After four years of drought, it’s clear that the State Water Project (SWP) has not met its commitments. It has proven incapable of providing our cities with adequate water, it is destroying the richest estuary on the west coast of the continental United States, and it is failing to maintain a sustainable farming sector. Its only real accomplishment is the support of destructive corporate agriculture in the impaired lands of the western San Joaquin Valley, resulting in the massive poisoning of our waterways with toxic selenium.
At the heart of the SWP’s failure are the Monterey Amendments, a secret deal concluded in the 1990s between the Department of Water Resources and San Joaquin Valley irrigators. The Monterey Amendments compromised the public interest in state water policy in several ways. It eliminated safeguards against the expansion of “paper water,” i.e., the difference between the water that actually exists in state reservoirs and the water authorized for SWP delivery. It nullified the “urban preference,” the clause in state water contracts that gave cities priority over farms during drought. And it transferred control of the rechargeable Kern Water Bank to private interests.
The SWP is thus in immediate need of reform. Happily, the system is not wholly irreparable. Implementing a few changes in the way the project is operated would benefit the citizens, economy and environment of California immensely.
First and foremost, we must eliminate paper water. Government agencies apply the term “surplus water” to water that exists in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta in January, February and March and is thus available for export to the south; after March, the priority of the DWR shifts to storage in the upstream reservoirs of Lake Oroville and Lake Shasta, and the water is no longer considered “surplus.”
Surplus water, however, is a misnomer. That’s because there is never surplus water in California. Water rights claims outstrip the amount of developed water in the state by 5.5 times. A more accurate term for surplus water in all its guises, then, is paper water: In other words, it is water that exists only in DWR ledgers, not the real world. Surplus water is simply an accounting methodology that obscures the fact that the SWP is oversubscribed. The project promises more water than it can deliver.
The creation of paper water allows contractors to game the system. They can receive water early in the calendar year when there is no way of knowing if there will be sufficient run-off in coming months to meet demand. This is tantamount to borrowing from the Delta in the hope that Mother Nature will make up the deficit with lavish snowmelt and rainfall. All articles accommodating “surplus water” must be eliminated from state water contracts.
Next, we must reinstate the urban preference. Agriculture consumes 80 percent of the water in California, but produces only two percent of the state’s gross domestic product. Giving corporate farms equal or superior footings to our cities is both morally indefensible and bad business.
We must also put SWP contracts on a “water year” basis. Currently, water contracts run on the calendar year, from January 1 to December 31. Deliveries are estimated in January for the approaching year after only one typically wet month (December). But the water year begins on October 1 and extends to September 30 of the following year. Water supplies can only be evaluated accurately by considering them within the context of the water year; insufficient data is available in January to accurately forecast water availability for the subsequent year.
Finally, the Kern Water Bank must be returned to public ownership. This vast rechargeable aquifer originally was intended as a storage facility for the SWP, providing drought insurance for south-of-Delta cities. But the Monterey Amendments transferred control of the Bank to private corporate agricultural interests. Under the Monterey Amendments, non-SWP contractors can buy “surplus” water at low rates, store it in the Kern Water Bank, and sell it at the prevailing free market price at any time. This provides windfall profits for water privateers at the expense of rank-and-file ratepayers.
Other measures can be taken to ensure equitable operation of the SWP, including adjusting delivery schedules from the Delta to minimize environmental damage and retirement of toxic lands in the western San Joaquin Valley. Above all, we need expedient action: the SWP has served the needs of the few at the expense of the many for far too long. This must change.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.
Top image: A view of the Banks Pumping Plant run by the State Water Project. (Chris Austin)