California’s water problems are usually presented as a recent and short-term crisis engendered by the ongoing drought. One or two wet winters, it is largely felt, will solve our problems. This is not the case. California has been operating on a deep and worsening water deficit for decades. Here are some major points to consider:
- California water rights claims exceed the amount of available developed water by 5.5 times. This assures that there will never be enough water to satisfy all stakeholders –no matter how much snow falls in the Sierra.
- Agriculture uses 80 percent of the state’s water, but accounts for only two percent of California’s gross domestic water. Several million acre feet of water are delivered annually from the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta to corporate farms in the San Joaquin Valley at subsidized rates. This water is then used to irrigate impaired lands, leaching toxic selenium from the soil. Polluted “drain water” from these farms is then returned to the San Joaquin River, where it contaminates aquifers and threatens fish, wildlife and human health from Fresno to San Francisco Bay.
- The Brown Administration is promoting a plan dubbed the California WaterFix as a solution to the crisis. The centerpiece component of this scheme is the Twin Tunnels, a massive trans-Delta project that is a retread of the Peripheral Canal scheme that failed to pass muster with voters during Brown’s first tenure as governor in the 1980s. The Twin Tunnels will do nothing to solve California’s water crisis. They are merely a conveyance system; they will not produce a single drop of extra water. The only thing they will do is assure a speedy and expeditious draining of the Delta for the benefit of San Joaquin Valley agribusiness. The Delta’s essential ecosystems will collapse as a result, and the thousands of family farmers who live and work in the region will suffer greatly as their only source of water is curtailed. Rank-and-file ratepayers will be on the hook for the project’s $25-67 billion price tag.
There are effective and sustainable solutions to the state’s water crisis, but all are contingent on a preliminary step: We must quantify and adjudicate all the water in the state. Currently, we don’t know how much water we actually have, or how it is being used. Corporate farmers have resisted all efforts to quantify our water resources, because they know this would result in equitable distribution at their expense. Until we have an accurate quantification of the state’s water, we won’t be able to draft and implement fair and effective water policies.
Integral to any policy reform is a new ethic that emphasizes conservation, recycling, groundwater recharge and development of local sources. Limited desalinization could also be part of the mix in certain coastal locales.