As the Civil War raged, William Brewer, a young botanist from upstate New York, spent five years cataloging California’s natural attributes for its Legislature. He and his crew traversed the state by mule, living off the land. Brewer found much to commend.
But in letters to his brother, later assembled into a must-read book (“Up and Down California”), Brewer wondered whether the state’s climate would impede development. He was particularly negative about what we now call the San Joaquin Valley, seeing it as an inhospitable desert, unsuitable for agriculture.
Of course, California’s Central Valley is now one of the planet’s most productive agricultural regions, thanks to dams, reservoirs and canals that capture runoff from winter snows in the Sierra to support irrigation during the summer growing season.
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It illustrates one of California’s abiding truths: A reliable supply of water is the single most important factor in the state’s development and growth.
Protecting that supply stands atop California’s civic agenda, but doing so is increasingly difficult, as a new report from the Public Policy Institute of California underscores. Myriad factors are placing new strains on California water, PPIC says, with the effects of climate change potentially the most intractable.
“California’s climate is highly variable, with frequent droughts and floods,” PPIC points out. “Climate models predict significant changes: warmer temperatures; shorter, more intense wet seasons; and more volatile precipitation – with wetter wet years and drier dry years.”
It continues, predicting less snow falling earlier and melting faster. That will increase run-off, but not when it’s needed, and raise water temperatures, amplifying the severity of droughts and floods.
The PPIC’s report arrives just as outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown is trying to make a big water deal focused on the San Joaquin Valley.
The State Water Resources Control Board threatens to shift huge amounts of water from farmers to create stronger flows through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Farmers say that will drive them out of business or force them to rely more on already overdrafted underground aquifers.
Just as the board was poised to vote, it delayed action at the request of Brown and his successor, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. Brown told reporters he hoped to work out a compromise. Brown’s lame-duck status may help. The pending decree gives him overt leverage with farmers. And a more liberal Newsom might be less willing to deal.
Beneath it all is Brown’s plan to bore twin tunnels that will siphon Delta water directly to the California Aqueduct. Environmental dislike them because they will deprive the Delta of flows. But shifting more water from farms could offset those diversions, and mollify the environmentalists.
In effect, the water board plan to shift San Joaquin flows and use the tunnels to enhance both Delta water quality and water transfers to Southern California cities. The only losers: San Joaquin Valley farmers.
Newsom, obviously, wants Brown’s to get this done because it might allow him to sidestep the ever-present water wars. At least for now.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture explaining how California’s state Capitol works. Visit calmatters.org/commentary