California Water Issues Divide Farmers, Fishers, and Urban Dwellers


If you’ve ever seen the movie Chinatown, in which private investigator Jake Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson) stumbles upon a gigantic water scandal in the course of investigating an adultery case in Los Angeles, then you know that California’s water issues go way back.

Water is contentious here because we have so little of it and need so much. California is one of the world’s most valuable agricultural areas. The state supplies over half of U.S. fruits, nuts and vegetables and over 90 percent of U.S. almonds, artichokes, avocados, broccoli and processing tomatoes, yet, most of the water used to grow these crops comes from the extreme northeast part of the state.

Early in the history of California, we built a series of dams, canals, and aqueducts to transfer the Sierra snowpack to agricultural and urban areas. Without this water, most of the areas where we grow crops and many of our urban centers would be virtual deserts.

Warmer temperatures over the past few years and irregular precipitation have left the state with a less dependable Sierra snowpack. Court decisions to protect fish, such as the endangered Delta Smelt, have meant that the water diverted from the delta to farms and urban areas has been cut by as much as 30 percent. And the state’s population is still growing and expected to continue to do so.

With lower deliveries, water agencies across the state are worried about being able to supply their growing customer base. The issue has been framed as a fight between farmers and fishermen, north and south, and rural and urban.

The current situation recently led to the revival of an old idea that was once one of California’s most contentious water battles – a Peripheral Canal. The original Peripheral Canal was proposed in the early 1980s as a way to divert water south from the Sacramento River and the delta. It sparked an epic north vs. south campaign battle, with the north accusing Southern California of attempting to abscond with water that wasn’t rightfully theirs.

The California Water Bond of 2010, (or Proposition 18) created a new water war this past spring and summer until it was removed from the ballot in September by the California Legislature. The unpopular bill was not expected to pass in November so lawmakers postponed it until 2012, in hopes that the public would be more receptive to the bill at a later date.

The bill was to provide ecosystem restoration, groundwater cleanup, funding for safe drinking water, water education, recycling, and drought relief, but the bulk of the money was to go to dams (which, under the bill, could be partially owned by private corporations) and a new peripheral canal. This Civil Eats article summarizes the different issues well. Despite several worthy environmental projects contained in the bill, many activist groups saw it as a way to subsidize water for large agribusiness concerns, while leading the way toward privatization at taxpayer’s expense. Other environmental groups saw the restoration efforts as nothing more than remediation for the damage caused by the new diversion and storage systems that were the true crux of the bill.

The list of groups that opposed the bill included The Sierra Club, Food & Water Watch, United Farmworkers, Restore the Delta, the Small Boat Commercial Salmon Fishermens’ Association, and many more. Supporters included Meg Whitman, California Chamber of Commerce, and most of the state water agencies, and a few environmental groups such as Save the Redwoods League and the Nature Conservancy.

Because the bill is due to be resurrected in two years, environmental groups, government agencies, and ag groups are working to educate the public about the state’s water issues.

I recently attended a panel discussion entitled Portioning California’s Water for Farms, Fish, and Families at the David Brower Center in Berkeley CA. The event was sponsored by the San Francisco Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, the San Francisco Professional Food Society (SFPFS), the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), and Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE).

The panel was billed as an educational session for food professionals and concerned citizens. Panelists were to discuss the need to consider fish, wildlife, farms, and urban areas when setting water policy. Unfortunately the panel was largely made up of bureaucrats and water lawyers talking to one another in insider water language. Panelists summarized the positions of their various constituencies on the water issues, failing to connect the dots in a way that would have helped the audience relate. These long individual summaries did not leave much time for questions from the audience that could have served to bring the discussion closer to home. I can’t say I didn’t learn anything, but as an educational session, it was mixed.

The panel’s moderator was Tina Cannon Leahy, Principal Consultant, California Assembly, Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee. Panelists included: Laura King Moon, Assistant General Manager, State Water Contractors; Campbell Ingram, Program Manager, California Water Program, The Nature Conservancy; Barry Epstein, Partner, Fitzgerald Abbott & Beardsley LLC; Brian Leahy, Assistant Director, Division of Land Resource Protection, California Department of Conservation; and Tim Ramirez, Natural Resources Division Manager, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, and Dave Runsten, Community Alliance with Family Farmers.

Here’s what I did learn: Almost everyone on the panel seemed to be for the Water Bill. One audience member spoke up and asked how delta farmers could be expected to subsidize developers and big ag. She identified herself as a 3rd generation delta farmer and stated that the delta farmers are NOT for this bill. I would have liked to have seen some other viewpoints represented on the panel, and not just in the audience. There was some valuable talk of conservation efforts by municipalities and farmers, but I would have liked to have heard more.

Bottom line is this: We don’t have enough water, yet we need to continue to produce food, supply our cities, and protect our ecosystem. Therefore, we need to educate ourselves about where our water comes from and how it’s used, learn how to conserve, and get involved in 2012. And this isn’t just a California problem. It’s a global problem.

Here are some good places to start to learn more about water as a global problem:

Film: Blue Gold: World Water Wars

Book: Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Image: DSearls

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.