Water districts complicate Sacramento's drought situation

Jeff vonKaenel

We are having a drought. Not an ordinary drought but a hundred-year drought. So, right-wing Christians, left-wing Christians, Muslims, Jews and others are all praying for divine intervention. I support these efforts. Heaven knows we need them.

It is said that God works in mysterious ways. But God would be challenged to work in ways as mysterious as California water policy. It is making sense of that water policy that is the subject of this column.

To do that, we must start at the beginning, before man set foot on the planet. There was water, which came down from the sky and flowed through streams and rivers to the oceans. And there was water that soaked into the ground to later be pumped up through wells.

When Europeans started claiming property rights in California, they treated water just like land, gold and minerals—property that could be owned. A property owner had water rights to the streams and rivers that flowed through their land and even the water under their property. But water is different from other types of property. Coal does not drop from the sky. Silver does not move underground from one property to another. But nevertheless, water rights were given away.

This seemed to work when there was plenty of water to go around. But now there are significantly more people with water rights than there is water to go around. And the current drought highlights this problem.

We have a complicated water-transport system, taking water from one area and sending it to another. This has allowed massive farming and urban development. One shortsighted solution to the water shortage has been to drain the underground water reserves. These reserves took eons to create, and draining them is not a sustainable solution.

The problem is that we have priced water so low that the market has allowed unsustainable agricultural practices and wasteful urban projects to develop. We grow citrus in deserts. We have water-sucking lawns in arid climates.

Raising the price of water would help to lower the amount used so that we would stop draining our reserve. But this would require a rational water-management system. Which we do not have. In the Sacramento area, although we have one regional water system, we have more than 20 water districts. Each water district has different sources of water—some comes from Folsom Lake, some comes from wells. Many of our local water districts have essentially chosen to deplete their stored reserves rather than choosing to conserve. This is wrong.

There needs to be a coordinated, regional water-conservation effort in which the local districts work together to solve this regional problem. Recently, the water districts earmarked $200,000 for conservation outreach. With 2 million residents in our region, this represents only one dime per resident. It’s a start. But we need to do much more.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.