Protecting our water rights

March 30, 2012

John Salisbury


Up north, we long-time farmers have been hearing a great sucking sound south of us that is going to get a lot louder if the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act, authored by San Joaquin Valley representatives, that was passed by members of both parties in the U.S. House of Representatives (HR 1837) gets passed by the Senate.

This Central Valley, Westlands Water District, and SoCal cities backed water bill is another attempt to grab more water from the Sacramento Delta regardless of other people’s water rights, environment of the delta and the Bay area, fisheries, etc. It will preempt what we are trying to do in California to come up with a reasonable water plan and will let Washington decide what is best for us. These southern importers have been taking more and more water from the delta which was originally supposed to be water that was in surplus.

My family has water rights going back to 1850 that are now in jeopardy so that land where even a  Jack rabbit would need a canteen can be farmed. They were drawn to the delta (Walnut Grove) from the east coast, with a stop in Ohio, because of the fertile soil and availability of water.

They, along with other farmers helped build their own levees and we, the descendants, are still responsible for the upkeep through reclamation districts. After the Central Pacific Railroad was built over the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the middle of Utah, many of the Chinese railroad workers settled in the delta and helped build up the levees to form the delta with its many islands and 1,000 miles of waterways.

Another part of the water grab is the state’s proposed pipeline from north of the delta around to the pumps near Tracy that the Brown administration seems to be pushing. Two 33 foot tunnels (over 3 stories tall) will go through and under (150 feet) the delta for miles destroying farmland, houses, and the stability of the levees in its’ wake at a cost that no one can predict.

Estimates range between $12 to $54 billion – how is that for a spread! The cost will be passed onto rate payers and state tax payers via a water bond initiative, maybe in 2014, many of whom (many central coast residents) would not benefit from the divergence.

At a recent hearing for a cost-benefit analysis (AB550) plus an up or down Assembly vote was killed by the testimony of many lobbyists for water contractors because they don’t want the cost to be known. I don’t even know how the farmers who will be getting this water that would bypass the delta will be able to afford it.

Over 100,000 acres of land in the central valley that had been irrigated with delta water have already been abandoned because of the severe salinity in the ground and this ground will never grow crops again.

There was a plan at one time not long ago, which was fortunately shot down, to pipe some of this selenium tainted water to our coast nearby to be dumped into the ocean.

What is at risk is that we may be trading fertile sustainably farmed delta farmland for more sub-standard ground that can only be used until the salinity becomes too much. Because the only thing that keeps the salty Pacific Ocean from coming up into the delta is enough force from the fresh water going south. Take that away, especially in drought years which happens a third of the time, and we will be forced to irrigate our crops with brackish water. Once on the soil, salt is hard to get rid of not unlike the stories in the Bible and of the Romans where the ground of the defeated were supposedly salted so crops could not be grown.

Don’t get me wrong, the bulk of the land in the south valley is great for growing crops. The big change is the conversion from row crops (cotton, processing tomatoes, grains, etc.) to permanent tree crops (grapes, almonds, pistachios, pomegranates, citrus, etc.) with most on drip irrigation which helps.

However, these growers are taking a big chance that the water is going to be there and need to make decisions in short water years as to what to irrigate. Obviously, the trees are going to get the water first and many row crops most likely not planted especially since the delivery forecast is only predicted to be 30 percent of normal this year because of the dry winter.

There is a lot of excess water going out the Golden Gate in wet winters that should be figured into the answer. This water should be captured with reservoirs like the proposed Sites Reservoir near Maxwell.

This same concept could also be beneficial with smaller lakes and ponds which could also be used for recreation, with the fisheries considered, throughout the northern and central watersheds that flow from the mountains to the sea. These water holding basins could be held in reserve for supplementing the flow south, especially in drought years, not unlike the federal oil depositories so long as the Delta is assured of its necessary water quality.

We have to encourage the new irrigation and conservation techniques that are drastically changing in both in agriculture and in cities. More use of drip irrigation (rural and non-rural), less water gulping landscapes especially in Southern California, more desalination plants when economical along the coast, ground water infusion, plus many other smaller changes that add up.

