storms with high tides, especially during full moon, people around the canals got nervous, hoping the dikes would hold. Then around the end of the 1900’s, beginning of the 2000’s, water management philosophies changed. In places where there was a secondary dike, the main dike was broken, for the water to have an expanded area to flow into, like the Yolo Causeway, along the Sacramento River, in California. Along the big rivers, secondary dikes got reinforced and primary dikes broken for the same reason. In the winter these areas become excess water reservoirs. In the Spring and Summer it becomes grazing land for cows. In the East of Holland, rivers that had been ‘straightened out’, were allowed to meander in their prior river beds again, which allows for expansion of water flows and time for water to percolate back into the ground. This brought back wildlife, like fish and birds, plus plant species that had almost become extinct.”     

Reflections on Water Management


The experience of water management in California has not been all positive. Some critics have attributed California’s land, water, labor, and environmental problems to “immense centralized institutions” ruled by oppressive bureaucratic elites who have manipulated water resources in their own self-interest. There is some truth to that, but the reality of a war of fragmented authorities contradicts some of that.  “That is confusing,” Theo thought, as he was in the middle of the book: The Great Thirst (page 547). It reminded him of what Senator Wolk had been fighting for, in California. 

She submitted a law, or what she hoped would become law, limiting the drilling of new wells for irrigation. The ground water levels are going down at an alarming rate, especially in the Central Valley. Water consumption in California way outpaces the amount replenished through rainfall and snow, that melts in the Spring and is collected in reservoirs.  California water rights are still based on the old rule that groundwater is accessible to any grower, however deep he has to drill, limited only by economics. Surface water is something else. Only the land owner through whose property a river is flowing, has water rights to that water, as much as he needs. The governor can put limitations on surface water use, but not on ground water consumption for irrigation purposes. Theo had mixed feelings about that. He was fortunate to live in Northern California, where there was enough water for farming operations, but his farm friends in the Central Valley had to rely on a lot of well water. 

The law did not pass, because the Farm Bureau was able to put a stop to it. This was the same Farm Bureau that had been so helpful to Theo over the years.  This issue was going backwards on water consumption in California. There is no all-encompassing program on water consumption and water allocation in California. It is all these “immense centralized institutions” making it impossible to have a uniform water policy. What reasons did the Farm Bureau give for fighting the limits on new wells? They would not say, except give some vague response, like: “Who will grow food for the population, if water was not supplied in sufficient amounts?”  If the farmer had to pay the real price of water, they would not grow tomatoes, plant almond trees, and the like. That land would require other purposes. It reminded Theo about what happened in the Klamath Valley Basin.

The Klamath is the most important coastal river south of the Columbia River for anadromous fish migration. Its salmon, steelhead and rainbow trout have adapted to unusually high water temperatures and acidity levels relative to other rivers in the Pacific Northwest. The numerous fish were a major source of food for Native Americans, who have inhabited the basin for at least 7,000 years. The first Europeans to enter the Klamath River basin were fur trappers for the Hudson's Bay Company in the 1820s; they established the Siskiyou Trail along the Klamath and Trinity rivers into the Sacramento Valley. Within several decades of white settlement, native peoples were forced into reservations. Most human use of the watershed is limited to the upper basin. Despite the semiarid climate, dams have been built, irrigation water has been supplied from the Klamath and Lost rivers, and plentiful groundwater has been drawn to transform most of the upper Klamath Basin to farmland. At least 11,000 years ago, Lower Klamath and Tule Lakes in the rainy season would combine into one giant freshwater marsh that was nearly 290 square miles (750 km2) large. This, combined with the over 100 square miles (260 km2) of Upper Klamath Lake, formed a temporary habitat for millions of migratory birds.[25][26] These lakes are all remnants of a large Ice Age lake, Lake Modoc, that covered about 1,100 square miles (2,800 km2). Although all of the marshlands have been developed with the exception of Upper Klamath Lake,[27] about 3.7 million migrating birds still pass through the watershed each year. (Wikipedia)

The Valley Basin is a semi-arid section of Oregon, that receives relatively little water. Ground water was plentiful, at one time. Farmers, settling there, by the middle of the 20th century were feeling the pressure of an increasing population, and industry needing more water. The area had been known for being the 2nd largest salmon river after the Columbia.  For Indians the land also represented an ancient, sacred, and spiritual inheritance. It became clear that the natural flows would not be enough to satisfy all parties; farmers, Indians, industrialists, and growing population. About every 6-7 years or so, an extreme drought would make it really hard to allocate the water. Volatility between parties became understandable. Farmers succeeded to have the federal government build four power generating dams that helped light up the area, blocking the salmon from swimming up stream to lay their eggs and pumps churning up the fish that came back down the river. Feeder lakes were drained to make arable land. Later the power generators were not needed anymore, but the damage was done. Then in the mid-nineteen fifties, the federal government, as part of its efforts to assimilate the Indians, duped the tribes into selling off their land, leaving them without a home, overlooking one important provision in the 1864 treaty: It allowed tribes to hunt, fish and gather on their former lands. This included retaining their water rights, so the farmers found themselves as second in line. Beyond that, the “sucker fish” had to be protected which caused a lot of small farmers to go bankrupt. 

Theo could imagine the arguments and bad feelings that created among the Valley Basin constituents. You would have a pickup full of teenagers going through town, shouting obscenities at the Indians they encountered, derogatory comments, putting bullet holes through signs in front of businesses. At one point, during a drought, the President allowed the release of water to save the salmon, but it was too late. The water was too warm for salmon to survive. The government tried, but only provided temporary relief, and was too far removed to understand the battles and history of water provisions for Oregon and California. 

Enter Jim Root, a newcomer to the Medford based fruit export business. He bought a farm which had a river running through it, so had one of the oldest water rights available. But that did not exclude him from seeing the water wars and pain around him. He had more water than he needed. The water spread out over his pasture land, was not the most economical use.  Jim’s conscience played a role in deciding to not irrigate for pasture anymore. This provided people downstream access to more water. His decision did not go unnoticed by the Indians, and he gained their respect. Not only the tribe, but also his neighbor, a rancher noticed it and soon the two became friends. They both saw how big the problem of the water shut-off was and they tried to figure out a way to solve it. Thomas, the neighbor, had a good standing with the ranchers and Jim had the respect of the tribe. 

Jim had attended a Rotary International Convention which had generated discussion to attempt to end the Falkland Island war between Britain and Argentina. Jim was intrigued in the way the dialogue was moderated. Rotarians from both sides, listened to each other and talked to their respective governments, which contributed to ending that war. Jim was impressed! It was seventeen years after that convention that Jim Root found himself in the above described situation. He wanted to give all sides an opportunity to speak, in a safe place. No editors with paper and pencil or cameras! He knew the importance of sharing a meal, where it was a lot more than just eating. When the tribal representatives arrived they suggested an age old plan of putting the tables in a circle, so all would be facing each other. It was their first break-through. Remembering some simple points that were put up at that Rotary intervention report, seventeen years earlier, he put up four bullet points: 

  1. Develop trust.
  2. Actions that consider the entire community.
  3. Balance the flow of water in- and out- of the community.    
  4. Improve water quality considering: “good ecology equals good economy.” 

Jim would ask for facts, and wrote those down for everyone to see. The initial goal was to meet from 8-noon, but by lunch time there was so much energy in the room, that he decided to have the place serve up some sandwiches and salad, so they could continue for awhile. “Awhile” ended up to be a full eight-hour meeting! The meetings became a weekly event. People felt free to get up and take a stretch, there would be rest periods when informal conversations would take place. Even if someone had to vent, they vented, that was ok. There were local events, like the potato festival, where the tribe offered to cook the salmon. The ultimate was this question posed by a farmer’s wife:

“What would it mean,” she asked the then Klamath Chairman foreman, “if somebody just said they were sorry?”

Global Warming vs. Global Warming

Ben drove up, and saw Theo inspecting his tomato field. It was the second planting, which they had just been finished thinning, and about ready of another irrigation. The plants were big enough now, to where Theo did not sprinkle anymore, but ran water in every other grove between the beds. It was the end of March and they had just a sprinkle of rain, which did not amount to anything.

 “Well,” said Theo, “global warming is making itself known; we didn’t have much rain this season.”   

“Really,” Ben replied, “and what is the definition of global warming?” 

“That includes a lot of things. The way the ice caps are melting, sea levels are slightly but continuously rising, and what we humans add to the equation from our pollution, like CO2 and other greenhouse gasses.”

“Oh,” Ben replied, “you mean the melting of the ice caps and current increase of the oceans is due to us polluting?” 

“Listen to this, Theo replied: Human influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reductions in snow and ice, in global mean sea level rise, and in changes in some climate extremes. This evidence for human influence has grown since AR4. It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”  

“Oh yea, that is based on computer models in which the more recent and more sophisticated data is extrapolated over hundreds or even thousands of years prior! I’m not saying that global warming is not taking place. The Dutch are very aware of it as they see the sea level inching up and the below-sea-level ground sinking, just as is happening in the Central Valley. They are getting scared of having to raise the dikes all the way around,” Ben responded all in one breath. He went on: “here in the USA, global warming, also called climate change, I believe, is so heavily impregnated with CO2 expulsion created by carbon discharge of the use of carbon fuels and greenhouse gasses, emitted by humans. If we control all of that better, that would reduce global warming and the Dutch would not have to worry so much about having to raise the dikes.” 

“So,” Theo replied:  “is it not better to reduce our pollution?” 

“Of course we should control our pollution, but not with the expectation global warming will be controlled,” Ben replied, and went on: “We are sterilizing the earth, reducing the bee population, redirecting water, so Los Angeles can grow bigger, and much natural life gets killed off. For the most part we currently don’t even know we are doing that. Aren’t we learning anything from history?” 

Ben went on to explain that “global warming,” in Holland and much of Europe has an entirely different meaning than in the USA. “In Europe, global warming is seen much more like a long-term process from ice-age to ice-age, which takes place over a much longer period than from the time the first automobile was produced until now. I’ve seen Los Angeles with brown polluted skies during the 1970’s-1990’s. But that has to change through stricter car and industry air pollution legislation. Of course we need to control pollution better, but that is an entirely different story than global warming.”  

“Got to go, we’ll continue this conversation later,” said Theo as he got in his pickup to go and prepare for the next irrigation.

How to Proceed with my story

 So I started NaNoWrimo, this November 2016. The first day was great. Almost got my 1667 words for the day. The next day got another 500 or so words in. Then, about November 8 I went dry, but let me backtrack. I am pretty good at setting parameters, the historical setting, and what I call, the technical components of my book: A Drop in the Bucket. The parameters are the timeframes, theme, and locations. The timeframes are dictated by the locations and the theme. The theme is water and how it is used in different cultures. The timeframes are determined by what is happening at the various locations. The technical components are what I use in the various locations, and concerns mostly in agriculture, water engineering, floods, precipitation or the lack thereof.

I start with farming and water conditions plus its uses in the Sacramento valley during the 1970s. One of my characters came from Holland, and as the story unfolds, he compares water management in California with water management in Holland. He refers back to the 1953 flood in Holland and how that is managed to this date. In the third phase, his water engineer brother comes over and wants to see the consequences of Katrina in New Orleans, which took place in 2005. He also used to live in Bangladesh, working on water projects there. Notice that all four locations are part of a delta from one or more rivers that culminate and flow into the ocean; different oceans, which in turn dictate how these water flows are affected. 

So far so good. This is where the MS writing group comes in. Each Wednesday we go to Sacramento, have lunch together at the Carlton Senior Center rest home, then go to the library where we write for about 1 ½ hours and read our writings out-loud. Len writes pieces on how MS affects him, and some detective-like stories. John, in Oregon, writes about a theme in what I call exaggerated tale form, but right-on. David often writes light-hearted stories. Harold writes short stories and Irene wrote a very nice piece about her mother-in-law last week. Marise is expanding on her life story, and John can write much to the point about characters. It is all about characters, for each one of the team. That is what I like. That is what I need to flesh out my characters and to make the story more interesting. To make the story a story. I also need some drama such as the mis-use of water policies, policies developed for selfish reasons by its authors. And I need some intrigue, which I notice in all of the other team’s writers. How do I do that? That is where I am stuck. What are the questions I should ask?