The Silence of Collapse

There is no landmass on Earth quite like California. Here one finds the world’s most ancient trees, bristlecone pines, more than 4,700 years old, in the White Mountains; the tallest and largest trees, the coast redwood and giant sequoia, respectively; the highest point in the lower 48 states, Mount Whitney; the lowest and hottest place in the Western Hemisphere, Death Valley; the largest western hemisphere estuary, the Bay Delta; an 800-mile coastline; the most irrigated acres; the most endangered species in the U.S.; the most diverse geology and biodiversity in the U.S.; and the greatest, most ecologically destructive water projects on Earth.

California has spared no expense to either taxpayers or natural ecosystems to attain its status as the most hydrologically altered landmass on the planet. It would surprise few that California was built on gold, greed, extraction, depletion, extinction, dubiously acquired large-landed semi-desert agricultural empires, well-gifted railroad land grants fueling speculative growth, and highly subsidized stolen water—all comprising a tunnel vision for overextended populations and infinite growth in a world utterly finite.

The incomprehensible vulnerability of California’s over-reaching population centers (Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Jose), the projected urban expansion of the Central Valley, and the weight of climate-warming models leaves one haunted by civilization’s lack of respect for a river’s entitlement to its water and the food systems that it naturally perpetuates.

There’s only so much natural wealth covering the 158,302 square miles of California’s ten hydrologic regions. When a region overextends its local resources, it must take from another. More than water is diverted; it drains the very wealth of the food chains these waters support in aquatic, terrestrial, and ocean basins.

With 200 million acre-feet (MAF) of average precipitation spreading over 100 million acres containing 450 known groundwater basins and draining on average 71 MAF of runoff through 20,000 miles of rivers and streams, California has only 1,900 river miles legally protected from dams and diversions. All but one major river remains dam-free, the Smith River on the upper north coast.

About 42 MAF of the state’s runoff is captured and diverted through six major systems of reservoirs and aqueducts. This massive infrastructure artificially waters the coastal region from the North Bay to San Diego, and the Sacramento Valley through the San Joaquin Valley into the Tulare Basin, the Mojave Desert, and the southernmost Imperial and Coachella valleys.

Before the Spanish arrived in 1769, there were only twelve large natural lakes in California—Lake Tahoe, Lower Klamath, Goose, Tule, Honey, Eagle, Clear, Mono, Owens, Kern, Buena Vista, and Tulare Lake. Today the latter four are devoid of original wildlife, having been dewatered for agriculture. Tulare Lake, a once-thriving ecosystem in the lower San Joaquin Valley, was four times the area of Lake Tahoe. Today, 1,200 non-federal dams and 181 large federal dams with their reservoirs temporarily dominate a contrived oasis that is doomed by sediment, evaporation, the force of time, the laws of nature, and global warming.

These numerous artificial lakes defy the balance between natural surface water stores and underground stores. In nature, 70% of the fresh water circulating in the hydrologic cycle is stored underground and a combined total of .017% for lakes, rivers, and land-locked seas. Underground storage is free from evaporation, siltation, and storage cost (both economically and environmentally).

Before European contact, underground glacial water stores were estimated at 1.3 billion acre-feet—the entire California landmass under thirteen feet of water. This now has been overdrafted to 850 MAF. Like oil, the remaining supply will be extinguished in less than a hundred years. One out of four Californians rely totally on groundwater, and nearly three-quarters of a billion acre-feet of that groundwater once lay under the Central Valley. Continual overdrafts in the region have caused the landmass to subside as much as thirty feet, yet the aquifer remains a major water source for agricultural production.

Five million acres of Central Valley wetlands—nature’s food bank, filtration system, and flood control mechanism—once brimmed with life including half a million Tule elk and sixty million ducks and geese. Reclaimed for agriculture, this area has been reduced to 350,000 artificially managed wetland acres. Nine out of every ten acres of riparian woodlands are gone, along with ten thousand grizzly bears that once roamed the valleys and foothills. The loss of mega and micro flora and fauna is beyond counting.

