Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Water Wednesday | #6 The Front Lines

Until recently, Steve Kandra owned and farmed much of the land behind him. Near Klamath Falls, OR.

In between the environmental and political forces are farmers, who must eek out a living in a volatile regulatory environment.  Farming is difficult enough (many professionals have likened it to gambling your life saving every year) without additional uncertainty.  Many people in urban areas criticize farming interests as subsidized and wealthy.   I have no problem with rational subsidies, because I believe a domestic food supply is a national resource, as is the culture and economy that come with it.  Which would you rather see, almond trees or gated communities?

In addition:  Over the past 5 years I've been following these issues, ALL of the most significant innovations in environmental restoration and water conservation that I've seen were implemented by farmers or ranchers (albeit often in partnership with government agencies or universities). They truly are on the front lines of this issue.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Water Wednesday | #5 New gold rush

Ben Overbeck, member of The New 49'ers mining club, on a claim along the Klamath River near Happy Camp.  April 2013.
While working along the Klamath River in April of 2013, I returned to camp one afternoon and wandered down to the beach, and found a scene straight out of 1849.  Two men, bare-chested, beat pick-axes into the rock cliff bordering the river. 

Turns out there is something of a new gold rush on, and these men where part of an organization called the New 49'ers.  The mining club has claims along rivers up and down the State, and members can camp and mine at will, keeping what gold they manage to beat out of the rock.

It is brutal work, made even more difficult by modern environmental demands.  Ben used a small pump to pull water out of the river to mix with ore and dirt, allowing the heavier gold to be caught up.  He had to dig a pit in the sand down the hill, so that zero water returned directly to the river.  Instead the water would slowly seep through the sand and earth, filtering it before it joined the water table below.

Carrying buckets of rock around in the blazing sun is not my idea of a good time.  As long the miners act responsibly and abide by the law, let them go to it.  By the great horned spoon!

Monday, May 12, 2014

"Cities, agriculture and ecosystems..."

This week the Obama administration released the third U.S. National Climate Assessment, analyzing and predicting the effect of climate changes on the different regions and economic sectors of America.  The first sentence of the Southwest regional section reads:

"Snowpack and streamflow amounts are projected to decline in parts of the Southwest, decreasing surface water supply reliability for cities, agriculture, and ecosystems."

Cities, agriculture and ecosystems.... 

Who can we shortchange?  The answer should be obvious: no one.  All three are of vital importance, economically and culturally.  The only option is increased efficiency through technology and innovation.  Do dams create more water?  No.  They actually loose some, through evaporation.  Do tunnels under the delta create water? No.  We  need to address the primary problem, which is how to do more with less.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Water Wednesday | #4 Water Politics

Add During the 2009 drought, a well-known billboard marquee in San Francisco's Tenderloin displays a quote, supposedly from former governor Gray Davis to then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. June 7, 2009.
John Wayne supposedly once quipped "Whiskey is for drinking.  Water is for fighting over".  The underlying truth of the statement is difficult to dissprove - namely, that water is a contentious issue in the West that can make and break the careers of not just farmers and ranchers, but politicians as well.

Politics being largely a game of opportunism, it is not surprising that drought leads to increased spending on water infrastructure, despite the expensive and over-wrought storage and delivery systems that are currently in place.  In wet years, political forces respond to demands from agricultural and environmental pressure for guaranteed increases in water deliveries. 

All of this short-sightedness ignores the need for long-term planning, and obfuscates the implementation of technology and policy to increase efficiency and smart conservation.  The current proposal to drill tunnels underneath the San Francisco Bay Delta is a perfect example of this.  Although the plan would potentially solve some issues involving water delivery south of the Delta, it is impossible to know the full environmental impact.  Worst of all, the tunnel plan does nothing to address the fundamental problem: increasing demands on a decreasing resource.  Let's here some politicians address a 20 year plan that solves the real problem. 

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Water Wednesday | #3 Wars of Ideals

A mural of Oroville damn and it's spillway, Oroville, CA.  March, 2009

A mural promoting a dam-free Klamath River.  Orleans, CA.  April, 2013.
What is the ideal state of the natural world?  Are the resources provided by a higher power specifically for our exploitation and use as stewards of this Earthly domain?  Or are we to mold our needs and lives into the existing natural systems?  How you answer this question will say a lot about how you vote but probably not much about how you live. 

Whether we like it or not our world has been remade.  Environmental scientists working in the Central Valley will admit it is impossible to truly know how the area looked before Native Americans began to reshape it.  Early accounts depict a seasonally flooded, unstable hydrology supporting massive numbers of birds and mammals.   Given modern economic models, transportation infrastructure and settlement patterns it is easy to see how this environment was unsuitable to settlers.  In fact, it was absolute contrary to the faith-based fervor that compelled vast numbers of people to trudge across a blazing desert to claim land and bend it to their will.   Forcing a European notion of settlement onto a landscape designed for seasonal migration had consequences we are still copping with.  Aquifers can't recharge, the acreage available for migrating waterfowl is reduced and spawning grounds for salmon and steel head are destroyed. 

