Nick Di Croce: Don’t build dams; stop sending water to poisoned land

May 10, 2014 

Mike Dunbar’s column, “Get ready for water war in Valley” (May 4, Page D1), comes close to hitting the bull’s-eye on water issues facing the Northern San Joaquin Valley, but falls short on one fundamental point.

We agree that mismanagement of Northern California water is creating a zero-sum game, but we disagree that the solution is more storage.

First, the issues on which The Environmental Water Caucus agrees with The Bee’s Opinions Pages editor:

• You don’t “save” a watery environment like the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta by diverting most of its water. Yet, that is exactly what Gov. Jerry Brown and the large south Valley agricultural interests (Westlands Water District and Kern County Water Agency) are proposing under the guise of so-called “co-equal goals,” which is south Valley code for “we get all the water we want, and the rest of you get whatever is left over, if anything.”

• We certainly agree the need for more Tuolumne River water for fish “is reasonable.” The decline of our fisheries is a red-alert warning that water mismanagement threatens all of us: farmers, fishermen and urban residents. Instead of building tunnels to serve a few huge unsustainable mega-growers in the San Joaquin Valley, discussion should be focused on solutions for Delta farming and fishing communities, coastal fishing communities and the health of the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary.

Regardless of what the State Board recommends to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and what FERC does with that recommendation, it is inevitable that if the tunnels are built even more Tuolumne and Stanislaus water will be looked at to fill the freshwater void caused by the tunnels.

• We agree with Dunbar that “linking arms with Delta residents already fighting the tunnels” is essential, and we encourage and welcome all Stanislaus County residents to familiarize themselves with the issue (visit www.ewccalifornia.org) and please join us in this struggle.

• As difficult as it may be for some, we agree with Dunbar’s suggestions to increase irrigation fees for local infrastructure, and assess a surcharge on some water in order to create a war chest for protecting north Valley interests in the courts, media and Legislature.

Now we come to our fundamental disagreement – the premise that an essential element in solving our water problems is more surface storage.

Interestingly, Dunbar acknowledges in the last paragraph of his column that he means “new dams.” There are ways to create more storage short of environmentally and economically unsustainable dams. The obvious one is groundwater storage, which, if done in an environmentally sound manner, we support. There are other, less publicized ways such as meadow restoration and better forestry practices.

Our real problems with the cries for more storage are twofold. First, we never hear from those arguing for more storage any answer to the “elephant in the room” – who should pay for it. Storage projects need to pay for themselves and without shifting costs to the public with the justification of “environmental benefits.”

Second, those suggesting more dams are apparently making the unspoken assumption that there will be sufficient precipitation to fill those new reservoirs. If we continue to experience drought, new dams would go down as the equivalent of Lehman Bros. decision to buy mortgage-backed securities just before the housing bubble burst.

There is a less risky and less expensive way of dealing with the fact that California promises more water than is normally available –retiring much of the selenium, boron, mercury and arsenic contaminated farmland in parts of the south Valley and west side currently served by the Federal Central Valley Project.

Retiring those lands would bring two benefits: freeing up a significant amount of water that could be put to better use, and reducing the amount of highly polluted agricultural waste that now finds its way back to the San Joaquin River and, ultimately, the Delta.

For more information, visit www.ewccalifornia.org/home/index.php and read “Responsible Exports.”

Di Croce is co-facilitator of The Environmental Water Caucus, a coalition of over 30 statewide organizations dedicated to sustainable water management in California.

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