Commentary: It’s time to start a different conversation about water

Issue Date: April 8, 2020
By Chris Scheuring
Chris Scheuring
As California irrigation districts charge canals for the start of a new season, the state’s farmers face pressure on surface water and groundwater supplies alike—though there has also been positive movement in some aspects of water policy.

Spring is a perennial season of hope, and even against the backdrop of devastating human news around the planet, the soils are warming and the crops are pushing.

Just now, as well, the COVID-19 pandemic has Californians looking at their grocery stores in a whole new way: as a lifeline in a continuing public health emergency.

That emergency makes health care providers and other first responders into heroes who man the ramparts while a broad swath of society is shuttered for the time being. Farmers and farm employees remain at their posts, too, and the water system that ultimately feeds us all is beginning to limber up. Across California irrigation districts, canals are being charged and pumps are being lowered into the state's rivers, streams and conduits.

Against the terrible news of a national emergency, it's perhaps difficult to focus on our water situation. Recall that January and February were bone-dry; March and April bore us a couple of storms, but it was too little, too late. It was a very dry winter, overall.

Still, we arrived at this dry year's doorstep with reservoirs in decent shape thanks to the previous winter of abundant precipitation. That means most places in California may be able to skate across this pond, though farm water supplies will be restricted in some areas.

That puts us in the position of another "do or die" year for precipitation next winter, an altogether familiar proposition in California. We all know: It rains a bunch all at once in some years, and then we go dry for a number of years after that.

And those dry years move us into a familiar policy cycle. Conflicts over water resources become acute, and legislation and litigation heat up. It was the last big drought cycle that brought us the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. This time, a long trail of litigation is just getting underway as the rivers dwindle, focusing on the so-called "unimpaired flow" criteria being imposed on some river systems for the protection of fish populations.

Those are the two ends of the candle that are burning at the same time right now—pressure on the availability of groundwater supplies and pressure on surface water supplies.

SGMA is just coming into force, as high-priority basins around the state have submitted their groundwater sustainability plans to the state for approval. We won't know more specifics about pumping reductions for some time. As for the surface waters, I do believe one issue soon to be before the appellate courts goes to the very heart of water rights, by focusing on whether the environmental use of water needs to be reasonable in its method and demonstrably effective in its result. 

But a final ruling on that question remains a long way off.

In the meantime, there are good signs, as well:

  • A number of water storage projects are moving through the early stages of finance before the California Water Commission for the award of public funding under the Proposition 1 water bond of 2014, an effort to expand our supply against the lean times.
  • A system-level "voluntary agreement" process is underway for the entire delta watershed, in which major water projects and diversions might be reconciled in better fashion with the needs of endangered fish populations, using "functional flow" measures as well as non-flow measures as a better path than "flow-centric" management and litigation.
  • And, we are talking about groundwater recharge in a way that we never have before, knowing that available underground storage dwarfs our surface possibilities.

Those are the brighter lights that we should all swim toward. A different conversation is required, one in which irrigation districts and farmers talk about saving fish from oblivion; environmentalists talk about the impact of hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland that could go dry, and main streets that will be empty; and the big coastal cities think very hard about what they can do on both ends.

Earlier this year, before the national news turned dark, I was driving Highway 99 north from Bakersfield, from a water conference in which we talked about all of this. As I passed through Tulare, a region central to helping California agriculture feed the nation and world, I could see the snowpack across the high peaks of Kings Canyon. Even in a lean year like this one, it was glorious—and inspiring. I thought that maybe, after all, we can open new conversations that lead to a better water future for everyone.

(Chris Scheuring is senior counsel for the California Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted at cscheuring@cfbf.com.)

[Editor's note: The online version of this commentary was revised 4/8/20 to clarify that the court case on environmental use of water has not yet reached appellate courts.]

 

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




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