This paper is a study of how the State of California utilizes its natural and man-made water resources to meet the demands of its sprawling cities and communities. It also aims to map the hydrological feature of California as influenced by its geography and natural water resources. It is undisputable that water is one of the most abundant compounds in the world. For a fact, more than 70% of the earth’s surface is covered with water. Although the world’s water may seem abundant, 96.5% of it could not be directly utilized for human consumption as it is found in oceans while the remaining volume of freshwater is somehow trapped beneath the earth’s surface, icecaps, and icebergs. Over the years, water has evolved to become a complex commodity. Apparently, it is difficult to obtain fresh water from the natural environment and distribute it to consumers. One major challenge that makes water resources and distribution a challenging process is the fact that it should pass the quality for its intended usage. Historically, California’s water can be easily drawn from its huge groundwater basins. However, due to man-made activities, its groundwater have been disruptively contaminated that it could not be readily and economically utilized without intensive purification. California’s water resources have been formed as influenced by its geographic, social, political, technological and economic aspects. Today, California draws most of its water supply from surface water by trapping and by building intricate systems of aqueducts in order to direct it water resource towards its consumers. This elaborate network of water storage and delivery system that have been built over the years is a result of California’s struggle to address the changing demands and availability of its water resources.
California is the third largest state covering a vast area of 163,707 square miles at the western portion of the United States. California is one of the most bio-diverse regions in the U.S. Having a huge geographical area, its climate and geographical features vary; although, most of the state’s area experiences only two seasons – the rainy and dry season. The state is bordered at the north by Oregon and to the east by Nevada and Arizona. It shares a border with Mexico at the south while the rest of the state is bordered by a long coastline that faces the Pacific Ocean. Mt. Whitney is the highest peak in California at 14,494 feet. Death Valley, which lies at 282 feet below sea level and considered as the lowest point in the U.S., is also one of the unique geographical feature of the state. Over-all, the state has a mean elevation of 2, 900 feet above sea level. Due to its varied climatic condition as well as the huge geographical area that it covers, California also has a varied hydrological feature. The coastal, northern and central California is considerably cooler while the southern portion is mostly arid and dry. Out of its 163,707 square miles of land area, only 7, 734 square miles is covered by inland water, and even a smaller portion is utilized for the state’s water supply. Because of its cooler climate, the northern region gets the most precipitation while the southern region receives few amount of rain every year. As observed by the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), 75% of the state’s annual precipitation falls north of Sacramento despite the fact that more than 75% of California’s demand is located on the South of its capital city.
Most of California’s fresh water supply comes from the melting of snow from its mountain ranges. Basing on California’s geographical feature, the Sierra Nevada appears to be one of the most important sources of fresh water in the northern region. Accordingly, 60% of water used in California comes from the snow that melts in the Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. In the south, a significant percentage of its water supply is tapped from the Colorado River, which flows from the mountains of Wyoming and Colorado and ends on Lake Havasu. Aside from surface water that comes from the Sierra Nevada and the Colorado River, California also has substantial amount of underground water reserves. As shown in figure 2, California’s groundwater basins are widely available and are found in almost all big cities within the state.
Figure 1. Shown in green are the major hydrologic areas that supply most of California’s water.
Figure 2. Shown in brown are groundwater basins of California.
California is a picture of how water systems developed in the United States. Once, the state has no substantial settlement and the handful of native Californian’s water distribution system rely on primitive ways of digging wells or creating dams to divert a small amount of water from rivers to agricultural lands. Aside from the arid southern portion of the state, most of its land area is covered by wetlands and vegetation that is home to thousands of waterfowl and wildlife. However, in 1849, the discovery of gold lured huge waves of people towards the region. Eventually, these new migrants would change the way California uses its natural water resources. During the early years of California’s mining industry, the miners have developed a way to mine gold using the pressure of water from head water streams. Accordingly, “These “hydraulic miners” diverted water from streams high in the gold country, carrying it (sometimes for many miles) through wooden flumes, dropping it through penstocks to generate hydraulic pressure, and then using the pressurized water to blast away hill sides containing valuable ore”. Without a functional local government to regulate the use of water, this era became known as the ‘Laissez-Faire’ era of water development in California.
