Where would we all be without the bay? Well, not here, that’s for sure: It’s quite literally the defining characteristic of all of our diverse communities. Which is why it’s downright annoying to learn that, gallon by gallon, the rest of the state is gradually robbing us of it.
The situation is much more complex than that, of course. A lot of political nuance and competing community needs go into determining the balance of California’s "water wars." But the net effect, according to a study by the San Francisco-based nonprofit conservation group the Bay Institute, is to strangle the supply of fresh water flowing into the bay every year.
Since the bay is one big estuary, fresh water is half of the formula that gives it its crucial identity. (In fact, the Bay Commission characterizes the body in the most basic terms possible: San Francisco Bay is really little more than just "a large river mouth flooded by the sea.")
Everything living in the bay is acclimated to that particular cocktail of fresh and seawater, minerals, sediments, and other odds and ends that float down from the mountains to mix with wash of the Pacific Ocean. You can see where this is going: If we divert too much fresh water from its natural path toward the bay, we’re monkeying with the basic formula that distinguishes the bay from the ocean.
And California does indeed divert a lot of water, much of it for agricultural use. Although those who sympathize with farms like to call "environmental use" a big contributor to water diversion in itself, whereas conservation groups like the Bay Institute characterize that more as non-use—ie, just leaving the water be.
But putting aside the politics of water for a second (if that’s possible), the net result is that, ironically, the bay is catastrophically thirsty, as the "thousands of dams, over 600 large reservoirs, and 1,300 miles of diversion canals" between here and the bay’s land-traversing sources deprives it of more than 50 percent of what it would normally be getting.
There’s still a huge amount of water flowing in from both sides, of course. But the makeup is radically different from what it would normally be, which is a problem if you’re a fish or sea mammal or native grass—or for that matter a human being.
Suddenly, salinity may be too high for native fish and plants, and then visiting ocean predators may find less food here than they’re used to, and then invasive species might decide they like this new water mix more than the locals do, and things only get uglier from there.
The institute suggests doing away with California’s present water parceling system, which employs a variety of standards for different parties and types of use. "As long as water-rights are over-allocated, there will always be pressure to withdraw more than is sustainable," the authors write.
Of course, generations of lawmakers have governors have fought and died (political deaths, that is) over water rights. Until sea lions get a vote in Sacramento, the political will may keep favoring the status quo. Votes, like water, have a natural inclination for the downhill path.
- The Freshwater Starved Estuary [Bay Institute]
- The Bay and Estuary [BCDC]
- Environment Keeps California’s Water [Bloomberg]
- Who Gets Water In California? [Bay Institute]
- Where California’s Water Future Is [KQED]