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Water water everywhere

August 20, 2010

No matter where you live, you’ve heard about California’s water problems. You’ve heard how dire the situation is. Most cities have strict water rationing, all manner of development (even solar energy development) is held up for lack of water, and the San Joaquin Valley—once the most fertile farming area in the world—is slowly turning into a desert.

On the nightly news, you may have seen Arnold Schwarzenegger standing behind a podium talking about the “drought.” He does it all the time so there’s a good chance you’ve seen it. If you have, it might surprise you to learn that there is no drought in California. There is not even the slightest shortage of water.

There is merely a lack of political will to bring the water to where it’s needed. Take a look at these two pie charts—I’ll tell you later what they represent:

When I came west four years ago, I knew I was coming to a region where water issues are important from a state where you can’t dig a hole without it filling with water. Here in Nevada homeowners drill wells hundreds of feet to find something wet to drink—in Michigan home builders need to have pumps handy in case the basements they're digging start filling with water before the foundations are poured.

Different worlds. Water tends to be scarce out here.

So I expected Westerners to know more about water issues than people back east. I expected they’d be experts, out of necessity. I expected a high level of rationality would be in play. I was wrong. When it comes to water, Westerners are just plain crazy. Nothing they do makes a lick of sense and much of what they do is downright counterproductive.

For example, they apportion the water in every river into “water rights” which inevitably bear no relation to how much water is actually in the river. If Farmer Joe owns the right to take 500 gallons out of the river and City of Joe owns the right to take 1,000 gallons and Power Company Joe owns the right to take 500 gallons, well, there’s an obvious problem if the river has less than 2,000 gallons. Common sense, right? Somebody is gonna get stiffed, most likely the guy downstream. Duh.

Did you know the mighty Colorado River is pumped dry before it reaches the ocean? By the time every house, farm, ranch, city, state, and nation has taken its share, there isn’t one drop left in the river. Pity the poor Mexican farmer with “water rights” sitting near the end of the Colorado River looking at sand where there’s supposed to be a river. What’s he supposed to do?

He can take the legal document stating his “water rights” and wipe his butt with it, that’s about it.

Awkward fact: between seven U.S. states and the country of Mexico, there are annual “water rights” for 17½ million acre feet of water from the Colorado River… which has an average annual flow of 15 million acre feet of water.

See why I used the word “crazy"?

Westerners are so irrational regarding the subject of water that they act as though “water rights” represent something real even when they clearly don’t. Recently there was an earthquake which damaged irrigation systems in Mexico and, since they couldn’t use their allotted water, they asked the state of Nevada to store it in Lake Mead until the irrigation systems are repaired. Whereupon, theoretically, Nevada can open the dam a smidgeon and let it flow down to Mexico. Except, gee, didn’t I just mention that the Colorado generally runs dry down in Mexico? So when Nevada holds the Mexican water in Lake Mead, aren’t they going to be holding some water that doesn’t really exist?

You would think so. Common sense says so. Nevertheless, Nevada's answer was, “Yes, we would love to hold your water in Lake Mead.” Heh heh. Water levels in Lake Mead are so low there’s a giant “bathtub ring” 100 feet high around the lake and the intake pipe that feeds drinking water to Las Vegas is barely underwater, so you betcha Nevada is willing to hold the Mexican water in Lake Mead. Good luck, Mexico, getting them to release it later.

“Sorry, señores, your water evaporated.”

In another example of how “water rights” are nothing but legal fiction, a while back they arrested a City of Sparks engineer whose job was buying “water rights” so the city could legally pump water from the Truckee River for its expanding citizenship. The engineer, being no dummy, simply started inventing them. He would write the fiction on a piece of paper, sell the fiction to the city of Sparks, and then pocket the money. Sparks could wave the pieces of paper in the air and announce, “See? We have water rights!” The city had water, the engineer was getting rich, everybody was happy. Until he got caught, of course. I don’t know how he got caught. Maybe his fiction was poorly written.

Okay, what does all this talk about water rights have to do with California’s dire situation?

