Dr. Jack Paxton Speaks on California’s Water Woes

At the March club meeting our speaker was Dr. Jack Paxton, Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois, Urbana, and a seasonal resident of San Marcos. He gave an honest and therefore somewhat depressing history of how California has created its present water crisis in his talk entitled, “Water We Doing with Dihydrogen Monoxide?”

Dr. Paxton used visuals as he spoke to emphasize his remarks. He continually expressed concern for taking water without replacing it and the impact of later loss on the environment. “We are participating in a bank robbery!” he explained. “We deposit virtually no water to the Colorado River but we withdraw from its banks 1.7 trillion gallons of water a year. If we levied 1 cent per gallon we could retire the California state debt quickly.”

Here are a series of actions that Dr. Paxton says have brought us to our present state, which has been made worse by an ongoing drought: 

  • In 1878 Lake Tulare was the second largest freshwater lake in America. Now it has dried up because its tributary rivers were diverted for agricultural irrigation and municipal use. It was originally 690 square miles and 81 miles long.
  • In 1920 Owens Lake, originally 200 square miles, held a large amount of water, but in 1924 most of this water was diverted to the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Now the mostly dry lake bed is the largest single source of dust pollution in the United States.
  • In 1905 there was an effort made to increase Colorado River water for agriculture. But the river was accidentally allowed to flow into the Salton Basin for two years, creating the Salton Sea, which at 376 square miles is now the largest lake in California. This man-made accident has been used as a dump for used irrigation water that is full of pesticides and fertilizers. In addition, this lake is now more salty than the Pacific Ocean and the salinity is increasing. 
  • Nearby, the Olivenhain Dam at Lake Hodges, 203 acres across, was created with Colorado River water and is used to generate power. This uses more power than it generates.
  • In 2013 the Colorado River was considered to be America’s most endangered waterway. Now many migrating birds depending upon this water are endangered.
  • The San Joaquin Valley produces some 25% of the nation’s food. For generations the valley’s groundwater has been pumped out for agriculture irrigation. This depletion has caused the valley to subside as much as 28 feet in some places. The present drought has further increased the groundwater depletion by drilling private wells that have to go increasingly deeper. This has caused further subsidence by as much as a foot a year, which in turn damages canals and bridges. Yet California has no law that regulates the amount of water that can be privately pumped. If the groundwater is fully depleted this will have a major impact on the state and nation.
  • The depletion of the Central Valley’s groundwater also may be causing earthquakes.
  • California’s food production uses 80% of our water to grow what Dr. Paxton thinks are many “irrational” crops. 
  • Nationally, the average American uses nearly 2,000 gallons of water/day, whereas the global average is about 10 gallons. 

Global warming could impact San Diego’s water supply by decreasing the Sierra Nevada mountain snowpack and increasing the demand for water. As water becomes scarcer, more water must be moved and treated to try to supply the demand. Increased energy using fossil fuels in turn creates more carbon dioxide that contributes further to global warming. Desalinization also is a huge energy hog, he said, and he was not favorable toward a desalinization plant in Carlsbad. In San Diego, for example, water is pumped through 2,890 miles of aging water lines. This requires 60% of the city’s electricity budget. 

Further, he said soon the Vallecitos Water District will urge users to not conserve water because the district has committed to pay for a certain amount of water and must sell it. 

So what does he recommend that we can do to help this problem? 

  • Switch landscaping to Xeriscaping: plant drought tolerant plants that require little water, not lawns.
  • Become a vegan—a pound of beef requires 2,500 gallons of water to produce. 
  • Take one-minute showers. Wet down, turn water off, lather up, rinse off.
  • Charge more for water. We currently don’t pay it’s full value.
  • San Diego can’t continue growing without serious consequences. Stop the urban sprawl.
  • Rethink our priorities. The La Costa Golf course uses one million gallons of water a day in the summer.
  • Change our watersheds so that rain can reach the groundwater.

For additional reading and recommended sources: 

  • National Geographic, April 2010, “California’s Pipe Dream”
  • When the Rivers Run Dry, 2007, Fred Pearce
  • The movie “China Town”
  • The website “Myths of California Water: A Virtual Tour” a the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences
  • Wikipedia explanation of “California Water Wars
  • Article on the San Joaquin Valley, subsidence and the impact of agriculture.