Water sharing revisited


Governor Jerry Brown’s twin tunnel proposal to divert Sacramento River water to the Central Valley’s corporate farms and greater Los Angeles stirs feelings that have long divided northern and southern Californians. Now the governor’s leader for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, Inverness resident Jerry Meral, seems to be diverting himself from the flow of fellow environmentalists everywhere. Can we afford to believe that Gov. Brown will prioritize better management of water intakes over the diversion of increasingly more water? 

California’s population has swelled to 38 million because water is being moved great distances to support the growing numbers living in arid coastal plains. The population is estimated to grow to 50 million by 2050, during which time the state’s natural water flows will dwindle by 20 percent. As Central Valley river flows become more erratic with diminished Sierra Nevada snow packs, the state will surely seek even more gigantic water diversions, deliveries and allocations to keep serving its populace. 

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, once an extraordinarily rich and productive estuary, is under increasing threats by climate change and human stubbornness. Farmed islands, formed by levees a century ago, have steadily subsided with the exhaustion of the fertile peat soils that once rose to marsh levels. The land, now 20 feet lower, is kept dry by hundreds of pumps continuously removing water that seeps through the levees. These pumps push hundreds of millions of gallons of water uphill each year, consuming fossil fuels and emitting millions of tons of carbon dioxide. 

The Delta is also stressed by excessive water diversions, and there are claims to five and a half times the water that now moves through it. According to the State Water Resources Control Board, no more than three million acre-feet of water can be exported from the Delta without devastating the fisheries; current diversions allow six million acre-feet. Exporting more water through Gov. Brown’s proposed twin tunnels, each 33 feet in diameter and 35 miles long, will only hasten the estuary’s ecological collapse. 

We should stop the twin tunnel project before it begins. Water, the essential component of all life, should not be treated as a commodity for privatization, but rather as part of the Commons. It could be more carefully shared on a local basis for increased community resilience. What if Gov. Brown and Mr. Meral were to provide courageous leadership to begin a new chapter in the history of environmentalism?  

Nature teaches us that distributed and diverse systems have greater strength and adaptability than centralized and uniform systems. When conditions change, various components within a diverse ecosystem pick up where others fail. The weaknesses of monoculture are evident in agricultural industries where crops either uniformly flourish or wither in a given season. We also know that a major earthquake could demolish the tunnels, aqueducts or pipelines used to pump water over long distances and mountain ranges like the Tehachapis.  

Faced with severe water shortages, both industrial farming and urban centers within desert areas will be forced to scale back their production and population to more sustainable levels and means. A mass human emigration out of the southwest deserts of our country would be a move in the right direction.

We should remember how the Los Angels Aqueduct sucked dry the entire Owens Valley on the eastern slope of the Sierras in the early 1990’s. Environmentalists defeated the City of Los Angeles in court, ultimately ending the advance of water diversion from this rural region. Southern Californians are already plumbed into the Trinity River by way of the Sacramento above Shasta Dam. Similarly, Marin’s two big water districts, Marin Municipal and North Marin Water Districts, take water from the Russian River, which is similarly fed with water pumped over mountains from the Eel River’s headwaters. These populated areas are taking water from places with fewer people and fewer votes, and there is little advocacy on behalf of the other species in those watersheds.

Local communities and their economies could actually thrive if we ended corporate control over our water. Redefining water rights is a good place to start. In a locally based water-sharing paradigm, communities would decide how this precious life-giving substance would be shared and consumed. The Bolinas Community and Inverness Public Utility Districts are good examples of local decision-making that considers the health of the ecosystem in which the water naturally flows. 

Please listen to KWMR’s Post Carbon Radio program at 1 p.m. on Monday, August 26.  Guests who oppose the twin tunnels project and are concerned about our current legal system of water rights and allocation will join Bing Gong and me. Tune in to 90.5 FM in Point Reyes Station or 89.9 FM in Bolinas, or to the live streaming at kwmr.org.


Bernie Stephan, an Inverness resident, is a co-host of KWMR’s Post Carbon Radio and a realtor with Radical Realty.