Opinion Columns & Blogs

February 15, 2009

When you start pricing water, you see why people fight over it

Hopefully, you're listening to the rain on your roof as you read this. If not, here's what you'll be hearing soon: Angry words. Accusations. Political backbiting and the results of backroom deals ... and, naturally, the rustle of dry, brown grass.

Some of that noise already has begun.

Rep. George Radanovich recently called environmentalists "eco-terrorists" for their demands of water to protect fish. Not a nice thing to say, but nicer than what one environmentalist recently spouted.

Lloyd Carter -- a former journalist and San Joaquin Valley water expert whose thoughts have appeared in The Bee -- tried to swallow his foot (muddy boot and all) while talking to Fresno TV station KMPH. When asked about projections that thousands of farmworkers soon will be unemployed because water once used for agriculture now keeps endangered fish alive, Carter blurted out:

"They're not even American citizens, for starters. Do you think we should employ illegal aliens? What parent raises their child to be a farmworker? These kids are the least educated people in America. ... They go on welfare. They get into drug trafficking and they join gangs."

Reps. Dennis Cardoza, Jim Costa and Radanovich rightfully excoriated Carter in an open letter. (They've been writing lots of letters lately.)

Carter apologized for all but one of his remarks. He noted that even farmworkers don't want their kids to grow up to be farmworkers.

Maybe they should be water salesmen.

Experts are saying an acre-foot (325,000 gallons) will cost $500 or more by spring. Some say it could reach $1,000.

Last month, the Napa Register reported that the city of Napa agreed to pay $3.45 million for permanent rights to 1,100 acre-feet of state water allotted to Yountville. Some years, Napa will get the water and some years -- like this year -- it probably won't. No one knows water's true value because there is no real market, just separate deals overseen by the state.

So what's water worth around here?

Irrigation rates have not been finalized, but farmers in Turlock likely will pay somewhere around $6 an acre-foot. Modesto Irrigation District staff is recommending around $10 an acre-foot for a base allocation of 30 inches. Oakdale farmers pay by time, but it works out to around $5 an acre-foot.

There's a catch: Area farmers are limited in how much water they can get ... just like everybody else.

For instance, the Marin County town of Bolinas says 150 gallons a day is all you get; use more and your water will be shut off.

The mayor of Los Angeles is asking for cutbacks and insisting on penalties for watering lawns more than twice a week. And the Metropolitan Water District, which provides water for 19 million Southern Californians, wants more pricing tiers. In the highest, users would pay $5 for 750 gallons -- or $2,400 an acre-foot.

Farmers south of us probably would pay that cost -- if they could get the water. The federal Central Valley Project, which provides water to more than 215 districts, cities and utilities, has signaled that most of its customers won't get any water this year -- due partly to drought and partly to "higher" claims on the water. That caused Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, to declare that "we get to watch the fall of modern civilization in the San Joaquin Valley."

What passes for civilization in far Southern California should be wet enough. San Diego gets about a third of its water from the delta, about half from the Colorado River and the rest from the southern Sierra. The Rockies' snowpack is at 102 percent of "normal" and the southern Sierra is at 70 percent.

In the central Sierra, we're at about 60 percent of normal after this week's rains.

No need to panic. Don Pedro Reservoir has 1.1 million acre-feet -- enough to cover the state of Delaware a foot deep. That water belongs to the Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts, and much of it irrigates our fields and orchards, though some flows from taps in Modesto, Salida and elsewhere.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River also has 1.1 million acre-feet, part of which irrigates fields in Oakdale, Ripon, Escalon and Manteca. But the amount flowing from New Melones will be cut, reducing the number of times farmers can irrigate.

So yes, we're being asked to conserve. But we're not likely to run out. And that makes others envious.

For those who would like to buy someone else's water, there are problems. Without a functional marketplace, it's hard to make transfers between willing sellers and buyers. One of Gov. Schwarzenegger's solutions to last year's drought conditions was to make it easier to transfer water.

Cardoza, Costa and Radanovich co-wrote a letter asking the governor to even further streamline regulations expediting water transfers -- especially into a drought bank.

Emphatically, we are not suggesting any of our water be sold. But the value of what sits in our reservoirs must be understood to be appreciated. If water sells for $500 an acre-foot, there's $550 million in Don Pedro.

Sounds like a lot, but it pales when compared with the $2.4 billion generated by our county's farmers. But what if the price hits $800 or $1,100, which it did last year? Then that water's worth $1.2 billion.

This weekend's rain won't end the drought. And it shouldn't be surprising that water in California is worth fighting over -- with words, lawyers and money.

Dunbar is associate editor of The Bee. Contact him at 578-2325 or mdunbar@modbee.com.

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