California's water wars: It isn't fish vs. farmers [Blowback]
Doug Obegi, staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco, responds to The Times' Aug. 7 Op-Ed article "California's water wars." If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed, here are our FAQs and submission policy.
Victor Davis Hanson doesn't seem to understand what most of us already know: California needs to be smarter about managing our limited water supplies so we can sustain our economy and our natural resources.
California faces dry and wet cycles, and during the 2007-09 drought, water was scarce for farmers, cities and the environment. The drought -- not environmental protections -- was the cause of more than 75% of the reduction in water deliveries to agribusinesses during this period. Yet even with new environmental protections, more water was exported per year from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta during the recent drought than the last major drought (1987-92).
In contrast, this year the state and federal water projects are on track to pump more water from the Delta than ever before, while adhering to environmental protections. When the rain gods smile on California, there is plenty to go around; when they do not, we all have to tighten our belts.
Despite record water exports this year, a few water allocations will be 80% of maximum contract amounts. Even if we waived environmental protections for endangered salmon and other species, the water allocation for agribusinesses in the Central Valley's Westlands Water District would still be 80% this year.
The reality is that these water contracts promise more water than has ever been -- or could be -- delivered. Until 2000, the largest water user (the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 19 million Californians) didn't request all of the water it was entitled to under its contract. Now that everyone wants their full share, there's less for others. Still, there's enough water to sustain our economy and our environment.
Blaming environmentalists is easy, but it isn't accurate. We aren’t seeking to restore flows to pristine conditions, as Hanson writes. Rather, conservation and fishing interests are seeking balanced, scientifically sound solutions to restore natural flows to our rivers and the Delta while developing tools to expand the efficiency and reliability of our scarce water supplies.
We’re not seeking to end all water pumping from the Delta to the Central Valley and Southern California; the protections for endangered species in the Delta will allow the water projects to export as much water as they did on average from 1980-99. But these protections do prevent the unsustainable levels of water exports that occurred in the 2000s, when populations of salmon and native fisheries collapsed.
We can sustain our economy with reduced Delta exports because, as the state's own Department of Water Resources recognizes, more than 5 million acre feet of new water supplies -- as much as we pump from the Delta on average -- are available each year through cost-effective investments in water efficiency, water recycling, improved groundwater management and capturing urban storm water.
Finally, even with these environmental protections in place, agribusiness is thriving. Despite the drought, farm revenues have reached record highs in the San Joaquin Valley in recent years, with near record crops of almonds and tomatoes. The salmon fishery has not fared as well. For the first time in state history, the fishery was completely closed in 2008 and 2009; it was open for a mere eight days in 2010, resulting in thousands of lost jobs up and down the coast.
The choice facing California is not one of protecting the environment or protecting the economy -- protecting our fisheries and streams protects thousands of fishing jobs across California, the tackle shops and marinas that support fishermen, and the water quality that farmers in the Delta need to maintain their crops.
California’s water supply is scarce most years. As in every other area of life, we need to learn to be smarter and use our resources more efficiently. Investing in local water resources will allow us to reduce our reliance on water exports from the Delta and ensure that there's enough water for farmers, cities, fishermen and the environment.
-- Doug Obegi
Photo: Canals in the Westlands Water District in the Central Valley deliver water to Southern California. Credit: Russel A. Daniels / Associated Press