fixing leaky faucets

Lake Shasta April 2020

A Wall Street hedge fund has sent a posse of potato farming water grabbers out to Winnemucca, Nevada. Water Asset Management was formed in 2005 and is in the business of using water as a for profit investment vehicle.

Access to drinking water is a universally recognized human right. Defending this right and winning this argument at the United Nations was the tenacious Canadian activist Maude Barlow. Drinking water should never be bought, sold, bartered, or privatized. Deeded water rights to underground water shouldn’t be pumped out from underneath one community then piped far off to another wealthier place.

We’re in for a real brawl out here in the American West. For starters we already don’t have enough water. Now we’ve got more people, a growing population and they all arrive at the negotiating table believing they have the best ideas for how to use what little water there is. Water Asset Management is buying up land explicitly for access to the water rights deeded to the purchased properties.

Commercial and Recreational Fishing

What does our water future look like? For starters financializing deeded water rights is turning our common resource into a privatized water grabbing for profit scam. After urban water users’ rates get jacked up you can bet the farm lobby will go seek new water subsidies to offset the higher cost of production. Once consumers start squealing about how much a half gallon of milk has gone up, how expensive a loaf of bread has become, why every politician beholden to Big Ag will be lining up to make water cheaper for farms and ranches while sticking the bill to the urban taxpayers.

From the BBC, Marsha Daughenbaugh, 68, of Steamboat Springs wedge issues agricultures priority access to water use, “Ranching is not only an economic base for us, it’s a way of life.”

What does that mean? In 1994 a telephone operator in New Jersey was practicing a way of life until AT&T cut 20,000 jobs. Telephone operators would have had a better shot at keeping their way of life if they’d been saddled up and sitting on a horse while they were doing their telecommunication’s work.

Look we already have all the dams we’ll ever need, but we can’t finesse our way around a drought and expect to fill old or new reservoirs with water that doesn’t exist. The solution to fixing this mess is not complicated, everyone is going to have to use less water. That’s the new way of life barreling down on every enterprise and individual living West of the Pecos.  

Swallows playing in the Delta breeze

Due to overallocations up and down and all along the Colorado River a hands-on realistic water use plan will be needed for California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. Utah is going to be a more petulant childlike player on account of their whole humankind’s dominion over earth delusions, but we’ll set their fundamentalism aside for the moment.

Alfalfa and cotton farming needs to be relocated east where there is sufficient supplies of water. More crops need to end up on our supper tables. Eggplant, squash, watermelon, pineapples, strawberries, onions, spinach, carrots, lettuce, and tomatoes all use less water and are not just suitable for human consumption these fresh vegetables are healthier for both people and the planet.  

Stanford Law School’s award-winning Environmental and Natural Resources Law & Policy Program is training lawyers in the byzantine area of water law. As it sits right now outlawing alfalfa farming is illegal. Allocations are based strictly on whether there is or isn’t any water. There are rules about how to use the water but there are no rules about what to grow with the water. Water law is a tangled-up snake pit of economically threatened special interests.

Even if I can tell you cotton and alfalfa need to be shutdown, it is one hell of a long way further to settling that hornet’s nest of a mess in court with an enforceable decision, but that day is coming, and it will be arriving sooner than the water grabbers might have imagined.

In California pumping water from aquifers is undergoing a thorough rethink. This is known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Passed in 2014, agencies had until 2020 to file their plans to make groundwater resources sustainable by 2040. Those plans are subject to review and by political career ending loophole to be reassessed every five years.

Right now, a Limited Liability Company in Napa County can pump scarce and ancient groundwater, grow grapes then export the wine to foreign markets while stashing their profits offshore at a post office box known as a Caribbean tax haven. In other words we are a long way from a glidepath to sustainability.

California Water Alliance wants more water diverted from the Delta then piped to their members further south in the San Joaquin Valley. They almost pulled it off, but the courts stopped the water heist before the former administration could do further harm. The Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley Delta “is the most valuable estuary and wetland ecosystem on the west coast of North and South America and is the hub of California’s water delivery system.” Without the Delta there is no such thing as California.

Fishermen dependent on the salmon that would no longer be able to find suitable spawning grounds, which is a polite term for going extinct. Farmers running short of water do not care one whit about what happens to salmon in Northern California, that is not their problem.

In dryer and warmer low rainfall years farms need to be fallowed then put back into production in years when there is sufficient water. A real greenwashed-Astroturfing lobby group the California Water Alliance won’t have it and if diverting Delta water means driving salmon to the brink that’s just somebody else’s radical environmental activism hurting the economy.

Whether a citizen fishes or farms for their living both laudable enterprises but diverting water and then driving fish and fishermen to extinction and bankruptcy because you want to grow more subsidized cotton is a tragedy wrapped in a self-inflicted existential disaster.

None of this is ours to keep, it is ours to pass along to future generations. If while we continue to grow our economy and we were to decide salmon are expendable, then we’ve in some toxicologically bizarre way just admitted that we are expendable nothing is worth saving, except for holding onto the power to choose. Extinction events are not reserved for the unlucky few, man’s rapacious nature contains the seeds of self-destruction.

Largest system of dikes in the United States

In 2019 a misguided Federal cabinet member unilaterally ordered scarce water to be diverted from the Delta to farmers further south. Courts in Fresno halted the illegal diversion.

“This water grab was led by Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist and counsel for the Westlands Water District, the largest water district in the Central Valley and a significant beneficiary of the weakened biological opinions.” The weakening was done under the cloak of anti-science activists in the former administration.

For now, there is an uneasy stalemate and with the inexorable increasing temperatures and ever decreasing moisture levels in the soils of the American West. Urban areas are about to fight tooth and nail, from one farm field to the next over ever more scarce water. The drought is on and our water wars are only going to get worse. As the announcer says, “let’s get ready to rumble…”

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