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Walters: California Drought Sharpens Perpetual Water Conflict

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California never has enough water to meet all demands and even when supplies are relatively robust there’s a triangular competition over their allocation.

Farmers, municipal users and environmental advocates vie for shares of water that has been captured by California’s extensive network of dams and reservoirs.

Their battles are waged in the state Capitol, in Washington, in regulatory agencies and in the courts and over time, the trend has been a subtle shift of supplies from long-dominant agriculture to protecting flows for fish and other wildlife while maintaining the relatively small amount consumed in urban areas.

Dan Walters

Opinion

Board to Limit and Allocate Water Amid Drought

When California experiences one of its periodic droughts and reservoirs shrink from scant rain and snowfall, its perpetual conflict becomes even sharper. We’re now in one of those droughts, as a looming clash in the state Water Resources Control Board underscores.

A month ago, the state Department of Water Resources and the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which together operate the state’s largest reservoirs, such as Shasta and Oroville, asked the board to decrease minimum flows of water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and into San Francisco Bay from 4,000 cubic feet per second to 3,000.

“Water Year 2021 is currently the driest on record since 1977,” the two water agencies said in their letter to the board. “Although well below average rainfall, the snowpack in March, 2021 indicated that sufficient reservoir inflow was likely available to meet (minimum flow) requirements. Conditions significantly changed at the end of April 2021 when it became clear that expected reservoir inflow from snowmelt failed to materialize.”

Competing Demands for Water

The agencies also asked the control board to limit exports from the Delta to agricultural and municipal users in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California to 1,500 cubic feet per second.

The first request raises the hackles of environmental groups. This month, a coalition of environmental groups, led by Restore the Delta, fired back, telling the control board that the request to reduce minimum Delta flows “will not best serve the public interest; it is contrary to law; and it will have an adverse environmental impact on the Delta, and to salmon fisheries on which northern California Indian Tribes rely for cultural life and nutrition.”

The water resources department “and the Bureau released nearly a half-million acre-feet of water to wealthy senior water right holders who grow rice for export early this spring, rather than hold enough water in their lakes to protect salmon and prevent harmful algae blooms in the Delta this summer,” Tim Stroshane, a policy analyst for Restore the Delta, said in a statement. “More gifts of water to almond growers await release this summer unless the state Water Board steps in to correct this injustice and prevent cultural genocide against Northern California Indian Tribes and a public health calamity in the Delta.”

Meanwhile, the water agencies’ second request, to cap exports from the Delta, could adversely affect San Joaquin Valley farmers, whose guaranteed supplies had been reduced to zero by the state and federal agencies. They have been pressing Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a drought emergency, presumably making more water available for agriculture, but the requested export limit of 1,500 cubic feet per second would seemingly dash those hopes.

Future of Long-Term Water Allocation Unclear

Meanwhile, the export limit’s effect on Southern California water users would be relatively scant because reservoirs in that region are fairly full.

How the state handles competing demands during this drought may be a harbinger of the larger conflict over the long-term reallocation of water as climate change affects supply.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He has written more than 9,000 columns about the state and its politics and is the founding editor of the “California Political Almanac.” Dan has also been a frequent guest on national television news shows, commenting on California issues and policies.