New Clear Vision


constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted


Water Politics

July 07, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Community, Ecology, Martin Zehr, Politics

Balancing Growth with Renewable Supplies

by Martin Zehr, aka Mato Ska

Any study of water management in the state of California that fails to analyze water politics leaves a significant gap in grasping the decisions that have been made in the past and those that will be made in the future.

In addressing California water politics we find profound disparities in power and influence. There are many advocacy groups that represent users and stakeholders throughout the state who are engaged in issues of water quality, water allocations and water diversions. There are lines drawn between coastal municipalities and inland users. There are lines drawn between North and South. There are environmentalists and agribusinesses that project their ritual oppositions in the media. Liberals in San Francisco raise the banner of the Delta smelt, while conservatives on talk shows mock the prioritization of a minnow-like fish ahead of the farm owners and farm workers of the Central Valley.

The irony is that with all the smoke inherent in these conflicts, how do we ever find the fire of the real interests of users in California? One thing is clear, no one lacks the appropriate science and policy advocates in the public arena to plead their case. Here in California it’s called “combat science.” The real substantive political questions remain obscured by the white noise of the advocacy groups.

The essence of sustainability in water politics is working regionally to integrate the objective: balancing growth with renewable supplies. Defining the common needs and mechanisms to accomplish this is a common objective of our neighbors and friends and not a battlefield of the future. If we can make sacrifices in these decisions, our neighbors can do so as well. If we can establish priorities recognizing our neighbors and surrounding communities’ needs, they can as well. But we need to do this without taking from others. And we need to be cognizant of what it is we are expecting of others.

California has manipulated its water law so that it means all things to all people. Public Trust Doctrine has been used to promote private interests receiving takings from other users as a result of state actions. Beneficial uses are so inclusive as to lack any real meaning in regards to distinguishing consumptive use. In California water law doctrine is inclusive of pueblo rights, riparian, prior appropriation, and a separate one for groundwater. Fourteen Federal agencies and 15 state agencies put their hands in the waters of California, and local authorities exist in nine distinct jurisdictional governmental entities (ranging from municipalities to flood control, sanitation and water districts).

This is the face of California water management and administration, but nowhere is there a body that presents the distinct voices of regional water users and stakeholders at the same table. Nowhere do neighbors and community people plan their common destiny in regards to the common resource. Nowhere are the particular interests of water users and stakeholders represented as users and stakeholders within a shared political entity.

The decisions being made within the California State Legislature are NOT the product of the expressions of the concerns and needs of all those impacted by its decisions. The process within the California State Legislature obscures the incorporation of the science and the metrics needed for an accurate assessment of the existing regional uses and supplies of the water resource and/or the impact of the decisions being made on others. The funding mechanisms bear no relation between those benefiting from and those not impacted by the authorizations needed to implement recommendations. As a result, the politics in the State Legislature quickly degenerate into the “art of the deal.”

If we are not talking about talk show polemics or the partisan kabuki fights of FOX vs. MSNBC, what do we mean by water politics? Why are we trying to get out of the current arenas in order to come up with substantive solutions to the issues of water as they impact our neighbors and our communities?

Other Western states do manage their state water supplies without the reliance on diversions that dominate the California aquascape or dependence on massive state bonds having to be approved. In New Mexico, the Office of the State Engineer recently ruled against a 150 mile diversion from Santa Fe to another region on the premise that it was “vague and overbroad.” Other states such as Texas manage to withstand the direct confrontations of regional users working together to define their water allocations and establish sound priorities for them.

Substantive issues such as population growth, decline of freshwater resources, and increasing public health concerns need to be addressed where they are taxing the very resources we need to survive on this planet. And they need to be engaged in a scope and scale that they will change the direction that we are currently headed. We would do well to remember that “the relationship among water, growth, and land use is a global problem that will be resolved most effectively at the local and regional level.”

Population and Water Uses

Agricultural and urban water uses exist side-by-side in any pie graph of water uses for any region. As users address issues of the water resource supplies and demands, the debates focus on one user’s efficiency over the others. When taken out of the regional context, the debate quickly degenerates into accusations where everyone can point at the others for various behaviors that disproportionately impact on efficiency or consumptive uses. When taken within the context of regional uses, it enables everyone to ask: What is important to us all and how do we prioritize our use of limited regional resources?

