California’s rivers are latest battlegrounds in water wars

The San Joaquin River flows past Highway 132 west of Modesto in October.
The San Joaquin River flows past Highway 132 west of Modesto in October.

California is finally embracing its rivers, but it may be a choking embrace.

Californians, while celebrating our coastal splendor and majestic mountains, have long seen rivers as mere plumbing for our hydration convenience. But now communities, seeking space for environmental restoration and recreation (and sometimes housing and development), are treating rivers and riverfronts as new frontiers and busily reconsidering how these bodies of water might better connect people and places.

But the new thinking is opening up new conflicts that touch on public health, housing and economic development. So many places now are making so many plans for so many rivers that we may have to ask just how much change our rivers can handle.

Some of these conflicts are bigger, updated versions of older battles. The so-called California Water Fix – Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to build two tunnels under the Delta – is really just another chapter in a decades-long battle over how the state manages its longest and most important river, the 445-mile Sacramento. The tunnels would reroute Sacramento waters to create a more predictable water supply for Southern California.

To the south, the state has picked a newer fight with a plan to restore fish species by leaving more water in the San Joaquin River and its vital tributaries, the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus. Officials in the San Joaquin Valley (and in San Francisco, which depends heavily on the water) say the state is asking too much of a river and tributaries. The San Joaquin already defines Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks, supplies world-class agriculture, powers 4 million homes and helps deliver drinking water to 25 million Californians.

“With substantially less water, jobs will disappear, land values will fall and less will be collected in taxes,” Mike Dunbar, The Modesto Bee’s Opinions page editor, wrote early this year. “A congressional report already calls us the Appalachia of the West; with less water, we could be the Sahara.”

While fighting over water in California is difficult, making peace is harder. In 2010, stakeholders in the far north of California and southern Oregon negotiated agreements to restore the Klamath River basin by sharing water and removing some dams. But the deal required the approval of Congress, which failed to act, forcing players to try to move forward themselves.

A complicated debate has erupted over competing plans to restore the Los Angeles River, the famous concrete flood control channel. Many Angelenos see a renewed river as the spine of a new city with denser housing and more amenities for pedestrians, bicyclists and boaters. But there are growing clashes between the river’s elite and grass-roots champions over details and control.

Rivers are also a big part of the conversation elsewhere in urban Southern California. Ventura County’s tight development restrictions have allowed for restoration of the Santa Clara River, the closest thing Southern California has to a wild river. The 96-mile Santa Ana River, which runs from near Big Bear all the way to Huntington Beach, is a hot topic in three counties – Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange – inspiring plans for parks, bike and equestrian trails and riverfront economic development.

That I haven’t yet mentioned perhaps America’s most endangered river – the Colorado – is testament to just how river-crazy we’ve become. Drought, climate change and the demands of agriculture and western cities are crushing the Colorado.

All California’s river dreams could be roiled by the currents of the Potomac. President-elect Donald Trump bizarrely denied California is in a drought, while promising farmers quantities of water that defy nature’s laws.

I suppose we’ll have to cross that river when we come to it.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at