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California’s War Over Water

Trip Cal Aqueduct

Trip Cal Aqueduct

There are two basic equations that tend to ignite California’s constant debate over who should get how much of the state’s precious water supply.

The first is that nearly 75 percent of California’s available surface water originates in the northern third of the state, the area north of Sacramento.

That collides with the fact that 80 percent of the demand for water occurs in the southern two-thirds of the state, a region that includes the agriculturally rich Central Valley as well as densely populated Southern California.

The geographic discrepancies have been somewhat alleviated by an elaborate system of canals, pipelines, dams and reservoirs that has created one of the world’s largest water delivery systems, although there are unresolved ecological issues associated with that infrastructure.

The second equation is that the state accumulates about 45 million acre-feet of usable water from rain and snow per year. Right now, 34 million acre-feet goes to agriculture, 9 million goes to households and other urban uses and 2 million is allotted for “other human use.”

That division of water has created some intense rivalries.

It’s pitted not only the northern portion of the state against the southern portion, but it also has ignited fiery debate among agricultural users, urban dwellers and environmentalists.


California’s current war over water actually began in earnest in 1905.

That’s when the Los Angeles Water Commission approved plans for an aqueduct that would run from the Owens Valley east of the Sierra Nevada to their city more than 200 miles away.

In the years leading up to the vote, Los Angeles power brokers had quietly purchased water rights in the valley by posing as ranchers and farmers.

In 1913, the city finished building their 223-mile aqueduct and began diverting water from 62 miles of the 183-mile Owens River.

However, Southern California officials didn’t stop there.

In 1941, Los Angeles crews completed construction of the Mono Craters Tunnel and started taking water from the Mono Basin region.

That still wasn’t enough, so they jumped to the other side of the mountains.

In the 1960s, a system of canals, pipelines and tunnels were built to create the California Aqueduct, a system that carries water from the western side of the Sierra Nevada to the Central Valley and Southern California.

But that still wasn’t enough.

So, in 1970, Los Angeles went back to the Owens Valley and built a second aqueduct to quench the thirst of a city that has grown from 800,000 residents in 1920 to nearly 4 million today.


All of these systems are part of the California State Water Project overseen by the California Department of Water Resources.

This 700-mile network of canals, pipelines, reservoirs and pumping stations is capable of delivering 4.2 million acre-feet of water per year.

The system provides water to 27 million people in Northern California, Southern California, the central coast of California and the Central Valley.

It also helps irrigate 750,000 acres of farmland. The volume of agricultural products from the Central Valley, which produces 25 percent of the food in the United States, would not be possible without it.

The state water project also contains 130 hydroelectric plants that produce electrical power and more than 100 dams and flow-control structures to store water and help prevent flooding.

A big chunk of this network belongs to the California Aqueduct, the world’s largest single water conveyance system.

The aqueduct is 444 miles long. In a typical section, it’s 40 feet wide and 30 feet deep.

The aqueduct splits into three branches along its route. One fork goes to Santa Barbara County. Another heads to Los Angeles County. A third travels to San Bernardino County.

Along the way, farms and towns in the center of the state grab their share of water via the Central Valley Project.

In addition, the two aqueducts from the Owens Valley typically deliver about 430 million gallons of water per day to Los Angeles.


Water is perhaps the most precious commodity in California.

The demand for it in the Golden State keeps rising and the supply is not keeping up.

That has led to a constant tug of war between farmers, municipal water districts and environmentalists. It’s particularly acute during drought years.

These battles started as soon as Los Angeles started digging the canals for the initial aqueduct in the Owens Valley. That fight was the inspiration for the 1974 movie “Chinatown,” starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.

The people of Owens Valley have fought with Los Angeles officials ever since.

The valley changed dramatically within a few years of the first aqueduct opening. Los Angeles officials bought up property and converted farmland into cattle grazing acreage, a utilization that requires less water. Irrigated acreage in the valley decreased from 75,000 in 1920 to less than 25,000 acres in 1940.

This did not sit well with Owens Valley farmers. Starting in 1924, they dynamited the aqueduct 17 times in a futile attempt to stop the water from flowing southward.

By 1924, the Owens River had no water flow and Owens Lake had become a dry lake bed. The lake was described as a “salt flat the size of San Francisco.”