Drives me crazy when I stay at a motel or with relatives down south and they don’t even have low-flow shower heads or toilets and then driving around town and seeing way too much wasteful landscape irrigation running down the street at all hours!

Agriculture throughout the state needs water, cities need water and with some smart water management of our resources, water saving techniques, money spent on long term storage projects and levee repair, and personal responsibility, there could be enough water for all to share. If we could only take the politics, money and greed out of the decision making, we could have a sound statewide water policy.

“Water is life’s matter, matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water”. – Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, Hungarian Biochemist

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I was going to post something snarky about “well, let’s simply grow all our food in Baja California.”

But it occurred to me that we can’t ship our agriculture down there, as we have already used up all of their water from from the Colorado River.

Another interesting way to think about water is that you cannot “create” water; it can be recycled, it can go through the normal loop of rainfall, runoff, either percolating through the ground and then being pumped back up for usage, and/or the runoff flows to the ocean where it eventually will (to a degree) evaporate back into the atmosphere where it will once again drop from the sky in the form of rainfall. What is becoming more of a problem is how water can become tainted; too much pesticides/herbicides in the runoff off of agriculture lands can be a problem, which can be addressed if it is found to be too damaging. The injection of all types of toxic chemicals in fracking for drilling for natural gas and/or oil can damage aquifers, which has been documented and is being discussed on how to balance our energy production next to the availability of clean drinking water. John makes a great point about water wasting in the form of NOT using water saving shower heads and allowing landscape watering to overflow to point of runoff wasting away in storm drains; another real waste of water is all of the golf courses, especially those in areas of drought or near drought conditions. Hopefully golf course designers and those who maintain the courses are being as thoughtful as possible to reduce water wasting, but in the larger scope of our water usage (and that “our” is in a societal manner) we really should be giving thoughts to some sort of prioritizing of water usage. Is it “right” to build housing in an area where the aquifer cannot support the proposed population? Is it “right” to allow a golf course to built if there isn’t enough water to support it? Quite often some will make a lot of noise about “property rights” and being able to do what you want to with your land, but if the water isn’t available to you, should you still be able to build what you want? Desalination may be a great way to shift the balance of water usage, but there has to be an energy efficient way to extract clean drinkable water from the ocean before it can really be given any serious consideration.

Thanks for the info. It’s really difficult for some of us to keep up with the water problem (Delta and Central Valley), though we know there are major, long range decisions being made that will affect all of us, we don’t get much information in the local paper and media.

WE live right next to the largest body of water on the planet. I get tired of the same old tired arguement the desal is TOO expensive.

Personal Computers were too expensive, and Cell phone were TOO expensive as well.

Turn the ingenuity of the american people loose on this issue and water won’t be an issue anywhere on the planet.

Just keep the government out of it if we expect any degree of success.

The problem is that the Army Corp of Engineers has control of all navigable waterways so there is no way to get the government out of it. Same with the State as far as control of waterways. So they get to call the shots plus the EPA, Water Resources Board, Fish & Game, etc. etc. etc. Too bad we can’t go back 50 – 75 years when we could build a Golden State Bridge and the like without all the roadblocks thrown up. Sure we need government involved but darn they can be difficult and hold up progress. It is so simple that we need more water storage and there is suitable ground to do it but it will be years to get approval by the time the bureaucracy picks away at it and in the process assure their jobs.

There been some discussion about flooding some of the Delta islands as water storage which surely hasn’t been thought through. Why flood the best soil in the state to ship to other farmers on much inferior ground and fill swimming pools in SoCal? The islands were built to hold water out, not in. So what would happen is a domino affect whereby the wave action from ever present winds from the Bay or the north (especially in the spring) against the unprotected interior of the levees will cause a break which will overpower the levee across the river causing a chain reaction. It is our biggest problem when an island goes under and the reason to get it pumped out as soon as possible.

But you have to fight California and all the boards, committees, regulations, etc. and then there is the Federal Government, EPA, etc. etc. etc. and then all the activists and good lord, nothing can ever get done, good or bad except the projects THEY want done with their cronyism. The whole thing is frustrating to say the least and it is a wonder anything gets done. Amazes me how fast the solar projects got done in C V. Goes to show you what money can still buy.