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Business as Usual For California Water Hogs

The year 2013 was California's driest on record. The first six months of 2014 were the hottest half-year on record. Reservoirs are drying up. Groundwater basins are diminishing at an alarming rate. Yet, the water demands of the state's gargantuan agribusiness empire, its sprawling metropolises, and its extractive industries (such as, increasingly, fracking) have largely continued to grow this year.

We'll start with California's most lucrative legally-sanctioned crop: almonds. California produces roughly 82% of the world's almonds. Demand for the nut is fast-growing in China and India. San Joaquin Valley growers are rushing to convert from cotton and other annual row crops to the increasingly profitable tree crop.

Unfortunately, almonds generally use much more water than the crops they replace. In Westlands Water District, the state's biggest irrigation district (centered near Fresno), an average acre of almonds commands 1.3 million gallons of water per year, on average, as compared to roughly half that in the case of cotton. Agriculture in California, with its lack of summer rain, already uses about 80% of the state's developed water supply. Almonds alone use 10%.

Earlier this year, major media throughout California picked up stories about how the drought was creating gut-wrenching consequences for growers. Almond farmers were pulling thousands of acres of trees and chipping them to sell to power plants. Fields were fallowing.

The returns are now in. Did the drought actually bite into the almond crop? No. California's 2014 almond yield of roughly 2.1 billion pounds is an all-time record: nearly five percent greater than the previous banner year, 2013.

How has the thirsty crop faired so well in a notoriously parched landscape? One way to answer that question is to point out that no other place of equivalent size in the world has altered its watersheds as dramatically as California. The Golden State is home to a staggering infrastructure of dams, reservoirs, power plants, pumping plants, canals, aqueducts, gates, tunnels, and other installations that are all about controlling where water goes and who receives it.

Last summer, the Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Water Resources systematically drained northern California reservoirs by sending high water volumes down the Sacramento, Feather and American river. Although it was the driest year on record in California, the Sacramento River was brimming full throughout the summer. Prodigious water volumes from the Shasta, Oroville and Folsom reservoirs were released into the Sacramento, with that water then pumped into canals that supply agribusiness plantations in southern California.

At the beginning of 2013, California's biggest reservoirs -- Shasta, Oroville and Folsom — had water volumes above their historic averages. Now, these reservoirs are at horrifyingly low levels. Lake Shasta, the state's biggest reseroir, is at 28 percent of its capacity. Some of Southern California's reservoirs, though, have remained at remarkably high levels.

As of this writing, at 8pm on Monday, Sept. 8th, the water volume of Millerton Lake reservoir in the San Joaquin Valley — which supplies irrigation water to some of California's thirstiest farming country — is at 95% of its historic average. Pyramid Lake in Los Angeles County, a part of the West Branch California Aqueduct (a part of the State Water Project) is at a staggering 105 percent of its historic average.

In other words, at the height of perhaps California's worst drought in perhaps 500 years, one of Southern California's biggest reservoirs is brimming full on the strength of water shipped as far away as the Trinity Alps, 300 miles away.

It's not only Southern California's agribusiness barons that are hogging all the water. Take California's most lucrative crop after processing: wine grapes. Mile after mile of corduroy row-like grape vineyards are lining out across Paso Robles and other areas of the Central Coast. Tendrils and vines are steadily spreading across new high-elevation areas of Napa, Sonoma, and southern Mendocino Counties, boldly going where no other crop has dared to suckle.

On Pine Mountain, southeast of Hopland, Kendall Jackson last year cleared hundreds of acres of oak and chapparal, installing the highest elevation vineyard in the recent history of the region — roughly 2,800 feet above sea level. These grapes demand a lot of water from Pieta Creek, a tributary of the Russian River, which meets the river's channel just north of Frog Woman Rock.

Early forecasts for the wine-grape harvest this year were all doom and gloom. Water shortages were set to wreak a huge toll. The reality? California's wine-grape yield will be about the same as last year. The industry is soaring to record revenues.

Politicians and business leaders are seizing on fear about the drought by pushing for the largest dam- and canal-building binge since the State Water Project of the 1960s and ’70s. The best known of these, the Delta Twin Tunnels, is just the tip of the spear for all manner of new schemes that would further constipate California's already plugged-up waterways and destroy much of what remains of its aquatic life. These projects would be a massive further giveaway of water to the aforementioned agribusinesses and others.

Meanwhile, people all over the state are struggling to protect their watersheds, land bases, cultures, and livelihoods against these dominant political and economic currents. Among them are Indigenous people, who have already survived heinous violence and oppression to adapt and preserve their cultures, which are inseparably tied to their landbases. They also include people who have been weaving and reweaving connections to watersheds in various ways: Indigenous people, political radicals, small farmers, back-to-the-landers, and more.

In 2002, lower water flows and high temperatures caused a die-off of more than 68,000 adult Chinook salmon in the Klamath River in far northern California. For most of the summer, the river's flows have been lower than they were during the 2002 fish kill. River temperatures have been consistently higher than the acute stress level for Chinook.

One of the main culprits is the Lewiston Reservoir, which diverts water from the Trinity River (a Klamath tributary) into the Sacramento Basin. Currently, five times more water is diverted to the Sacramento Basin for Central Valley irrigators than is re-released into the Trinity.

Fish were beginning to die when, in August, about 200 tribal members (Yurok, Hupa, Karuk, Winnemem Wintu and others) and river activists converged at the federal Bureau of Reclamation in Sacramento to demand that water be released from the Lewiston Dam to avoid a massive fish kill in the Klamath River system.

"You're letting the culture die there. You're letting thousands of fish die. You have the ability to stop that right now,” Yurok tribal member Dana Rose Colegrove told a representative of the Bureau.

A few days later, the Bureau announced they would release the water to avert a Klamath River fish kill, exactly as the tribes had demanded. San Joaquin Valley agribusiness interests filed a lawsuit to try to block the emergency water releases, but the judge in the case ruled that potential harm to salmon facing low and warm water conditions outweighs the potential harm to the irrigators. The fish — and the people who depend on them — have gotten a reprieve.

For the next 16 weeks, I'll present one story per week here in the AVA concerning California's destructive water politics, with a focus on people and communities working to protect their watersheds. I'll be traveling to various areas of the state to collect these stories.

(Contact Will Parrish at


  1. Jim Updegraff September 10, 2014

    Good job! I am looking forward to your weekly stories. A lot of denial out there – lots of folks put their head in the sand rather than face up to climate change.

  2. Ellen Karnowski September 16, 2014

    Will, thanks for writing the Water Hogs article detailing and opening our eyes to agribusiness’ stranglehold on our water supplies. The issues you discussed in this article about the wine business really applies in Lake county where I live. International companies are coming in, getting permission to clear huge swaths of natural untouched land, grading permits out of season, slash and burn techniques are used, and an excess of water is diverted while local springs, creeks and reservoirs (and our lake) is drying up. I was surprised at the quantity of almonds you told us about with the record-breaking yields in a drought year. Once again, corporations rule and the rest of us suffer.

  3. thomas davis September 16, 2014

    Go will . . yeah native nations . . the cities are tumors , drawing their resources from outside their areas and breeding as if there is no tomorrow. eventually for the cities it will be so . .

  4. Michael Lanigan September 22, 2014

    Keep on keeping on Will. I consider you to be the best environmental writer in Northern. California, if not the whole state.

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