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Impacts

While these systems have certainly made California's prodigious economic and population growth possible, they have enormous ecological and social consequences for California's rivers, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, and San Francisco Bay. Upstream diversions of water by the Bay Area (the Hetch Hetchy and East Bay systems), the operation of state and federal pumps in the Delta, and the water exports they make possible, are the lightning rods for water and endangered species conflicts in the Delta. They are why the Delta is at the center of a planning process called the "CalFED Bay-Delta Program" (see California People, Politics, and Planning). Water diverted by the federal, state, and regional-urban water systems leave the Delta and San Francisco Bay increasingly saline, which threatens Delta farms and crops, agricultural soils, groundwater aquifers, and drinking water supplies (especially in southern California).


San Luis Reservoir and Dam (lower right) west of Los Banos, September 1990, during California's last long drought.
View looking northwest.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Dams drown spawning habitat for once-thriving salmon and steelhead trout populations. Reduced flows from rivers feeding the Delta combine with agricultural drainage concentrated with pesticides and excess fertilizers to degrade the state's water quality and threaten destruction of numerous riparian plant, aquatic, and wildlife communities in the Delta and up and down the Central Valley.

Ocean-going and riverine commercial fisheries in both regions vanished or were seriously depleted by the end of the 1960s, a calamity for ethnically diverse rural communities. In addition, poorer Californians, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area and Delta regions, still rely on fishing as part of their diet. But as the water quality of the Bay and Delta continue to deteriorate, the remaining fish are contaminated and unhealthy for these residents to eat.

Farmers' reliance on flood irrigation methods using slightly saline water damages many San Joaquin Valley soils with salt build-up, hastening its desertification, and creating selenium and pesticide-laden drainage water in the process. It has even gotten to the point where the water quality of the CVP and SWP exports has come under attack by their customers in the San Joaquin Valley and southern California.

Farmers are frequently savaged by greens for wasteful water use sanctioned by the state's water laws, but since the last great drought in California (between 1987 and 1992), many have becvome more efficient irrigators. Southern California cities, voracious as they have been in acquiring and moving water, have also turned water efficiency into an industry. By comparison, the Bay Area and Sacramento are more vulnerable to drought than these other regions.

And the entire water system is vulnerable to the Big One. Should a major earthquake ruin fragile Delta levees, ensuing floods wouold create a vast inland salton sea with disastrous consequences for California, compounding expected chaos and homelessness. Fault ruptures in the Tehachapi and Coast mountain ranges could sever pipelines, disrupting water deliveries to much of the Bay Area, and to central and south coast farms and cities for potentially long periods; it is a prospect that could cripple California's booming -- and politically sacred -- economy.


Flooding from the San Joaquin River.
Photo courtesy of California Department of Water Resources.

California water systems have had enormous ecological and social impacts. Dams drowned spawning habitat for once-thriving salmon and steelhead trout populations. Loss of water from rivers, combined with agricultural drainage concentrated with pesticides and excess fertilizers have degraded water quality of the state's rivers and threatened the destruction of numerous riparian communities up and down the state. The water diverted into federal, state, and regional-urban water systems was withdrawn from the Delta and San Francisco Bay, both of which are destinations for migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway. Farmers' reliance on flood irrigation methods has permanently damaged many San Joaquin Valley soils with salt build-up, hastening its return to desert conditions.

Socially, the control of water development has been concentrated in state and federal government agencies, resulting in fewer and fewer people understanding how water from their taps is obtained, and how water development made the world Californians inhabit today possible. In addition, poorer Californians, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area and Delta regions, still incorporate fishing as part of their diet. But as the water quality of the Bay and Delta deteriorate, the fish that remain become contaminated and unhealthy for these residents to eat. In this way, protecting these resources is a social as well as an ecological problem.

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Last updated: 16 February 2004