Looking in the wrong direction

Aiding SoCal’s water needs requires studying north’s resources

The author is a Butte County resident who has followed local and regional water issues closely for two decades. He can be reached at Tony.water@outlook.com.

Governor Jerry Brown recently signed an executive order that directs immediate action to deal with the dry conditions in the state and water-delivery limitations to the San Joaquin Valley. Responsive to immediate need? Absolutely. Responsive to long-term needs? Not even close!

What the governor is overlooking is the need to develop a projection of how much water realistically will be available if we are in fact entering the long-term dry spell many have predicted. Without thoughtful planning and a lot more study, he runs the risk of creating a second water-starved valley—this one north of Sacramento.

The governor seems to assume that whatever the needs of his water constituencies to the south, the Northern Sacramento Valley will be able provide it for as long as the need exists. That just isn’t so, especially if the shift in precipitation patterns we have seen this year is indicative of the future, as many climatological studies suggest. The North State is not an infinite pool of water just waiting to be tapped. It is a vulnerable source that must be managed as carefully as the San Joaquin Valley should have been.

Groundwater aquifers are already in downward trends from local use in some parts of the Northern Sacramento Valley. Over-pumping them to fulfill the endless appetite of semi-desert agriculture can only lead to a collapse in the north comparable to what has already happened in the south.

But this is not a plea to abandon the south; it’s a plea for enlightened water leadership with a realistic long-term perspective—something we haven’t seen in Sacramento for some time, if ever. The California Department of Water Resources’ superficial and politically reactive responses to the state’s water needs will lead to a crisis that Gov. Brown or an unlucky successor will spend a lifetime trying to live down.

The long-term interests of the state demand that there be a realistic assessment of the North State’s water supply, including an understanding of how much water can be made available for other regions after local economic and environmental needs are met. If the governor wants to help the south, he must first look north, and he needs to do it now. He needs to figure out how to keep North State water from going into a decline similar to that of the San Joaquin Valley, and avoid the legacy of creating a second Central Valley desert.