Carolee Krieger: The real California water crisis
Carolee Krieger is executive director of the Santa Barbara-based California Water Impact Network.
Sunday, March 23, 2014
The recent deluge notwithstanding, California remains gripped by the worst drought in decades. Farms and some cities already are feeling the impact.
But while drought is a natural phenomenon, the state’s water crisis is a fabricated event. We have enough water in California to serve our urban populations and support sustainable farming. But we have no water to waste and we certainly can’t allow the privatization of our most essential public resource.
Ironically, Southern California is in a better position than the North State to weather the current drought because it has established responsible conservation and recycling protocols and invested heavily in the development of local sources.
But even these measures will prove insufficient in a prolonged drought. To achieve water security for California, we need to change state water policy. In other words, we need to change the way water is obtained and distributed.
Here’s what must be done:
n Adjust water rights permits to the amount of water that is available. Currently, water rights permits outstrip the water that exists by fivefold. Water that is claimed above established supplies is known as “paper water,” and is used by corporate agriculture and water speculators to promote unsustainable farming and urban sprawl.
n Reinstate the “urban preference” that was abolished by the Monterey Plus Amendments, the 1997 behind-closed-doors pact between large water contractors and the state Department of Water Resources. This deal eliminated the established priority of urban areas over agriculture during droughts, greatly jeopardizing the water security for our cities.
n Return the Kern Water Bank to the public. This capacious aquifer west of Bakersfield can hold up to 1 million acre-feet of water and originally was reserved for the use of South State cities during drought.
The Monterey Plus Amendments allowed private interests to establish control of this erstwhile public resource; it is now managed for the benefit of Paramount Farms, a Roll Corp. subsidiary owned by Stewart and Lynda Resnick, major players in the state Democratic Party and close friends of Gov. Jerry Brown.
The transfer of the Kern Water Bank to private interests was an outrage. This indispensable water resource must be restored to public control.
n Establish ambitious programs for water conservation, recycling, aquifer recharge, stormwater capture and groundwater and marine desalinization. Combined, these efforts will produce up to 5 million acre-feet of additional water for California. That’s enough to meet the needs of 15 million to 20 million people.
n Implement agricultural reforms. Agriculture uses 80 percent of the water in California and much of it is applied through wasteful methods. Hundreds of thousands of acres of drainage-impaired land in the western San Joaquin Valley are irrigated with taxpayer-subsidized water, charging the San Joaquin River and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta/San Francisco Bay estuary with toxic levels of selenium.
We must require corporate agriculture to reduce water consumption by at least 30 percent. This will require land retirement in the western San Joaquin and in areas where water supplies can’t be sustained, a reduction of water-intensive crops such as pistachios, pomegranates, almonds and walnuts.
n Restrict all Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta diversions — including State Water Project and Central Valley Project exports — to 3 million acre-feet a year. Multiple peer-reviewed studies confirm pumping beyond this figure greatly degrades the richest estuary on the West Coast of the continental United States.
We don’t have to destroy the Delta’s rich fisheries and abundant wildlife to satisfy our water requirements.
The drought is a wake-up call, reminding Californians we live in a semiarid state. It is imperative that we heed the alarm. We can live within our means and prosper — but the first step is facing reality. The second is acting with dispatch.