Paper Water

Water’s for Fighting: How California and the feds sold off more water than north state rivers usually hold.

Today’s post includes excerpts from a great piece in Humboldt County’s North Coast Journal that follows the paper water trail and answers the $64 million question: “So why does Southern California get to drink our milkshake?” See the link to the entire article at the end of this post. It provides much more information, particularly on the Trinity River battles and detailed history of contractor rights.

When the Central Valley Project was being developed, the Bureau of Reclamation began making contracts to sell water to irrigators. In its effort to gain water rights, Reclamation made “exchange” contracts with irrigators who had riparian rights. Those deals resulted in many senior claims to water — essentially first place in line — for those irrigators.

And while some of its customers regularly get their full water complement, those with junior water claims are given small percentages. In the Central Valley Project, that’s the irrigators on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley (such as Westlands Water District), which were among the last contractors with Reclamation and so have junior water rights. They came late to the party when the Central Valley Project was completed in 1963. Now, Reclamation has more than 250 contracts attached to the Central Valley Project.

That discrepancy between the amount of water available and the amount of water promised is called “paper water.”

And while “paper water” is sometimes a source of strife, with water users pulling at the supply from both ends of the state, some say it’s actually meant to prevent disputes. Think of it this way: Reclamation’s contracts represent California waterways when they’re completely saturated — a glass 100 percent full. If and when the state gets a year that wet, that water is spoken for. If the glass was full and the water wasn’t 100 percent spoken for, it could spur furious grasping for the leftovers.

They claim it’s not bad science that created those over-allocations. It’s planned for when there’s a wet year. Anticipating that there’s an excess. It’s optimism — and “how do you prevent a scramble?”

“In plain language,” the report reads, “this means there is really very little if any water available to the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project at any time.”

Tom Stokely of the California Water Impact Network put it bluntly. “They will never get 100 percent of their water contracts,” he said. “This is not a new phenomenon. They’ve been sweeping it under the rug for years.”

To make matters worse, over the last 32 years, Reclamation began realizing the negative impacts occurring to the environment from over-emptying water (e.g., from the Trinity River causing the massive salmon kill in 2002), and began to give back more than 1 million acre-feet of water to the environment, yet there’s no adjustments to water contracts or water rights. This is one example of why now the holders of the water contracts will NEVER have 100 percent.

More than five times the available water in the Sacramento River and San Joaquin River basins is claimed by state and federal rights holders, according to the California Water Impact Network report.

In addition, when allocations and contracts were first developed, the population of the state was lower. We’ve got this issue of climate change as well. We’re not seeing as much rain and snow as we’ve had in the past.

Why don’t we fix the paper contract fiasco?

Stokely said Reclamation isn’t interested in adjusting its water contracts because it would mean an admission that the bureau doesn’t have as much water as it says. “If they revise their allocations, they’re in for a big fight,” he said, adding that water users, not taxpayers, come first. “The Bureau’s essentially controlled by the water users — they’re the quote-unquote clients.”

Hampering the efforts to adjust allocations to numbers based on reality are the powerful Southern California Water interests, Stokely said. The five-person California Water Board, which could revisit water claims, is appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown, and “they’re never going to make a decision that makes the governor unhappy,” he said.

Opponents of the Delta Tunnels say the multi-billion dollar plan is just another attempt to increase Southern California’s access to Sacramento River water that simply doesn’t exist.

Bottom line: Claims that the Bay Delta Project will increase the health of the delta just don’t stand up when fresh water is expected to be pumped south before it reaches the delta.

See the entire article in Humboldt County’s North Coast Journal article by Grant Scott-Goforth Water’s for Fighting.

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