Ninety percent of the coastal salt marshes between Morro Bay and San Diego are gone. The 200,000 acres of vibrant salt marshes that once surrounded the San Francisco Bay have been reduced to 35,000 acres by landfill for urban development. The Bay Delta, the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, drains 40% of the state’s total runoff. It is the main pumping station for the massive State Water Project and the Central Valley Project. It serves two-thirds of California’s population and irrigates millions of San Joaquin and Tulare Basin acres. Eighty percent of all developed water is consumed by agriculture.

The Delta is not on the verge of collapse; it is collapsing. Once supporting 345,000 acres of salt marshes and a major fishery for salmon and smelt, it has been reduced to 8,000 marsh acres, with Delta pumps decimating the fisheries. With valuable marshes reclaimed as islands below sea level, they are protected by a series of poorly maintained and aging levee systems vulnerable to earthquakes, storms, and climate change.

Historic flows from the Delta to the Bay have been reduced by half, increasing saltwater intrusion into the freshwater system. (Normally freshwater flows from the Sierra snowpack create a hydraulic barrier holding back intruding salt water.) California’s unceasing march towards 50 million people by 2015 will increase demands and destabilization. A one-meter rise in sea level will inundate about 200 square miles of Delta land. Long-term climate patterns anticipate a sea level rise of six meters. Loss of the Delta will have a catastrophic effect on southern populations and agriculture. Today’s water consciousness, especially in the Bay Delta, is motivated less by the loss of fisheries and ecosystems and more by the loss of water supply and its curbing impact on agriculture, growth, and development.

Salmon are the keystone species, the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Untold millions, perhaps ten-plus million salmon, once migrated between Monterey Bay and the Oregon coast through 582 coastal streams—while steelhead migrated along most of California’s 800-mile coastline. During the winter of 1883-84, more than 700,000 salmon were caught and processed in the Bay Delta alone. By the early 1900s, cannery operations had become commercially unviable. Perhaps 80% of that protein source has been depleted now, with only 10% of the suitable spawning sites remaining.

Think about what the salmon represent in total natural energy distribution and conversion—as an energy component, their nourishing value to the sea, the land, the aquatic and terrestrial food chains, and human life.

Once 400 million strong throughout North America, beavers once populated all the tributaries of California’s great rivers. Building temporary small dams from nearby willows, alder, poplar, birch, maple and aspen, they trapped nutrients from twigs, leaves, branches, and logs, which mixed with silt behind the dam, creating a clear, cool, deep-water fishery. Bacteria break down the cellulose, which feeds protozoa, which feeds cyclops, daphnia, fresh-water shrimp, mosquitoes, dragonflies, caddis worms, tadpoles, and water spiders. These in turn feed young trout, salmon, and frogs, which feed egrets, ospreys, golden and bald eagles, kingfishers, turkeys and owls.

Downed trees fill with insects and feed woodpeckers and sapsuckers. The increased wet area around the beaver pond absorbs flood waves and slowly infiltrates water into the groundwater table. When the building materials deplete, the beavers move on to another location. The dam, filled high with rich, black organic muck, breaks down, causing the water to change course and meander around. As the area dries it becomes a rich pasture of grasses, feeding herbivores which feed predators. The meadow, recolonized by the seeds of the trees that initiated the process, begins anew. Multiply this lifecycle by 13,000 years and you have the continual development of fertile valley bottomlands and a regenerative model for human developments.

Without considering global warming, a century from now all man-made reservoirs that are not full of silt will nonetheless have lost their operational capacities to support agriculture, prevent floods, and serve human population centers. The moment they were filled, the concrete’s limited lifespan began its 50-100 year process of degeneration. Where’s the future?

This narrative represents a very short list of human events upon the landscape. The visible consequence of California’s altered watersheds and landscapes translate into today’s deepening water scarcity. The beaver negotiated its survival within nature, paid for the space it occupies by creating a pool of regenerative life, borrowing energy and converting it to produce a sum of energy far greater than it borrowed from nature—this is the model of regeneration.

