Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Last Water Grab in California

When lawmakers in California approved the $11-billion water bond package that will appear on this November's ballot, the state was in its third year of drought. The winter storms came late this year, but nonetheless, covered the Sierra in snow. The state's biggest reservoir, Lake Shasta, is nearly full. After the wet season, statewide precipitation was at 115% of average for the year, reservoir storage was at 95% and runoff at 80%. By standard measures, California's three-year drought should be over, but water problems in California are not. Californian politicians have debated for decades how to modernize and expand their water system, which depends on aqueducts, reservoirs and pipelines, some dating from the early 20th century. To gain momentum and have the legislature act took three years of drought and court-ordered supply restrictions impacting the $36 billion-a-year agriculture industry.
Southern California with the largest population centers has an extremely limited natural supply of water. Generations ago water rights were obtained and after diverting all the water from the Owens Valley to LA it began importing water from other sources and recycling all the water it could, but it is far from enough to quench the thirst of Southern California. About half the water used in Southern California comes from the Colorado River Basin and from Northern California through the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta. The remainder is from regional sources and water recycled from waste water treatment plants. The Colorado River Basin, a significant water source for Southern California, remains stuck in a long-term drought. Environmental restrictions on pumping water from Northern California will continue to reduce exports to the south.
The bond package which will appear on the fall’s ballot includes the establishment of a Delta Stewardship Council to advance the co-equal goals of ecosystem restoration and water supply reliability. Californians just love words with “co” in it, co-equal, co-workers, co-operation… Council members have been selected and the organization is up and running. Delta governance institutions such as the Delta Conservancy, the Delta Protection Commission and the California Water Commission will be created or updated to protect their particular economic interests when allocating water to ecosystem restoration and economic strategy of the framework. The bond measures also require the Department of Water Resources (DWR) to establish a schedule for the monitoring of groundwater basins. And finally, the bills require the development of agricultural water management plans and require urban water agencies to reduce statewide per capita water consumption 20 % by 2020. What we are talking about here is controlling groundwater and rationing water for individual use. The allocation of the water will determine wealth and power.
In an arid environment, like much of California, water is often diverted from streams and transported, sometimes great distances, to farms, cities, and towns. Developing surface water supplies requires two intensive expensive efforts. The first is to plan, build, and maintain a surface water transport project. This entails building diversion structures, a distribution system, and storage reservoirs. The second is administrating and maintaining the system, including developing information about and monitoring the physical setting and enforcing agreements and allocations. Managing water allocations in California is very much managing the economy of the state. As water demand raises past supply the regulatory scheme or the state economies are doomed to failure. We are incapable of designing the right economy to allocate scarce resources to over time. What is right for today is not adoptive to the future. Central planning and allocation are too rigid to adopt. California’s economy is doomed. The limitations of the water supply will facilitate the central control of the economy. In the past, private wells have allowed a certain freedom of action, but that time is coming to an end.
Typically, groundwater supplies about 30 percent of California’s urban and agricultural uses. In dry years, groundwater use increases to about 40 percent statewide and 60% or more in some regions. The current water bond measures proposes a method to monitor and regulate the water basins that are the groundwater reserves in California. In adopting groundwater codes, most western states extended the prior appropriation doctrine to cover groundwater. Unfortunately, hydrology determines the long term success of prior appropriation as a groundwater management scheme and politics cannot control hydrology. California currently has a total of 27 local ordinances under which local governments attempt to regulate groundwater, but there appears to be no plan for developing a sustainable water budget for the state. In the past there has been limited monitoring of groundwater levels and use so that a accurate water budget could not be developed and the state has had no methods to prevent the mining of the groundwater. The current series of bills do not address developing a water budget for the state that is sustainable and an allocation that will assure the future of California, but simply a transfer of the wealth that the water represents to whomever the politicians choose.

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