Mon, Jul

Who Owns the Water in California? Whoever Got There First...


ACCORDING TO LIZ - In 1848, before the ink was dry on the document ceding California to the United States, gold flakes were found at Sutter’s Mill 50 miles east of Sacramento. Stripping the gold from the land required large quantities of water.

Due to the influx of fortune-hunters from around the world, the water regulations of the newly-minted state incorporated frontier greed mentality which, along with ‘first in time, first in right’ and ‘use it or lose it’ mantras, precipitated the water crises we face today.

California’s economy was built on unlimited access to rivers and streams for travel and mining and, as the state grew, for fishing, farming, hydro-electric, industry, tourism, and… sewage.

As California grew, so did the power of the profiteers over politicians in Sacramento and Washington who allowed (for their friends, or for a few dollars) the rampant rape of the state’s water and land resources to continue unabated.

Economic greed has transformed California landscapes. Selective logging which is sustainable gave way to clearcutting. Trappers all but exterminated the fur-bearing mammals whose activities contributed to healthy watersheds.

Miners dredged the rivers tearing up what remained of ecosystems, and the use of arsenic in extracting gold from ore created gravel moonscapes that still scar the state a hundred years later.

Salmon, central to the fishing industry and a significant part of indigenous diet and culture, paid a steep price. A hundred years ago, over 80,000 Chinook migrated up the Shasta every autumn. Last year, maybe 4,500.

Colonizers razed habitats for conventional agriculture, built dams, dug ditches to divert water, and otherwise interfered with the natural ecology. Greedy land barons manipulated the laws and used the power of water control (with the backing of Wall Street) to amalgamate patchworks of family farms into industrialized spreads for dairy cattle, and year-round fruit and produce production to feed the whole country. And profit from the water rights was built into these huge holdings.

Hitting the jackpot again and again, with citrus and grapes, almonds and fresh vegetables, milk and meat: the American diet is built on what California produces.

When surface water wasn’t enough, they drilled wells. When the wells failed, they drilled deeper. And decades of unrestricted pumping has left many California aquifers in severe decline.

In the dog-eat-dog expansion of the past century and a half, every entity operated out of selfishness, their sole focus to suck the state dry before the competition could.

As drought and overuse is now accelerating the depletion of the state’s streams and aquifers, California finds itself haunted by promises made to generations of farmers and ranchers of priority access to a dwindling resource with scant oversight.

The state needs to wrest full control back from the estates of the early landowners to ensure water is allocated for the benefit of all Californians – but how to safeguard our rights from the avarice of deep-pocket profiteers who have already found all too effective approaches for manipulating real estate and urban land use?

To fix the problems generated by this history of open-season approach, the state has tried and continues to pursue multiple long-range solutions to address the dangers as climate change increasingly threatens water availability. But has too often been stymied by the power of corporate greed. 

That may have to change.

California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, passed in 2014, was intended to end the overuse and depletion of the state’s aquifers but was watered down (pun intentional) to allow local entities – most likely those who already had their fingers in the allocation cookie jar – to self-determine use instead of dictating science-proven effective strictures.

More recently, State Senator Ben Allen of the western side of Los Angeles County, points out that no other state has “this arbitrary thing that says that you can’t even ask basic questions about the validity of a right” just because the senior rights holders’ documentation has been squirreled away for generations and companies are relying on precedent to justify their water abuses.

The law he authored, Strengthening California’s Antiquated Water Rights System, went into effect at the beginning of January, and authorizes the State Water Resources Control Board to verify the validity and scope of claims to senior water rights in the state.

The water board can now demand more specific information from growers and use satellite data to analyze field evaporation and otherwise verify claims. The cost for illegal water diversion is leap-frogging from $500 to $10,000 a day. Putting the onus on the farmer to figure out how to stay in business.

It’s not just the cost, although that will certainly accelerate as remaining resources become scarcer and more expensive to extract and transport. To survive, some toes are going to get squashed, and some corporate profits squeezed. The question is what sectors will suffer and how decisions are made. And enforced, as conflicts over curtailment will almost certainly be escalated to the Supreme Court.

Back when water was seen as unlimited, California distributed water under a use-it-or-lose-it system. In the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and much of the irrigated Central Valley – the garden for a huge majority of Americans – the farms and water districts that have been in operation for a century or more, before the State’s water board was even established, have first dibs under the old seniority-based system.

Both encourage excess, not conservation, based on the Wild West mentality of the fevered gold rush prospectors. And neither can survive in a world dedicated to share-and-share alike, at least with regards to basic human rights.

And it ignores the unwritten code of the west which was centered on hospitality, fair play, loyalty, and... respect for the land.

But the insatiable demand for water by powerful business interests remains in play, and the state is still moving ahead on the bastard child of the now defunct Twin Tunnels project, the equally destructive Delta Conveyance Project.

Climate change on top of decades of drought that have become the new normal, less snowpack, more evaporation, more use and abuse are draining California’s aquifers.

In the San Joaquin Valley, researchers estimate that more than half a million acres of farmland may need to be taken out of cultivation by 2040 to stabilize the region’s groundwater.

The run-off of over-applied fertilizers and pesticides as well as the effluvia of livestock and poultry operations are poisoning our water and sickening people and other animals.

And it’s not only agriculture – mining continues to pollute watersheds, every frack to squeeze more oil from below the surface takes a million gallons and, because of the poisonous chemicals used in the proprietary soup, are not recyclable.

Other industries rely on water to cool their machinery and remove their pollutants.

California still derives a significant income from tourists who come to see the pristine vistas and boat on its waterways.

The costs of this wasted water end up being borne by DWP and other urban ratepayers who fall far below the senior rights holders in the grand scale of water use.

Water sustains jobs and livelihoods across the state’s economy, which outranks those of all but a handful of nations.

But California may soon confront the mirror opposite of water scarcity. The yo-yo of rainfall patterns is making California even more susceptible to the risks of flooding – area-specific run-offs over land hardened by drought, mudslides where wildfires have laid bare the topsoil, and the very real threat of another hundred-year flood such as the one that devastated the state in 1862.

For which there is a 65% probability of recurrence by 2065. Infrastructure would collapse from the coast to the Inland Empire. Lucy Jones predicts that 10% of our housing would be lost: vast areas that were under water in 1862 are now housing developments. The DWP has warned that there would be no potable water, no fuel, no pumping, no internet...

(Liz Amsden is a contributor to CityWatch and an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions.  In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)