Water Politics and Social Justice

A coffin for the Delta at a Bay Delta Conservation Plan meeting.

Photo courtesy of Restore the Delta.

Today’s story of California water is really about justice in water denied to fish, to the California public, and to future generations. We at the California Water Impact Network see fundamental travesties that threaten fisheries and ecosystems with extinction, compromise the rule of established water law, and undermine the viability of our state's economy.

And we’re doing something about them.

First, the state and federal governments fail to protect the public trust in our rivers, streams, and estuaries, even though their duty to do so is inescapable under established law. These governments tolerate destruction of major commercial and sport fisheries and aquatic ecosystems that millions of Californians depend on for food and livelihood.

Second, waste and unreasonable use of the waters here are egregious violations of our state Constitution, an amendment California voters approved in 1928. Despite this prohibition, massive water waste and unreasonable use and diversion continues through excessive pumping in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and the wasteful irrigation of naturally contaminated lands in the western San Joaquin Valley. Drainage water from these contaminated lands contains high levels of selenium, boron and arsenic. The State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB)—the state’s water regulator—lists the San Joaquin River, the Delta, and Suisun Marsh between Sacramento and San Francisco as impaired water bodies.

But the SWRCB—the agency responsible for granting and revoking all water rights permits in California—barely lifts a finger to enforce state and federal law to clean up these rivers and marshlands, California’s travesty of justice in water.

Mono Lake, August 2005.

 Kelsey Mono Lake August 2005.jpg
Photo by Kelsey Stroshane.

C-WIN intends to spread enforcement of the public trust doctrine throughout California and of the California Constitution’s prohibition on waste and unreasonable use of water, starting with protecting fisheries and aquatic ecosystems now directly injured by excessive water diversions of the California State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project.

Our inspiration in this effort is the famed 1983 public trust decision in National Audubon Society v. State Water Resources Control Boardthe Mono Lake decision. Today, Mono Lake stands as a shining tribute to these doctrines, and as beacons of hope to those who fight on to protect nature and sustain healthy human communities.

Vital to protecting the public trust is ensuring that water is used reasonablynot profligately, or speculatively.

That’s right, speculatively. C-WIN fights speculation in water supplies.

Beginning in 1991 and 1992, the worst years of the last great drought California experienced as a whole, California initiated a drought water bank—which returned in 2009 and has been resurrected each year since then, whether wet or dry—in which Sacramento Valley agricultural water agencies sold water to the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) for sale and export to agricultural and urban agencies in southern California. The drought water bank made money for the state both years.

Water speculators began figuring out how to game the big water systems. In 1992, water Congress included transfers among CVP contractors in its Central Valley Project Improvement Act. CVP contractors could not sell their water outside the jurisdiction of the CVP, however.

In 1994, several state water contractors led by the two largest buyers of water from the State Water Project—the agriculture-dominated Kern County Water Agency (KCWA) and the urban Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD)—concluded a secret pact to restructure the SWP into a vehicle for marketing water with KCWA positioned as the main seller of water and MWD as the major buyer. They forced a compliant DWR to amend the contracts—since called the “Monterey amendments” (named for the City where the amendments were negotiated)—taking out provisions that originally protected the public from promising more water than the state could deliver (“paper water”), and inserting provisions that enabled key water contractors to profit from water transfers. And they cut the California public and DWR out of the money-making opportunities they created through the Monterey amendments.

This speculation—the excess promises of water—has gone on far longer than the time the big projects have existed. The SWRCB admitted in its 2008-2012 strategic workplan that the Board and its predecessors have recognized water rights permits or statements totaling 531.5 million acre-feet of water. (See Appendix 4 of the Workplan at the above link.) DWR estimates that average annual runoff in California rivers and streams is just 71 million acre-feet. (An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons of water, or about the annual consumptive use by two southern California households.)

Think of what this means: for every acre-foot of water that flows annually in our streams, 7.5 acre-feet of water is promised to someone holding a water right. To allow right holders this much water would ruin every watershed in California in a hurry.

This is not a population problem with water—it is a problem of institutionalized speculation in the waters of California streams on a grand scale. Far more water is promised here than can be delivered to anyone. The public trust resources of the Delta and the San Joaquin River face the greatest pressure for water diversions and as a result pay the greatest price in collapsing ecosystems and toxic contamination.

And the California Water Impact Network is working to end these abuses of California’s water system.

We hope you will join us in fighting this travesty of justice in water! Visit our Principles for a Sustainable Water Future and consider endorsing them, sign up for regular updates of our activities and opportunities to get involved, and consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts.