March 17, 2021

The Enviros’ Water Paradox

Two things struck me recently as I thought about the water headaches that afflict many California farmers, especially those in the San Joaquin Valley.

First up, the matter of “drought.” We all noted with concern the dry fall season, which understandably raised concerns about another drought, and predictably journalists and environmentalists who focus on water policy declared it so. Because drought—of any degree—is always used to further constrict the water supplied to San Joaquin Valley farmers. But then as winter came and a series of major storms produced heavy rain in much of the state and encouraging snow deposits in the Sierras, the narrative changed oddly. Rather than hearing the same commentators express gratitude for the precipitation and the hope that more would be forthcoming, perhaps even removing the threat of drought at least for a year, we were left alone in our optimism. Settle down you (ag) people, the storms were of little help, and by the way California is in a permanent drought. No need to concern ourselves with the many feet of snow accumulating in the mountains. No, that isn’t what you think it is. We’re in a permanent drought, and by the way this is a drought year, too.

Okay then.

California may well be in a long-term drought; calling it “permanent” seems to assume too much. But in any case, if our emerging reality as the climate changes means California will receive less frequent precipitation, less of it overall, and it will come in warmer, flashier storms that create flood risk rather than as the Sierra snowpack that has been our largest “reservoir,” then shouldn’t the state be moving boldly and quickly to invest in infrastructure that can convey and store more of the runoff from warmer winter storm events, both for flood protection and to bolster our water supply security throughout the year and to hold over water from wet years to meet our needs during drier years?

Indeed, many voices involved in water policy across the ideological spectrum have advocated exactly that. It almost feels as though a broad consensus is possible: Increase the state’s surface storage capacity where possible (major asterisks around that), enhance conveyance capabilities to move stored water when needed, and increase groundwater recharge capabilities by streamlining bureaucratic rules and building more small-scale conveyance facilities to get the water where it can be used to recharge basins (e.g., farmland).

Which brings up the second thing that caught my eye: A statement from the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and other environmental activist groups announcing a lawsuit to block a relatively small—but important—new water storage project from going forward.

The proposed Del Puerto Canyon Reservoir Project in Stanislaus County will be funded by water users, mostly agricultural.

With a projected capacity of 82,000 acre feet, it’s a modest facility. But it would provide some of that badly needed capacity to store runoff when it arrives, and deliver it when needed to farms, groundwater recharge and wildlife refuges.

Exactly what California should be encouraging as climate change takes hold.

Yet as this lawsuit was filed, not a whisper of disagreement came from the many other water policy influencers who know darn well that this little project, and others like it, are badly needed.

According to U.C. Davis, regulatory-driven water cutbacks during the 2012-2016 drought caused more than one million acres of farmland to be fallowed, with 43,000 jobs and $5.5 billion in economic activity lost.

Compounding matters, the Public Policy Institute of California estimates that implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 will result in the permanent loss of no less than 535,000 acres of San Joaquin Valley farmland and $4 billion in annual revenues by 2040. Several water managers in the Valley have projected even greater farmland loss.

The best way to recharge critically over-drafted basins without injuring regional economies and the thousands of our fellow Californians who are connected to agriculture is to reverse the steady reduction of surface water provided to farms for irrigation, and to channel flood runoff to recharge lands efficiently. Both require new infrastructure and repair or enhancement of existing infrastructure. The Del Puerto Canyon Reservoir Project—modest as it is—would accomplish those goals. Whether it will be built is now in some question, thanks to environmentalist litigation.

Environmental activists want to have it both ways: Declare that California is in a permanent state of drought and simultaneously litigate or otherwise block every sensible effort to create water storage and conveyance capacity sufficient to meet the challenges of climate change.

In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in 2014, Senator Dianne Feinstein spoke truth to this powerful constituency within her own party, reflecting that environmentalists “have never been helpful to me in producing good water policy. You can’t have a water infrastructure for 16 million people and say, ‘Oh, it’s fine for 38 million people,’ when we’re losing the Sierra Nevada snowpack.”

Seven years later, nothing has changed except for the loss of valuable time to act before an entire region of our state is steadily decamped by the economic ruination that followed the foolish decisions of our policy makers over the course of decades.