According to the old saw, in California, whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting.
And the fighting never seems to stop.
Last night, the Federal Bureau of Reclamation held the final of three mandatory meetings to collect public comment on a new initiative announced in the fall: maximizing the amount of water delivered to San Joaquin Valley agriculture and cities farther south, maximizing electricity generated by hydropower at California’s dams and re-evaluating protections and consideration for creatures deemed threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
Or as Federico Barajas, Deputy Director of the Mid-Pacific Region of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation explained: “This is not the California WaterFix, this is not the storage project, this is basically an opportunity that Reclamation has embarking upon to better adopt the operations of the project.”
But the questions of the roughly 30 speakers among the nearly 100 in attendance last night was essentially, better for whom?
Chris Nelson is a retired nurse.
“I feel like the whole thing you are about, what you’re talking about greater flexibility and efficiency, is just another word for ‘crook speech,'” she said.
Rick Switzer also said the bureau’s choice of words was suspect.
“Increasing efficiency," he said. "There’s another way to look at that and that’s 'how much harder can you twist the sponge that’s already quite dry?'”
Speaker after speaker attacked the initiative, pointing to broken promises, past failures and growing stress on the environment. Speakers said officials have granted legal rights to water that doesn’t exist, causing permanent scarcity, and dependency on shrinking groundwater aquifers, causing water tables to fall and land to sink.
Chico resident Nora Todenhagen said:
“Since you cannot make water, how are you going to get more water? Now, we know there’s all that paper water floating around, but that really doesn’t go through the delta very well.”
For an agency with a mission to balance many interests, it was clear many felt their concerns are considered second class.
James Dunlap is a member and former tribal chair of the Yurok Nation.
“I’d also like to see Westlands Water prove that they have an emergency to get water rather than the tribes prove an emergency or a near disaster to get the water to the fish," he said.
Fishing guide Michael Dunn raised concerns about the fairness of the process.
“I totally oppose more water going down to the Central Valley Project," he said. "Westland Farms, got you guys in their pocket. They’re writing you guy’s checks. That’s not right."
No elected officials attended the meeting.
None of the speakers favored or supported the initiative. A Reclamation staffer said speakers at an earlier meeting in Sacramento were also universally opposed. The proposal did receive some support at an earlier scoping session held in Los Banos.
Speakers in Chico did have suggestions to save water: including covering aqueducts to reduce evaporation and plugging aged and leaky urban water mains. Others suggested desalinating ocean water or a Carquinez Strait barrier preventing seawater from moving upstream, or mandating that less water intensive crops, like dry wheat, be grown on arid land, rather than thirsty nut trees.
The Bureau of Reclamation will accept emailed public comments on the proposal through February 1st.