Water scheme jeopardizes valley

Transfers from our region will devastate the landscape if left unchecked

The author is a water-policy analyst for AquAlliance (www.aqualliance.net), an organization that exists to defend Northern California waters and encourages public involvement in its well-monitoring program.

A massive water transfer scheme is moving rapidly forward out of sight of most people. In 12 of the past 14 years, Sacramento Valley water has been sold to San Joaquin Valley desert irrigators. So-called “temporary” or “emergency” water transfer/sales occurred without the benefit of comprehensive impact analysis, so AquAlliance sued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 2010 and 2014. The result was USBR’s agreement to disclose impacts to the economy and environment of California from 10 years of transfer/ sales, which is equivalent to what the city of Chico would use in 200 years.

If this program isn’t stopped, it will fundamentally change the Sacramento Valley.

AquAlliance assumed agencies would take seriously their role in disclosing program impacts and presenting viable alternatives. Sadly, the program’s September 2014 EIS/EIR failed to disclose the historically low Sacramento Valley aquifer levels or provide adequate analysis of escalating detrimental effects: collapsed fisheries and declining streamflow.

Marketing water, particularly during dry years, sounds reasonable only if you are unaware of the consequences. Compounding impacts from these sales is the fact that much of the water comes from “groundwater substitution”—where sellers are paid for river water and then draw water from the regional shared public aquifer system.

While California agencies are urging residents to conserve, the state and federal water agencies encourage and facilitate massive groundwater substitution transfers from the Sacramento Valley. Last month, as the giant pumps cranked up to sell water, AquAlliance filed a lawsuit in federal district court against the USBR and San Luis Delta Mendota Water Authority over their failure to disclose and avoid impacts to the communities, farms and fish of the Sacramento Valley.

The natural bounty of south-state watersheds and the Delta has been devastated by expanding irrigation to marginal lands in an otherwise arid landscape. Tulare Lake was drained. San Joaquin Valley rivers are dry by the time they reach the valley floor. Land is sinking. The speed with which groundwater levels decline is predictable in hindsight but, with foresight, avoidable.

AquAlliance needs your support to challenge the legality of this water heist. Water transfers have already destroyed the Owens and San Joaquin valleys and tipped the Delta toward collapse. Destabilizing what remains of the great Sacramento River watershed, California’s largest, is suicidal—for as goes the Sacramento River’s valley, so goes California.