The great water giveaway

Bill Stall, a contributing editor to the Opinion page, has written about California water problems for 40 years.

California water crisis! blare the television ads. The governor has called the Legislature into special session to consider new reservoirs and other measures to protect the state’s precarious water supply. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is asking residents to cut water usage by 10%. The city of Long Beach has restricted lawn watering. More curbs are sure to follow.

Few people would dispute that the state faces a water crisis: in the short term because of drought and court-ordered cutbacks in pumping from the California Delta; and in the long term because population growth is outstripping the supply and potential disruptions caused by global warming. So why are federal officials giving more than a moment’s attention to a proposal to practically give away enough water to meet the annual household needs of 2 million families to a few hundred big farmers in the San Joaquin Valley for 60 years or more?

So far, there has been no adequate answer to that question, or even a rational discussion of this proposal. The deal is indicative, however, of the hydra-headed water system in California that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the state to draft long-term water policy that will sustain agriculture, meet the demands of urban and suburban growth and protect the environment.

The proposal comes from the Westlands Water District, a collection of about 600 farms covering 600,000 acres of land in western Fresno and Kings counties. The farms get subsidized federal irrigation water through the San Luis unit of the federal Central Valley Project via the delta and a federal canal.


The San Luis unit, begun in 1962, was a major goal of the late Rep. B.F. Sisk, a tire salesman who went on to become a powerful force in Congress. But it probably should never have been built.

The problem is that about 200,000 acres in the Westlands district are laden with selenium and other salts that build up naturally in the soil below the surface of the farmland. To counter this, the federal government began building a drainage canal as part of the San Luis unit to draw the contaminated water off the land and transport it north to the delta, where it was supposed to go out to sea. That idea would be unthinkable today. But the canal was not completed because of costs, and the Kesterson Reservoir became the terminus. The current problem arose when all the wastewater was dumped there.

Kesterson, which is part of a wildlife refuge, became a death trap for migrating waterfowl that ingested toxic levels of selenium. Westlands sued the federal government to come up with a better drainage solution, saying officials knew of the problem all along. Today, the Central Valley Project is under court order to fix the problem.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation chose a costly plan in March that, among other things, would have taken about 150,000 acres out of crop production. Westlands then proposed to take on the disposition of the polluted water if the Central Valley Project gave it, well, the world: forgiveness of nearly $500 million in construction costs and a 60-year water contract (one critic of the plan assumed the price would be $100 an acre-foot or less; urban water now runs $400 to $500 an acre-foot). What’s at stake is about 1 million acre-feet -- one acre-foot would serve the annual household needs of two families. Imagine the value of that water 40 or 50 years from now.


Incredibly, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said that “it seems to be a sound proposal” because it relieves the federal government of an “enormous financial burden” in fixing the drainage problem. But there is no assurance that Westlands’ cure will work.

The “solutions” being debated are stopgap measures that would take years to implement. One idea that would work in the short term would be for the feds to buy up the 200,000 acres, retire the land from farming and sell the water to urban areas at a reasonable price.

The greater problem is that the state’s system of water rights makes it difficult or impossible for the governor and Legislature to provide a real, long-range solution to California’s water problems: the need for an orderly and systematic shift of supplies from the farms to the cities. We need to extensively overhaul this complex rights structure to meet the 1928 constitutional mandate that water be put to reasonable and beneficial use to the “greatest extent. . . . In the interest of the people and the public welfare.”

It is, after all, the people’s water.