As compensation for financial losses resulting from the water diversion, Los Angeles leaders agreed to buy 85 percent of the Owens Valley’s commercial and residential properties as well as 95 percent of the farmland.

The water diversion has pretty much laid waste to Owens Valley.

The cities in the region still struggle economically with much of the developable land still owned by Los Angeles.

There have been a number of environmental issues that went along with the economic problems.

One is the air pollution caused by the dust from the dry Owens Lake.

Dust storms were common in the decades following the construction of the first aqueduct.

In the 1970s, activists began to question the environmental damage being done to the Owens Valley, including how the second aqueduct was harming Mono Lake and the migratory birds and brine shrimp that live there. Among the problems was the dust kicked up from the lake bed contained chemicals such as arsenic and chromium.

Local leaders and environmentalists began to demand that the Los Angeles water department be held responsible for all this environmental damage. In 1972, Inyo County sued the city of Los Angeles, saying it was in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act.

In 1987, the Environmental Protection Agency classified the valley as an area in violation of the Clean Air Act.

In 1994, state officials ordered Los Angeles to raise the water levels at Mono Lake by 20 feet. However, the lake is about 12 feet short of that goal.

In 2001, Los Angeles officials agreed to a plan to clean up Owens Valley.

The city had already spent more than $1 billion to reduce the dust particulate pollution from the lake by 90 percent when they were ordered in 2010 to spend another $400 million to control dust on an additional 3 square miles of dry lake bed.

Despite these efforts, Owens Lake was still listed in 2014 as largest source of dust pollution in the United States.

Work has continued with some success. A report released in March 2020 stated that air quality had improved in the Owens Valley, although the authors said there is still room for improvement and recommended that mitigation measures continue.

The lower Owens River was also suffering ecological damage until a court ordered Los Angeles a few years ago to obey a 2003 agreement that required the city to restore water flows there.

The Owens Valley aqueducts don’t deliver as much water to Los Angeles as in the past. One reason is the dwindling Sierra snowpack caused in part by climate change. Another is that Southern California now gets a significant amount of water from the Colorado River, although that source is in jeopardy due to shrinking water levels.

The aqueduct is now looked at as an important back-up system for thirsty Los Angeles, which gets an average of less than 15 inches of rain a year.

Despite its diminished role, the Owens Valley system did serve its purpose.

One water official told the Los Angeles Times in 2013 that the city would not have grown larger than 300,000 people if the two aqueducts hadn’t been built.


The Central Valley has had its share of political battles over water.

A lot of the 34 million acre-feet the agricultural community receives goes to the 9 million acres of California farmland that needs to be irrigated. The amount of water used on those fields has declined as more water-efficient crops replaced rice, cotton and other irrigation-heavy products.

Nonetheless, farmers have always felt that they weren’t getting their necessary fill from the state’s water systems.

You can see their complaints today on the signs that dot the landscape on both Interstate 5 and Highway 99. Among the slogans: “Food Grows Where Water Flows.”

It doesn’t look like the issue will get any less heated anytime soon.

As climate change takes hold, California is seeing more years of drought. That means less water for everyone, including farmers.

Shrinking water resources have also prompted some folks to take action.

During drought years, farmers tapped into so much groundwater that the floor of the Central Valley actually sank as much as 60 centimeters.

In response, the state enacted the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014. The law will require farmers to achieve water stability by 2040.

Experts at the Public Policy Institute of California predict that the restrictions will result in 535,000 acres being retired from agricultural use.

Some farmers are already converting some of their acreage into solar energy facilities. In 2023, a project began to cover the aqueduct canals with solar panels to reduce evaporation and provide an extra source of electricity.


Environmentalists have also played a major role in California’s water wars.

They contend that the systems that move all this water have wreaked havoc on fish and wildlife as well as on wetlands and other habitats.

In addition to their concerns in the Owens Valley, environmentalists have focused heavily on the San Joaquin Delta.

This is a waterway just southwest of Sacramento that contains 700 miles of sloughs as well as 60 tracts and islands protected by 1,100 levees.

It’s formed by the fresh waters from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers from the east as well as the salty waters of Suisun Bay from the west that are largely fed by the incoming tides of the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay.

This mixture of water creates a precarious ecological balance.

The Delta is the largest freshwater tidal estuary of its kind on the west coast of North and South America. It’s also a habitat for migratory birds as well as a number of fish species.

