A Newsletter about California Water, Land, and People


The Politics of CalFED's Water Reliability Planning

To Central Valley farmers aligned with the California Farm Bureau Federation, reliability means increasing the supply of stored water behind dams for transport to their fields through taxpayer funded canals. Reservoir water is flexible; farmers can call up the CVP and SWP and order their irrigation water a day or two before they need it for their fields. For them, the more reservoir water available, the more they believe they can predictably rely on it.

The Environmental Water Caucus, a coalition of statewide, city-based, policy-oriented environmental groups, proposes shifting CalFED "from its limited focus on increasing absolute amounts of water available...to increasing the predictability of benefits." This abstract definition is concerned with "measuring economic benefits" - that is, profits gained from water use - to determine "the true value of water supplies."


The Caucus, strongly influenced by resource economists, policy analysts, and lawyers associated with the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense (formerly Environmental Defense Fund), would have CalFED harness the state's water system to aggressive conservation measures and a water transfers market so that more water would be available for its highest economic use, a position California's wealthiest urban regions can appreciate.

Since its creation in 1995, CalFED tried to alloy these differing views of water supply reliability into a coherent plan for allocating the state's fresh water. Though adherents insist CalFED remains the only hope for California's water future, like an impure crystal, CalFED's political support could fracture along jagged planes.

On conservation, environmentalists believe California must embark on an immediate and aggressive program of improving water use efficiencies in cities, industries, and farm irrigation. Farmers acknowledge a role for conservation but object to its high initial costs. Aggressive conservation may also reduce a farmer's ability to withstand changes in crop and water prices. Cities, especially in southern California, also accept conservation as part of their future, but they disagree with environmentalists over how much more can be achieved.

New and bigger reservoirs and a peripheral canal around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta are mantras for San Joaquin Valley Farm Bureau disciples. Cities believe they'll be needed as well.

Environmentalists and Delta farmers insist they're adamantly opposed to new reservoirs and the peripheral canal, but for different reasons. Environmentalists reject these facilities because of their ecological devastation and exorbitant expense. Delta farmers oppose the projects - which include flooding of Delta islands for fresh water storage - because they would kill Delta agriculture by removing farm land from production and fresh water from Delta channels.

Sandbagging at Twitchell Island.
Photo courtesy of the Water Resources Center Archives,
University of California at Berkeley.

The wild card in all of this is water marketing. Environmental Water Caucus members like Environmental Defense and the Natural Resources Defense Council have long advocated water markets as a means to increase water available to growing cities. Other environmental groups, such as Chico's Butte Environmental Council, oppose marketing if it means destroying rural farm communities up and down the Central Valley.

Cities like water market talk because their wealth will enable them to outbid agriculture and rural communities for available water. Such market power, of course, means California's major cities would have a very reliable water supply.

Some growers, tiring of farming's aggravations, are eager to become "willing sellers" to those urban "willing buyers." Still other farmers, believing their livelihoods and communities are more than just a business, express alarm at the prospect of water for sale to the highest bidder.

Writer Mary Austin witnessed similar divisions among her neighbors almost a century ago during Los Angeles' theft of water from Owens Valley. She witnessed neighbors losing faith in each other. She described it in her 1917 novel, The Ford. As her protagonist confronts the rural farmers of fictional Tierra Longa, Austin reports their predicament: "The point was not what they might feel and think about [a water speculator scheming in their midst to acquire all their water rights] or the method by which he had nearly stolen their river, but whether they meant to let him get away with it."

Austin's novel had a happy ending: the scheming city behind the speculator turns elsewhere for its water grab. But under CalFED in 21st century California capitalism, what if there's nowhere else to turn?


Portions of this web page first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, Boonville, CA, 17 May 2000.

Last updated: 16 February 2004