Discourse and distraction. In other words, California water policy.

March 20, 2009 § 3 Comments

This may be grim reading.  I’m sorry.

Back in Los Angeles, I’ve had a few days to digest the water policy discussion from the Salmonid Restoration Federation‘s annual conference in Santa Cruz.  Indeed, with the upcoming March for Water on Sunday, I’m thinking about it in the context of local water issues and discussions.

For me, the take home message from Santa Cruz is that the salmonids are the canary in the proverbial coal mine that is California water.  For every culverted road and dammed river or stream, there is a political career at stake or an agency policy exercising an interest group’s political will over our water resources and the life that depends upon them, canaries be damned.

The interest groups – and alliances – are numerous and overwhelming.

And we in Southern California are one of them.  Beyond kvetching about sprinklers running in the rain and people who spray their sidewalks with water, we the public are largely silent.  The piscine “canary” of our local coal mines, the LA and San Gabriel Rivers, is unconscious, our groundwater contaminated and depleted, and we look far afield for water that allows us to live beyond the means of our ecosystem.  The public rarely engages policy makers on these big picture issues.  In one conversation, I was told that people in Sacramento don’t think the public in Southern California cares about protecting northern California’s water.  I am always amused by that argument, given that many cities in central and northern California don’t meter their own residential water users -someone may be ranting about us without even knowing what they consume.  And we SoCal city-dwellers only consume 20% of the water shipped south by the Bay-Delta, and have held water consumption levels relatively stable despite population growth, so we do deserve some props.  Yet as you may have read in an earlier post, I believe we can improve even on that – and hopefully by the end of this, you will feel that to be a worthy goal, if for no other reason than to extricate ourselves from some mind-bending politics.  

I’ve also been told that Sacramento needs us to want the water, so they can keep the projects going. For whom?  The other 80% of exported water goes to agricultural interests, at a nicely subsidized price to keep agricultural production in California competitive.  Now I like California produce, and I absolutely support the idea of locally-grown produce. But at the same time, I hear that some ag interests then re-sell their subsidized water to our utilities (at market rate) while converting ag lands to more sprawl.  

To further complicate the mess, a conference speaker noted that there’s tension between the ag interests around the Bay Delta (around Sacramento) and the West San Joaquin Valley. So it’s not that the ag interests are “all in it together” – they too are competing (or fighting) over this precious resource.  

In addition to farmers, there’s the energy companies and irrigators and fishermen and Indian tribes and of course environmentalists who fight over water.  For a glimpse of how complicated it can be in just one case, check out this blog by Felice Pace at the High Country News, and you’ll see that it’s Yurok and Trout Unlimited and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman vs. Hoopa and Klamath Riverkeeper and the Northcoast Environmental Center, over the relicensing of dams by an energy company. I’m really not clear why anyone’s taking a position to make PacifiCorp’s life easier.

While we argue, a salmon is slamming itself into the wall of a dam, exhausting and injuring itself before it can spawn.  Others are dying in overheated waters, the result of too much water being diverted.  In some people’s opinions, we are beyond talking about fisheries collapsing – they are collapsed.  

And while all enviros deplore the state of salmon, delta smelt and other aquatic life in the Bay Delta, there are plenty of disagreements over solutions. Is the Bay Delta too saline, or not enough?  Does a peripheral canal restore the Bay Delta or not? Are we screwed no matter what we do? Whose scientific charts and graphs are more convincing?  The Blue Ribbon Task Force proposed a restoration vision, but there are critiques from the grassroots.  Yet through much of this arguing, there is a consensus that Southern California will want its water, and has the power to get it.

But! According to an attorney speaking at the conference, only surplus water is supposed to go south.  Surplus meaning that which is left over after the Bay Delta has received enough to maintain its water quality (which has declined over the years) and those with primary water rights (Sac Valley farmers) have gotten their allotments.  These basic principles have been routinely breached in order to ensure that water goes south.  How?  By declaring states of emergency.  Indeed, according to Michael Fitzgeralds at RecordNet.com, the “state and feds wrote contracts promising 130 million acre feet” of water, when the average Delta flow is 29 million acre-feet, resulting in overdrafts of Bay-Delta supplies during the 90s as water agencies in the south cut in line to enforce their entitlements.

(Right about now, my mind is swinging back and forth like an oversized ping-pong ball.)

And then it spills over into social justice issues.  Some enviros have really stuck a stinky foot in the mouth, conflating water consumption in the San Joaquin Valley with immigration and crime (HUH?), while at least one politically-connected Latino organization has taken the position that when we declare emergency drought conditions, flows are restricted (just the opposite of what we heard above). They argue this means unemployment, so we need secure water exports (i.e. infrastructure) in order to keep jobs for Latinos secure.  In other words, peripheral canal = environmental justice.

Meanwhile on the sidelines of the bickering, communities of color in some agricultural areas are simply shafted in terms of access to potable water (it’s contaminated from fertilizers); only through tremendous grass-roots efforts is anyone addressing this.  

Our rivers may be running dry, but the torrent of self-interest runs rampant over legitimate needs, reasonable use, and the longevity of an ecosystem.  How do we get past this to preserve the resources that sustain us, and equitably and fairly distribute the surplus? 

Contemplate what water means to you, to all the life that surrounds you.  People are gathering, March 22, bringing their own unique beliefs and appreciation of water, at the Cornfields/LA State Historic Park at 10am.  March for Water.


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§ 3 Responses to Discourse and distraction. In other words, California water policy.

  • Vicki says:

    Thank you for the information. I don’t know much about dams, but your writing made me wonder if there might be a way to construct future dams so that they don’t deter salmon. Instead of being made of an impermeable wall of concrete, could a dam contain holes of various sizes that would allow salmon to cross but would still serve the purpose of holding back the water and slowing its flow?

  • Jessica Hall says:

    Hi Vicki,
    An earlier post of mine talked about some of the retrofits being done to dams for fish passage. Dams could be built with these strategies in mind. Unfortunately the purpose of a dam is to hold back water, and they also get filled with the sediment that travels downstream with the water – a big management problem both upstream and downstream of the dam. So any holes that you created in it would probably get clogged with sediment (although that may also be a good way to push that stuff on downstream).

    I’m not sure how else you would do this – you pretty much need a dam or weir (or pipes with pumps – and those suck up fish) to divert water.

  • Paula Henson says:

    Thank you for such a well written and sadly disturbing piece.

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