Fish versus farms is false choice

By Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla

As California awaits rain, some interests are exploiting the drought to further their water-taking ways. These water-exporters frame the drought as “fish vs. people.”

This is a rerun of 2009, when they used the recession’s high unemployment to call for more water exports. These folks fail to point out that the farm worker communities found within these water districts suffer from high unemployment even when there’s plenty of water flowing through the system. California does have a water management problem that is harming the vast majority of us, but the cause is horrible water resources policies and practices.

The mega-growers in the Westlands and Kern County water districts are calling for more pumping during the drought to water the permanent, thirsty crops they planted on arid, unsuitable lands. These growers were not supposed to plant cotton, almonds, grapevines and pistachios on this land, but were to get “surplus” water in wet years for crops that could be fallowed in dry years. They broke that promise and planted permanent crops. They want all of us to pay to continue their unsustainable practices.

Their poor planning and water management has put them in a bind. At least the Metropolitan Water District, which serves the Los Angeles basin, has enough water in storage to get through the next two to three years if this dry period should continue. Three reservoirs serving MWD are close to 100 percent of capacity even now.

Governor Brown declared a drought, and the water buffalos in Westlands and Kern County are using it to push for construction of the peripheral tunnels. That boondoggle will cost ratepayers and tax payers more than $60 billion with interest and operational costs. And 70 percent of the water would go to those same mega-growers.

The State Department of Water Resources failed to manage California’s limited water supply during dry periods, even though California has historically experienced drought over a third of the time. In 2013, key reservoirs at Shasta, Folsom and Oroville were at their historical average storage. Instead of husbanding this water, the State over-pumped it and exported 835,000 acre-feet more water to the mega-growers than they announced they would.

The government’s gamble to over-pump the Delta has had devastating consequences on Bay-Delta fisheries, water quality for Delta family farms and the Sacramento River. One result is that Northern California reservoirs don’t have enough water to share this year. This was gross mismanagement by water officials.

Be prepared to hear how fish are being favored over farmers. Get ready for a fear campaign about how 25 million Southern Californians are being deprived of drinking water. But the dire condition of our fisheries – which provide food and thousands of jobs, just as mega-farms do – is a symbol of the terrible husbandry of our water resources. It’s not Southern California homes, that have done a great job reducing water use, but the mega-growers on I-5 who have blithely planted more and more acres of thirsty trees, vines and cotton while knowing that dry years were inevitably coming. Climate change exacerbates the natural variation, making it more important to have wise resource management policies.

Californians need to manage our water better. The drought should restart our water policies, not refresh the poor practices of the past. We can only export a safe yield of water from the Delta when we stop repeatedly depleting the watershed.

Let’s reinforce levees to ensure the water that can be shared from the Delta is secure for all Californians. It’s time to retire drainage-impaired agricultural lands on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. We’ve got to end the cycle of poor water management decisions made by state officials to enrich a few hundred corporate agribusinesses.

We can create jobs for unemployed Californians with investments in smaller local water projects throughout the state that will actually create new water. Recycling, groundwater cleanup, and conservation programs put twice as many people to work for each $1 million spent than big projects like the peripheral tunnels. These jobs pay good wages for families.

Let’s wake up our state government and use this drought as a lever to force change in our water policies. Past mistakes will cause future ruin if we don’t move quickly. No new tunnels to export water that doesn’t exist, just new policies to live within our water means.

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Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla is executive director of Restore the Delta.