Mike Dunbar

News from water world

Before the rains arrive and wash away all our worries about the drought and what global warming means to water, there are some developments from the world of wet worth talking over.

Railroading water concerns – Our awful drought, and the mandatory cutbacks all Californians endured, have heightened everyone’s water awareness. But instead of getting angry about the state’s failure to plan for such an emergency by building more dams and creating more underground storage, many people have focused on the bullet train. Especially around here, many feel the money voters dedicated to high-speed rail in 2008 would be better spent on water projects.

We’re not sure there’s any real connection, other than frustration.

Now two Republican politicians, George Runner from the Board of Equalization and Bob Huff, a senator from San Dimas, have submitted a ballot measure that derails the bullet train and diverts any unspent money to water projects. But that’s just the sugar-coating for urbanites. It would also enshrine in California’s Constitution a special place for irrigation water, right up there with drinking water.

Every farmer in the state will vote for that measure. Still, it’s unlikely to pass.

The environmental community, which has spent vast amounts of time, money and energy convincing Californians that agriculture gets more than its share of water (remember that bogus 80 percent figure?), will pull out every conceivable stop to derail this proposition. Nice try, but this train will never leave the station.

Coming to a law near you – The Public Policy Institute of California is a San Francisco think tank dedicated to our state and its problems. When it studies a subject, and makes recommendations, they have a habit of ending up in legislation. That’s often a good thing.

The PPIC last week released a study recommending substantial reformulations of California’s water laws. Some of what the PPIC envisions will make folks around here smile; other recommendations could bring tears to our eyes.

The PPIC would classify as “beneficial use” water used to recharge aquifers. Assemblyman Adam Gray fought long and hard for such a designation during the battle to regulate groundwater, but lost. We’re glad to see the PPIC embrace the concept.

The PPIC also would create a transparent “water market,” which would allow everyone to see what water is worth. It would also get water deals out of backrooms and into the public. Great idea. But that’s where our interests begin to diverge.

The PPIC wants a much more flexible system to send water from one region to another. The PPIC’s Ellen Hanak, one of the most knowledgeable people anywhere about California water policy and the leader of this study, was unwilling to rule out the ability of individuals to buy and sell water in an open market. Further, the PPIC recommends letting individuals create their own water storage facilities above or below ground.

Together, these are extremely troubling. Wealthy individuals could build facilities (by, say, creating an in-delta reservoir or underground storage in Kern County) then hold the water until the price goes up. That creates enormous opportunities for profiteering.

If a South Valley farmer buys water from the Central Valley Project for $6 an acre-foot then holds it underground until the going price hits $1,200 (which it did last July), that’s a tidy profit on a shared resource. The temptation for farmers here to do the same would be great; but without water we have no crops and no jobs.

The PPIC’s plan also would cede enormous power to the State Water Resources Control Board. That is a nonstarter. Period. Forever.

The board is habitually populated by unreformed environmentalists. Their track records are clear, and clearly bad for Valley communities who depend on agriculture. The agency is staffed by bureaucrats who openly side with the environmentalists who insist there is only one solution to every problem – more water from our rivers flowing toward the ocean (whether it gets there or not).

Hanak says the PPIC would prefer that problems be solved with local interests. In the past, we’ve seen little evidence that negotiations with the environmental community can resolve anything. Is it possible that is changing? Read on.

Sharing our rivers – For the past year, Stanislaus County Supervisor Terry Withrow (the most optimistic of our elected leaders) has been leading a group in talks with some “reasonable” environmentalists to work out a deal for our rivers. Withrow says the talks will go deep into 2016.

These include the same environmental groups who suggested that unimpaired flows should be up to 60 percent on the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers – double or triple the amount now left in the rivers. We hope these talks are centered on environmental goals, and not just flows. If the environmentalists will tell us what they believe constitutes a healthy river, they’re likely to find allies in our region. But simply saying, “more water, more water, much more water,” isn’t negotiating.

Yet, that’s what the state will do soon.

Withrow says water board chairwoman Felicia Marcus intends to announce the state’s water demands in the very near future – likely around 40 percent unimpaired flows.

We fear that will give the environmental groups less reason to be reasonable. The only concession Withrow has been able to get from Marcus is that the state says it prefers a “settlement agreement” be reached.

Sounds a lot like the PPIC’s language.