The Big Water Projects in California

California has two gigantic water development systems which capture and store water with many dams and use rivers and canals to redistribute it, generally from Northern California sources (or "areas of origins") to the San Joaquin Valley agricultural users and southern California cities—same as today. They are:

Collapse of Delta fish populations in the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary has accompanied operation of these enormous water systems. Their export of water is premised on magical thinking by state water industry officials and regulators.

These water projects have low priority water rights, which were acquired starting only in the 1920s and 1930s. Their rights are considered "junior" to more "senior" rights held by many irrigation and water districts in the Central Valley as well as rights held by the City and County of San Francisco, Pacific Gas & Electric Company, Southern California Edison Corporation, and East Bay Municipal Utilities District (which supplies Mokelumne River water to Alameda and Contra Costa counties).



The Central Valley Project


Originally conceived by state engineers, the US Bureau of Reclamation took over construction of the Central Valley Project. The Bureau claims this profile of the project:

  • Reaches from the Cascade Mountains near Redding in the north some 500 miles to the Tehachapi Mountains near Bakersfield in the south.
  • Is comprised of 20 dams and reservoirs, 11 powerplants, and 500 miles of major canal as well as conduits, tunnels, and related facilities. 
  • Annually delivers about 7 million acre-feet for agriculture, urban, and wildlife use.  
  • Provides about 5 million acre-feet for farms -- enough to irrigate about 3 million acres or approximately one-third of the agricultural land in California. 
  • Furnishes about 600,000 acre-feet for municipal and industrial use, enough to supply close to 1 million households with their water needs each year. 
  • Dedicates 800,000 acre-feet per year to fish and wildlife and their habitat and 410,00 acre-feet to State and Federal wildlife refuges and wetlands pursuant to the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA).  
  • During an average water year, generates about 4.8 billion kilowatt hours of electricity to meet the needs of some 2 million people.

Water Rights Primer

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The State Water Project


The California State Water Project was approved by the legislature in 1959 and bonds for its construction narrowly approved by California voters in November 1960 (Proposition 1). The California Department of Water Resources claims this profile for the State Water Project:

Project Facts and Figures
Number of storage Facilities 33
Lakes/Reservoirs (primary) 21
Total Reservoir Storage 5.8 million acre-feet = 7.2 cubic kilometers
Largest Reservoir Capacity 3.5 million acre-feet = 4.3 cubic kilometers
Largest Reservoir Surface Area 15,810 acres
Longest Reservoir Shoreline 167 miles
Highest Dam Structure 770 feet = 235 meters
Largest Dam Structure 80 million cubic yards = 61 million cubic meters
Longest Dam Crest 42,000 feet = 12,802 meters
Highest Dam Crest Elevation 5,785 feet - 1,763 meters
Length of Canals and Pipelines 701 miles = 1,128.15 kilometers


California Aqueduct
Starting Maximum Pumping/Canal Volumes 10,670 cfs /10,300 CFS
Largest Pumping Capacity 15,450 cfs
Largest Canal Capacity 13,100 cfs
Widest Part of Canal 110 feet
Deepest Part of Canal 32.8 feet
Highest Pump Lift/Volume 1,926 feet = 587 meters/4,480 CF

The Department of Water Resources still claims the overall "Table A amounts" of the State Water Project contractors total 4.23 million acre-feet per year. The project has never in its history delivered that much water, and has delivered no more than about 3.7 million acre-feet in its peak years of 2005 and 2006. During recent drier years, the State Water Project delivered about 2.98 million acre-feet in 2007 and 1.96 million acre-feet in 2008, the most recent years for which data were available.

For more detailed information about the State Water Project see the Department's bond prospectus from 2009 about the Project's operations and financial performance.

Controversy over the project's capacity during droughts led to adoption of the secretly negotiated "Monterey Agreement" in 1994 and project contract amendments in 1995.

Water Rights Primer