25 May 2012

Can we end hydraulic mining?

I wrote this op/ed for the LA Times. It was rejected because "the column is too broad and some parts not explained enough for a mainstream readership... you don't have to 'dumb it down' but next time, it might work better to pick a narrow issue in the news and focus just on that." I disagree, since ALL the narrow issues in California (and elsewhere) are distorted by these factors. What do you think?
I grew up in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the 1970s, spending time in each city as I shuttled between divorced parents. In San Francisco, I used the garden hose for hydraulic mining in my back yard -- blasting away soil as I searched for treasure. In Los Angeles, I played in the lawn sprinkler on hot days -- shooting water into the air for hours at a time.

I remember the 1980 vote over the Peripheral Canal, which was NOT a good thing. Years later, I created the ``Peripheral Canal" entry in Wikipedia. Many people had forgotten the North-South acrimony over the division of water. Not me.

In fact, it seems like we are seeing more conflict than ever. And why it that?


Imperial Irrigation District doesn't want to pay to restore the Salton Sea its farmers have polluted. Farmers don't want to pay the Bureau of Reclamation the costs of building the Central Valley Project. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is trying to minimize its spending on stabilizing the dusty remains of Owens Lake. Environmentalists don't want to pay for their dream of restoring Hetch Hetchy. Citizens of Sacramento and Fresno don't want to pay for the water they use. The list goes on, but every example shares a common trait: a desire to pay costs with other people's money and get water from other people's supply.

Californians have a long tradition of getting something for nothing where water is concerned. Hydraulic miners in the Gold Rush could claim as much water as they could shoot from streams onto hill sides. Suburbanites got cheaper water because urban neighbors had already paid for infrastructure. Farmers shifted dam costs to taxpayers who paid for "public interest" flood control and recreation.

Those cheap water tricks worked pretty well while water was abundant, but growing demand eventually overwhelmed natural supplies. Scarcity has become the new normal: we now get less water for more money, time, lawsuits, and other forms of full employment for politicians, engineers, lawyers, lobbyists, bureaucrats and economists. (Remember CalFed? It cost $5 billion and didn't fix the Delta.)

It's time to recognize that times have changed. Santa Claus is not going to remove half the State's population, restore dry rivers, fill irrigation canals, or replenish groundwater. We have to set up a system that allocates our scarce water with minimum friction and maximum social benefits. I suggest the following:

First, every water diverter/extractor should pay an extraction fee in proportion to local water stress. That means a high fee in arid and heavily-populated Southern California and a low fee in sparsely-populated, wet Northern California. The fee will encourage users to find ways to use less water. Such fees have driven Israeli farmers to radically improve their water efficiency.

Second, use fee revenue to pay for monitoring and management of surface- and groundwater supplies. Many states and countries have transparent and uncontroversial systems for maintaining their water sustainability.

Third, reorganize water rights to protect minimum environmental flows, retire paper rights, and facilitate water exchanges within local watersheds or -- with appropriate protections -- across watersheds. Australia has been largely successful in making these changes over the past ten years. Such trade will ensure that adequate water flows to urban taps, California's best farmers stay in business, important environments can thrive, and businesses get the reliability they need.

Finally, either require that state and federal infrastructure users pay their remaining debts or bankrupt and shut down those systems. Debt overhang encourages managers to continue to run their inefficient systems under the mistaken hope that users will eventually pay. That's a forlorn hope -- under current rules -- for the Central Valley Project. The State Water Project is in better fiscal condition but subsidies from Southern California cities to Central Valley farmers encourage wasteful use of scarce water supplies.

Bottom Line: These actions will restore reality to California's water system by restraining demand to sustainable supplies, ensuring that users pay for the water and infrastructure they use, and facilitating the transfer of water from historical users whose claims depend on decisions made by their great-great-granddaddies to contemporary users who can put California's water to its highest and best use.