In stark contrast, civilization consumes nature, converting its energy in a way that exhausts its supply, and then we return the waste with a toxic aspect that further devalues the natural systems—leading to air, soil, and water pollution, depleted fisheries, constipated rivers, ocean dead zones, deforestation, erosion, salinated valleys, overgrazing, wildlife extinction, toxic dumps, nuclear waste, and yes, global warming.

One can readily see that California as well as the planet is exhaustible. Our unique faculties allow us to shape and modify the land that provides for our survival. That faculty, that capacity, that survivability, comes at a great price, a great responsibility. That price is regenerative stewardship over the land.

The Waters of Change

As a consequence of natural evolution, the Earth’s surface has adapted to the sun’s radiant heat through a renewable hydrologic cycle. How a warming climate relates to the hydrologic cycle is the subject of the following discussion.

There is a high degree of scientific agreement that our planetary energy use relates directly to climbing temperatures. Current climate models are constantly readapting to temperature changes that are occurring much more rapidly than expected due to the climate feedback systems and non-linear movements. The climate system is the hydrologic cycle, and to the extent that model changes, so change rainfall and snow patterns across the state.

Today cold, moisture-laden westerly storms roll off the Pacific Basin from the Gulf of Alaska and the Hawaiian Islands primarily between December and April. They lift over the low-rising Coast Ranges, releasing a taste of their precious load before falling into the arid rain shadow of the 450-mile-long Central Valley. Having warmed during its descent across the lower valley floor, the stingy jet stream yields little moisture to today’s artificially contrived breadbasket of California.

The storms’ real contender is the west-tilting, 400-mile granite spine of the Sierra Nevada. Representing one fifth of California’s landmass, much of the range exceeds 8,000 feet in elevation. Mount Whitney reigns supreme at 14,494 feet. As the air rises, cools, and condenses, the contest between landmass and planetary water cycle is resolved. Moisture molecules transform and surrender as snow.

On the eastern or rain-shadow side of the Sierra is a long narrow trench known as the Great Basin. Any moisture that escapes the wringing of the western Sierra then faces the western front of the 14,000-foot White/Inyo Mountain range, which creates the watersheds of now dewatered Owens Lake and endangered Mono Lake.

Seventy-five percent of California’s precipitation falls north of Sacramento. The critical Sierra snowpack provides roughly 60% of California’s water demands and represents the state’s Achilles heel (along with the Bay Delta) in the wake of a warming planet. The Sierra range contains 24 major watersheds and the headwaters of California’s American, Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Upper Sacramento, Feather, Merced, Tuolumne, Mokelumne, Cosumnes, Calaveras, Kings, Kaweah, Tule, Kern, Caliente, and Yuba rivers. All these major rivers are constipated by numerous dams and their diversions.

This 20th-century hydrologic model laid the foundation for the infrastructure of 1,400 dams and reservoir systems providing water storage and flood protection for California. The 21st century will provide an altogether different climate model, and water management policies and structures will have to change dramatically if the state’s population is to survive that challenge.

The greatest challenge for water managers in today’s weather system is timing the flows from the Sierra snowmelt. A dicey business without climate change considerations, we’re talking about 15 million acre-feet (MAF) of runoff before it hits the first series of dams, and 20 or more MAF at or near the confluence of the Delta. The 20th-century model could anticipate gradual runoff in late spring and early summer to meet the greatest demand between summer and fall. These reservoirs have to be relatively empty in the winter for flood protection. Managers have to decide when to fill the reservoir to meet the greater demands of the dry season. Fill them too early and you risk floods; fill them too late and you risk insufficient supplies and drought conditions.