Often farmers are blamed for raising alfalfa or other high water use crops. Other times they are told by academics or urban advocates how the size (or the business model) of their farms are responsible for corporate domination. Or the type of irrigation used and whether their land has been laser-leveled lies at the root of depleted water supplies. Everyone knows how to farm, just like everyone knows how to teach. When met across a regional planning table, farmers can address the many factors required to maintain a stable business that are beyond the control of them as individuals. It is worth saying here that our agricultural produce supplies have never been tested to the point of famines, as has been seen in nations around the world.

The factor of population is often used to address the issue of water efficiency. Developers and land attorneys actively engaged in the water planning process focus on the efficiency of urban uses without referencing their own financial interests in so doing. Agribusinesses can do so as well. Sustainability is a critical factor, but it is NOT an excuse to invite disaster upon the world’s peoples. In regional planning, the discussions incorporate quantity and quality, and necessarily include effective AND efficient water use by our communities and our neighbors.

Increase in population is inherent in reviewing water management issues and if it is disregarded it is done so at the risk of our well-being. It is worth saying for the uninitiated water advocates that river returns are more often credited to users even when they come from the depletion of underground aquifers, as a result of interstate river compacts. The result of this is that a microchip manufacturer can project an image as highly “efficient” water users in Albuquerque, even while they daily withdraw millions of gallons of water from local users. Rarely, do farmers have water appropriations adjusted when they are returned to surface supplies or when recharged to aquifers by percolation. Municipalities along the Colorado River studied by the Pacific Institute are credited for such return flows. This gives cities a much greener projection than their reality may in fact prove to be and benefits them in the paper water world of accounting.

The use of diversions in California has impacted not only regional supplies, but also impacted on urban water uses. When the water supplies sent to Los Angeles from the Owens River and the Mono basin were reduced, they were replaced by water from MWD sources, and the city also began to emphasize water conservation. In California and elsewhere, we can work to foster a political agenda that addresses preservation of the planet’s ecosystems, as well as the supplies needed in the face of population growth.

Population growth has often been understated as a contributing factor to diminishing water supplies and reducing Delta water exports. Conservation is one technique to lower demand of water for urban regions. It does not address saltwater intrusion. As the Pacific Institute Report states: “The total volume of water withdrawn nationwide in 2005 was lower than it was in 1975, despite substantial economic and population growth. This is a significant achievement, demonstrating that water demand can be successfully delinked from growth.”

Per capita use is one measure of water accounting. It does not measure: impacts on ecosystems, impacts on existing economies of scale, groundwater depletions, carrying capacity of existing water infrastructure, impacts on public services, healthcare and education systems or other consequences of urban sprawl and development. It is unfortunate that the Pacific Institute proposes to encourage public officials to “promote conservation and efficiency” when, absent an open and transparent regional planning process, the result could very well lead to exacerbation of tensions in regards to water supplies predicted by the Department of the Interior in WATER 2025.

Water politics on a statewide level is a continual battle over freshwater supplies between one region and another. Urban users rarely bat an eyelash as water continues to flow from our spigots. But farmers are in crisis every time there is a drought. This political paradigm is manifested in State Legislatures by the partisan divides between Democrats and Republicans. Sustainability will never be brought in to balance the decisions until there is a countervailing force brought in through the elections of strong advocates.

Sustainability is in the interests of all water users, as well as the environment. Regional planning needs to limit diversions and establish concrete objectives in defining sustainable water use by balancing growth with renewable supplies. As a state we will not get there traveling the road that we have chosen to date. There are better alternatives. We can work together. We can plan together.

Martin Zehr is a Green Party member who lives in San Francisco and has been active in water planning in the Middle Rio Grande region of New Mexico. He writes political articles on the need for third parties, the contemporary failures of public education, the Kurdish national movement, and water management and urban planning. He was given the name Mato Ska in a traditional ceremony, and is a Peace and Dignity runner.

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