To get some perspective on current water affairs in California, I got in touch with Bryce Lundberg, V.P. of Agriculture at Lundberg Family Farms. He’s a 3rd generation organic farmer, sits on the board of the Western Canal Water District (co-founded by his uncle Homer Lundberg), holds passionate personal views about water use and our local ecology. He has a broad experience the political, financial and social issues that keep water from being a simple matter.
No matter where you stand on the issues, I’d like to encourage everyone to get educated and get involved in the future of this precious resource (I’ve included some links at the end that have been helpful to me to start learning about this vast topic). As Bryce said when we began our conversation ““everybody’s involved with water, no matter who you are; you’re deeply engaged with water issues.”
In order to understand current water issues in California, it’s important to know about the 2009 bill SBX 7-7. You can read about it on the state’s website here. Bryce referred often in our conversation to the “co-equal goals” of the bill. These goals are expressed by former Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Delta Blue Ribbon Task Force: “the Delta ecosystem and a reliable water supply for California are the primary, co-equal goals for sustainable management of the Delta. Both are irreplaceable assets and one must not be secured at the expense of the other.” The “Delta” refers to the area east of the San Francisco Bay where the Sacramento, San Joaquin and five other rivers reach the ocean.
Voters were scheduled to vote on the $11.4 billion dollar bond in the bill in 2010, but it was pushed back to 2012, and will likely be pushed again to 2014 to keep it from distracting from Governor Brown’s budget issues. “I support Governor Brown, this is a tough time,” said Bryce. “He’s said the budget is his #1 priority, and that water is #2.” But the budget is far from resolution, and in the meantime, “there are three agencies at work on the delta, and no one’s coordinating the co-equal goals, no one’s orchestrating the moving pieces. We’re not going to get good policies and solutions without this coordination. We need more leaders, people to be informed and to step up!”
Last February, the Bureau of Reclamation held a mandatory meeting at The Masonic Center seeking public comments on a 10-year delta transfer plan. The comments from the unexpectedly large crowd boiled down to “whatever the plan is, the answer is ‘no!’” Based on this experience, I asked Bryce if it was safe to assume that water transfers were a big issue.
“Transfers are one issue.” Bryce said. “You can’t just tell 18 million people no.” That’s the number of folks who live in the LA metropolitan area, who get roughly half of their water from Northern California diversion projects. The reason Bryce believe you can’t “just say no” is that, since political representation in California changed from land-based to population-based, taking that many folks to the mat on an issue like water could threaten the legislative protection of Northern California that we currently have. The good news is that water use in the LA area has declined---by a lot---while their population has increased. A representative from an LA water district stated at a recent meeting that even as their population continues to rise, they don’t plan to increase their water usage. So, the representative said, “reliable access” to the water they do use is essential.
When you hear “reliable access and storage” in water issues, part of what we’re talking about are canals and reservoirs to replace the levees and pumps in California’s water hub: the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta. A peripheral canal running through the Central Valley is one of the most controversial projects on the bill. Advocates of the project cite the aging, expensive, and ecologically disastrous levee and pump system in the Delta area. Opponents point out the unsustainability of long-range water transfers, saying this is just a means to a So. Cal water grab and that diverting so much fresh water from the Sacramento River will harm river fish populations, will disturb the fresh/salt water ratios in the Delta region that are essential to the ecosystem, and more. A similar project during Governor Brown’s last term was challenged with a referendum and voted down in 1982.
Not all the transferred water goes to cities; much of it goes towards agriculture in the Central Valley, turning a naturally arid landscape, for better or for worse, into the most productive agricultural region in the world. If we can’t just say “No” to transfers, we also can’t keep saying “Yes” to inefficient and unsustainable agricultural projects.
One complaint that Bryce hears with amazing frequency from Southern California representatives at water meetings is that their water is more expensive than water in the North State (sometimes 10 times as expensive.) In case it’s not obvious to everyone reading why, we can quote Homer Lundberg: “My uncle used to say to me, ‘Bryce, it’s simple. Water is free. Put out a bucket.’ That’s oversimplifying, but it’s kind of true. What makes water expensive is building facilities, pumping it, transport, filters.”
