Water Politics and Social Justice

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

 
Photo courtesy of Restore the Delta.

The story of California water is about justice denied: To the public, to future generations, and to fisheries and wildlife. The California Water Impact Network has identified fundamental inequities in water policies that threaten to undermine the state’s economy, unravel essential aquatic ecosystems, destroy our valuable commercial and sport fisheries and compromise the rule of established water law. All in all, these threats constitute a fundamental breach of good governance.  C-WIN is determined to turn things around. 

The crux of the problem: The state and federal governments have failed to acknowledge their  public trust responsibilities to our rivers, streams, and estuaries. This obligation is explicit and inescapable under established law, but our governments tolerate – indeed, actively enable – the destruction of the fisheries and aquatic ecosystems that contribute to the food supplies and livelihoods of millions of Californians.  .

Second, the waste  of our scant water resources is egregious. This constitutes a direct violation of our state Constitution, specifically an amendment California voters approved in 1928. Despite this explicit prohibition, massive water waste and unreasonable use and diversion continue through excessive pumping in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Most of this water is squandered through destructive irrigation practices in naturally contaminated lands  in the western San Joaquin Valley. Drainage water from these toxic lands contains high levels of selenium, boron and arsenic. The State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB)—the state’s primary water regulator—lists the San Joaquin River, the Delta, and Suisun Marsh between Sacramento and San Francisco as impaired water bodies; by any reasonable measure, this assessment must be considered a gross understatement.

But the SWRCB—the agency responsible for granting and revoking all water rights permits in California—is institutionally disinclined to enforce state and federal law to clean up these rivers and marshlands. Instead, it usually sides with the polluters and despoilers.

Mono Lake, August 2005.

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

C-WIN’s prime mission is threefold:  To enforce application of  the public trust doctrine throughout California, implement in a substantive and effective way the California Constitution’s prohibition on the waste and unreasonable use of water, and revitalize the  fisheries and aquatic ecosystems that have been degraded by excessive water diversions via the California State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project.

The basis for our work is the 1983 public trust decision in National Audubon Society v. State Water Resources Control Board, otherwise known as the Mono Lake decision. Today, Mono Lake stands as a beacon to supporters of the public trust doctrine, and the best available weapon against those who would destroy our natural patrimony and privatize vital public assets for the benefit of the few. As noted, stopping the unreasonable and profligate use of water is one of our main goals. And central to this effort is scotching the rampant speculation in state water. Indeed, water speculation is one of the biggest threats to the wise and equitable distribution of California’s water. Beginning in 1991 and 1992 (extreme drought years in California), the state initiated a drought water bank. This policy was resurrected in 2009 and has been renewed each year since. Under this plan, , Sacramento Valley agricultural water agencies sell water to the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) for sale and export to agricultural and urban agencies in southern California.  On the face of it, this seemed like a sound insurance policy against drought, and it also made money for the state.

But the water bank was also a tempting target for wealthy and influential water privateers; they began scheming, trying to figure out a way to game the system. They used their friends in the state and national legislatures to further their ends. In 1992, Congress authorized 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.)Then, in 1994, several state water contractors, led by the two largest State Water Project contractors, 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. Under this scheme, the KCWA was positioned as the main seller of water and MWD as the major buyer. They forced a compliant DWR to amend SWP contracts, taking out provisions that prohibited the state from promising more water than it could deliver (“paper water”), and inserting provisions that enabled key water contractors to profit from water transfers. The deal also prevented the California public and DWR from participating in the money-making opportunities such transfers represented. The “agreement” was dubbed the “Monterey Amendments”, named for the city where the negotiations were conducted.

The Monterey Amendments essentially promoted blatant water speculation. Worse, they sanctioned speculation in a critical natural resource that was formerly a public asset.  Further, they sanctioned this highly dubious trade in a resource that is in chronically short supply. 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 work plan 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.) In other words, 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. There is never enough water to meet existing water rights claims.

Thus, our water crisis is not a matter of population growth: It is a matter of the privatization of a critical public resource, and of institutionalized speculation in state water – water that, by long-established law and moral right, belong to all the people of California, not the few, the wealthy and politically connected.  

The California Water Impact Network is working to end these abuses.  We hope you will join us in fighting this battle.  Visit our Principles for a Sustainable Water Future, sign up for regular updates of our activities, and consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts.