Commentary: ‘Water wars’ language obscures a complex issue

Issue Date: September 5, 2018
By Dave Kranz
Dave Kranz
A rally outside the state Capitol by more than 1,000 Central Valley residents highlights significant disagreements about how to manage water in California. But describing it as part of a “water war” likely detracts from good-faith efforts to resolve water problems in ways that benefit both the environment and people.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

After more than 1,000 Central Valley residents converged on the north steps of the state Capitol last month to protest planned redirection of water supplies, and more turned out to the next day's state water board hearing on the topic, reporters and editorial writers fell back on time-worn language to describe the situation.

"California's water wars heat up at Sacramento hearing over river flows," the San Francisco Chronicle declared in a headline.

"Stage set for uncivil war over water in California," the Courthouse News service wrote in its headline, before referring in the story's first sentence to "California's ceaseless war to manage shrinking water sources."

"Water war: Local farmers protest proposal aimed at sustaining salmon," read the headline in the Chico News & Review.

The news business thrives on conflict, and the serious and significant disagreements about how to manage water in California have certainly created plenty of that. In this case, the disagreements center on how to benefit salmon and other fish in three rivers that feed into the San Joaquin River, and whether the State Water Resources Control Board should follow through on a plan to require much more water to be left in the rivers in the form of "unimpaired flows."

But the bellicose language employed in many news stories and editorials likely detracts from sincere efforts to resolve the situation to the benefit of all parties.

Talk of "war" implies that there will ultimately be winners and losers. Good-faith efforts by irrigation districts and other water users aim to avoid that, by addressing core issues affecting fish populations in the San Joaquin and Sacramento river systems without requiring wholesale shifts in water allocations along those systems.

A letter addressed to the state water board by the California Farm Bureau Federation—and signed by more than 50 other agricultural, water and business associations—urged the board to support "voluntary and creative solution-finding."

For example, functional flows—dedicating just the right amount of water at the appropriate time for maximum effect—have shown results in improving fisheries. So have non-flow alternatives, including measures to create additional habitat or address species that prey on protected fish.

A quote from the coalition letter bears repeating: "Until every opportunity has been exhausted for creative conservation and collaboration, a difficult and damaging regulatory path which is premised upon uncertain future fisheries successes should be avoided at all costs."

One reason so many people turned out at the rally to express concern about the water board's approach was their frustration that such good-faith efforts at creative conservation appeared to have been rejected out of hand. Instead, the board seemed bound to follow staff recommendations for an outdated, flows-only approach that has failed repeatedly in the past.

In fact, representatives of environmental organizations who spoke at the water board hearing said the approach is likely to fail this time, too—but because the board plans to direct too little water to fisheries, in their view. The notion that more water equals more fish remains powerful, even in the face of improving science and ample evidence to the contrary.

Unfortunately, decades of perceived "water wars" have hardened views on all sides of the issue.

On the same day that Central Valley residents rallied on the north side of the Capitol, a small group of environmental advocates held a news conference on the west steps. There, a representative of fishing groups "fumed" about "corporate farming operations [that] have grown fat by holding a tight grip on water rights," according to the Modesto Bee.

"It's us versus you and we will win," the fisherman's representative told the Bee.

Readers of publications in the state's large, coastal cities receive a fairly regular dose of that sort of language. In an editorial endorsing the water board plan, the Los Angeles Times referred to opposition from "San Joaquin Valley agribusiness"—a synonym for "Big Ag" or "corporate farms" that makes it easy for people to create a villain to dislike.

The San Diego Union-Tribune acknowledged as much in its own editorial: "Given the political influence of Golden State environmentalists—some of whom consider 'Big Ag' one of the worst aspects of 'modern civilization'—these farmers have reason to worry about fair treatment."

For that reason, Farm Bureau works to avoid being pulled into the "water wars" discussion. When describing our opposition to the water board proposal, we stress that this is not a fish vs. farms equation. California needs both fish and people to thrive, and that can be done without inflicting the harm to people the board's plan would demand.

We also point out that everyone who uses water in California needs to be efficient—including environmental flows. The water board plan would require a lot of water and, by all accounts, wouldn't produce many more fish.

Instead of trying to win a "water war" that someone else has declared, we need to keep the focus on these genuine, continuing efforts to find solutions that benefit both the environment and the economy.

(Dave Kranz manages the California Farm Bureau Federation Communications/News Division and edits Ag Alert. He may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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