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Big Ag wins big in California

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felicep | Nov 11, 2009 06:16 PM

Depending on who you listen too, sweeping water-related legislation recently enacted in California is either a solution to the states water conflicts, a recipe for increased conflict and the domination of corporate water brokers, or a partial step forward that will succeed or fail depending on future legislative and administrative actions.

Here’s how Lester Snow, director of the California Department of Water Resources, described the package of bills and the $11.14 billion water bond needed to fund them:
           “This package represents a new approach for California---total water resource management, including conservation, water recycling, habitat restoration, water storage and many other water management actions….. This package represents a significant shift in water management that will serve as a platform to address 21st century water needs.”

Others – including the California Water Impact Network (C-WIN) – believe that the legislation and bond package is a step backward for California Water Management. They believe the legislation could ultimately make it possible for powerful Southern California agricultural and development interests to grab more of Northern California’s water by building new reservoirs in the north and a large new canal to by-pass the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Here’s an excerpt from a C-WIN letter to legislators about the package of bills which has now passed into law: 
            “C-WIN firmly believes that California has enough water to meet all its needs. California does not have enough water to continue wasteful and unreasonable uses that harm public trust resources and compromise our state’s agricultural, economic, and environmental future. There is no real surplus water anywhere in northern California to fill a Peripheral Canal, even if it is built.” (emphasis is from the original)

C-WIN’s concerns that the legislation will facilitate renewed efforts to divert more Northern California water south have been echoed in the Klamath River Basin where the Hoopa Tribe and others battled for years to restore some of the water previously diverted South in order to restore the Trinity River, the Klamath’s largest tributary. Part of the funds for removal of four Klamath River dams is included in the $11.14 billion bond package which will go to voters in 2010. However, some Klamath watchers fear that construction of new dams and reservoirs and the Peripheral Canal will result in renewed efforts by powerful agricultural and development interests to divert Klamath River water south

The package of bills contains a call for a 20% reduction in urban water use but contains no similar goals for agriculture. Agriculture currently consumes 80% of California’s water supply and numerous studies indicate that substantial water savings are possible in the agricultural sector. Irrigation interests, however, have resisted meaningful water conservation. By controlling more water these farm corporations will be in a stronger position to earn income as water brokers. It is the potential for substantial water savings in the agricultural sector which leads C-WIN and others to suggest that new dams, storage reservoirs and canals are not needed.

One of the most respected voices in California Water – Dr. Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute – has taken a different view of the water legislation:
       “What will be the ultimate outcome? Are we going to be better off with this bill than with no bill? Will California legislators now say they are done dealing with water, and refuse to tackle the unaddressed, partially addressed, or badly addressed issues? If so, then this package isn't going to be nearly enough. But if instead legislators and other water interests treat it as a beginning, not an end, and work to build and improve on the good pieces, it could be a major step forward. We'll have to wait and see how it changes our actual water problems.” 

Doctor Gleick identifies four major California water “problems” which the legislation has not addressed including:
       1. Insufficient monitoring of water use – especially groundwater use;
       2. Lack of adequate political will and funding to enforce existing water rights – including ending the epidemic of illegal water use;
       3. Lack of a requirement that the state’s largest water user – agriculture – implement water conservation, and
       4. Lack of user fees for water users which would incentivized conservation and provide stable funding for maintaining and improving California’s water infrastructure.  

Gleick believes these four issues must also be addressed if the new legislation is to prove out as “a major step forward.”

As generally happens when there is major legislation affecting the environment, the environmental community split over whether to support or oppose the legislation. And, as is usually the case, the split was generally along the grassroots-national divide. In spite of the fact that they are members of the Restore the Delta coalition which opposed the legislation, the Natural Resources Defense Council supported the legislation as did the Environmental Defense Fund and The Nature Conservancy.  Opposing the legislation were a host of local and regional organizations ranging from the California Sportsfishing Protection Alliance and Clean Water Action to the Stockton Chamber of Commerce.

Largely absent from the legislative debate over the future of California water were the state’s 108 federally recognized Indian tribes. Many of these tribes have potential reserved water rights which, if they were asserted, could be a significant wildcard in California water politics. Federal tribes could also begin pumping and selling groundwater supplies which are already being over-exploited without fear of interference from state or local governments.

While powerful agricultural interests were helping draft water legislation behind closed doors, however, tribal and other Native leaders were listening to speeches and attending luncheons as part of a “Tribal Water Summit” hosted by the California Department of Water Resources. Individuals who attended report that nothing of significance took place during the Summit.  For now at least, the tribal water wildcard is not being played in California. 

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