That balance is under constant threat from the water drawn out of the Delta to feed the California Aqueduct and other water delivery systems. The withdrawals cause the salty waters to encroach deeper into the estuary and disrupt the ecology.

One of the environmentalists’ early targets was the Delta smelt, a 3-inch-long fish that is only found in these brackish waters near Sacramento.

Lawsuits have been filed over the years to stop various water delivery projects that environmentalists say endanger the smelt and other fish species whose populations have declined in recent decades, including salmon and steelhead. The result has been court-ordered restrictions on pumping operations in the Delta.

In 1982, California voters rejected an initiative that would have allowed the construction of a Peripheral Canal to divert freshwater around the Delta and into state water delivery systems.

In 2013, Governor Jerry Brown floated a plan to build two tunnels with fish screens to divert water underneath the Delta. In 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom scaled that back to one tunnel. A 3,000-page plan for that project was released in July 2022. However, in summer 2023 the project was removed from the state budget as part of cost-cutting measures, so its future remains in limbo.

Environmental problems have also risen in the Central Valley itself.

In the past, farmers had kept salt from building up in their soil and groundwater by installing underground drainage facilities. A lot of that water ended up in Kesterson Reservoir, a series of evaporation ponds and drains not too far from the Delta that were supposed to take this discarded irrigation water out to the ocean.

The project was started but never finished.

It turns out the discarded irrigation water contained high levels of selenium. That chemical seeped into plants along the reservoir at 64 times the level thought to be safe for birds. Deaths and mutations were reported in thousands of waterfowl.

Kesterson was closed in 1986, but the issue still remains as no long-term solution has been implemented.


So, where does California go from here?

As the state grows from nearly 40 million people today to an expected 45 million by 2035, the demand for water could exceed the acre-feet available, even in wet years.

For the past few decades, the state has supplemented its water resources by using the 4.4 million acre-feet of water it’s allocated from the Colorado River. However, shrinking supplies on that river have forced all states that sit along its banks, including California, to reduce their usage.

One solution being eyed is more storage facilities to capture water before it heads out to sea as well as excess water during years with heavy rainfall.

One proposal calls for a new reservoir west of the Sacramento Valley that would have water from the Sacramento River pumped in. The Sites Reservoir is on the drawing board but isn’t expected to be completed until at least 2030. The project was given “fast track” authority by the governor in November 2023 to move it along.

There’s also a proposal to build a new dam on the San Joaquin River to store water.

In addition, a plan is being tossed about to enlarge the Los Vaqueros Reservoir just west of the Delta. Likewise, there’s a plan to increase the capacity of the state’s largest reservoir at Shasta Lake north of Redding.

Then, there’s the notion of using water from the Pacific Ocean and desalinating it for human use.

There are now eight desalination plants operating in California that turn salty ocean water into fresh water. Another one has been approved.

The largest desalination plant has been in operation in San Diego County since 2015. It produces 50 million gallons a day, enough to serve 400,000 people.

The biggest issue right now with desalination is the price. It costs about twice as much to deliver as fresh water sources. However, the expense is coming down. During the past three decades, the cost to desalinate water has decreased by more than half.

Desalination plants do use a lot of electricity, so that is an environmental concern.

Other places have figured all this out. There are 20,000 desalination facilities around the world. Saudi Arabia produces about one-fifth of the world’s desalinated water. Perhaps California will be the next major player.

The final solution for California’s water war is not necessarily complicated or expensive.

Use less water.

The state encourages homeowners to repair leaks, take shorter showers, install more efficient toilets, plant drought-resistant vegetation and reuse indoor water on outside plants.

For farmers, measures such as raising more water-friendly crops like fruits, nuts and vegetables can help. They can also install more efficient irrigation systems and manage their water resources better.

Industry and business can do its part along similar lines.

The state’s water crunch was painfully present in summer 2021 as California baked under its driest rain year since 1895. In July, Governor Gavin Newsom expanded the drought state of emergency to 50 of California’s 58 counties. He also asked residents voluntarily reduce their water usage by 15 percent.

California experienced a wet winter and early spring in 2023 that eased the drought in most of the state. However, experts are still concerned about the long-term outlook.

In the years ahead, with conservation and some new reservoirs and desalination plants, California might be able to finally call a truce in its long-standing water war.