Any study of water management report in the state of California that fails to analyze California water politics leaves a significant gap in grasping the decisions that have been made in the past and those that will be made in the future. In addressing California water politics we find profound disparities in power and influence. There are many advocacy groups that represent users and stakeholders throughout the state who are engaged in issues of water quality, water allocations and water diversions. There are lines drawn between coastal municipalities and inland users. There are lines drawn between North and South. There are environmentalists and agribusinesses that project their ritual oppositions in the media. Liberals in San Francisco raise the banner of the Delta smelt, while conservatives on talk shows mock the prioritization of a minnow-like fish ahead of the farm owners and farm workers of the Central Valley.
The irony is that with all the smoke inherent in these conflicts, how do we ever find the fire of the real interests of users in California? One thing is clear, no one lacks the appropriate science and policy advocates in the public arena to plead their case. Here in California its called "combat science". The real substantive political questions remain obscured by the white noise of the advocacy groups.
The essence of sustainability in water politics is working regionally to integrate the objective: balancing growth with renewable supplies. Defining the common needs and mechanisms to accomplish this is a common objective of our neighbors and friends and not a battlefield of the future. If we can make sacrifices in these decisions, our neighbors can do so as well. If we can establish priorities recognizing our neighbors and surrounding communities’ needs, they can as well. But we need to do with without taking from others. And we need to be cognizant of what it is we are expecting of others.
California has manipulated its water law so that it means all things to all people. Public Trust Doctrine has been used to promote private interests receiving takings from other users as a result of state actions. Beneficial uses are so inclusive as to lack any real meaning in regards to distinguishing consumptive use. In California water law doctrine is inclusive of pueblo rights, riparian, prior appropriation and a separate one for groundwater. Fourteen Federal agencies and 15 state agencies (table 2.10, page 129, PPIC Report) put their hands in the waters of California and local authorities exist in nine distinct jurisdictional governmental entities (ranging from municipalities to flood control, sanitation and water districts).
This is the face of California water management and administration but no where is there a body that presents the distinct voices of regional water users and stakeholders at the same table. No where do neighbors and community people plan their common destiny in regards to the common resource. No where are the particular interests of water users and stakeholders represented AS users and stakeholders within a shared political entity.
The decisions being made within the California State Legislature are NOT the product of the expressions of the concerns and needs of all those impacted by its decisions. The process within the California State Legislature obscures the incorporation of the science and the metrics needed for an accurate assessment of the existing regional uses and supplies of the water resource and/or the impact of the decisions being made on others. The funding mechanisms bear no relation between those benefiting from and those not impacted by the authorizations needed to implement recommendations. As a result, the politics in the State Legislature quickly degenerate into the “art of the deal”.
If we are not talking about talk show polemics or the partisan kabuki fights of FOX vs. MSNBC, what do we mean by water politics? Why are we trying to get out of the current arenas in order to come up with substantive solutions to the issues of water as they impact on our neighbors and our communities?
Other Western states do manage their state water supplies without the reliance on diversions that dominate the California aquascape or dependence on massive state bonds having to be approved. In NM, the Office of the State Engineer recently ruled against a 150 mile diversion Santa Fe from another region on the premise of a regions because it was "vague and overbroad." other states such as Texas and New Mexico manage to withstand the direct confrontations of regional users working together to define their water allocations and establish sound priorities for them.
Substantive issues such as population growth, decline of freshwater resources, and increasing public health concerns need to be addressed where they are taxing the very resources we need to survive on this planet. And they need to be in a scope and scale that they will change the direction that we are currently headed. “The relationship among water, growth and land use is a global problem that will be resolved most effectively at the local and regional level.”