Sunday, July 22, the Modesto Bee’s big story was on the declining use of irrigation water by local farmers. The story was accompanied by a large photograph of Don Pedro Reservoir, full almost to the point of overflowing.
Most of the story seemed to support the Modesto Irrigation District’s (MID) water sale by assuring Bee readers that the District has plenty of water. As is often the case in journalism, the real story is in the details the Bee story omitted.
Close followers of the water sale will remember that early on in the story the Tuolumne River Trust pointed out that water usage in the four counties served by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) is down. In fact, in recent years, the SFPUC has not used its full allotment of water. It should also be noted that San Francisco has failed to implement the kind of conservation measures adopted by other west coast cities, including Seattle and Los Angeles.
So if the farmers don’t need it, and the SFPUC doesn’t need it, why all the fuss about water?
The water controversy is about realities a growing group of insiders know all too well. The illusion of plentiful water can be maintained only by ignoring devastated fisheries, polluted rivers, dead wetlands and a collapsing San Joaquin Delta. Moreover, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the State of California are not only aware of these realities, they are virtually certain to act soon to remedy them
The most elementary remedy will be in the form of increased flows in our rivers, especially the Tuolumne and San Joaquin Rivers, both of which have been overused and abused for decades. No one knows yet how much these increased flows will affect water rights, but current water users don’t want to take any chances with their own allotment, especially given the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change on the water supply.
San Francisco, as it has done since the gold rush, is trying to gain dominant control of a resource even more precious than gold. And the MID is in dire need of money, so the SFPUC sees a golden opportunity.
The Modesto Bee came out in favor of the MID water sale even before John Mensinger and Larry Byrd revealed serious problems with the contract. The Bee has maintained its position despite increasing evidence that the contract is the trigger for an attempt to give the SFPUC future control of nearly thirty thousand acre feet of water.
And “future control” is what the water game in the arid American west has always been about. The takeaway passage from the Bee story makes it abundantly clear the MID has no sense of future demand:
“We’re putting together a comprehensive demand model,” said Walt Ward, MID assistant general manager of water operations. “We’re really going to look at what our long-term demand is.” Ward said the MID doesn’t have a handle on its current surplus because water availability “is not exact.” “These numbers change year in and year out,” he said.
The water controversy is not about how much water is in Don Pedro Reservoir. It’s not even about how much local farmers use, or how much the SFPUC uses—it’s about the certainty of future shortages. And it’s most especially about who has dibs on what has always been the most needed resource in the American west. San Francisco is just trying to cut to the front of the line.
And if the MID doesn’t know how much water it will need in the future, neither does the Modesto Bee. That’s why credibility for both Bee editors and the MID is falling even faster than water levels on the lower Tuolumne River—both are promoting a sale that may result in severe scarcity for Valley citizens and farmers.