California Board Recommends Reducing River Water Diversion

Published September 3, 2010

The California State Water Resources Control Board is recommending at least 75 percent of the water in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta System be allowed to flow freely into the Pacific Ocean, a dramatic increase over current water flow.

The Board’s nonbinding recommendation concludes the current diversion of roughly 50 percent of the Delta System’s water for agriculture and cities from April through June of each year is unsustainable. Environmental activist groups hailed the recommendation, but farmers warned of negative economic and societal impacts if the recommendations are given the force of law by state agencies and the federal government.

State Water Policy Debated
Despite the Board’s recommendations, the state’s budget woes are hindering the implementation of a comprehensive water policy.

The state legislature voted to place Proposition 18, an $11.14 billion bond to pay for infrastructure improvements to aid in the containment and conveyance of water, on the November 2010 ballot. The public’s anxiety over the state’s growing budget deficit, however, prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to encourage the legislature to push the vote back to the 2012 election. Fearing Californians would reject the bond measure, the legislature agreed to move it to the November 2012 election. Without this bond, much of the state’s efforts to revise water flows and water policy will have to be postponed.

Economics and Scarcity
Chris Scheuring, managing counsel of the California Farm Bureau Federation, appeared before the Board on behalf of the state’s farmers and submitted written comments before the Board made its recommendation.

“[I]f, as the draft report suggests, the cost of protecting the public trust is to sacrifice much of the state’s economy, this may be a sign that it is time to begin to look at more comprehensive, rational, and realistic solutions to the state’s water issues,” said Scheuring in his written comments.

Federal Government Hiked Demand
Economist David Zetland, the Wantrup Fellow at the University of California-Berkeley and author at, warns that even if funding is acquired, the Delta package will not prevent future water shortages.

Zetland notes California’s recurring water shortages can be better understood in light of federal involvement in making the delta the source of the Central Valley’s agricultural boom during the 1930s. “The first project to go in was the Central Valley Project. The feds took the lead in turning the delta into a major water exporter and water user. From a sustainability perspective it’s a problem because of demand. Can we continue to do this forever?” Zetland said.

Zetland explained, “The water supplies were very abundant at the start when they built these aqueducts, and then demand went up. We don’t have any solutions to manage demand. We’re not using any incentive or price mechanisms to get water where it’s most useful. We’re relying on bureaucratic mechanisms that were not designed to deal with scarcity.”

Rachel Jurado ([email protected]) writes from Oak Brook, Illinois.