California’s mining industry and the growing agricultural, residential and commercial sectors began to have conflicting interests in the state’s water resources as early as the 19th century. The water pollution brought by hydraulic mining threatened other economic sectors of California as flooding brought mining sludge and other pollutants downstream. Also, demands for greater volume of water for irrigation and other purposes that could not be supplied by groundwater alone forced the state to conduct a thorough investigation of its water resources. As early as 1873, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers headed by Colonel B. S. Alexander were commissioned to investigate California’s water resources. In his report, Alexander pointed out that the water supply of Central California must be developed and recommended the development of the Sierra Nevada watersheds. Although policy makers would like to develop the water resources of California for general use, the conflicting interests of stakeholders became one of the greatest barriers to its realization. According to the traditional English and American common law, the right to water use is shared with riparian landowners along the river. However, this principle came in conflict with the interests of non-riparian farmers whose demands for irrigation grew as they expand their farms to increase production. Non-riparian farmers relied greatly on groundwater for most of their farming needs. Such was the scenario in Central and Southern California where streams and rivers were scarce. As a result, the groundwater table began to deplete as more water were drawn out beyond its capacity to replenish. Technological advancements in drilling and pumping of groundwater only amplified the water problem of the central and southern cities and municipalities of California. As observed, “The new pumps lowered groundwater levels below the depth of neighboring pumps. Thus, neighbors were forced to drill deeper wells, which lowered the groundwater table below the depth of recent wells, and the race to the bottom was on”. . As local farmers increased their crop production, they found that they would have to dig deeper and draw plenty of water from the underground reservoir in order to support their farm water demand.
Following the recommendation of Colonel Alexander in 1873, California began to seriously consider a statewide water development project. In 1919, Lt. Robert B. Marshall of the U.S. Geological Survey proposed transporting water from the Sacramento River to the San Joaquin Valley then moving it over the Tehachapi Mountains into Southern California. While the north is contemplating on a statewide water project, the south is also making progress from the Boulder Canyon Project that aim to develop the Colorado River. After several years of planning, Californian legislature passed the Central Valley Act of 1933 to authorize the implementation of the project. However, because of the Great Depression, construction of the Central Valley project was put to halt due to lack of funding. As a result, the Federal government took over the project to provide jobs and construction of the project commenced in 1935. The Central Valley Project provided water supply for the central and Bay Area residents yet it did not resolve the growing problem of water supply of the state especially in the South. Also, as the first waters of the Colorado River Aqueduct arrived at the cities and municipalities of the south in the 1940’s, its population has already outgrown the intended supply. Another investigation of California’s water resources was commenced in 1945. To complement the water supply of the Central Valley Project and the Boulder Canyon Project, California legislature authorized the State Water Project (SWP). One of the major features of the SWP is the development of the 3.5 million acre Oroville Reservoir on the Feather River. The main purpose of which is to supply “farms along the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and the Tulare Basin, as well as cities in the eastern and southern parts of the San Francisco Bay Area”. Despite heavy opposition from various sectors and stakeholders, construction of the project began in 1961 and in the 1970’s, water from the SWP began to supply the growing water demands of the south.
The Boulder Canyon Project, Central Valley Project and the State Water Projects are among the major projects that led to the development of California’s modern water resources. These huge federal and state funded projects complimented the local canal and aqueduct systems of the state. An examination of California’s water resources would reveal that the state is supplied by surface and ground water at varying levels. Northern California, which receives substantial amount of rainfall with adequate surface water reserves from the surrounding Sierra Nevada, is being supplied through surface water from the state’s man-made reservoir. Central California, on the other hand, relies heavily on ground water for its residential, agricultural, industrial and commercial uses and supported by the CVP and SWP. South California, on the other hand, gets its water supply from the combined local groundwater system as well as a substantial amount from the Colorado Aqueduct and the SWP. The availability of water supply made it possible for local water agencies to adequately meet the demands of California’s communities that it serves. Most water agencies operate their own water distribution systems while taking supply from the combined ground water and surface water resources of California.
California’s elaborate network of groundwater and surface water resources have been forged by the country’s growing demand for water. The mining industry has brought significant changes in California both politically, socially and economically. As the state’s population grew, so were the agricultural, industrial and commercial industries of California. For years, California residents as well as its agricultural, industrial and commercial sectors have relied on ground water to supply their water demand. For the same reason, groundwater especially in central California made it a critical water source for the early population. The rapid population growth as well as the growing industries in California created new demands for water in the region. By harnessing the natural sources of water, California created a complex water retention and distribution systems that support its current and future water demands.
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