As the drought continues, California needs to focus on the big picture – revamping its broken water system.
By Connie Kwong
We typically think of farmers and farmworkers as two parties that do not see eye-to-eye on many issues. So at first, it’s surprising to hear Fresno farmers and migrant farmworkers joined together in a rally organized by the Latino Water Coalition to voice their mutual frustration at California’s inability to establish a viable water plan for dealing with the state’s current drought.
As unlikely as this coalition sounds, it demonstrates that no stakeholder group is immune to the drought’s effects.
Droughts are a textbook example of the domino effect of environmental crises. So far in California, the drought has resulted in lower crop and harvest yields, rising food prices, school funding deficits in agricultural regions, and strict water rationing measures, just to name a few of the consequences.
But the reality is that generating more money in drought relief and coming up with a plan to deal with the drought itself won’t actually prevent California’s water problems from returning. When I say that no group can escape the problems created by the drought, I also have to say that no group can escape the problems of a fundamentally broken water system. While the Fresno farmers and farmworkers’ new alliance may demonstrate how different groups have united to voice their dissent against the shortcomings of public policy, it’s eclipsed by the bigger issue: California’s water management system is outdated, inefficient, and has turned water allocation into a political mess.
California’s long, troubled history of water disputes is characterized by the regional differences in geography and water needs between northern California, the Central Valley, and southern California. According to water rights attorney Wes Strickland, early California settler communities established their own water wells because of the fact that economic and political power stemmed from water rights.
This created a precedent in which there has never been a single, uniform entity or process for allocating water in California, which is problematic for a large state with such a varied and diverse population. Although most of the water sources are in northern California, southern California is more densely populated and requires a larger amount of water. At the same time, the Central Valley is a major agricultural hub that also requires a stable water supply to support its crop yield. In fact, drinking water in California is managed by so many different agencies that the California Department of Water Resource “concedes that it does not even know the exact number.” Strickland says that in general, most water agencies operate with very little public scrutiny.
If anything, the lack of oversight and transparency has opened the door for fiscal irresponsibility and corruption. For example, several administrative officials at the southern Californian Central Basin Municipal Water District were recently accused of using a secret $2.7 million fund for groundwater storage as a “slush fund” of cash for political allies, board members, and relatives.
Currently, there are two bills pending in Congress that would remove environmental restrictions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in order to divert excess water into southern California through a federal canal system. But dealing with the drought doesn’t just mean redirecting the water supply, nor do the water problems end when the drought does. It won’t end the ongoing struggle between northern California, the Central Valley, and southern California of securing a stable water supply for each respective region.
California needs to revamp its water system by creating a uniform agency that can accurately assess the water needs of each region in the state and provide oversight, and also establish a sustainable framework for dealing with future water crises.