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Climate Change Will Turn Up the Heat on California's Water Wars

A new report on how climate change could affect the viability of California's vineyards puts water rights in the spotlight again
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Apr 12, 2013 5:00pm ET

If you've never seen the movie Chinatown, now's a perfect time, as water rights issues are as hot a topic today in the Golden State as they were during the "California Water Wars," which began at the turn of the 20th century and serve as the backdrop to the classic film.

A report on climate change published by the National Academies of Sciences earlier this month is bringing California's seemingly endless disputes over water rights sharply into focus, especially as they pertain to the wine industry. The international team of researchers that conducted the study made predictions about where vineyards will and won't be viable by the year 2050, and my colleague Dana Nigro provided a full analysis of their findings earlier this week.

As the report pertains to California, the scientists predict that 70 percent of the area currently suitable for viticulture here will no longer be viable by the year 2050—that is, without the use of adaptive measures such as irrigation or misting vineyards to cool them off. Factoring in the areas of California that will become viable for quality grapegrowing as a result of climate change, the net loss of California vineyard land becomes 60 percent by 2050.

For a state that already seems to have nowhere near enough water to spread around, those are unnerving numbers.

Whenever California's water woes come up, which is often, I'm drawn back to Chinatown. Directed by Roman Polanski, it stars Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston. Aside from being a clever murder mystery that takes place in and around Los Angeles in the 1930s, it tells the story of the original California Water Wars.

In the early 1900s, Los Angeles had outgrown its water supply. To solve the problem, then-mayor Frederick Eaton devised a plan, along with his friend and L.A. water department superintendent William Mulholland, to divert water from the Sierra Nevada runoff-fed Owens Valley in eastern California via an aqueduct to L.A. Through a series of shady maneuvers and raw deals for Owens Valley farmers, their plan went through, and the aqueduct was completed in 1913. Los Angeles siphoned off so much water that, by 1924, the Owens Lake had dried up. Angry Owens Valley farmers went so far as dynamiting the aqueduct, but within a few years, the valley's agriculture industry had completely withered away, and those willing to fight the city along with it.

In the 1930s, with Owens Lake exhausted, the unquenchable L.A. moved on to the next body of water, extending the aqueduct north to Mono Lake, sucking it nearly dry as well.

It wasn't until the 1970s and '80s that litigation through the courts started regulating Southern California's water usage with any sort of teeth, and even now, despite a 1994 state mandate requiring L.A. to raise the level of Mono Lake by 20 feet (still well below its pre-aqueduct level), it remains shallow.

Water, who owns it, who deserves it and where it flows has been a hot-button issue for Californians for more than a century. Southern California is a desert oasis only made possible by funneling water from the northern riverways to the southern half of the state. The lack of a cohesive strategy to conserve and protect this resource underscores the paralysis facing California—with the more populous southern half of the state holding the power of the vote, it's largely up to the courts to protect the agricultural north and its ecosystems.

With climate change on the horizon, the fight for water in California is going to be accompanied by a rush for the land newly suited to agriculture, especially vineyards with domestic wine consumption continuing to rise. Sustainable winegrowing and water-use reduction techniques will become increasingly valuable as well. Mindful of this, some of California's biggest wine producers like Gallo and Kendall-Jackson are already preparing for the future.

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