Water reform – running out of time

At one time, as recently as the 1990s, there were well over 1 million acres of irrigated cotton in California, largely fed by cheap water contracts through the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project. Each of those countless acres of cotton consumed something on the order of three feet of water, or more, per acre of cotton a year – well over 3 million acre feet, which is close to 1 trillion gallons a year. Cotton in California was a very thirsty crop.

Back then, the Bureau of Reclamation sought to complete construction of Auburn Dam, then a $2 billion project with an estimated conservation pool of about 270,000 acre feet. The allocated cost of that water was $400 million. Some people still want to build that dam, but today it would cost between $4 billion and $6 billion and would provide only about 200,000 acre feet of usable water. The dam wasn’t built, in part because it would have straddled a sizeable earthquake fault and the cost-benefit ratio made little sense.

At about the same time, farmers were experimenting with subsurface drip irrigation to reduce the water demands of cotton and other crops. They discovered that the system – in conjunction with low-tech, root-level soil moisture meters – could reduce water consumption by about two-thirds, while increasing yield. The system cost about $1,000 per acre to install.

Had the $400 million from the proposed water yield of an unbuildable Auburn Dam, instead been invested in subsurface drip for cotton, it would have irrigated 400,000 acres, saving upwards of 600,000 acre feet of water, a far better return on investment than the dam.

It is supremely difficult to transfer money out of one government pocket into another, and no one in Washington or Sacramento had the imagination or the interest to pursue that line of thinking. After a while, cotton declined dramatically, partly because almonds and pistachios became more profitable, even though neither is essential for human food and nutrition, and mature pistachio trees require up to four feet of water per acre.

We will as a society probably be confronted very soon with the necessity of re-prioritizing our water resources, administering and distributing those resources with some degree of oversight and control that does not now exist.

Sonoma County has already had some such controls imposed. The largest pool of water at our disposal, behind Warm Springs Dam at Lake Sonoma, is not fully available because releases from that dam are being federally restricted by the need to preserve the steelhead trout and Coho salmon in the Russian River and its tributaries. We support that effort 100 percent, even though it has the potential for adversely impacting the number-one, legal agricultural product in this county – wine grapes.

That’s because somewhere in the water equation – locally and across the state – there has to be room for reasonable balance and compromise, and the fishery of the Russian River, like that of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, has already been compromised almost into extinction.

Like rethinking how to better invest the cost of a massively expensive and environmentally destructive dam, it’s time for a careful evaluation of the use and pricing of all water in California. We’re poised on the cusp of mandatory rationing and we’re running out of time.

– David Bolling