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State Uses Announcement of Proposed Water Cuts to Push Canal and Dams

By Dan Bacher

October 31, 2008 -- The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) Thursday used a news conference announcing proposed drastic cuts of State Water Project (SWP) deliveries to agribusiness and cities as yet another opportunity to push for a peripheral canal and more dams.

DWR Director Lester Snow, conjuring up fears of a prolonged statewide “drought” doomsday scenario, announced an initial allocation of 15 percent for water delivery to the SWP contractors in 2009. This would be the second lowest in the history of the State Water Project.

“This further dramatizes the urgent need for additional investments in water storage and conveyance infrastructure to assure an adequate and reliable water supply,” said Snow, in support of a controversial $9.3 billion water bond proposal by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Senator Dianne Feinstein to build more dams and a peripheral canal around the California Delta.

“The uncertainly of precipitation patterns due to global warming and deteriorating conditions in the Delta, California’s main water hub, demand immediate action to enhance our ecosystem and keep our economy productive in the 21st century. The Governor has sounded the wakeup call, and the clock is ticking,” Snow claimed.

A broad coalition of recreational anglers, commercial fishermen, Delta farmers and conservationists is opposing the Governor’s water bond because they believe it will result in increased water exports from the Delta and exacerbate the unprecedented collapse of Central Valley chinook salmon, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, striped bass, threadfin shad and other fish populations. Although massive opposition to the proposal prevented the Governor and Assemblyman Dave Cogdill from getting legislative approval for the water bond, political insiders expect the pro-canal forces to try to put the bond on the June ballot.

Snow said the 15 percent allocation figure reflects “the low carryover storage levels in the state’s major reservoirs, ongoing drought conditions and court ordered restrictions on water deliveries from the Delta.”

The lowest initial allocation figure was 10 percent of SWP Contractors’ requests in 1993, but that number was increased to 100 percent during the water year as conditions developed. Last year, the initial figure was 25 percent and it was increased to 35 percent, according to Snow.

The Real Reasons Behind the "Drought"

Unfortunately, Snow failed to mention that the reason for the low carryover storage was because Shasta, Oroville, Folsom and other northern California reservoirs have been drained to alarmingly low water levels by the state and federal governments to send subsidized water to drainage impaired land in the Westlands Water District and to fill the Kern Water Bank, the Semi-Tropic Water Bank and reservoirs in Southern California.

Today’s articles in the S.F. Chronicle, Sacramento Bee and other newspapers about Snow’s announcement failed to mention the real reasons behind the alleged “drought." Fortunately, Tom Stienstra, S.F. Chronicle outdoor columnist and author, wrote a superb piece, "Drought, or water heist?," in the Chronicle on October 26, exposing this fraud by the Schwarzenegger administration. “This isn't a drought. This is a created shortage,” Stienstra emphasized.

Stienstra cites Department of Water Resources data stating that the past two years are only the ninth driest two-year period in the past 88 years, and that California routinely experiences such periods once every 10 years.

“What happened last year is that water managers were betting on a wet spring,” said Stienstra. “When it didn't happen, many lakes were drained down to nothing in order to send water to L.A. and farmers.”

“True droughts are measured by soil moisture, and in some cases, water levels at wilderness lakes. In a true drought, soil moisture is so low that plants go into artificial hibernation to protect themselves, as in 1992, and that has not happened. Up in the high country, most wilderness lakes - outside the reach of water-grabbers - are full,” he said.

Stienstra contrasts the condition of northern California reservoirs with those of a southern California reservoir that receives its water from the State Water Project.

“Even more telling is that along Interstate 5 near L.A., Pyramid Lake, which gets water from Northern California, is 97 percent full right now. Yet while all this is going on, ocean conditions are setting up right now for decent chance of a very wet fall,” he concluded.

Low Carryover a Result of Poor Water Management

Mindy McIntyre, the Water Program Manager for the Planning and Conservation League, agrees with Stienstra that the “drought” is a largely an artificially created phenomenon spurred by bad water management. In two below normal but nowhere near critically dry years, the state pumps delivered massive amounts of water south to the Kern Water Bank, Diamond Valley Reservoir and the Semi-Tropic Groundwater Bank in southern California with apparent disregard for the fact that reservoirs would be drawn down to dangerously low levels.

“The DWR didn’t call for water conservation this year – so the dry year situation wasn’t taken seriously,” said McIntyre. “This year we’re going into a potentially dry year without a buffer in the reservoirs, so the state and federal governments have managed themselves into a manmade drought.”

The state and federal governments in recent years have pumped record amounts of water out of the California Delta. Some of the largest annual water export levels in history occurred in 2003 (6.3 million acre-feet), 2004 (6.1 MAF), 2005 (6.5 MAF) and 2006 (6.3 MAF). Exports averaged 4.6 MAF annually between 1990 and 1999 and increased to an average of 6 MAF between 2000 and 2007, a rise of almost 30 percent, according to the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

The problem with California water supply won’t be addressed by building a peripheral canal or more dams, but by practicing better water management and increased water conservation, McIntyre contends. “This is more a failure of water policy and management than it is of infrastructure,” she said. “We will have a water crisis every year unless we find a way to decrease demand.”

While Schwarzenegger and Lester Snow continue to push "improved conveyance" and new reservoirs as the "solution" to California's water problems, a number of recently published reports question the need for new dams and canals. A report published by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation (LACEDC) compared the price of water produced by conservation, recycling, desalinization, and new dams. "The LACEDC found water from new dams to be the most costly option, which prompted the business group to characterize new dams as a 'non-starter' due to economic and environmental concerns," according to Steve Evans, conservation director of Friends of the River.

In addition, a recently published report by the Pacific Institute found that improving agricultural water use efficiency through careful planning, adopting existing cost efficient technologies and management practices, and implementing feasible policy changes can maintain a strong agricultural economy while reducing the need for Delta exports - and new dams and a canal to supply increased exports. These measures could save 3.4 million acre feet or more of water.

The report also noted that recent court decisions from lawsuits filed by Friends of the River, Earthjustice, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council and other organizations, scientific assessments, and the Governor’s Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force all recognize that Delta exports must be reduced.

Why Was Announcement Made a Month Early?

The timing of Snow’s “drought” announcement was curious, since it occurred just days before one of the most contested November elections in California and U.S. history. DWR has historically made this announcement at the end of November to comply with the long-term water supply contracts requiring a December 1 announcement.

“Today’s announcement comes slightly earlier to help local water agencies better prepare for 2009, which is expected to be another dry year,” claimed Snow. "The announcement is part of the department’s effort to implement Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Drought Executive Order (S-06-08) directing DWR to help local water districts and agencies proactively address these conditions."

Maybe so, but could it be that the announcement was actually made earlier than normal to buttress support for candidates supporting Schwarzenegger's $9.3 water bond that includes “improved conveyance” – a peripheral canal – and more dams?

Water Delivery Facts:

SWP contractors deliver water to more than 25 million California residents and more than 750,000 acres of farmland. This year, SWP contractors requested 4,166,376 million acre-feet of water for the 2009 calendar year, the maximum contractual amount allowed. Actual delivery amounts can increase from the initial allocation depending on the year’s hydrologic and water supply conditions.

"In preparing the initial allocation, DWR considered a conservative projection of hydrology; SWP operational constraints including additional 2009 Delta export restrictions per the federal district court’s remedy order to protect Delta Smelt; and 2009 contractor demands, including carryover water from 2008," according to DWR.