Friday, May 08, 2009

Water Districts failulre and media silence

I write a column for my local paper and always find it interesting to see how the editor writes the headline. In today's Morgan Hill Times, the headline was "Institutional Knowledge needed to make decisions". That is not what I would said, but on re-reading it, maybe he got the point.

When newspapers cut reporters, they lose more than the salaries. When term limits force out legislators, we lose their experience. But, in spite of this, I recommended a full house cleaning of the Board of Directors for the Santa Clara Valley Water District. These pseudo government districts are failing us and they get by due to voter apathy and the lack of a media that knows enough to hold their feet to the fire.

Click Read more! for the full text. While the examples are local, the same problem is to be found everywhere, from San Francisco (Chronicle had more layoffs today) to Boston (will the Globe stay in business?)

I had a lot of good intentions this week but as some say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It may fit my subject today to note that this saying is often mis-attributed to Samuel Johnson.

Following the machinations of the Santa Clara Valley Water District means that I have to pay attention to what is on their agenda. That is easy, subscribe from the water district's web site ( and you get announcements of every meeting of the Board of Directors.

That is where I learned of Wednesday night's session at the Morgan Hill Community Center at which the Water District presented their Annual Report on the Protection and Augmentation of Water Supplies – 2009 and to explain their Recommended Groundwater Production Charges for Fiscal Year 2009-2010. It is a challenging subject but at least I was able to download the Report and their Recommendations and read them before the meeting.

The problem was that I was not able to attend the public hearing and that, in itself has consequences beyond the fact that I may have missed important updates to the document they provided. Surely, the presenters must have commented on the fact that a San Jose judge has ruled that the current method of computing and collecting groundwater charges is not constitutional in California. It violates the provisions of Proposition 218.

Just as importantly, the number of people who show up at a hearing is one indication of whether or not people care, and I did not do my part. I hope that the rest of you did. I know that two of the hearings on whether or not to apply term limits to Water District Directors had zero and two attendees respectively. That does not demonstrate a high level of civic participation.

Underlying this is another thought, one concerning the role of the media, especially in the coverage of our government and local issues. I digress a bit here, but will come back to the subject. It may be that one of my cultural losses was to not have been hooked on watching The Wire (HBO). I really began paying attention after listening to the show's producer, David Simon talk about it with Bill Moyers.

Simon, for two decades a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, is quite articulate about the importance of good reporting, good editing in local journalism. On Wednesday (May 6) he testified on this subject at a US Senate Hearing regarding The Future of Journalism. Simon rather blamed much of the problems of newspapers in America from the fact that they started cutting staff long before the competition from the internet took away much of the advertising revenue stream that funded good journalism.

According to Simon, “When locally-based, family owned newspapers like The Sun were consolidated into publicly-owned newspaper chains, an essential dynamic, an essential trust between the journalism and the communities served by that journalism, was betrayed.”

How do these subjects tie together? Well, I would be the first to admit that I don't have the institutional knowledge that Simon feels was lost. I don't think that many local journalists do, with the possible exception of the Mercury News's Paul Rodgers and he is now covering a broader list of topics just to be as indispensable as possible. Locally, Rober Cerrutti does, but has no regular journalistic outlet.

The result is that our community, no matter how broadly we define that term is not well served. We see many stories about the fact that farmers are not going to get any water this year and many of these stories contain the framing of jobs vs. fish. Nothing could be further from the truth.

To begin with, many of the farmers in the Central Valley are not going to be affected at all. Holders of senior water rights in the Sacramento River Valley will get 100% of their allocation. Those in the Friant block will get 80%. It is only those in the Westland's Water District that are so severely restricted. This is where farmers have been encouraged to replace row crops which could be fallowed for a bad water year with orchards that can not. It was a bad business decision and not one that should determine California Water Policy. Television shows us pictures of Latino works demonstrating for their jobs and never mention the fact that the United Farm Workers is not involved and has distanced themselves from the big agriculture promoted demonstrations.

Without the institutional knowledge that Simon values, we are not learning enough to make informed decisions should any of this come to a vote. Were the question of term limits brought to the voters here, I am not sure what I would do. In a certain sense, the Directors need to acquire that same institutional knowledge, of course with an informed media that can hold their feet to the fire.

I can say that I would not support the re-election of any of the current directors; those who have allowed an unconstitutional method of charging out costs to continue un-questioned for years, those who have failed to provide adequate long term, ecologically sound planning for meeting our true water needs.


Gaythia Weis said...

Western water and land use issues are frequently very intertwined.

As I am sure you know, Southern California gets water from the California State water project, which ties to pumping stations in the San Joaquin delta. This, I believe, competes with the orchard owners you mentioned, as well as your own supplies in Morgan Hill.

Southern CA also uses groundwater and water that comes from the Colorado river. Denver, and much of Colorado's "front range", although on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, also uses water piped under the continental divide from the Colorado river basin. Much of Arizona and Nevada also use the Colorado as a water source.

It would take more than a reporter with institutional knowledge of your particular water district to even begin to sort the whole mess out.

Perhaps this is the type of thing the internet could be good for, if the appropriate linkages could be made.

Wes said...

Much of what you say is true. However, one needs a deep institutional knowledge to begin to make sense of it.

We continually find what we should know, by now, to expect. Developers lie about water rights. The total of all water rights in California far exceeds the normal flows of our major rivers but still some demand more. The total of all water rights in the Colorado River basin, linked with the Colorado River Compact, precludes transfers to the front range. There is a long list of things that reporters should know even though the public does not.

The internet can link you with organizations like the Center for Water Advocacy (Moab, UT) or the articles posted by the Moab Chapter of the Green Party.I only know of these through that "institutional knowledge."

Gaythia Weis said...


My "institutional knowledge" includes the existance of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District,, and the Denver Water Board, both of whom transport water from the Colorado basin under the Rockies.

Additionally, oil shale interests in Western Colorado are actively purchasing water rights:

Mining can be an issue in other ways, such as in-situ uranium mining:
This might possibly be a concern for Moab, which has also been a uranium mining center.

Wes said...

Good references. I have relied on Matt Jenkins's article How Low Will It Go in the March 2 edition of High Country News. Jenkins writes about Eric Kuhn and the work he has done on the issues for the Colorado River Water Conservation District.