‘Wasting water? Think Again – The Santa Barbara Independent
Here in Santa Barbara, the water crisis generates anxiety, but also reasoned and reasonable responses, from conservation to limited desalination. But in the San Joaquin Valley, the anxiety turned into sheer fear and anger.
You see it in the signs. They are as ubiquitous as almond trees, tumbleweeds and hares. The wording differs from sign to sign, but the message is the same: Stop dumping our water into the ocean. Build more dams. Stop wasting water from our dam.
It is a natural response to a crisis situation. California agriculture depends on water, and anxiety naturally rises in farming communities across the valley as reservoir levels drop and aquifers are depleted.
But the signs also represent polarized thinking that does not reflect reality and point to no practical solution to our water dilemma. There are several constituencies for California water, and all of them must have a seat at the table. Water is a public resource and must be shared equitably.
Similarly, its storage and transport may not infringe – and unfairly – the rights of any party involved.
The simple fact is this: the water flowing from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, through their common delta, and out of the Golden Gate is not wasted water. It is a dedicated resource that ensures acceptable water quality for cities, family farms in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, and a bay/delta estuary rich in fish and wildlife.
Agriculture consumes 80% of the water developed in California, but it represents only 2% of the state’s GDP. Much of this water is used to irrigate factory farms in the western San Joaquin Valley.
But back to the dams. If we just build more reservoirs, won’t there be plenty of water for everyone?
We already have a lot of reservoirs; every river in California that can be dammed has been, except a few that have been granted “Wild and Scenic” status. The problem is that there is not enough water to fill the tanks we have. An example is Lake Cachuma. Another is Lake Shasta – the main source of water for the huge Central Valley project. It is now approaching its lowest level on record. Virtually every other major reservoir in the state is in the same situation. New reservoirs are worth nothing if we don’t have enough water to fill them.
In addition, many of the dams currently in use flout the law. Section 5937 of the State Fish and Game Code requires owners of dams to “…allow sufficient water at all times…to pass over, around, or through the dam, to maintain in good condition any fish that can be planted or exist under the dam. ”
This necessarily involves letting water flow in its natural course to the sea, keeping temperatures cold in our rivers, and creating brackish conditions in our estuaries that allow native fish and wildlife to thrive.
Despite this unambiguous language, dam operators have generally not complied with Section 5937, nor have state agencies enforced it. Ongoing lawsuits are likely to affect this situation, however, further complicating the approval and construction of new impoundments.
Another inconvenient truth: demands for water rights currently exceed the amount of water available in California by more than five times. New tanks cannot begin to make up for this shortfall. We need to accurately quantify how much water we have and are likely to have as the climate changes, and plan accordingly – not waste taxpayers’ money and cause environmental havoc with new dams.
Pragmatic and cost-effective drought strategies are numerous and include conservation, recycling, aquifer recharge, and the removal of hundreds of thousands of acres of salt-laden irrigated cropland in the western San Joaquin Valley. With these measures, we will have enough water for cities, responsible agriculture and the natural systems that sustain us all.
Carolee Krieger is executive director of the California Water Impact Network.