26 Aug 2008

Delta Deja Vu

This article appeared in the SJ Mercury News (Why the long excerpt? See below):
For decades, one of Northern California's most enduring stereotypes has been the thirsty Los Angeleno, guzzling most of the state's water in a selfish crusade to keep his lawn green and swimming pool brimming.

The trouble is, it isn't true. Cows and crops consume the majority of California's water, not budding ''Melrose Place'' actors. The real water rivalry is not north-south, but east-west.

This spring, that fact is being highlighted with increasing frequency as state leaders struggle to repair the battered ecosystem of San Francisco Bay and its delta. At stake is the source of drinking water for two-thirds of Californians and irrigation for much of the state's $24 billion farm economy.

Restoring the delta's fish and wildlife while guaranteeing a more reliable water supply to California's growing population could cost taxpayers $10 billion or more. That total, say state officials who hold a public hearing on the issue tonight in San Jose, includes money for environmental restoration work and new dams and reservoirs. That figure is 50 times greater than the bill for repairing Yosemite National Park after last year's floods.

Those estimates are giving rise to a politically touchy question not seen since the depths of the state's last drought in 1991: Wouldn't it be cheaper to shift some water from farms to cities instead of making taxpayers spend those billions on dams and reservoirs?

  • Operating under a system of water rights and subsidies that began 100 years ago to encourage settlement of the arid West, farmers now consume 79 percent of California's water, according to the state Department of Water Resources. At the same time, farmers generate less than 10 percent of the state's $995 billion economy.
  • Roughly 46 percent of agricultural water goes for four crops: rice, cotton, hay and alfalfa to feed cattle. Combined, those crops contribute $3 billion annually to the state's economy, or as much as Hewlett-Packard Co. makes every 26 days.
  • Alfalfa alone uses almost nine times as much water as the city of Los Angeles each year.
  • If the state's cotton growers cut water use by 10 percent, that would double the amount of water available for every person, business and farm in Santa Clara County, without building a single new water project.
  • Farmers in the arid plains between Sacramento and Redding who grow rice, a crop normally found in monsoon climates, use more than twice the water of the entire Bay Area.
''There'd be no reason to build enormously expensive storage projects if you could go out and buy water on the open market,'' said Tom Graff, a former Harvard law professor and now senior attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund in Oakland. ''We have a profligate use of water in a desert environment. Water transfers allow farmers to make economic choices to conserve water or to fallow land.''

Although the issue is viewed as dull and complicated by many people -- and easy to ignore in rainy years like this one -- water transfers are one of key topics that will help shape 21st century California.

Billions of dollars are at stake, not just for farmers in Fresno, but for high-tech companies in Santa Clara and high-rise hotel owners in Los Angeles.


The idea behind transfers is simple: Encourage farmers to voluntarily sell water to cities, moving it through the state's sprawling series of canals, dams and pumps.

Water marketing

In some cases, farmers in places like Imperial, Fresno or Merced counties could earn more money by selling water than they could from growing crops.

In theory, that would offer farmers a market incentive to conserve, reducing the demand to pump from the delta and the need for expensive storage projects.


The chief fear of many rural leaders is that a few farmers would get rich while towns from Calexico to Colusa would dry up and blow away.

''Water is what makes agriculture, and agriculture is the backbone of our rural communities,'' said Jason Peltier, manager of the Central Valley Project Water Association, a Sacramento organization that represents 80 water agencies, many of them rural.

''Without ag, there's no rural economy. People will fight to protect their way of life,'' he said.


Environmentalists, however, are battling any plans that would build new reservoirs without including transfers.

''There are some crops that are just going to have to reduce production,'' said Jackie McCort of the Sierra Club in San Francisco. ''If we remove those subsidies and look at the environmental harm we've done to build dams to get water to these crops, it's benefiting a very few people at the expense of the environment and the taxpayer.''
When did this article appear? May 18, 1998.

Bottom Line: We haven't gotten very far in terms of reforms and solutions, and the problems we face today are even worse than 10 years ago. I wonder where we will be in 2018?

hattip to JWT


  1. I agree we have to do better with water. Still, what will we do when the dairy cattle are hungry?

  2. Don't herd cattle in the desert.


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