27 Sep 2008

Tearing Up Contracts

Nobody considered the fish when farmers, cities and governments wrote contracts for water delivery. Now the fish are getting a seat at the table, and someone's going to get hurt:
U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger heard arguments late last week over whether to require the Central Valley Project to rewrite the contracts because each was based off a flawed ruling that the water promised to both farmers and urban dwellers would not harm the endangered fish.
If CVP contracts are re-written, other water rights are likely to be affected (because farmers often buy water from different sources), and water will be reshuffled across California. OTOH, the "new" contracts will probably just recognize a status quo of "fish flows" that has prevailed over the past few years.

Westlands Water District, an "agricultural area" that did not exist before water imports, is terrified:
The farmers in the Westlands district typically pump between 150,000 and 200,000 acre feet of water out of the ground each year. This year the total will be more like a half-million acre feet.

That is not sustainable and the farmers know it. This is why when California gets a wet year and the farmers get more than the typical portion of their contract, they pump it into the ground to recharge the aquifer.

Wolff noted that Westlands farmers have already let 250,000 acres go fallow because of the drought. She said to ask them to take those acres out of production permanently is asking too much.

"We're already short on the contracts," Wolff said. "Now they're saying they're going to decrease it even more? That would have huge implications."
Yeah, like Westlands going out of business, which would close the loop on a place that probably should not have gone into business.

Bottom Line: Slowly, water rights are being reallocated from uses of lower to higher social value. Markets would make things a lot simpler, but the bureaucratic method still prevails, and Westlands should remember that "he who lives by the sword will die by the sword."