It’s an issue about water rights that created the so-called drought in California. On August 31, 2007, a federal judge gave a major portion of Central and Southern California’s water rights to a fish. He ruled that the diversion of water from the Sacramento River into the canals which irrigate the San Joaquin Valley and provide drinking water for Los Angeles and hundreds of other communities must be stopped, except for a trickle which is insufficient for anybody’s needs. The ostensible reason was to help a tiny fish called the delta smelt which has been struggling to adapt to the modern world.

Me too, but nobody is helping me.

Mind you, there is no solid evidence that additional water will help these little fishies and no sign that additional water over the last couple of years has done them any good, and a whole school of reasons for their problems which have nothing to do with lack of water (pollution, pesticides, invasive species, artificially-stocked sport fish which eat them, ADHD, low blood sugar, etc.), but the judge’s ruling stands because nobody in California or Washington, D.C., has the political willpower to challenge the environmentalists. The delta smelt rules: humans can go perform an anatomically impossible act on themselves.

To hell with a farming valley which was producing 25% of the nation’s food.

“Drought” is defined by California bureaucrats in Orwellian Newspeak as “the impact on water users by the supply of water.” In other words, if they say it’s a drought it’s a drought. That’s why Schwarzenegger can talk about the “drought” even when precipitation is above average… like it is this year. No matter how much rain and snow God sends to California, they’ve got a drought, by golly!

I confess that I am not a hydrologist. Even more worrisome, the basis of my hydrological belief system is much—much—too dependent on the Dr. Seuss book, “McElligot’s Pool.” I loved that book as a kid. It’s about a boy named Marco who drops his fishing line into a little polluted pond and is ridiculed by a nearby farmer for thinking there could be fish there. Optimistic Marco is unmoved:
“There may be no fish, but again, well, there might.
Cause you never can tell what goes on down below.
This pool might be bigger than you or I know.
This pool might be one like I’ve read of in books,
Connected to one of those underground brooks.”
I never have been able to shake the notion that Marco was on to something. Water is inexorable when it comes to obeying gravity. It finds its way downward. Consequently, there must be a lot of water that has worked its way down into the deepest regions of the Earth’s crust, beneath and isolated from the normal aquifers we utilize, and in fact there are numerous little McElligot’s Pools in north-central Florida which look tiny and innocuous at the surface but go hundreds of feet down and are, so far at least, measureless in extent. Some people suggest you could dive into one of those Florida pools and come up in Tennessee if only you could hold your breath long enough.

With Marco and “McElligot’s Pool” always in the back of my mind, I was struck by this story published in June about the water bubbling out of the ground at Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. This desert oasis is across the border in Nevada but otherwise ideally situated approximately halfway between the San Joaquin Valley and Los Angeles, the two thirstiest parts of California. Brigham Young University just finished a study on the water bubbling up in Ash Meadows and it turns out that, as far as this pond is concerned, Marco was right.

Here are the numbers: after traveling for 15,000 years in a deep aquifer which lies far beneath normal groundwater aquifers, the water bubbles up through a fault line (a crack in the earth) into Ash Meadows at the rate of 100,000 gallons per minute. With those two numbers—15,000 years and 100,000 gallons per minute—we can calculate how much water is in that aquifer. It’s simple multiplication:

There are 788 trillion 400 billion gallons of water in that aquifer… an aquifer which lies oh-so handily (like God plunked it there for a purpose) about halfway between the San Joaquin Valley (the most fertile farming valley in the world) and Los Angeles (a metropolitan area of 15 million human beings). Think about it. That’s a lot of water. It’s 60 times more water than the entire annual usage for the whole state of California, so even if no raindrop or snowflake ever fell on the state again, and the Colorado River completely stopped flowing, and the groundwater aquifers dried up all over the state, and Nancy Pelosi stopped peeing in everybody’s Cheerios, they would still have enough water for 60 years if they simply tapped into this aquifer.

Remember those two pie charts? Here they are again:

In the first pie, the blue represents the water in the aquifer feeding the Ash Meadows oasis and the tiny red slice of pie represents one year of water usage for the state of California. In the second pie, same thing except the even-tinier red slice represents the difference between average annual runoff from the Sierras—44 million acre-feet of water—and the worst case scenario which was the 1976-77 drought when Sierra runoff was only 15 million acre-feet. In other words, that second red slice represents the worst-case shortfall.

