EPIC STRUGGLE: CALIFORNIA WATER WARS
In 1982, when the peripheral canal was overwhelming rejected it was Northern California that defeated the “water grab”. The peripheral canal in the early 1980’s divided the state and defined politics in California. Today, the peripheral canal is not the same one proposed decades ago. A much different version of the canal has been proposed and it is important to make sure that Northern California farming interests have a voice at the table when a solution is being discussed for the fragile Delta.
With numerous talks about a peripheral canal and the expected thirty percent increases in the population in California, it is important to understand what water rights need to be preserved for Northern California.
Area of origin water rights are of particular importance to rural agricultural counties such as Colusa and Glenn. In the Water Code, the Area of Origin Statute states:
"In the construction and operation by the department (of Water Resources) of any project under the provisions of this part a watershed or area wherein water originates, or an area immediately adjacent thereto which can conveniently be supplied with water there from, shall not be deprived by the department directly or indirectly of the prior right to all of the water reasonably required to adequately supply the beneficial needs of the watershed area, or any of the inhabitants or property owners therein." (Water Code, Section 11460).
The Area of Origin laws have received very little litigation or application over the years. However, with the increased demand fueled by population increases, environmentally driven regulatory concerns, and the resurrection of the peripheral canal debate, the issue becomes one of great importance. The most recent and enlightening court decision interpreting Area of Origin statutes provided strong language supporting these statutes and their application to the benefit of watersheds of origin. In the case Court of Appeal decision commonly referred to as the “Roby decision”, so named after its author, Judge Ronald Roby (a former Director of the Cal. Dept. of Water Resources), the court affirmed that Section 11460, absent some other rule trumping this section, requires that 100% of the demand by water users within the watershed of origin must be satisfied prior to exporting any water to users outside the watershed.
This statute ensures that watersheds where water originates will receive what water occupants and the ecosystems needs and only surplus water will be exported. With the discussion of a peripheral canal it is imperative that our Area of Origin water rights be protected at all costs. It would be unacceptable to build Sites Reservoir, and a peripheral canal, without a clear protection of Area of Origin water rights.
Rural counties who are dependant on agriculture can not afford to risk not having enough water to irrigate their fields and water their crops. Such a risk would have negative socioeconomic effects on all rural agricultural counties.
In September, the Governor set forth a new water plan. Details of the $9 billion comprehensive water infrastructure proposal include:
- $600 million from Propositions 50, 84 and 1E to immediately relieve pressure on the Delta from environmental concerns
- $5.6 billion in above and below ground water storage
- $5.1 billion in surface storage
- $500 million in groundwater storage
- Identifies three locations for surface storage (Sites, Temperance Flat Reservoir and Los Vaqueros Expansion Project.)
- Specific criteria to assure public benefits and environmental benefits
- $1.9 billion for Delta Restoration and water supply reliability
- $1.4 billion for habitat restoration
- $500 million in early actions to address environmental concerns in the Delta
- $1 billion in grants for conservation and regional water projects
- $500 million in grants for specified watersheds throughout the state, including the San Joaquin River, Klamath River, Los Angeles River and others
Furthermore, it is surprising the peripheral canal is not in the new water bond proposal; the Governor has supported the canal as a possible solution to the delta crisis. With many unanswered questions about the new nine billion dollar investment in California’s water infrastructure, Northern California needs to be appropriately represented. Our north state legislators understand our concerns and are asking the questions that we still seek answers to.
It is encouraging to see California’s water crisis addressed. While we may criticize the Governor on his approach to global warming, he is determined to tackle the tough issue of water in California. The cliché “whiskeys for drinking waters for fighting” will play out in the coming months. ■
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