Water is simple. It’s made of just two elements — hydrogen and oxygen. It falls from the sky and it covers two-thirds of the Earth.
Complications arise when trying to get fresh water from the mountains where it falls as snow, or the rivers where it swishes through the Golden State to 38 million thirsty people.
While it starts as rain or snow, potable water for the state comes from a number of places.
Ninety-five percent of it comes from the snowpack of the Sierra Nevada.
The State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project deliver melted snowpack mostly through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a complex estuary where fresh water meanders next to the salty Pacific Ocean waters. Two-thirds of all residents — including most farmers — rely on the Delta and the 700 miles of channels, levees and sloughs for life-sustaining, economy-building, crop-producing water.
The melted snowpack supports fish, animals, homes, offices, industrial uses and farmers in a state whose population could grow to 53 million people by 2030.
Additionally, the Colorado River Aqueduct is capable of delivering 1 billion gallons a day to Southern California, though the actual allocated amount has been reduced in recent years.
As the region enters the fourth year of a drought, supplies from Northern California have been curtailed to 5 percent. More water is being pumped from the Colorado River. For example, the city of Los Angeles — which built its own aqueduct 100 years ago down Highway 393 from the Owens Valley near Mammoth — is now relying on imported water from the state for 50 percent of its supply. Thirty years ago it imported 70 percent from the L.A. Aqueduct — but that has nearly dried up.
Local water runs from local mountains into local wells. Watersheds or highlands that capture fresh water include the Santa Monica and San Gabriel mountains. Rain and snow from here feed underground aquifers in the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena area, San Gabriel Valley, Central Basin, West Basin, Chino Basin and from the Santa Ana River into the Inland Empire.
The last source of water, what is flushed down toilets, sinks and through washing machines, is being recycled and used for irrigation and replenishing groundwater basins.
The most expensive, but largest, source of potential potable water, the ocean, is a new frontier. Poseidon Water is building the largest desalination plant in the West in Carlsbad. The entire state is watching to see if it can overcome concerns about cost and environmental impacts. If it succeeds, more than a dozen other projects have been proposed around the state to tap the vast ocean and help provide for California’s water future.