Mark Twain once famously said “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.” That was 150 years ago and those words still ring true today, at least in California. Now in our fourth year of drought, the water wars have begun. Today the fighting over water is not with bullets but with lawsuits and legislation.
California has always had great variances in rainfall. Dry spells have occurred on and off for centuries. That’s not unusual. What is unusual, though, is California’s inability to plan for the future needs of its citizens. In spite of an ever-growing population, California has not built a major reservoir or dam in almost 40 years - at a time when the state’s population was half what it is today. California’s unwillingness to build reservoirs and dams that could store water in above-average rain and snow years for the dry years we know will come does not serve the public’s best interests. Coastal cities that refuse to consider building desalination plants which could provide them with a more reliable water supply than water from the delta also shows poor planning.
But these bad policies pale in comparison to the State Water Board’s attempt to force irrigation districts to divert 350,000 acre feet of water from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers, supposedly to protect fish. The economic impact to our region is estimated to be at least an $800 million dollar loss, idling 120,000 acres of farmland. Such a reallocation of water would have a catastrophic effect on our region. The State Water Board refers to this as “significant but unavoidable.” I would agree that a loss of surface water of this magnitude is significant but it is certainly not unavoidable.
At the same time that the State Water Board is trying to take significant amounts of water from cities and agriculture that depend on this water, the State of California is demanding we develop policies for sustainable groundwater. The State Board refuses to recognize that irrigation water is the single most important element in recharging ground water. The loss of surface water will unquestionably lead to increased groundwater pumping and further degradation of groundwater basins.
Assembly Bill 1242, authored by Assembly member Adam Gray, would require the State Water Resources Control Board to first identify other ways to protect fish before taking water from human use. That’s a significant improvement over how the State Water Board has planned to do business. At the AB1242 hearing before the assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, this bill was supported by cities, counties, agriculture and the business community while environmental organizations opposed it. The bill passed, though narrowly.
What happened next? Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins kicked Adam Gray off of the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee. Gray has served on this committee since being elected to the Assembly. Apparently this was his punishment for representing the best interests of his district. Fortunately Gray’s bill is still moving through the Assembly.
If only Mark Twain were here to see it.
Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini represents the 5th Supervisorial District, which includes the West Side.