The California Water War has faced its Fort Sumter. The recent introduction of a secession bill in the California State Legislature has revealed the profound character of the division between water users in the state. Coming as it did after the battle of the peripheral canal being fought to a stalemate; it is overdue that we begin to focus on peace talks in Sacramento. We see in this battle all the indicators of a protracted war as were demonstrated after the first battle of Bull Run. But, let’s avoid too much literary license in the comparison with the Civil War.
The issue is water appropriation, or more precisely water diversions. It has been a long time policy for the state of California to seize control of the water resource through various measures including defining in stream flow as a beneficial use, invoking the Public Trust Doctrine, building massive projects to transfer huge amounts of water from one region to another and failing to utilize sources other than freshwater supplies to address regional resource needs. The question is “Where the balance is in this picture?” Or more precisely “Why is there no rational state water policy that establishes consistency in water planning?”
The only consistency to date has been in the willingness to try and placate movers and shakers at the expense of the marginalized. When Arnold Schwarzenegger claimed that “we can have it all” in California water, he clearly misrepresented the current state of affairs. Who is “we” when some of “us” just had our supplies taken from us and when does “all” include what had been “mine” and I still need? What is fair and just about that? How can we (and you) have it all (including what was taken from me and given to him)?
What is seen is that the scale, scope and impacts of the projected uses and allocations are far beyond the realm of accurate quantification. It becomes much too easy for “combat science” to take the place of accurate science in arguing the case for yet another diversion. What is also seen is that the issue of sustainability is twisted to the point that it is no longer recognized as a functioning tool in policy making. As a Green I am unequivocally committed to the integration of human habitation with the world around us. But, never have I seen or heard of the number and scale of diversions as have been proliferated in this state. Never have I seen a more conflated mishmash of water law that makes regional management so profoundly complicated. Never have I seen a state legislature so intimately involved in water administration.
Regional efforts have produced substantive proposals and established goals based on their regional circumstances such as the Santa Cruz report CONSERVATION BLUEPRINT: AN ASSESMENT AND RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE LAND TRUST OF SANTA CRUZ. The report initially characterized the region’s challenges as follows: "Our water supplies are not sufficient to meet long-term residential and agricultural demand." "Water shortages and pollution, habitat loss and fragmentation, climate change, and threats to the viability of local agriculture, are among the many conservation challenges that we must continue to address in the 21st century." But, they are able to establish a proposed set of water objectives: “Water Resources: 1. Protect water supplies to ensure long-term drinking water availability and to meet the needs of local industry, agriculture, and the natural environment. 2. Protect and enhance water quality in natural, urban, and agricultural landscapes. 3. Maintain watershed integrity and ensure resilience to climate change. “pg. xiv.
The recent report from Stanford provides a plethora of examples of regional groundwater management in the state with various models for others. Likewise a recent publication, REGIONAL PLANNING IN AMERICA: PRACTICE AND PROSPECT of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policies provides other models of regional planning from across the nation. It is clear that things are happening at the regional levels in land and water planning. And it is clear that the incentives for regions to prioritize their own plans for land and water use have increased as population continues to grow. What is equally clear is that the presumptive diversions of water by the state of California and the State Legislature in water continue to preclude a sound and holistic approach by regional entities to land and water planning.
It is clear that the first step in Sacramento is to establish a consistent regional planning template that provides real sustainability in the planning process within watersheds and water basins. It is clear that the war between the regions is avoidable when regions are given the autonomy to be self-reliant. There is no question that this will mean a new meaning for sustainability. But, it is equally clear that only the seeds of conflict lie in maintaining the status quo. A scenario addressing regional long-term planning processes that are open and transparent provides a real alternative.