Les Francis, far left, sits with Representative Don Edwards, President Jimmy Carter and Representative Norm Mineta aboard Air Force One. Courtesy photo

Water Rights… And Wrongs

A Sierra Forward Brief by Tom DeVries

“Whiskey is for Drinking. Water is for Fighting”

Mark Twain

The sunburned old grower out on the West side of Kern County was outraged. “What are they gonna do now?” he demanded. “Are they gonna take our water?” That’s the thing about water in California — everybody who uses it thinks it rightfully, honestly, fairly, belongs to them.

It might be time for the people whose water it is, to make a claim.

That would be us.

Even modestly raising questions about water rights makes shaggy beasts stir in their caves. That’s because — and this is the heart of the problem — those “Water Rights” give ownership to much more water than actually exists. Over time gone by, greed and optimism set a California Water Budget that exceeds its real income. Always has, and it’s [cough, cough, climate change] getting worse.

So, basically, the fight is over an inadequate, unpredictable, but ever- shrinking pool. And, although virtually all of California’s own water comes from the Sierra/Cascade system, we–the folks who live there– have not been practically, politically, or morally, at the table with the big kids. That has been good for them, bad for us.

Some contextual facts

  • Seventy-five percent of Californians drink water that comes from the Sierra and Cascades.
  • 60 per cent of the State’s precipitation starts in our mountains.
  • Agriculture (particularly in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys), gets and uses most of the water we provide, but urban and industrial users profit greatly from it, as well.
  • People like it in the foothills and mountains. More people moved into the Sierra Nevada from 1970 to 1990 than migrated into the area during the entire Gold Rush. There will shortly be as many of us in the Foothills as there are in San Diego.
  • Climate change, unhealthy forests, population growth, all are degrading not only the amount of water the Sierra produces, but its quality too.
  • Demand for our water will continue to increase, as will pressure on our counties to provide it at whatever the cost to us.

Refuse to be a water colony.

To be blunt, the Sierra is in a dismal legal situation. Our counties, said one veteran of the water wars, “have been screwed since day one.” Mildly put, the current legal and regulatory environment favors water Users, over us, the Providers. But there are factors on our side — beginning with the foolishness of some of what Users do with California’s most precious resource.

One illustration:  lawns. The Silver State is embarrassingly ahead of us on this. To save water, Nevada law banned useless grass two years ago, outlawing the stuff nobody really cares about — street medians, office parks, the entrance of housing developments. To emphasize Golden State stupidity, most of the grass in Southern California lawns is fescue which likes thirty-six inches of rain a year while, say, Riverside, on a good year gets ten.

CalMatters says about half the water used in cities and towns is dumped for four million acres of grass and other nonsense. They are not even taking good care of what they take, not even when things are tough. During this last epic drought, our urban friends managed to cut back by only an insulting six percent.

And Big Ag has a pressing problem which they will surely look to us to solve. They have doubled down on lucrative export crops, converting from annuals to pistachios and almonds mostly, and pomegranates and walnuts. Comes a drought, a farmer can decide not to plant cucumbers, but trees are luxury crops that get watered in good years and bad. Over-pumping in the Valley is already a nasty disaster and is being slowly curtailed by state law. Meanwhile the warmer temperatures Al Gore warned us about require increases in irrigation to compensate. Eight percent more so far. The hedge funds, labor union funds and college endowments that help drive their profits need more water and they will look to the mountains for it.

What to do next

We are and should be proud that California loves and needs Sierra water. It is an irreplaceable resource that makes it all work.

But we are the Source of Water in California. When there are disputes about the use of the diminishing flows in the Colorado River, all seven states sit down at the table for the fight. No mistake, the Colorado River Compact is fractious, but at least the State of Colorado, the river’s headwaters, gets to go to the meetings.

A beginning would be our political representatives who have often worked against our interests, taking money from, and voting for, the Flatlands Put the heat on them. Colorado’s politicians do not support New Mexico in the water wars.

Find out what commercial crops are growing in your own communities — olives, grapes, berries. They should be in line for water too. During the Gold Rush they say the foothills were self-sufficient in food.

Look at your own holdings, your union’s investments, your college’s endowment. Demand they disinvest in California Big Ag so long as it misuses our water. Put the heat on them. Colorado’s politicians do not support New Mexico in the water wars.

Watch out for new infrastructure. The dream of a New Auburn Dam is a vampire, and it will rise again. Water agencies will move to raise existing dams and reduce in-stream uses. Make friends and look for allies in the recreation and sporting industries, in local businesses including real estate, and of course among Flatland enviros.

Go outdoors and look at your local streams and rivers, even the seasonal ones. Look up at the snow on the mountains. Visit the neighborhood reservoir. We need to make sure those things are still there when we look again.