Sports Now
UFC 190: Ronda Rousey KOs Bethe Correia in the first round
Los Angeles Times

Newton: Water ethics and a peripheral canal

Jeff Hart is a scientist who knows the history of the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta better than most. He explains its emergence from the Ice Age, traces it through the arrival of the Spanish, recalls the figures of the California Gold Rush and points out the reeds that give shelter today to its wild fowl and fish. Last week, as we skimmed across the breezy waters of Steamboat Slough, a rivulet of the delta just south of Sacramento, he reflected on all that and argued for a "water ethic" that would re-envision humanity's relationship to its most basic substance.

Hart, a cheerful man with a scraggly beard, suggests that such an ethic would represent an extension of conservationist Aldo Leopold's famous "land ethic." Leopold's vision of human respect for the Earth was once a revolutionary notion, yet it has now become an accepted theme of modern politics. But what would a water ethic look like, especially in California, which has never hesitated to claim distant waters to serve human needs?

That may sound like an abstract question, given that water is there for any Californian at the turn of a tap. It irrigates farms in the Imperial Valley, where rain rarely falls. It waters lush lawns in Los Angeles and San Diego. But for residents of the delta, the relationship between water and humans is far from abstract. It is immediate and threatening.

Gov. Jerry Brown has made it undeniably clear that he intends to complete an unfinished bit of business from his first stint as governor by securing Southern California's water supply from the delta.

The last time Brown was in office, in the early 1980s, he supported a ballot initiative to authorize the building of a so-called peripheral canal, a pipe or aqueduct that would draw water from the Sacramento River and funnel it south. The measure went down to defeat, with Northern California voters overwhelmingly opposed.

Now, in his second incarnation as governor, Brown is determined to complete this work. Advocates of the canal have some strong arguments. Drawing water from the delta's southern intakes, as happens now, alters the natural flows of the region and creates problems for fish; pulling water from farther north would alleviate the problem. Also, the levees that allow the area to exist are susceptible to earthquakes and could collapse in the Big One; taking water out before it gets to them would protect the water supply. And finally, the water needs of Southern California are real and compelling.

But Doug Hemly has every right to be skeptical. His family arrived in the delta in 1850, when two brothers made their way up the Sacramento River. One headed for the gold fields; the other established a farm. The miner went bust while the farmer, despite a fire that destroyed his first hay crop, prospered. Seven generations later, the Hemly family farms pears, along with some cherries and blueberries, on the banks of the Sacramento. A peripheral canal would suck up water they rely on and sell it to someone else.

We all know the story of the Owens Valley, which was sacrificed to Los Angeles when William Mulholland and the ruling class of this city — including the onetime owners of this newspaper — swindled farmers out of their water rights. But those farmers sold an uncertain future for cash on the nail. The Hemlys and other delta farmers have an established business and heritage, and they aren't interested in cashing out.

What's especially galling to them is where the water would go. The modern peripheral canal would send more than 1 million acre-feet of water annually to urban customers in the Silicon Valley and Southern California. But the lion's share, more than two-thirds, would go to farms in the Central Valley, where farmers with outsized political influence have a big interest in the outcome.

Jeff Kightlinger, who runs the Metropolitan Water District, argues that it's not one or the other, that water can be drawn from the delta without destroying its farms. He's an honest broker and a smart one, and I hope he's right, but you can understand why delta residents are unconvinced. They see Southern California coming after their water and endangering their livelihoods for the benefit of other farmers with greater clout.

With this project, Brown has the opportunity to adjust California's historic relationship to water. As he does so, he should keep these principles in mind: Moving water is not a sin, but using it to favor big farms over family farms is unacceptable. And protecting Southern California's water future is commendable, but it shouldn't come at the expense of the delta's.

That's a sustainable water ethic.

Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at jim.newton@latimes.com or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.

 

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • New session offers lawmakers a chance to set a meaningful agenda

    New session offers lawmakers a chance to set a meaningful agenda

    California's two-year legislative session began Monday as incumbent and new members of the Assembly and state Senate took their oaths. But it seemed as if the Legislature was already off and running before Thanksgiving, because some lawmakers announced their first bills even before they were seated....

  • Time for California lawmakers to repeal cap on school reserves

    Time for California lawmakers to repeal cap on school reserves

    Hundreds of California school districts, from liberal-leaning Berkeley to the conservative Central Valley, joined the California State PTA, county education officials, education groups and civil rights advocates to support Assembly Bill 1048. The bill would repeal a widely reviled cap on how much...

  • The California budget's shrinking surplus

    The California budget's shrinking surplus

    Only Gov. Jerry Brown can make so much money seem like so little. His revised $169-billion budget proposal for the fiscal year that starts July 1 estimates that state revenues will be nearly $7 billion higher than he had predicted in January. Once the state sets aside the required amounts for public...

  • Pass the vaccination bill

    Pass the vaccination bill

    The vaccination debate has reached fever pitch. Legislation has passed in the state Senate that would do away with the "personal belief exemption" that allows parents in California to refuse to vaccinate their children. As it moves to the Assembly, opponents are ratcheting up their rhetoric, calling...

  • California needs a right-to-die law

    California needs a right-to-die law

    Much-needed and long-overdue legislation that would allow terminally ill Californians to end their lives peacefully and painlessly got off to a promising start earlier this year, passing two Senate committees and winning approval on the Senate floor. The California Medical Assn., previously a formidable...

  • Revamping California's tax code

    Revamping California's tax code

    The California tax code is like a handyman's rickety stepladder, as untrustworthy as it is essential. It's also proving to be hard to fix. Two blue-ribbon commissions have proposed sweeping reforms to shore up the tax code's weaknesses in recent years, only to get lost amid the Legislature's struggle...

  • A small victory for open records

    A small victory for open records

    Who was former Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) taking meetings with in the days leading up to the federal indictment on corruption and gunrunning charges? We may soon know.

  • De León's bad idea: an overnight 'security service' for state Senate

    De León's bad idea: an overnight 'security service' for state Senate

    When he took over the leadership of the state Senate last year, Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) faced the herculean task of restoring the public’s faith in that scandal-plagued body and its wayward members. The preceding months had been characterized by a series of embarrassing episodes — and worse...

Comments
Loading
67°