Better Water Distribution System for California!

ImageAugust 4, 2013

An array of leaders–consisting of water agency officers, state and federal administrators, and political figures gathered at the California State Univesity, Fresno Satellite Student Union to address hundreds of farmers and residents on Saturday, August 3rd.  The event, Delta Water Summit, showcased three panels that served to present the efforts for the newly proposed Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) and answer questions from the public about the current water concerns that residents in the San Joaquin Valley share.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) is likely the most comprehensive approach that the state has taken in recent decades to re-imagine the current water conveyance system that is poorly serving the state; this current system was drafted to accommodate about half of the current state population and thus has proved inefficient at redistributing water from high abundance areas to high demand areas. The BDCP is a 50 year permit, $24.54 billion proposal to further the availability of water in the delta and implement more reliable conveyance of that water to critical areas along the San Joaquin Valley.

The bulk of the investment is a 10 year, $19.4 billion construction plan, which will among other things, construct more canals, reservoirs, and two “twin” tunnels that will act as an alternate way of routing freshwater from the Sacramento River to the state and federal water facilities—the pumps that redistribute water to many districts across the state.  Officials say that the tunnels system will not only provide water managers with a reliable and predictable amount of water, but will also address habitat needs for 11 fish species and 46 wildlife and plant species.

In recent years the operation of the state and federal facility pumps has been controversial because they have been shut down at times in order to protect certain fish, under regulations set forth through the endangered species act.  Acts that have angered farmers and many communities because they feel that protecting fish life has been put in front of protecting human life.  The largely farmer audience at the summit shared their frustration by calling for a moratorium on the endangered species act.  Only one of the panelists, Chris Acree of Revive San Joaquin, a non-profit working to restore the San Joaquin River seemed to believe that the ESA served as an indicator of water quality, arguing that water of such low quantity or quality that is unable to sustain fish populations will be unable to sustain human life.  Still most panelists and audience members disagreed arguing that ESA does not place humans on the food chain and that it should.

In fact, many audience members—most who are directly in the agricultural business are angry and worried about projections from the Bureau of Reclamation, the largest wholesaler of water in the country, that project that 0-10% of irrigation water will be guaranteed to farmers for 2014.  A 20% decrease from an already low guarantee in 2013.  This leaves farmers scrambling for other alternatives to bring crops to term, some even paying higher amounts for water.  It is estimated that currently farmers pay an average of $375 per acre foot of water, and that price is only projected to go up in the coming months and in 2014.  Some farmers claim that they are paying as much as $1,000 per acre foot.

But these low projections do not only affect farmers, they also affect larger urban areas and disadvantaged rural communities in the Central Valley.  Joan Maher, Deputy Operating Officer for Water Supply for the Santa Clara Valley Water District explained that significant risk exists for urban areas if the BDCP is not implemented, many residents of urban areas, she argues, “are already seeing impacts on the price of water and produce.”  The threats to disadvantaged communities seem even more immediate as scarcity of water translates into undrinkable water as well as fewer agricultural jobs that are the main source of income for these type of communities.  A local Mendota resident voiced that after the drought period in 2009, “**it was embarrassing to stand in food lines, when all our people wanted to do was work, but there was no work available!**”

The woman’s arguments resemble some of the concerns that many people working to attain environmental justice have.  In coming months, more discussion and analysis will be made to the BDCP including an Environmental Impact Report that will answer more questions about the environmental hazards that will arise or be solved by this proposal.  Community residents in the San Joaquin Valley need to remain engaged in this important process in order to make sure that disadvantaged communities are not disproportionately burdened at any time during the implementation of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

Two areas that residents and environmental justice groups are already expressing concern over are in regards to cost and unexpected delays in the construction period.  Much of the $19.4 billion allocated to the construction period will come from water district payments, many districts will thus turn to consumers for that money.  In small districts, which traditionally are already unable to provide potable water, this could mean significant increases in the water bill for residents.  More expensive rates are an extra burden for residents who are also expected to purchase bottled drinking water.  Since many officials agree that more water quantity will also translate to better water quality, it is expected for these districts to argue that increases in the water bill will yield potable water.  However, if residents are asked to pay more from the get go, there will be a transition period in which they will be charged more and still have no access to potable water.  Any unexpected delays to the conveying process only furthers the burden to these communities.

To prevent these outcomes it is important for the community to voice these concerns and demand more just alternatives.  One opportunity to engage and demand will be during the introduction of legislation for a Water Bond.  Many legislators expect that a bill could go out to the voters in 2014 or 2016.  The water bond has been delayed previously because legislators wanted to get a strong piece of legislature that would actually score well with both party electorates.  The water bond is expected to have three key elements: money for storage, plan to fix the delta, and water quality bonds.  The last of which will be important for small water districts that are currently unable to provide potable water.  Residents can mobilize and demand that these funds to better water quality are in fact part of the bill.

At this point CCEJN does not have a formal position in regards to the BDCP but is excited that much discussion is occurring around this key issue that critically affects so many communities in the Central Valley.  In the near future, we expect to form a coordinated position with many of our allies in order to push and make environmentally just recommendations to officials.  Please remain engaged with us as we follow this process.

**translated from Spanish**