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25 Facts About California Water

Introduction To California WaterMost of us learn in our basic World Civilization courses that throughout most of history human beings have had this innovative idea: they have settled next to large bodies of fresh water where they have had direct access to a precious human resource: water.

Californians, on the other hand, have not had a similar idea. Instead, large populations have settled in areas that do not have enough water to accommodate the existing and growing population. Instead, Californians:

  • Import their water.
  • Create technology to import that water, including dams, reservoirs and aqueducts.
  • Through these technologies, natural habitats have been destroyed.
  • The areas from where we import have increasingly become depleted, so that we need to look for new water sources.

So where does our water come from? Join me to answer this question as I begin my Water Series.

First up are 20 facts about water that come directly from David Carle’s invaluable book Introduction To Water In California, published in 2004. (If you are interested in California water issues, this book is an essential read.)

  1. Planners commonly figure that one acre-foot serves the annual domestic needs of one or two families, or five to eight people. One acre-foot = 325,851 gallons, which would cover a football field one foot deep.

  2. About 75 percent of the demand for water originates south of Sacramento, although 75 percent of the water supply in the state comes from north of the capital city.

  3. The population growth of Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area was only made possible by damming distant rivers and importing their water, since they receive so little precipitation.

  4. Winter snowfall in the Sierra Nevada is more critical than local rainfall to the Bay Area’s water supply, and both Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountain winters are far more critical than local weather to Southern Californians.

  5. California has 450 known groundwater basins. Statewide, they hold 850 million acre-feet of water, 20 times more than the surface water supply, and enough to cover California eight feet deep. Less than half of that water is usable, however, because of poor quality and the high costs of pumping it from the ground. Groundwater is more evenly distributed across California.

  6. About 1,400 dams in California convert flowing rivers and streams into reservoirs.

  7. The 20,000 miles of rivers and streams in California form 60 major watersheds. Today only ONE of the state’s major river systems, the Smith River, is completely free of dams.

  8. Dams store water supply, generate electricity, and help control flooding. They also destroy many of the natural processes of rivers and river ecosystems, not just where a reservoir pools water, but also downstream.

  9. The state has thousands of water agencies and districts; 280 retail water agencies serve about 90 percent of California’s users.

  10. Every natural habitat and everything that lives in California has been affected by the redistribution of the state’s water.

  11. 95% of California’s original wetlands and 89 % of its riparian woodlands are gone.

  12. California is the state with the most endangered and threatened species.

  13. So much of the watershed (in Southern California) has been covered by concrete, asphalt, and buildings that storm water does not percolate into the ground but rapidly runs into channels and drains. That not only reduces groundwater recharge but carries trash and toxic chemicals to the ocean and beaches.

  14. As much as 95 percent of the fecal coliform in urban storm water, in some studies, had a nonhuman origin. A Seattle study found that nearly 20 percent of the storm water bacteria came from dogs. Dog feces can be a significant source of fecal coliform and fecal strep bacteria.

  15. California is the number one agricultural state in the nation, with nine of the top 10 agricultural counties in the U.S. Agriculture contributes $20 billion each year to the state’s economy. Of all the country’s produce, 55 percent is grown here, and California is the nearly exclusive source of special crops such as almonds, artichokes, dates, figs, olives and raisins.

  16. Of the 42 million acre-feet of “developed water” — water that has been gathered behind dams, pumped from the ground, and transmitted along aqueducts and through pipes — about 80 % irrigates the state’s farms, the rest “irrigates” the urban population and its industrial news.

  17. Much of the water used by agriculture in the state goes to five crops: alfalfa, cotton, rice, grapes and irrigated pasture.

  18. California is a major rice-growing state. Though rice fields must be flooded, rice actually takes less water to grow per serving than almost any other crop in thestate. Rice fields also substitute for some of the lost wetlands habitat in the Central VAlley, benefiting migratory waterfowl.

  19. The Chino Basin, in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, on the upper watershed of the Santa Ana River, has the highest concentration of dairies anywhere in the world, with 300 facilities holding up to 40 cows per acre. Each of those 325,000 cows produces 22 tons of waste in a year, totaling enough to cover a football field eight stories higher than the Empire State Buidling! The Central VAlley is another dairy center, where over 800,000 cows in 1,600 dairies generate as much waste every year as 30 million people.

  20. The Santa Clara Valley, today’s fully urbanized “Silicon Valley,” was also once a major producer of fruits and vegetables. Repeating the pattern, the Central Valley is now under heavy pressure from urban sprawl. Every year, 15,000 acres of agricultural land in the state succumb to concrete and asphalt.

Carle’s book discusses all the different ways Californians get their water: importing,  groundwater wells, desalination plants, and recycling.

He concludes, “Despite the identification of shortages, there is lots of water in California. There is enough water to serve populations far greater than today’s; we could grow to well over 200 million people, if that is our choice. That would require taking water from its current uses in the environment or agriculture. Whether we want to facilitate such a conversion, and whether anyone would want to live in that California, under those conditions, are the real questions.”

2 Responses to 25 Facts About California Water

  1. Gil December 8, 2014 at 11:31 PM #

    Interesting. Being an outsider I thought the water problem was worse that what you mentioned. I remember reading that pollution for China and others to the West of us have tinted the snow caps of western mountains yellow and/or brown and the tint absorbs more sunlight. This makes the snow caps melt faster causing early flooding and shortages later on. I may me mistaken on this as I read it a while ago.

  2. Barbara December 9, 2014 at 3:09 AM #

    That IS interesting because the next book review I’m going to do will be about the world water shortage. It’s called: Water: the fate of our most precious resource by Marq De Villiers

Copyright Barbara Zaragoza. All rights reserved.

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