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Mike Dunbar: Southern California has all the water it needs; why doesn’t the Valley?

mdunbar@modbee.comFebruary 22, 2014 


Have you wondered, during this year of unprecedented statewide drought, why you haven’t heard cries of thirsty dismay rising from Southern California and cascading over the Tehachapis? Why the people offering astronomical sums for water are mostly south-valley farmers and not the gargantuan SoCal urban water districts that supply water to 22 million people?

That’s because Southern California is managing its water better than we are ours. Having gotten only modest encouragement to conserve, many Southern Californians don’t even know we’re in a drought. That’s because they have enough water to get through this dry year and most likely another.

We can’t say the same.

Southern California began planning for this drought in 1990. Metropolitan Water District, which could store only 200,000 acre-feet at the time, would have gone dry without rationing that year. So Met tapped Tim Quinn to help solve the problem.

“First, they reduced demand by 25 percent,” said Quinn. “More importantly, they invested $4 to $5 billion in storage.”

Met opened Diamond Valley Reservoir, about the size of Merced’s Lake McClure, in 1999. Met also started storing water underground in Kern County. Now it can store 4 million acre-feet and currently has 2.4 million on tap.

Northern California built no new dams, added little storage and now scraps for every drop.

Two weeks ago, Harris Ranch paid $1,350 per acre-foot in a water auction. Many say that’s water’s true value. But Quinn – a Ph.D. economist and now the executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies – said it actually reflects the value of storage.

“This market signal coming from Kern County is a desperate cry for change,” said Quinn, who calls the state’s lack of storage “downright frightening.”

“The current circumstances underscore why we need to invest in our water system. We need to fix our delta; we need to invest more in storage; we need to continue investing in recycling, desalination, cleaning up groundwater basins – all those things in the governor’s plan. And we need to do them today.”

This week, Gov. Jerry Brown announced a $685 million effort to ameliorate drought effects; the measures will help, but they won’t solve the problem.

Meanwhile, some are trying to profit from the situation. That’s why Buena Vista Water Storage District auctioned off 13,000 acre-feet of water from its fallowed fields.

“I don’t criticize people who are trading water like that, given the sorry state of California’s water system,” said Quinn, who knew of Oakdale Irrigation District’s derailed plan to transfer water to Westlands for $400 an acre-foot. “It would be a mistake to blame the buyers or the sellers – what they’re doing is trying to survive. It’s an indicator of what we need to do to protect our economy.”

Interesting concept, protect our economy.

Do you protect your economy by selling your most valuable asset, or do you put it to use? There’s roughly 1 million acre-feet in a half-full Don Pedro Reservoir. At Kern County prices, that $1.3 billion … if you sell it.

But before you start counting dividends, consider the water’s value to our economy. In 2012, Stanislaus County farmers made $3.3 billion. Roughly 20 percent of the county’s acreage is irrigated by Don Pedro. That’s at least $660 million – but actually much more when you consider that farms in Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts produce higher-value crops.

The same holds true for water in New Melones and McClure. Water in all our reservoirs benefits our economy – but only if we use it. Yes, conservation helps, but without more storage we won’t have it to use.

ACWA supports an $8.2 billion water bond in November. If voters reject it, Quinn believes local governments and water agencies must forge ahead – just as Turlock, Modesto and Merced did 50 years ago and as Met did 25 years ago. If they do, we might weather the next drought a little better.

Oh, and if water scarcity isn’t already frightening enough, here’s another worry: Farmers aren’t the only ones willing to pay top dollar. In that Kern County auction, Cal Heavy Oil offered to buy 350 acre-feet at $1,207 per. What would an oil company want with 114 million gallons of water? We’re not sure, because “Cal Heavy Oil” doesn’t come up in Internet searches; but we can guess. Oil companies inject water and solvents into shale, pushing out oil. It’s called fracking.

Oil companies have very deep pockets.

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