COMMENTARY: Who’s Actually Leading the State’s Water Infrastructure?

California Aqueduct
California Aqueduct (Darren J. Bradley / Shutterstock)

By Jenifer VanAlstein, Feature Contributor, Valley Ag Voice

California has been a state for nearly 200 years. One might think by now we would have our water system figured out. But, instead, we are plagued with navigating the most complicated water infrastructure system in the world–made only more complicated by the geopolitics of our state. The conditions in the Delta continue to get worse, and we have had many drought years in recent history. Has our state’s natural systems been changed that drastically? Is it climate change? Or is it water management? We know for certain that California will always have dry years. So, what is the State doing to avoid continued drought years?

The answer: not a whole lot. However, the taxpayers have approved multiple water bonds over the years. One major water bond, Proposition 1, passed seven years ago, and we have yet to see a completed project from this funding. Voters approved this water bond because it is common knowledge that we simply do not have enough water storage. Yet, the State Water Commission has delayed much needed infrastructure projects. There was a San Joaquin Water Blueprint which created a 2-10 year plan to identify the structural changes needed to find a water balance in the Valley. Unfortunately, due to timing (I believe), the water bond to fund much of these projects failed in 2018.

The last major water infrastructure project was the San Louis Obispo reservoir, and that was built in the 1960s. That was 60 years ago! In the 1970s there were studies conducted by the Bureau of Reclamation showing groundwater overdraft occurring primarily on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley. Environmental groups in the 1970s and 1980s stopped water projects and claimed victory for their cause. But all it did was stop projects; it did nothing to actually solve anything. It didn’t stop the problem of 1 million acre-feet of overdraft occurring every year. Their “victory” simply slowed surface water delivery, only exacerbating the overdraft problem. On top of that, in the 1970s, the state’s implementation of the Endangered Species Act only added to the problem.

But California was still a great place for farming because of our rich soil. (Fun fact: Did you know we are the only place in the world where you can harvest carrots twice a year?) Markets began to change and many farmers went from row crops to permanent crops, which added to the demand of water. The 2008/2009 Biological Opinions took another 1 million acre-feet of surface water from the very farmers who paid for the infrastructure. This means that even during the wettest years, we still can only get 50% of the water originally allocated.

Most of the problems we are dealing with are the result of settlements between environmental groups (who have absolutely nothing to lose by suing the government) and the state and federal governments. That’s because the enviros have no recourse. Just ask our friends in oil. Environmental groups can make any claim they want, and it is the industry that has the burden of proof. It’s the complete opposite of “innocent until proven guilty.” They use the legal tactics to push their agendas, but offer no real solutions to anything. They’re just groups of “no.”

And now the State Board is saying they need to “update their plans.” In my experience, when a government agency “reviews” a law, it means they’re going to add more restrictions. This happens in the air world all the time. The Environmental Protection Act states that the EPA must review their rules and regulations every so often. The bureaucrats have interpreted this as: we need to set new limits every time we review our rules and regulations. After the State Board updates their plan, most likely, they’re going to take unimpaired flows (what the flow would be if there were no damns on the rivers). The state is looking at it as if the Delta flow is the only answer. The problem is the state is letting the environmental activists set the agenda to solve the problem, but we need scientists to solve the problem. I also thought we were in an age of “follow the science,” but I promise you that is not the case in Sacramento.

My question to Governor Newsom is: why are you letting this happen? Why are environmental advocates leading the discussion and not scientists, engineers, or water managers? I’m not saying there’s no place for environmental groups. They can certainly have a seat at the table. We all want to make sure we are being good stewards of the environment. But they by no means should be leading the discussion. Or to the majority party in Sacramento: why are you letting this happen? There have been great bills presented in Sacramento (one was carried by Democrat Senator Melissa Hurtado, but it failed). I have no idea why–other than what goes on in that building–defies all rules of logic. One thing is for sure, SGMA is not the solution.

As I have said before: we do not have a groundwater problem. We have a surface water problem, which resulted in a groundwater problem. But what we really have is an ostrich problem. Everyone in power keeps sticking their heads in the sand. If we had the storage capacity in place in 2017 and 2019 (during wet years), we would not be in the predicament we are today. Metropolitan Water was able to build large storage and therefore they were able to keep overflow during wet years, which is currently saving their customers. (I understand their budget is larger than most county budgets… but still.)

Unfortunately, I believe the current federal administration also has the opportunity to make an already bad situation worse. If President Biden reverses what President Trump did (the new biological opinions), we will be in a world of hurt. Those biological opinions actually started under President Obama, so hopefully this won’t happen. The biggest win was that environmental advocates are not allowed to influence biological opinions—this is huge. President Trump set up independent scientific reviews as well, only to be SUED by Governor Newsom simply because it smells of Trump. We can only hope President Biden takes the opportunity to ratify that the study is sound.

This narrative that environmental groups have painted of the rich farmer abusing the land and over drafting water while he rakes in his millions couldn’t be farther from the truth. Our Valley farmers are suffering, yet persevering. It is our job as Californians to support them.