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Sacramento Delta water wars continue

by Bob Morris, published

The water wars of California can get convoluted indeed. Last week, a judge reversed his own decision and ruled that increased water could be pumped from the Sacramento Delta to the Central Valley and L.A. for the following three weeks. The water flow had been decreased to protect salmon, but the judge wasn’t impressed with some of the permits restricting the flow.

So for three weeks increased water will flow, presumably to the detriment of salmon, but certainly to the benefit of farmers and Los Angeles. After those three weeks pass, the salmon are assumed to be okay anyway.

This particular ruling is a microcosm that demonstrates how complicated the battles for water in California can be.  Competing interests vie for water, pitting cities against rural areas, industries against other industries, environmentalists against developers, and of course the 800 pound gorilla to the south, Los Angeles, against everyone else.

Things get further complicated because the rules and regulations tend to be a jumbled patchwork quilt of local, regional, and inter-state interests subject to change at any time, with no particular unifying goals. 

How do we balance competing interests? Should water for salmon (which benefits salmon fishermen) be judged more, less, or equal to water for Central Valley farmers?  If so, who does the judging?

Many of the internal battles for water in California are over water from the Sacramento Delta, which has been steadily drained over a period of decades to provide water for other parts of the state, as well as for farmers in the area via an elaborate system of levees. It is currently the most endangered waterway in the nation.

The levees are earthen, old, and need upgrading. Further, once they were built, the surrounding area dried out then subsided, with the result that much of the area is below sea level and subject to sea water intrusion.

A new study suggests that some of the Delta’s problems are due to ammonium discharges from sewage treatment plants which in turn affect the type of fish that can live there. This would imply that restricting pumping water to protect the smelt serves no purpose.  However, the report was paid for by those who favor more pumping, and while its author says it’s been peer-reviewed, this again demonstrates how complicated water issues can become.

The November ballot will include the California Water Bond Proposition which will fund an $11 billion ($22 billion after interest in paid!) overhaul of the state’s water systems, including the Delta. Predictably, the pro- and anti- forces are lining up for what no doubt will be a bruising fight.

The proposition includes ample amount of pork and will cost the state several hundred billion a year just for interest on the bonds. One of its most controversial measures calls for the removal of the Klamath dams, something which is already causing heated battles. (In a tragic-comic aside, the Schwarzenegger budget includes $1.8 billion of spending from this and some of the money might be spent even before it has passed.)

The real problem of course is that there isn’t enough water to supply all the competing interests. Conservation could certainly help. Do we really need green lawns and golf courses in semi-arid areas and deserts? 

Agricultural interests are able to purchase water at prices far less than municipalities pay, something which seems inequitable. There’s too little water for too many people.

The upcoming California Water Bond Proposition may be the most contentious of all the propositions on the ballot in November.

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