Water Wars

Design by Metropolitan Water District - H2Love campaign via bewaterwise.com

“Conservation must remain a way of life.” With words of caution, Gov. Jerry Brown officially declared April 7, 2017 the end of the record-breaking drought that has held California in a state of emergency for three years.

Executive Order B-40-17 effectively lifts the accompanying conservation regulations by rescinding Brown’s January 17, 2014 Emergency Proclamation and April 25, 2014 Proclamation of Continued State of Emergency, along with Executive Orders B-26-14, B-28-14, B-29-15 and B-36-15.

Guidelines from Executive Order B-37-16 remain in effect with updates outlined in B-40-17 establishing that “permanent restrictions shall prohibit wasteful practices such as:

  • Hosing off sidewalks, driveways and other hardscapes;
  • Washing automobiles with hoses not equipped with a shut-off nozzle;
  • Using non-recirculated water in a fountain or other decorative water feature;
  • Watering lawns in a manner that causes runoff, or within 48 hours after measurable precipitation; and
  • Irrigating ornamental turf on public street medians.”

The following week, April 13, Brown met with Ryan Zinke, Secretary of Interior in the Trump Administration, to discuss California projects managed by his agencies. Zinke and Brown discussed topics concerning parks, public lands and water infrastructure, including proposals for the California Water Fix Project currently under federal review by the Bureau of Reclamation.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the 32nd Governor of California, Edmund Gerald “Pat” Brown, successfully supported the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project.


SWP (left) – Click to enlarge – CVP (right)
Maps by Shannon via Creative Commons

The SWP diverts waters that feed the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta through 34 storage facilities, 24 pumping plants, 5 hydroelectric power plants, and roughly 700 miles of open canals and pipelines to supply 29 water contractors in southern California and the central valley.

Features of the SWP include the tallest dam in the United States, which recently made national headlines in Oroville when the spillway collapsed under flood conditions forcing the evacuation of roughly 200,000 residents. Three local environmental groups submitted a motion to the FERC in October 2005 claiming that the spillway to the dam built in 1968 did not meet modern safety standards. The request called for reinforcement of the emergency spillway to prevent collapse in extreme flood conditions that could overwhelm the main spillway and corrode the emergency runoff chute. The upgrades were deemed unnecessary by the Department of Water Resources and the water contractors that would have to front the bill for repairs to SWP infrastructure. After the February 2017 disaster, the Trump Administration approved federal relief funding for emergency response services and damages to the dam.

The CVP diverts waters that feed the Delta through 22 reservoirs and 11 power plants over a 450 mile stretch to supply roughly 250 water contractors from Lake Shasta to Bakersfield.

Majority shares of SWP and CVP water supplies are delegated to six major consumers–

  • Metropolitan Water District of Southern California
  • Westlands Water District
  • Kern County Water Agency
  • Santa Clara Valley Water District
  • San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority
  • San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority

Pat Brown’s son, Edmund Gerald “Jerry” Brown, served as the 34th Governor of California from 1975 to 1983. Jerry Brown supported the Peripheral Canal Project, proposing an additional canal diverting waters from the Delta into the existing Central Valley Project for exportation to southern California. The Peripheral Canal project was defeated on the 1982 ballot, but when Jerry Brown returned in 2011 to serve as the 39th Governor of California, he put his support behind the Water Fix Project, proposing new twin tunnels beneath the nexus of the delta.

Water fix project (click to enlarge)
Map by California National Resources Agency

In 2014, after multiple rounds of revision, renaming, and voter disapproval of what is now known as the Water Fix Project, the state proposed that funding would come primarily from bonds issued to water contractors, to be repaid by revenue from project resources.

General obligation and revenue bonds issued by the state accounted for 78 percent of construction costs for the SWP, paid with interest by the water contractors. Remaining costs were covered by federal obligations, state appropriations, and miscellaneous private sources with invested interests. The SWP remains the largest state-built water project in the country, but the project is also one of the state’s largest electrical consumers, requiring twice as much energy to operate as it generates in hydroelectric plants.

The CVP cost our federal government $3.6 billion to construct, with repayment contracts issued to project beneficiaries expected to cover a third of the cost over a 40-year period. The CVP remains the largest water project operated by the US Bureau of Reclamation, but after 40 years the cost of operations far exceeded contract repayments for most CVP contractors, leaving taxpayers responsible for the national debt accumulated in unpaid federal bonds and negative revenue.

California Proposition 53, defeated on the 2016 ballot, would have required voter approval for state-issued revenue bonds over $2 million. With this proposition out of the way, voter approval will not be required to move forward with the Water-Fix project.

A change petition was filed in August 2015 as part of the Water Fix project, the State Water Resources Control Board commenced with hearings in July 2016. With the project still pending federal approval as of April 2017, Jerry Brown met with the Secretary of Interior in an administration that has already gained notoriety for expediting environmental reviews of infrastructure projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline.

As California residents rejoice the end of a prolonged drought and celebrate the wettest year on record, Jerry Brown stresses the necessity of continued conservation habits. Meanwhile, Brown side-steps voters to secure cooperation with the Bureau of Reclamation in final approvals for highly controversial water infrastructure projects that threaten an already depleted delta. We’re told that this costly project will be funded by the water contractors, not taxpayers, just months after Brown begged for federal relief funds to cover repairs to existing infrastructures that would be expanded by the new project.


Poster design by Diener-Hauser, art by Jim Pearsall

The 1974 neo-noir film “Chinatown” dramatizes events surrounding the early 20th century construction of a 230-mile aqueduct diverting water from the Owens River to Los Angeles. The budding city of LA quickly depleted water supply in Owen’s Valley, devastating local wildlife and agriculture, draining Owen’s Lake and creating the largest single source of dust pollution in the United States. As demand continued to grow and supply ran completely dry, a second aqueduct was constructed just north of Owen’s Valley to divert water from Mono Lake into the existing channels.

The ensuing conflicts over these aqueducts and control of the state’s resources became known as the California Water Wars, but this socio-political-economic power struggle took on many names as it expanded into the 21st century.

As the California bureaucracy continues draining northern resources to sustain the southern desert metropolis, support for the State of Jefferson grows in rural northern counties, with campaign signs supporting secession growing increasingly popular as far south as the bay area.

Here and now, the state’s natural resources are still rapidly dwindling, in large part due to the water projects enacted by Gov. Pat Brown. Water regulations proposed by the current Brown Administration are all too familiar and anything but conservative, with an air of nepotism that casts suspicion on the Brown family’s long political history in water dealings.

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