Published on
the Sacramento Bee (Calif.)

Water Controversies Boil Over

Matt Weiser

The low water level of the San Luis Reservoir served as the backdrop for a rally of farmers and farmworkers on April 17, the end of their four-day march through the Central Valley from Mendota to bring attention to the California water crisis and environmental problems in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The third year of drought is expected to bring more job loss and rising food prices. (DAVID McNEW/Getty Images)

Any doubt that California is hip-deep in an epic struggle for water was put to rest earlier this month when an estimated 10,000 farmers and farmworkers marched 50 miles across the gasping San Joaquin Valley.

The goal was to heighten awareness about their water shortage, brought about by a third year of drought in California and environmental problems in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Their alliance is surprising, given a long history of acrimony between farm owners and laborers. It demonstrates the shifting alliances and simmering tensions that emerge when people fight over water.

We're likely to see more struggles over water, both locally and worldwide. The next big conflict in California is a proposal for a canal built around the Delta, designed to secure a water supply for Central Valley farms and Southern California cities while also improving the environment of the West Coast's largest estuary. Critics worry that it's simply a tool to drain the Sacramento River.

Preventing a water grab paradoxically requires us to set aside turf battles and focus instead on how the so-called peripheral canal will be managed. Who will be in charge of turning the water valves on and off? When and why? These questions, more than how much water is transferred south, hold the solution to managing future shortages.

In coming years, 46 nations risk violent conflict over water and climate-related crises, and 56 other countries face political instability, according to a study by International Alert, a British advocacy group. The United Nations says water wars may be more likely in the future than wars over oil.

"Water will ... become one of the defining limits to human development and a compounding factor in human misery," Achim Steiner, director of the U.N. Environment Programme, said during the World Water Forum, attended by more than 30,000 government officials and nonprofit leaders last month in Istanbul, Turkey.

A key message at the forum: There is probably enough fresh water available to meet human needs, despite climate change and population growth. However, the problem is poor management of water, which results in scarcity and conflict.

Fights over water - some small, others as large as California - are occurring across the globe. I recently visited a rural area in Ethiopia, where a breach of trust left two villages without a secure water future.

Near the mountainous town of Ticho, about three hours south of Addis Ababa, a group of villagers washed clothes and gathered water at a natural spring. Many filled ubiquitous "jerry cans" - 6-gallon yellow plastic jugs used to fetch water from creeks or public taps.

As we approached, an older man ran up shouting and gesturing for us to leave. He accused us of coming to steal the springwater, we learned through our translator.

The banks of the spring, deeply shaded by trees, were littered with animal feces, the water cloudy and gray. A half-finished wall surrounded the spring - an effort to cap the source and pipe the water to two villages. A contractor had been hired by the state government to develop the spring to serve his nearby village and another, 37 miles away.

Once construction began, the locals learned that all the water would go to the distant village. They would get none. So they kicked out the contractor, halted the project and drove away a state official who later tried to negotiate a compromise. They told us the spring was holy and refused to let us take pictures or talk to anyone from the village.

"If I were them, I would too," said Shibabaw Tadesse, a local coordinator with WaterAid, a British charity that funds projects in Ethiopia. "Such kind of resource cannot be capped. It's amazing, really. Amazing."

An apparent bungling of the construction contract - a case of mismanagement - sowed the seeds of distrust.

In the San Joaquin Valley, where 40 percent of America's produce is grown, farmers have been told they'll get only 10 percent of their contracted federal water supply this year. Cities in the Bay Area and Southern California, which receive water from the state, expect only 30 percent of normal deliveries. UC Davis economist Richard Howitt predicts losses of at least 40,000 farm-related jobs and $1.15 billion in income. Thousands of acres of crops have already been fallowed.

It's too simple to call this a water shortage problem. Shortage and conflict exist, at least in part, because of numerous complex water management problems in California, where the seeds of mistrust have grown for decades.

The most recent case in point is the proposal to build a canal around the Delta. The canal would divert a portion of the Sacramento River directly to state and federal water export pumps near Tracy. It is hoped this will eliminate environmental problems caused by pumping directly from the estuary.

The controversial plan has shifted some alliances. The Nature Conservancy, for instance, recently announced its conditional support for the canal amid groans from other environmental groups. Other groups have joined with Delta farmers who oppose the canal, which, in turn, puts them in conflict with farmers in the San Joaquin Valley.

Many environmentalists oppose the canal because California does not manage its water judiciously. Other conservationists are reluctant to support the canal and new reservoirs without guarantees that the water will be used more efficiently.

Graywater is one example of how California doesn't do a good job of managing its water. Neighboring states allow homeowners to use water from sinks, showers, bathtubs and washers to irrigate landscaping without special permits or regulations.

In California, however, you're breaking the law if you apply graywater to landscaping without a permit from your local health department or building inspector. The plumbing industry still views graywater as a sewage disposal issue. This outdated perspective appears to be dominating a process under way at the Department of Housing and Community Development to update graywater rules. As a result, it seems unlikely California will fully embrace graywater as a resource that could prevent wasting fresh water.

California could save 140,000 acre-feet of water - enough to serve 300,000 homes for a year - if just one in 10 households irrigated with graywater.

Another example of inefficient water management: California reservoirs must follow flood-control rules written, in some cases, 50 years ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The rules require dam operators to release water for flood control as late as May 31 - regardless of actual flood risk.

This is largely why we see so much water flowing in the American River and other rivers today. Reservoir managers must maintain space for water behind a dam in case they need to store floodwater. Hot weather last week means even more crucial snowmelt was released from dams.

In the future, Sierra snowpack is expected to shrink due to climate change, which will force California to find ways to store more winter rainfall. If the state is required to follow 50-year-old rules on managing water, that's another battle lost.

A program called "forecast-based operations" has been discussed for years as a means to guide the operation of reservoirs according to the weather. Simply put, if forecasters say floods are likely next week, dam managers would release water. Otherwise, they retain water.

But forecast-based operations have not replaced the old rules at a single California dam.

"From the standpoint of new surface storage, it is the easiest thing to do," said Ron Stork, a senior policy advocate at Friends of the River, a Sacramento-based environmental group.

Another example: Half of California farmland is irrigated by flooding fields, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It's a cheap but crude practice that is increasingly difficult to justify in a dry state.

The Pacific Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Oakland, estimates that shifting California farms to more efficient irrigation could save 5 million acre-feet of water annually. That's about equal to all the Delta water pumped in a typical year.

Solutions range from microsprinklers and drip irrigation to computerized soil sensors and weather triggers to deliver optimum supply for a given crop.

Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, attacked the Pacific Institute study, saying only farmers should decide how to use their water. But when pressed, he said water savings are possible if farmers had help and agreed with the Pacific Institute that tax credits would help farms adopt efficient irrigation.

In California and worldwide, there reigns a cultural fixation that water is ours to use as we please. Magnified across the globe, this notion breeds poor water management and conflict, whether in California or rural Ethiopia.

Kidanemariam Jembere, of the Ethiopian Country Water Partnership, has mediated water disputes in the headwaters of the Blue Nile, where conflicts have flared between families, religions, farmers and villages. Solving these conflicts, he says, requires us to accept that water doesn't belong to anyone. It belongs to all.

"We can use conflict as an opportunity to create partnership. That's my belief," Jembere said. "But we have a very big problem raising that issue of water as a shared resource."

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