The aquifer could cover California’s worst-case shortfall for over a century. Or, if you asked the aquifer to cover half the worst-case shortfall, it could do so for over two centuries. Most realistically, if you merely asked the aquifer to cover the normal shortfall which occurs in years when the Sierra runoff is below average, the aquifer would probably last forever.

They could probably even keep the stupid delta smelts happy.

I first became suspicious about California’s “drought” when Mr. Schwarzenegger proclaimed a state of emergency on February 27, 2009. It was odd timing, to say the least. Here in Reno we live in the “rain shadow” of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which means weather fronts which travel across the Pacific Ocean drop all of their precipitation as they rise up the western face of the mountains and have nothing left when they reach us. That’s why Reno is brown desert and California, on the other side of the Sierra, is green and lush.

But once in a while weather fronts arrive which carry so much moisture and are traveling so fast that they carry some moisture over the mountains and dump it on Nevada. During the last week of February of 2009 we were watching the mother of all such weather systems forming out in the Pacific. TV weathermen were warning us for a week that Reno was in for serious snow, or maybe rain, but whatever form it took it would be wet and there would be plenty of it.

Just as that weather system was beginning to touch the California coastline, that’s when Mr. Schwarzenegger proclaimed his drought emergency. “What odd timing,” was my first thought. “Why didn’t the moron wait until we see what this storm brings?”

I spent the entire month of March shoveling snow. It dumped on Reno almost every day. Snow in the foothills where I lived, snow and rain down in the valley, the weather system seemed to be endless. Precipitation records were set all over California and Nevada for the month of March. And here’s the important thing: when it’s snowing a lot in Reno, it’s really REALLY snowing up in the Sierras where the snowpack is accumulating that will eventually provide California with its drinking water.

You see what happened, right? Schwarzenegger wanted a drought emergency to provide an excuse for painful water deprivations created by the political class and he knew if he waited until that weather system hit nobody would believe him.

That’s when I knew that California’s “drought” is a lie.

It’s hard to explain why California won’t tap that giant aquifer, or take back the water they're flushing down the river for delta smelt, and turn itself into a giant modern-day Garden of Eden. The reasons are too many and too varied: lack of willpower, twisted priorities, the self-hatred that leftwing environmentalists feel for humanity, ineffective and ignorant leaders… the list is endless. There was a time when this nation had a habit of solving every problem it saw, but those times seem to be past. Now we pontificate, regulate, and litigate ourselves into immobility.

It’s sad. I suspect this is how nations and civilizations die.

There is a tiny fish that lives in a nearby offshoot of the Ash Meadows aquifer, in another crack in the earth called Devil’s Hole. This little fish, called the Devil’s Hole Pupfish, is on the endangered species list just like the delta smelt. There are only a few dozen of them and they are not particularly different from other pupfish or particularly exceptional in what they offer the universe, but because of the way our endangered species laws are written they have absolute priority rights to all 7 trillion 400 billion gallons of water in this aquifer. It seems absurd that such a small group of fish should require so much water. At one point there were only 38 of them. Now the government thinks there are more than a hundred of them. Nobody is really sure because the fish obstinately refuse to stand still for a headcount.

The only sure thing is that nobody can take one drop of water from that aquifer unless they can prove that taking it won’t harm the pupfish.

Welcome to the perfect example of the state of existence that liberalism wants to create for us: the bankrupt and thirsty state of California, where there is “water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink.

From Reno, Nevada, USA

August 20, 2010 - I have relatives with a farm in the San Joaquin Valley, and that stupid judge's ruling has nearly destroyed them. It's so frustrating to see environmentalists place a small benefit to fish above the needs of human beings. How can they shut of the water which people rely on? Did you know that the whole basis for that ruling is the opinion of one U.S. Fish & Wildlife biologist? It doesn't matter what other scientists say, that one guy's opinion is all that matters. We are slaves to the federal government - if they want our water, they just take it. - Juan H., Nevada

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