Water Fight Will Illustrate How Little We Know

The newly launched struggle over water use in the Delta is to be expected as the California drought reaches historic proportions. On one side are farmers and fisherman who make a living off water flows in the Delta, while on the other are the federal and state agencies which use the Delta as a conveyance system to move water stored behind dams to its intended customers, or who release water to maintain the health of the system. (Sacbee article) This fight is for water over-tapped by almost 40 million humans, commercial and industrial pursuits, fisheries, and agriculture which provides staples and luxury crops to the entire world.

The water which we use to support all our human pursuits is the same water used by the plants and animals, which make up a healthy environment upon which all life depends. This new water rights fight reemphasizes the serious lack of information that Californians have about our groundwater. Absent a statewide groundwater law or regulation, the current dispute may end up unresolved and unresolvable. Except for aquifers filled with fossil water, almost every aquifer exchanges water with other bodies, whether surface bodies or other aquifers. Water flows from one area to the next, and its direction will change as water status changes. If a new well is dug, or a quiet one turned on, the movement of water towards the well can often be measured many miles from the well, even if it takes years for a specific drop of water to reach the well.

In a drought it is common for streams and rivers in which water normally flows from the soils along the banks into the stream to reverse course, with the surface water flowing into the soils, accelerating the rate at which the watercourse goes dry. This can of course be fatal to the wildlife which lives in the river or depends upon it for drinking water and habitat. Water is the currency which supports and sustains life, moving necessary nutrients and maintaining healthy humans, animals, and the plants which exchange oxygen for CO2. It is the liquid asset which sustains the web of life, the media that communicates the substance of life and nourishes our spirits by the sounds of the trickling creek, the rushing roar of a waterfall, the crash of the surf, the drumming of a thunderstorm, the vista and scents of the sea, the crisp aroma of plants newly watered by a spring rain. A drought threatens all of these and should be cause for us to come together recognizing our mutual dependency and need, and inspire great efforts to preserve and protect the shared creation of which we are a part.

Instead we will watch as the protagonists in this drama struggle over the relative value of access to a necessary resource which is parceled up by economic concepts based upon principles like “I got here first,” and “water flows uphill towards money, and I got the money.” For the vast majority of Californians and the environment which sustains us, there is little in the law to reassure us that the water upon which we depend will be dealt with in a way which looks out for the interests of all. The script is well-worn. We will be treated to tales of woe in which this villain or that is accused of stealing from the other. All the while, the water which flows into the Delta is likely being wasted through over-irrigation or transmission losses, and some (a lot?) is simply disappearing from the river and flowing into the soils courtesy of gravity and drought rather than anyone’s pumps. But lacking groundwater data, and the authority to get it, the State Water Resource Control Board will find it has little ability to control what we cannot measure because we refuse to monitor.

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