California’s Water Wars Flare Up As SoCal Makes a Land Grab
The one big thing to understand about water in California is this: The north has it, the south wants it. Yes, sure, pedants will say it’s more complicated. That you need to consider pre-1914 water rights, and which federal or state agencies have jurisdiction over which reservoirs, and whether it was an El Niño year, and if it is an El Niño year, is it a stereotypical El Niño or is it a weird outlier El Niño … and so on.
Which is why it is so, I’m going to say it, exciting when a water story comes along that is straight up NorCal vs SoCal. Earlier this week the Metropolitan Water District (representing 19.5 million Californians from LA to the Mexico border) bought the better part of five islands in the crux of the state’s water infrastructure. The agency says the buy isn’t just to protect its water supply, but to shore up protection from earthquakes and rehabilitate fish ecosystems. But northerners are wary that this is a land grab, designed to give their “neighbors” unhindered access to the finite stuff.
Back in the 1960s, California thought it had its water problem licked. Led by then-governor Pat Brown (father of current governor Jerry Brown), the state’s water agency constructed massive mechanical pumps that would ship water from the relatively wet, relatively unpopulated north to the empirically dry and stiflingly crowded south. Brown later said he built the so-called State Water Project to “correct an accident of people and geography.”
Correcting one accident created another. Those pumps are at the south end of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which drains the aforementioned rivers (which run through titular valleys) into the San Francisco Bay. In fact, the water flowing out of the Delta keeps the salty bay water at, um, bay. And that’s the problem, because some fraction of every gallon sucked out of the Delta gets replaced by sea water. If the Delta water gets too salty, endangered fish die. And the pumps go off, regardless of the 25 million thirsty southern Californians.
Steven Arakawa is in charge of the Metropolitan Water District’s activities in the Delta. He says the agency might use its new property to improve habitat and strengthen fish populations, so the little swimmers won’t be as susceptible to the occasional salty influx.
Also, the Delta is near several earthquake-prone fault lines. A strong shaker could collapse the levees surrounding these islands. “Saltier water from the Bay would flood in and fill what had been dry land,” says Arakawa. In many cases, the dry land inside the levees has subsided by as much as 20 feet. A catastrophic influx of salt water wouldn’t just kill the fishies. It would make the Delta water undrinkable for the majority of the state, for several years. “Part of our plan is to improve the levees,” says Arakawa. This includes building them taller and broader, and also having materials nearby to patch broken levees before too much salt water creeps in.
Bullfish, say northerners. “It shows the unbelievable chutzpah/cajones/whatever you like on the part of the Metropolitan Water District to dive squarely into the middle of the Delta and Northern California for the latest water grab,” says Richard Walker, economic geographer at UC Berkeley and water expert. The latest water grab he is alluding to is Governor Jerry Brown’s so-called California WaterFix, a pair of forty mile long tunnels that would directly connect the Sacramento River to the downstate pumps, going underneath the Delta.
From the northerners’ point of view, the southerners will use these straws to drink freely, unfettered by federal environmental regulations. Sure, water rights would ostensibly prevent the Metropolitan Water District from slurping more than its fair share. But looking back at history, the northern Californians have good reason for their paranoia. Los Angeles has a track record of bullying its way into water rights, such as when it drained the Owens River Valley in 1913.
Southern California insists it has changed. “This is not a project to add more water, it’s a project to add reliability,” says Arakawa. Although, he did say the agency might let the state fill the islands with soil excavated from the tunnels, should the state ever overcome the fierce opposition to California WaterFix and begin construction. “But the acquisition makes sense for us with or without California WaterFix,” Arakawa says.
So, plenty of clues, but nothing concrete to explain why the MWD paid a Swiss company $175 million for 20,000 acres of choice Northern California farmland. “The truth is, I don’t know what they are thinking,” says Michael Hanemann, a water expert at UC Berkeley. “And I suspect nobody else knows what they are thinking either.”