Bryce brought up a problem with the current system of water transfers that bothers him as a farmer and landowner. “Water transfers happen, it’s a market-related thing. That’s okay, I’m a farmer, I understand responding to the market. But wouldn’t it be great to have habitat for pheasant and quail and snakes? All of the native species of this area need a place to be.” Bryce is referring to the fact that whenever there is a water transfer from an area, the Dept. of Water Resources expects fields to be bare. “Fallow is okay, I believe in rest for the land and cycles for growing. But right now we have to FIGHT to have our cover crops! Whenever there is a water transfer, there should be habitat, and the department of resources says no, that ground should be bare.”
So if transfers are just one issue, I asked Bryce what some of the others were. “There are currently discussions of how water rights work in this state,” he said. One issue brought up is that there are two systems at work, a state and a federal. “There’s criticism that the whole system is broken because there are 7x more water rights than there actually is water.” Bryce says it’s not so simple, because this doesn’t take into account the different kinds of rights. For example, PG&E has to have rights to water that flows from Lassen to Lake Almanor into a hydroelectric project, but they’re not removing or using that water, so someone else has rights to that water also.
Another big issue is the idea that proximity to the source of water should influence priorities on use. That is, if water is coming from the Northern Sierras, people in the North should have a priority on access. Some people argue that California is the origin, and that all people in California should therefore have equal access. The Tehama Colusa Canal Authority is currently involved in a court case to set legal precedent for proximity creating priority.
I asked Bryce if his focus on conservation and wildlife sets him apart in water discussions. “My perspective is so different than that of some of my neighbors,” he conceded, “but on water rights we stand shoulder to shoulder. We stand shoulder to shoulder across the board, because if we lose water rights, we lose access to a critical element of our life and livelihood.”
He adds, “Sometimes, people who use groundwater and people who use surface water, it seems their interests are at odds with each other. And people might say, 'I live in Chico, what does that matter to me, I’m in the city' or, 'what does it matter to the almond grower who uses surface water'? Well, the relationship between groundwater and surface water is connected. Right now, in general, our aquifer is healthy compared to the Midwest and compared to So. Cal. We need to realize the connected interests to preserve it. A sustainable watershed for our region is what’s at stake in this discussion.”
I give Bryce my impression of where we’re at: an alarming number of water sheds are in crisis because of overuse, toxicity or both, species are disappearing, infrastructure is aging, and while demand and human populations rise, we face a bevy of economic and social crises. Kinda grim. I acknowledge that I travel in “unique” political and social circles, and ask Bryce if in his experience, this is a pretty accurate picture. “Those pressures are real,” he said, “and they’re not going away.”
So what can we do?
“I wish I had the answer” He proceeds to tell me about his support for the Sites Reservoir, one of the proposed bond projects, between Red Bluff and Willows. “It is a buffer so that when there ARE transfers to the south, we’re not affecting our groundwater. Doing it off-stream is much preferred environmentally, but it’s such a hard sell because it’s expensive to pump and expensive to build, and it’s not water for us. We need more cards to play or every year we’re going to have to fight against this issue again and again. In a critically dry year, where is the buffer? Right now it’s transfers.”
He adds “so, we can be open to a water bond that’s overpriced. Attend water forums. Can we do it? Will we have enough water to meet our co-equal goals? Yeah, I think we will, I think we’re smart enough, but we won’t make it by going to our own corners, we have to come together. That’s risky and that’s why it does take leaders. People lose office when they take risks, when they take unpopular positions, but we need that. We need leaders who will take risks.”
While we spoke, Bryce was on his way to Berkeley to speak with a publisher at Heyday Books about writing a book on the Northstate. The publisher had pointed out that “Northern California seems like just a place you drive through to get to another place.” But in fact, we are a biodiverse region with a unique mix of agriculture, industry, open space and wilderness. Bryce hopes that if this book project goes forward, it will contribute to the understanding and protection of Northern California resources.
For more information on local and state water issues, please check out the following links and organizations: