CA’s water system in need of a fix

A potato field in the San Joaquin Valley gets a drink. (Photo: Richard Thornton, via Shutterstock)

Our wet winter increased the state’s water supply and filled many of our reservoirs. But in many ways, the much-needed relief exposed the failure of the current water system and the lack of a cohesive federal and state plan to secure water for California residents and businesses.

Unlike the commonly used phrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” our state’s water system is widely recognized as broken, in dire need of a fix. How broken?  California’s aging water system, primarily governed through the federal Central Valley Project (CVP) and the State Water Project (SWP), were designed to meet the demands of a population of 19 million residents. There have been minimal infrastructure improvements in the last forty years, and our state cannot meet the current demands of its 38 million residents including urban, business and agricultural users.

Our water policies have taken fresh water and mixed it with salt water and then encouraged water agencies to build plants along the coastline to take the salt out so we could have fresh water again.

But rather than take a comprehensive look at supply and demand, infrastructure, and diverse stakeholder needs, our policymakers seem content to maintain statewide water “policy” that is actually a mash-up of antiquated, competing state and federal rules. These are cobbled together with inflexible environmental regulation, Band-Aid fixes, and unproductive regional dynamics and will not be fixed until Californians demand so.

The dysfunction is exemplified by what is happening with the water that came this winter and spring. Since December 1, 2015, more than 218 billion gallons of fresh water have been released into the ocean, under the Bureau of Reclamation’s interpretation of the federal biological opinions. But once released to the ocean, that desperately needed fresh water was turned into salt water, and lost to urban communities and agriculture.

At the same time that water was released to the sea, state policy has encouraged desalination projects to lessen dependence on water imports. To summarize the dysfunction, our water policies have taken fresh water and mixed it with salt water and then encouraged water agencies to build plants along the coastline to take the salt out so we could have fresh water again. Wouldn’t it make more sense to improve the outdated state water infrastructure and require federal officials to release the maximum amount of water under the Endangered Species Act first? Would ratepayers pay less if they did not have to cover the cost of the construction and operation of new desalination plants?

Equally absurd is that current water policy curtails California farming and pushes agricultural production to other countries, as if there are no environmental issues, cost implications, or job consequences associated with lost farming. Thus far, government restrictions have taken more than 500,000 acres of Central Valley land out of production by making farming too expensive for many small farmers and too risky for most farmers to continue at the same production level. A broken system getting worse with no fix in sight.

A few months ago, I attended a funeral of a dear friend in a dear friend in the small Central Valley farming town of Coalinga. As I stood graveside, I noticed that virtually every plot was brown with only a few exceptions that had green grass and flowers. After the service ended, I asked a groundskeeper what was going on. “A few families bring water with them on their weekly visits, so those gravesites are kept up,” he answered. “For the rest, we have no water.”

It rained this winter, so we do have water. What we lack now is political will to ensure it is used wisely. How much more madness will it take our policymakers to discard our complex, contradictory and unproductive California water policy?

Ed’s Note: Jim Anderson is a fifth generation family farmer in Central California and a Board member of the Westlands Water District.

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