The war over the ideals that live in our heads plays out in media and propaganda.  Those supporting increased water infrastructure and storage, and those advocating the destruction of dams and freeing of rivers both see a spiritual element in their positions. Where does the ideal meet the reality?  How can we maintain our economy and save the small amount of wildness that is left in California?  Talking to each other rather than past each other would be a good start. By acknowledging where we are, where we came from and how we got here, we may be able to begin moving forward. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Water Wednesdays | #2 The Fish Economy

Timmy Calvert is a San Francisco fisherman but lives in Dunlap, near Fresno in the Central Valley.  The remaining members of this once vibrant community (from 300 families to 30 in the past hundred years, according to spokesman Larry Collins), have been forced out of San Francisco and generally commute to fish.  Photographed April 11, 2009.
The link between water, agriculture and the economy is the primary foundation for most of the arguments in favor of further water storage and infrastructure.  This, unfortunately, is as it should be.  The vast central valley is almost entirely supported by agriculture, and much of the country is reliant upon California produce.  The food production industry in California is a strategic national resource.

However, water forms the basis of many industries, and the fishing families of Northern California have been experiencing a steady decline for decades.  The link between damn building and decline of fish stocks has been well established.  The fishing industry continues to suffer, but makes less noise than central valley agriculture.

A water development policy that balances the needs of agriculture and the needs of professional fisherman, anglers and the environment is a long way off.  The primary question, 'is there enough water?', is frequently obscured by political interests taking advantage of a crisis partially of there own making.  If we can examine and properly answer that question, we can move on to issues of conservation and efficiency which are the only possible solutions.  We cannot shortchange the environment to save agriculture, or give up on a domestic fishing industry to prop up a domestic veggie industry.  Such solutions are not only morally bankrupt, but also create a fundamental imbalance in a natural system that could have unpredictable consequences years or decades into the future.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Introducing Water Wednesdays | #1 Wasting Water

Most Californians are acutely aware of the current drought in the State.  For many - such as farmers, agricultural laborers, environmentalists and rural residents - it is a daily concern.  For urban and suburban users, the severity of this years drought may have crept into their insulated lives.  Water rationing, restrictions on water-intensive landscaping and pictures of dry reservoirs reveal the seriousness of the situation.

Last time the water outlook was anywhere near this bad it collided with my life, and the repercussions are still playing out.  The severe drought of 2009 caught my attention just as I was finishing J-school in San Francisco.  I missed graduation while photographing farm worker protests in Fresno County.  Since then I've followed the issue and made photographic trips whenever possible.

Context is often lacking in the public discussion about California's water future.  I recently read these words by Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife....

"..take a deep breath, put down the arguments we all had in the past and come together as Californians."

"This is not about picking between delta smelt and long fin smelt and chinook salmon, and it's not about picking between fish and farms or people and the environment."
         -Quoted in "California Water...", KPBS, Feb 15 2014

No reason to mention what is actually needed, which is collaborative, innovative solutions with as little political influence as possible.  Unfortunately, all sides seem to picking up their arguments and using them rather then putting them down.

I hope by featuring an image and a brief story from my archive every Wednesday, I can add a little context to the water talk.  And I hope you find it interesting.

#1  Wasting Water

Englebright Dam, along the Yuba River, spills 8200 cubic feet per second over it's lip during early heavy storms in Northern California.  December 2010.
Overflow spilloff is not the problem currently on people's minds.  However, you will definitely hear arguments about how much water is being 'wasted' (i.e., being allowed to return to the environment and the ocean).  This is why we need more storage - so we can save more for the lean times, like now.  I take issue with this reasoning for a couple of reasons.

The primary problem is that not many good potential dam sites remain.  From the 1950's to the 1970's (and 80's) America went on a dam-building spree, and California was a hot spot.  Do we want to stretch the limits of engineering in this case?

In addition, dams drastically alter the landscape, displace people and wreak unpredictable havoc on the environment.  Water stored in a dam sits out in the blazing sun, evaporating, all summer.  It develops molds and scums.  The amount of time and energy that currently goes into mitigating these effects should be enough to convince us to avoid dams.

Nature has a storage system.  Humans sometimes call it underground storage, or aquifers. Allowing more land in the central valley and neighboring watersheds to flood in the wet months might be a good way to store water for the future, without nasty dams.  Finding that land would not be easy.

Thanks for reading.