Skelton: Undrained water isn’t all wasted in California

A jazillion gallons of storm water blow rivers into the sea. But this uncaptured bonus was not “wasted”.

“Wasted water” dumped into the ocean is an old phrase that pops up whenever there’s a big storm in this odd weather state—or during inevitable droughts when crops are thirsty and homeowners are told to shut down their lawn sprinklers.

But “wasted waters” is a myth.

Unconfined runoff that flows into the sea flushes pollutants from rivers and bays, helping to purify the water for domestic domestic use. It also provides many species of fish, including salmon, not only for recreation but for the coastal fishing industry. Sand is deposited on the beaches.

In the vital Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta, runoff pushes salt water from San Francisco Bay, making the relatively small amount of water captured potable.

This is the view of the hydrologists I spoke to recently. And this makes sense, especially with regard to flows through real rivers. This does not necessarily include concrete-lined flood channels, such as the so-called Los Angeles River.

“Every drop of water that flows from the Central Valley into the San Francisco Bay creates benefits,” asserts Jeffrey Mount, a water expert at the California Public Policy Institute. He’s a former professor of science at UC Davis and founding director of the university’s Center for Watershed Science.

But, he continues, “I want to be absolutely clear. This doesn’t mean we can’t harvest more.”

He also adds this caveat: “There are some places where water is wasted at sea. I’m thinking about where I grew up—in Santa Monica. Street runoff has no provable value.” That is, unless it is captured and recycled or stored underground, he points out.

But he maintains that even the uninhabited waters going out to sea via the Los Angeles River are beneficial.

“It cleans the canal. The Los Angeles River is watered by urban saliva, an unpleasant mixture of oils and other nasty things.”

Unfortunately, it ends up “where surfers are,” he says. “The ocean is full of viruses by the time you paddle.”

The Los Angeles and lower San Gabriel rivers have been turned into flood-control canals to “get the water out of the ground as fast as they can so they can build homes on the floodplain,” says Greg Gartrell, a Mount associate.

He added that the channels were “immediately filled with sediment”.

They placed sediment ponds to catch sediment so that it would not enter the canals. Then we started losing sand on the beaches.”

Sand flows down from the mountains as well as the ocean cliffs.

“If we didn’t build in the floodplain, we wouldn’t have to do many of these projects,” Gartrell adds.

The question of whether to capture more runoff and store it or allow it to flow freely into the ocean is more contentious in Northern California, where there are real rivers.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, fed by several rivers that originate in the snow-capped mountains and flow through the agriculture-rich Central Valley, is the source of drinking water for 27 million Californians and irrigation for 3 million acres of crops. The uninhabited waters flow into San Francisco Bay and out through the Golden Gate to the Pacific Ocean.

“Most of this water is not just uninhabited — it’s not ingestible,” says Gartrell, a delta expert, independent consulting engineer and former assistant general manager of the Contra Costa Water District.

“And it’s not actually wasted. It’s refreshing San Francisco Bay.”

It is not adaptable because of pumping capacity and channel sizes, and often in wet years because the reservoirs are practically full—particularly the San Luis Reservoir in Merced County, the great pond for both federal and state water projects. Last week it was only half full, but it is expected to be full by spring.

The future of storage is underground in aquifers, which are now seriously depleted by over-pumping.

“We have a capacity of 150 million acres underground—more storage space than we can ever use,” says Wade Crowfoot, secretary of the state’s Natural Resources Agency.

But Mount says, “we’re not currently well suited to pumping underground” in large volumes. “We didn’t do our job together.”

State and federal Delta pumps are now operating at close capacity, sending nearly 14,000 cubic feet per second through canals to the San Joaquin Valley and southern California. But that’s minuscule compared to the outflows from Delta, which last week were about 150,000 CFS. None of it was lost.

The issue of wasted water is more important when runoff is normal or very low.

I contacted Gebel after reading a UC Davis blog post he co-authored six years ago titled “Wasting Water to the Sea?”

“The flow of fresh water towards the sea is essential [delta] He added that farmers, fishermen, governorates, beach lovers, and government agencies that manage drinking water supplies, restore wetlands, protect coasts, and clean up sewage and storm pollution.

“Water wasted for some is essential water for others.”

“I feel stronger about it today,” Mount told me. “It is wrong to refer to any water that goes into the ocean as wasted.”

“I’m not saying all the water should go into the ocean. We can do a better job of storing some of it without affecting the benefits.”

Therefore, uninhabited water is not wasted. But when nature suddenly gifts large quantities, more can be stored for a non-rainy day.

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