Farm Press Blog

Time to find win-win solutions to California water crisis

  • Delta tunnels are a start to finding solutions to California water needs.
  • Time to stop looking for losers in water battles.
  • Water will only get more expensive without solutions.

Solutions to problems move us forward, but finding answers to California’s biggest problem — its long-term water supply — is like trying to push water up a straw.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is an amazingly beautiful estuary as well as the major conveyance that moves water from Northern California to the agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley and 20 million urbanites in Southern California.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s $23 billon proposal to build two massive tunnels to move more water under the natural Delta, as well as restore the ecosystem of the Delta, met with immediate criticism and vows to make someone a loser.

Unfortunately, winning and losing seem to be the focal point of the debate over how to “fix” the Delta.

It’s not about winning and losing. It’s about finding a solution to California’s growing water crisis.

I can understand why those who live and work around the Delta want the government and everyone else to leave it alone. Nevertheless, the Delta is an environmental mess. Some rightfully contend it has deteriorated due to the massive pumps that now move water north to south. However, the introduction of non-native fish species into the Delta and sewage and toxic waste from cities and industry have also contributed significantly to the environmental decline.

The cost of the Brown package is staggering, so large that the governor realizes the state cannot pay for much of it. California is in a perpetual state of broke. Only $3 billion to $4 billion of operating expenses would fall on the state. The rest, $20 billion, would be paid for by farmers and residential customers.

Can they pay for it? A look across the Colorado River can provide some insight into that question. The Central Arizona Project (CAP) was the last large Bureau of Reclamation Project ever built in the U.S. CAP brings about 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water per year to Pima, Pinal and Maricopa counties. It was essentially completed in 1994. However, as the water reached the farmland, farmers realized it was too expensive to grow their crops, and they did not use it. However, Arizona’s leaders knew the water was essential for the state’s future, so after much angst, the state devised a plan to ensure that all the contracted water was delivered to the state. Some of it was even dumped into dry riverbeds to recharge the groundwater. Not a bad solution in the desert Southwest.

Water users no doubt have analyzed the payback for the $20 billion it will cost to build the tunnel or they would not agree to pay it. For sure, it will not get any cheaper than it is today.

The clock is ticking on the price tags to develop more California water supplies. Figuring out who will lose in the debate of the Delta or any other water development project is not moving toward a solution.

I don’t know if the tunnels are the best solution to increasing the yield of water moving into the Delta and out. However, it seems to be a good start to finding one feasible solution to the California water crisis. It is time to sit down at the table and find a win-win situation rather than choosing up sides and seeing who will be the loser. That is admittedly a tall order for a state as politically dysfunctional as California.

For more, see:

US not prepared for growing water crisis

Water crisis in California, Texas threatens US food security

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