Soapbox

‘Paper dams’ are blocking state water sharing

One orange remains after Justin Brown had to bulldoze his citrus trees in Tulare County in April. The Environmental Defense Fund says if more farmers fallowed fields and there was other water sharing, it would ease California’s drought.
One orange remains after Justin Brown had to bulldoze his citrus trees in Tulare County in April. The Environmental Defense Fund says if more farmers fallowed fields and there was other water sharing, it would ease California’s drought. Sacramento Bee file

There’s nothing like a rainy day to hunker down and watch an old movie, which is what I did recently as welcome showers rolled across California, bringing temporary relief to our drought-scorched landscapes.

The movie was “There Will Be Blood,” and though it’s about the oil boom in late 19th-century California, a few memorable lines from Daniel Day Lewis’ character reminded me of our state’s current water problem. “If you have a milkshake, and I have a milkshake, and I have a straw (that) reaches across the room and starts to drink your milkshake. I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!” the ruthless oil baron taunts a hapless neighbor.

It’s not the perfect metaphor, but the lines do illustrate a point: When accessing water from California’s reservoirs, canals and aquifers, not everyone has the same-size straw.

There are three main ways to get water in California. You hope your surface water rights hold a high enough priority to get a full share of water that’s available. Or your pockets run deep enough to allow you to drill and maintain an expensive well. Or your community has lawyers and lobbyists who can work the state’s complex water system.

The drought has forced everyone to cut back. In 2015, farmers fallowed 500,000 acres of cropland. Cities have imposed restrictions on residents and businesses. But disadvantaged communities and the environment have suffered disproportionately.

This fall, salmon were baking in streams because the water was too shallow and too warm. In the Central Valley, over-pumping of wells has left many people – mostly poor migrants – without access to drinking water.

There’s no single solution for correcting these inequities, but we could start by streamlining California’s water laws in ways that promote water sharing.

As more and more people began vying for water, laws were put in place to safeguard their interests. More than a century later, the result is a patchwork of regulations that impede water sharing. These “paper dams” allow only short-term trades, which don’t build long-term stability. Only well-financed, sophisticated users are able to benefit routinely from the current market.

By blowing up these paper dams, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature can unleash the potential for water sharing to deliver three major benefits to the state.

First, it can free up a lot of water and result in more efficient use. Agriculture has rights to approximately 80 percent of water set aside for human use. Fallowing, efficiency and crop switching could free up 10 to 20 percent of that water and improve a farm’s bottom line. Even at the low end of that range, it would free up water roughly equal to half of what is consumed by the urban and industrial sectors combined. Even better, that water could be available quickly, and without building expensive and environmentally damaging infrastructure.

Second, water sharing is the fastest and most assured way to get extra water and funding to the environment and disadvantaged communities. For example, an effective transfer surcharge would funnel water and financing directly to projects that support our public trust resources and most vulnerable communities.

Third, water sharing helps deal with climate change. The drought reflects what we can expect California’s climate to look like in the future. The ability to move water efficiently between users and to sensitive ecosystems will provide the flexibility and resiliency needed to endure climate fluctuations.

But to reap the benefits of water sharing, we need to act now.

David Festa is vice president of the ecosystems program at the Environmental Defense Fund. He can be contacted at dfesta@edf.org.

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