• Otter Views: Water and Wealth

    News that state lawmakers had passed an “historic” bill requiring groundwater users to report their withdrawals reminded me once again how little I know about water politics hereabouts.

    I was surprised to read, for instance, that California groundwater pumping has gone unmonitored for at least 50 years. Absent any record-keeping requirements, users have simply tapped the aquifers and drawn up whatever they needed or could sell. The only limiter has been extraction cost.

    As California’s groundwater has diminished over time, the wells have gotten deeper and costlier and the water saltier, but drilling proceeds apace. Beyond the vaguest guesses, water planners know little about where, how swiftly and in what quantities groundwater is leaving California’s aquifers.

    Even if the new bill becomes law, it won’t likely affect groundwater pumping or sales. In California as elsewhere, water flows toward money. But the reporting requirement could at least give future water planners some baseline usage numbers to work with.

    While surface sources like snowmelt, rain and river flows can be measured and monitored, groundwater remains as mysterious as Mata Hari. If nothing else, it seems prudent to track where, why and how swiftly we are drawing it down.

    But even this timid proposition prompts fierce resistance from many groundwater users. Understandably reluctant to keep burdensome pumping records and submit them to Sacramento, the users also have a psychological stake in maintaining the status quo.

    If usage is quantified, that suggests the resource is finite and might at some point be regulated. If usage remains unknown and unreported, magical thinking can prevail indefinitely.

    Curious about how we got here, I recently read a book I should have read long ago. It’s Cadillac Desert, the late Marc Reisner’s exhaustively researched history of water development and allocation in the American west. Its 1986 publication notwithstanding, the book is both a valuable primer on water politics and a crash course in the magical thinking that created and sustains the modern American west.

    At 500-plus pages, Cadillac Desert is too weighty to recap here, but it does spotlight a fairly consistent pattern. Over the last century and throughout the west, taxpayer-funded water projects ostensibly undertaken “for the public good” have ended up enriching a few big landowners and politically powerful corporations.

    Basically, it’s been “Chinatown*” all along and everywhere. Since at least 1900, dam-building, river diversion and reservoir creation have been America’s principal political currency. Federal water projects have been the pork in the Congressional pork barrel and the main lever presidents could crank to extract favors from the states.

    In the west, Reisner argued, a few big early projects like Hoover Dam, Grand Coulee and the Fort Peck Dam made financial sense, produced copious hydroelectric power, and helped bootstrap the country out of the Great Depression and prevail in World War Two.

    But their success also enabled two colossal waterworks bureaucracies – the Army Corps of Engineers and the federal Bureau of Reclamation – to replicate the process endlessly. No matter if a project was good or bad, useful or harmful, well sited or totally misplaced, the Corps or the Bureau made sure it got built.

    Today the nation has 50,000 federal dams and countless reservoirs, aqueducts and flood control projects, with more proposed by every Congress. By Reisner’s account, most post-Depression projects, especially in the west, are of dubious provenance and very limited value. But since all are taxpayer-funded and will not recover their costs for centuries, if ever, they remain a huge component of the national debt.

    In effect, Reisner argued, the water bureaucracies and various echelons of government perpetrated upon the nation’s taxpayers a century of fraud. In the west, the cheap and copious irrigation water meant to sustain small farms in inhospitable terrain did that in a few places for a few years. But almost everywhere, the federal projects intended for citizen farmers ended up benefiting desert cities, real estate developers and agribusinesses with the political clout to bend the rules and the water their way.

    California has had plenty of those. From the Chandlers, Otises and Mulhollands who hijacked the Owens River for Los Angeles to the Bay Area grandees who dammed the Hetch Hetchy for San Francisco, California has gone where even the feds feared to tread. The biggest state project so far, the California Aqueduct, transformed arid San Joaquin Valley into the nation’s produce basket.

    But in 2014, the drought-diminished aqueduct can no longer quench the Big Valley’s big thirst. Agribusinesses, small farmers and municipalities of all sizes are pumping up groundwater at an unprecedented clip.

    How much? How fast? How long will it last?

    To all such inquiries, the magical thinkers repeat the soothing mantra that has sustained and enriched them for a century. Don’t worry, trust us, the resource is infinite. But last week, Sacramento issued the first small whisper of doubt. I wonder if anything will come of it.

    * Reference is to the 1974 neo noir film about the water wars in southern California in the first half of the 20th Century.


    posted to Cedar Street Times on September 5, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views


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