Thursday, October 29, 2009

Water Briefing

An excellent briefing on the water issue in California from The Economist.

An excerpt.

“IN 2007 Oliver Wanger, a federal judge in California, ordered the huge pumping stations of the Sacramento Delta, the largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas, to reduce by a third the water they delivered to two aqueducts that run south to the farms of the San Joaquin Valley and onward to the vast conurbations of southern California. His reason was the delta smelt, a translucent fish less than eight centimetres (three inches) long that lives only in the delta and is considered endangered under federal law. The pumping plants were sucking in the fish and grinding them up. The next year, a “biological opinion” by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service reinforced Judge Wanger’s order. Pumping from the delta remains restricted.

“The consequences of these restrictions, which coincided with a drought that is now in its third year, reach far beyond one small population of fish. About two-thirds of Californians get at least some of their water from the delta, so with the stroke of a judicial pen the entire state, the world’s eighth-largest economy and America’s “fruit basket”, entered an economic and political crisis.

“Water has divided Californians since Mark Twain remarked that “whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting over.” But this latest conflict comes as America’s largest state is politically gridlocked and holding back a national economic recovery. From Australia to Israel, parched places all over the world are now looking to California to see whether, and how, it solves one of the most intractable problems of thirsty civilisations in dry regions.

“The pumping restrictions were a huge victory for environmentalists, who fill the ranks of one of the three armies in California’s perennial water wars. With increasing success since the 1970s, greens have argued that the delta in particular, and California’s dammed rivers and wetlands in general, are on the verge of ecological collapse and must be saved.

“For the other two armies, the restrictions amounted to a stinging defeat. One army consists of urban consumers in the dry south, represented by the Metropolitan Water District, which supplies water to about 19m people, over half the state’s population, and gets 30% of its supply from one of the two delta aqueducts. The authority has had to pay farmers in the Central Valley to give up their allocations and let their fields lie fallow, says Jeffrey Kightlinger, its boss. This year it also had to impose mandatory conservation measures.

“The pain has been far worse, however, for the third force: agriculture. The farmers and farm workers who have been hardest hit live in the western San Joaquin Valley, which is supplied by the Westlands Water District, America’s largest irrigation authority. Westlands has contracts to draw water from the other (federally financed) aqueduct. Tom Birmingham, its boss, says that, because of the drought and the pumping restrictions, it is receiving only 10% of its entitlement this year.

“The result, says Mr Birmingham, is fallow land, farm workers being laid off and “people standing in food lines for hours”. In some areas unemployment runs at 40%. There are scenes reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”, though most of the poor and jobless are not white “Okies”, but Latinos. Just as the “dust bowl” swept across the Great Plains in the 1930s, so in the San Joaquin Valley, fields are reverting to desert and signs read, “Congress created this dust bowl”.