Tuesday, August 14, 2012

On "Introduction to Water in California" by David Carle ****

Similar in concept to Water in Texas, this book runs through the basics of the California water system. While I largely preferred the Texas book's organization (though there was at least one clunky chapter that I'd have pulled to the back as an appendix), Carle had a knack with words that the Texas water book's author did not, making the California book in some ways a better read. Its charts are also particularly fascinating, with for example one given over to sizing rivers by how much water is taken from them for each major metropolitan area of the state.

Because California seems to be the epicenter for water issues and because I grew up in the state, I was much more aware of many of the items recounted in this book than I was in the Texas book. This is also, of course, the fourth book on water I've read in a row, so likewise, there's been some redundancy in terms of things I hadn't known until now.

Like most of the water books, this one starts with a general introduction about water itself (its various unique properties) and about the water cycle (how it goes from land to sea to sky). Added to this section in Carle's book is information about how California's landscape is one of extreme wet and extreme dry, depending on the year (and even during the course of the year, since virtually all of the state's precipitation arrives between December and February). Hence, there is no true average, and water planners have to adjust accordingly. This is one reason that in many ways California's is perhaps one of the most human-manipulated water supplies in the country.

How manipulated it is is made plain in the third section of the book, where Carle discusses the state's water distribution system. Subsections are devoted to each delivery system, each aqueduct.

This isn't to say that natural watersheds are ignored. Those are discussed in the second section of the book, with again subsections given over to each hydrologic region. What is made plain is how water comes mostly from the north and the mountains and is transferred to the south and the shore. This obviously has huge environmental impacts, which are picked up on in the fourth and fifth sections of the book, on the challenges the California water system presents.

As in Texas, overdrafting of groundwater is a problem because once again it is largely unregulated. Whoever owns the land above can use the water below. I certainly would want the rights to dig a well on my own property. But this can lead to problems, since groundwater isn't unconnected to surface water, and if one landowner draws out a huge share, then others who use the same aquifer will suffer. One solution in California has been to recharge groundwater with waste water and other reserves, which has some benefits (as well as costs). It was interesting to learn that Glendale, close to my birth home, had its groundwater despoiled, so that unlike Pasadena, where I grew up, it can no longer get part of its water from beneath the ground.

There has been some negative reaction against the reuse of waste water, but as the author notes, residents often aren't aware that "pristine" water from surface sources often is waste water from cities further up in the watershed. In fact, often, treated waste water is cleaner than water coming into a particular area for just this reason. Such pollution has also led to concerns about Giardia, a waterborne parasite that makes some worry about the safety of backcountry water. Indeed, fecal contamination is somewhat widespread, leading some backpackers to pack bottled water. But as the author notes, this concern is a bit overhyped--most tap water, which is treated, is likely to contain a higher concentration of Giardia cysts, and bottled water (often pulled from said streams or from tap water itself) but without the safety testing is likely to be even worse. The better thing to do is to use common sense--when hiking, pull water upstream and away from camps and trails where there is plenty of flow where it's likely to be cleaner.

In the final challenges section, the author also tackles the need for conservation, showing the ways that cities like Los Angeles have managed to cut back on water use even as the population has increased--through reuse and better use. As with virtually every state, almost every good potential dam site has been dammed, so achieving more efficiencies by storing more isn't really an option. Beyond that, such dams create environmental concerns that the state is now paying closer attention to. The filling in (via sediment buildup) and upcoming destruction or renovation of dams offers opportunities for California to reassess some of its water management strategies.

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