The new water reality

The Colorado River, which frames the southeastern border of California, once fed a broad, alluvial floodplain before flowing into the Sea of Cortez, sustaining abundant fisheries and habitat for hundreds of thousands of migrating birds.

These days, notwithstanding the experimental pulse flow now underway, the mighty, 1,500-mile-long river that carved the Grand Canyon is usually reduced to a foamy, polluted trickle that disappears in the desert sand miles from the sea.

The Colorado River, experts now agree, is completely oversubscribed. Water rights held by the river’s basin states exceeded its annual flow in 2010 by almost 1 million acre feet.

The San Joaquin River, second longest stream in the state and once among the West Coast’s top Chinook salmon runs, is now virtually drained, the salmon fishery is gone and 60 miles of it often run dry. The San Joaquin, clearly, is also oversubscribed.

Much closer to home is the Russian River, the source of most of Sonoma Valley’s municipal water and currently constrained by a biological opinion limiting releases from Warm Springs Dam, built on the River’s Dry Creek tributary. Considering that most of the summertime flow in the upper Russian River comes through a controversial and litigated diversion from the Eel River into Potter Valley, without which there would not be much summer flow or adequate impoundment behind Coyote Dam into Lake Mendocino, and given that there are more than 1,500 legal riparian withdrawals and countless illegal ones, few of which are adequately regulated, it can be argued that the Russian River is, itself, oversubscribed.

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