After spending the past century building one of the most elaborate water-delivery systems on the planet, replete with giant pumps and thousands of miles of pipes and canals, California has come to this—akin to the last desperate act of lifeboat-bound sailors drinking their own bodily fluids. The reasons are multiple and complex, but the bottom line is that the state's world-renowned plumbing is now perilously stressed. A three-year drought has drained most of the state's major reservoirs to their lowest levels in nearly two decades, forcing mandatory water restrictions for many residents. And warming temperatures have been shrinking the all-important snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, the largest storehouse of surface water in the state.
The biggest and weakest link in the system is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a former 700,000-acre marsh that has been drained, diked into islands, and farmed for more than a century. Much of the land has subsided, and many islands now sit more than 20 feet below sea level, creating California's own little slice of Holland in the middle of the Central Valley.
The delta is also the state's hydraulic heart. Water flows in through two great arteries: the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. Much of it is then pumped south via two massive, man-made rivers—the Central Valley Project and the California Aqueduct—and therein lies the problem. Sea level rise combined with more severe storms now threaten to topple the weaker levees and flood the lowest islands, inundating farmland and poisoning the big delta pumps with salt water from San Francisco Bay. A major earthquake—already overdue in the area—could take out hundreds of miles of levees in seconds, slashing water supplies for two-thirds of Californians. Experts say it could take years to put California's Humpty Dumpty hydraulics back together again.
More immediately, water exports from the delta have been partly to blame for crashing populations of protected chinook salmon and tiny delta smelt, forcing court-ordered cutbacks on water deliveries and leaving some Central Valley farms high and dry. In large protests and in lawsuits, farmers are demanding that they be given precedence over the fish. All the while the population of southern California continues to increase by more than 200,000 each year.
"The way the system works now is a disaster," says Lester Snow, California's secretary of natural resources. "The majority of water for the state's economy is coming out of critical habitat for endangered species. Every year there are more restrictions on that water."