New Clear Vision


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California Streaming

July 28, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Ecology, Martin Zehr, Politics

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Moving from Water Wars to Collaborative Management

by Martin Zehr, aka Mato Ska

Groundwater in California is the focus of the latest water war between water users in the North and users in the South. Some 38% of water used in the state comes from groundwater mining. The battlefield of this war is the Central Valley of California and the Central Valley Aquifer.

Norris Hundley estimated California’s groundwater reserves in his book, The Great Thirst, amounting to 850 million acre-feet, with the caveat that less than half that amount was usable. Running from the Sacramento Valley to the San Joaquin Valley this aquifer circulates roughly 2 million acre feet of water/per year. Withdrawals account for roughly 11.5 million acre ft./yr., according to the Groundwater Atlas of the United States. In December 2009, satellite-imaging projected the loss of 30 cubic kilometers of water since 2003, which is creating an unprecedented political struggle in the state of California.

Recently a bill was introduced promoting the secession of the Central Valley counties into a new state. The significance of this lies in the polarization that it demonstrates in the state between water users as represented geographically (between North and South) and politically (between Democrats and Republicans). We should review this situation in an appropriate context and recognize the validity of all people seeking representation of their ecological needs and concerns. It is most revealing that those who drew the map of this new state failed to include Los Angeles and other coastal regions in the south within the new borders.

The recent report of the Public Policy Institute of California, documented the frequent overdraft in the Tulare and Salinas Basins of the Central Valley.  The study proposes the end of the overdraft which is causing subsidence and lowering of the water table. The report proposes the need to establish state infrastructure to measure and monitor groundwater. Its review of “A Way Forward” describes the road traveled:

“California’s failure to regulate groundwater has harmed fish and aquatic life in related streams, compromised groundwater quality, generated conflicts among water users, and hindered the development of groundwater banking and water marketing. Comprehensive basin management, which treats groundwater and surface water in an integrated, sustainable manner, is needed to improve economic and environmental performance of California’s water system.”

Its description of the road forward proposes “comprehensive basin management.” It is unfortunate that the writers propose such management in order to “facilitate banking and related water transfers.” The idea that we will be able to map out the aquifers and quantify the groundwater resource would seem to be a long way from the current state of the science. This statement is subject to challenge by those with more scientific background than me. The satellite-imaging data may provide such a capacity.

The hydro-political scenario of a California water secessionist movement is the product of a one party rule of California’s urban governing entities. It is the product of unsustainable population growth that neither party wants to address for their own narrow interests. No one benefits, so long as diversions end the argument. Like the budget deficit talks, both parties prefer to just “kick the can down the road.” Neither political party is prepared to address the structural reforms needed to address adaptive governance. Conjunctive management will happen but it will not solve the issues between Delta users and Central Valley users. Why? Because the concerns are different.

Those calling for secession are right. There will be no representation under the status quo. California water is not governable under the existing paradigm. What we are dealing with is a distinct population of millions, who are knowingly disregarded by a one party system. The sick joke is not the legislation to secede. The sick joke is the power monopolized by the urban centers of the state who manipulate government and public opinion. Groundwater is no different from the other aspects of the water resource — whether supply and demand, monitoring and measurement, water quality or establishing priorities. Until we truly govern together, we cannot manage by ourselves.

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The California Water War has faced its Fort Sumter. The recent introduction of a secession bill in the California State Legislature has revealed the profound character of the division between water users in the state. Coming as it did after the battle of the peripheral canal being fought to a stalemate; it is overdue that we begin to focus on peace talks in Sacramento. We see in this battle all the indicators of a protracted war as were demonstrated after the first battle of Bull Run. But let’s avoid too much literary license in the comparison with the Civil War.

The issue is water appropriation, or more precisely water diversions. It has been a long time policy for the state of California to seize control of the water resource through various measures including defining in stream flow as a beneficial use, invoking the Public Trust Doctrine, building massive projects to transfer huge amounts of water from one region to another and failing to utilize sources other than freshwater supplies to address regional resource needs. The question is “Where the balance is in this picture?” Or more precisely “Why is there no rational state water policy that establishes consistency in water planning?”

The only consistency to date has been in the willingness to try and placate movers and shakers at the expense of the marginalized. When Arnold Schwarzenegger claimed that “we can have it all” in California water, he clearly misrepresented the current state of affairs. Who is “we” when some of “us” just had our supplies taken from us and when does “all” include what had been “mine” and I still need? What is fair and just about that? How can we (and you) have it all (including what was taken from me and given to him)?

What is seen is that the scale, scope and impacts of the projected uses and allocations are far beyond the realm of accurate quantification. It becomes much too easy for “combat science” to take the place of accurate science in arguing the case for yet another diversion. What is also seen is that the issue of sustainability is twisted to the point that it is no longer recognized as a functioning tool in policy making.

As a Green I am unequivocally committed to the integration of human habitation with the world around us. But, never have I seen or heard of the number and scale of diversions as have been proliferated in this state. Never have I seen a more conflated mishmash of water law that makes regional management so profoundly complicated. Never have I seen a state legislature so intimately involved in water administration.

Regional efforts have produced substantive proposals and established goals based on their regional circumstances such as the Santa Cruz report “CONSERVATION BLUEPRINT: AN ASSESSMENT AND RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE LAND TRUST OF SANTA CRUZ.” The report initially characterized the region’s challenges as follows: “Our water supplies are not sufficient to meet long-­term residential and agricultural demand…. Water shortages and pollution, habitat loss and fragmentation, climate change, and threats to the viability of local agriculture, are among the many conservation challenges that we must continue to address in the 21st century.” But they are able to establish a proposed set of water objectives: “Water Resources: 1. Protect water supplies to ensure long-term drinking water availability and to meet the needs of local industry, agriculture, and the natural environment. 2. Protect and enhance water quality in natural, urban, and agricultural landscapes. 3. Maintain watershed integrity and ensure resilience to climate change.”

The recent report from Stanford provides a plethora of examples of regional groundwater management in the state with various models for others. Likewise a recent publication, “REGIONAL PLANNING IN AMERICA: PRACTICE AND PROSPECT,” of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policies provides other models of regional planning from across the nation. It is clear that things are happening at the regional levels in land and water planning. And it is clear that the incentives for regions to prioritize their own plans for land and water use have increased as population continues to grow. What is equally clear is that the presumptive diversions of water by the state of California and the State Legislature in water continue to preclude a sound and holistic approach by regional entities to land and water planning.

The first step in Sacramento is to establish a consistent regional planning template that provides real sustainability in the planning process within watersheds and water basins. Indeed, the war between the regions is avoidable when regions are given the autonomy to be self-reliant. There is no question that this will entail a new meaning for sustainability. But it is equally apparent that only the seeds of conflict lie in maintaining the status quo. A scenario addressing regional long-term planning processes that are open and transparent provides a real alternative.

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.

1 Comments to “California Streaming”


  1. This timely article taps into an ongoing set of debates about water in CA, and serves as a harbinger for other areas as well, as reflected in this recent LA Times op-ed: http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-hanson-california-water-wars-ce20110807,0,6896021.story

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