Climate models show the Sierra snowline climbing upward. As the landmass heats, it requires a greater volume of water to resolve the heat, and a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, producing more intense rainfall and resulting in less snow, earlier and greater mass movements of flows, and erosion. Snowfall that would normally inundate the Sierra throughout the winter and gradually melt between late spring and early summer will come as intense wet storms, generating massive flows and torrential flooding throughout the lower watersheds. This will alter rivers, creeks, and stream channel profiles significantly and cripple the Bay Delta as a freshwater supply for the southland as water is lost to massive runoff and not stored and released slowly as snow.

Incidence of landslides will greatly increase the sediment budget, and some landslides will create slidedams and cause a river or creek to change course, incising fresh sediment loads from alluvial plains. The large recipient of these massive, sediment-laden flows will be the mega-million acre-feet reservoirs of the State Water and Central Valley projects. Inundating the already limited-lifespan reservoirs, the increased sediment budget will reduce their functionality.

These large events will also decrease the ability of the land to slow and infiltrate water into the groundwater system, and the higher temperatures will increase evaporation. Droughts and higher temperatures will increase the incidence of forest and grassland fires. Reduced reservoir water storage will increase groundwater pumping and land subsidence in the already overdrafted, oversubsided Central Valley.

The Eel River runs through some of the most erodable landmass in California, a situation exacerbated by massive lumber operations, gravel extraction, cattle ranching, and narrow-vision land management strategies. The Eel River owns the record for the highest peak flood discharge of 753,000 cubic feet per second during the 1964 flood, enough energy to send a fleet of battleships to Japan. With Scott Dam and Cape Horn Dam choking its headwaters and depleting its fisheries, nearly 90% of Eel’s summer flow is diverted into the Russian River, altering that river’s natural profile and enabling unsustainable human developments in population centers and the wine industry to the south.

Outlet Creek, a Willits tributary of the Eel, has six dams with the seventh being built, all within a sixty-square-mile area. The ecology of Little Lake Valley and the former Little Lake, food basin for juvenile salmon, has been destroyed by straightening and channeling the six feeder creeks. With Snow, Hull, and Rice mountains forming the main headwaters, climate change will impact this region’s snowpack and flow dynamics, as well as the larger Sierra range.

All of California’s rivers, like the dams that drain the natural wealth from these regions, are ill-prepared for the upcoming changes in climate dynamics. Natural river systems are among the most efficient systems on the planet. The great sculptress shapes and transports with exacting tools of erosion and deposit. Water is the great conveyor between landmass and ocean—eroding and depositing material pushed up from the constant collision of tectonic plates. Dams incarcerate the river’s main element, water, leaving her artistry a slave to human infrastructural bondage and rendering all dependent life forms immensely vulnerable to even slight changes.

Where do we go from here?

California’s water infrastructure is overdeveloped, overused, oversold, under-maintained, and impermanent. California’s 1,400 dams share a common destiny–silt-up and become a dysfunction waterfall. One would think the profundity of this incontrovertible geophysical fact might dissuade one from building or continuing to build dense population centers supported by impermanence and develop marginal agricultural lands to feed these ultimately doomed arid population centers. Civilization has deferred this reality from one generation to the next. Not in my lifetime eventually claims the living–were so dammed close.

California’s water infrastructure is aging and degenerating. The older it gets, the more problems it has. The massively altered watersheds, accumulating the burdens of dams and diversions, have lost the stability of equilibrium. This impetus drives the collision between the environment, economy, and a population that continues to increase 600,000 per year.

The recent federal court decision to reduce water withdrawals from the irreplaceable Delta by 37% in an attempt to save its failing hydrology and fisheries has staggered farm production, cities, and the Silicon Valley. As well, less agricultural water sends a shockwave through soaring food prices and produces major losses in farm labor that is severely impacting an already deficit-ridden state budget; health care, education and transportation.

Governor Schwarzenegger’s proposed 9 billion dollar Delta bailout (1982 Peripheral Canal revival) seeks to pour vast energy into the sprawl of canals, aqueducts, levees, pipesheds, and off-stream reservoirs. Cloaked as a restoration project, should the central delta be bypassed diverting the Sacramento directly to canals and off-stream storage reservoirs, the central valley and southland water boosters will be well positioned for an ultimate water grab to fuel economic determinism and contrived population growth projections down to the last drop.

The big question remains. Will a canal bypass save the Delta? Answer: No. As mentioned earlier, what the Delta needs most is increased mountain runoff water to create the hydrologic barrier to hold back saltwater intrusion from the Bay and the fisheries need inundated wetlands and sloughs.

The Peripheral Canal simply adds an ever increasing layer of complexity and energy flows to a system that cannot be saved by the same strategies that produced the problem in the first place. California history can be understood from the earliest need to transport water from a distant watershed to an overextended watershed (1913 LA Aqueduct). Each solution along that predictable path requires still more complexity and energy inputs. Yesterday’s solution becomes today’s problem like a mad layer cake. Each new solution bears exponential energy costs often greater than all the energy consumed by all previous water projects. And, the emergent spectre of the unintended consequence, watershed and infrastructure degeneration leaves one pondering this question: Is this advancing towards a higher or better state?

California’s water, population, and economy are up against Stephen J. Gould’s right wall of limitations. The insane complexity, economic and ecological, is beyond comprehension and the exponential energy cost to run the infrastructure alone denies a positive return: A Dead End.

Since our economic system cannot consider limitations because our American way of life is non-negotiable, narrow-visioned, economic growth focused policy makers will commit our remaining economic might and push this unsustainable model against the right wall of limitations unwittingly. In this context, it is difficult to envision a divergent path that recognizes the need to reduce population, consumption, and charts a path towards watershed restoration statewide. Californians will, as they have throughout California’s water history, approve any measure for one simple reason, fear.

The final analysis strongly suggests that the geophysical forces of climate change dynamics, watershed-wide ecological degradation, oversold and over-mined watersheds, overextended economy and overpopulation coupled with the limited lifespan of 1,400 dams will likely, eventually, resolve the issue of overextended coastal populations and ill-conceived floodplain developments once and for all.

The real solution, backing off the right wall, reducing and relocating vulnerable population centers, reducing consumer demand, developing local water sustainability, and restoring watersheds is simply unthinkable–and the unthinkable is the only solution–and real solutions are not found when one cannot even define the problem.

Rachel Olivieri is an independent researcher/writer from Northern California. Read other articles by Rachel, or visit Rachel's website.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Joseph Danison said on September 4th, 2008 at 9:34am #

    Seems to me the long-term issue of sustainable water management is overshadowed by short-term demands of crisis management relating to a dysfunctional economy and great earthquakes that will occur.

    As government staggers from one crisis to the next, the tax base gradually evaporates creating a scarcity of financial resources that are barely adequate to cover short-term demands.

    The long-term water issue so eloquently described by the author will never be addressed. The world’s 6tth largest economy can hardly manage to pay the help, let alone undertake a state wide terra-forming program.

  2. Michael Dawson said on September 4th, 2008 at 9:37am #

    Awesome essay, Rachel!

    For what it’s worth, the word “consumer” is part of the problem. It’s a capitalist insult to ordinary people.

  3. Donald Hawkins said on September 4th, 2008 at 10:09am #

    Yes California is in a bit of trouble because you can’t leave out climate change. You said where’s the future? That question is the big one the one that can change everything for the better or worst.

  4. HR said on September 4th, 2008 at 12:15pm #

    ONLY ONE major river system in CA remains dam-free, not ALL BUT one … Otherwise a pretty fair good summary of the water welfare system in the golden state.

  5. Andrew Filis said on September 5th, 2008 at 6:25am #


    Many thanks for making such a complex issue accessible. Once more, cogent poof that fabianist approaches are mere ‘deck-chair rearranging’ and that Capitalism needs to be confronted head-on.

  6. rick mervis said on September 9th, 2008 at 4:17pm #

    An excellent story which I am printing and stowing away for my two small children to read when they’re grown. They’re just 8, and imagine the straits California will be in in the year 2025, when they’re twenty-five!
    One can only hope that a smarter generation will turn things around.