While last year’s protests about state proposals for increased flows along our rivers rang out most everywhere in the Valley, few sounded as loud and often as those in the northern San Joaquin, where invoking “the water grab” became a sure way to encourage curses and shaking fists.
A rally in Sacramento to protest the flow proposals turned out to be a litmus test for Valley virtue. Local leaders who didn’t attend were suspected of colluding with the enemy state to deprive us of our lives and livelihoods.
No one dared question the faulty assumption that water in San Joaquin Valley rivers is “our water.” Anyone who did so would likely have had to move far away, or at least undergo a name change and don a disguise, despite the obvious truth water belongs to everyone, also known as “the public.” Or at least it should.
But it’s the failure to question the myths, misperceptions, and propaganda that dominate water issues in the Valley that has resulted in one of the most successful water grabs in US history—maybe even the single most successful. The grab wasn’t just huge, it was in large part taxpayer funded—at least the part that paid for our two gargantuan water projects.
And even before the completion of these state and federal water diversions, the beneficiaries of those projects were invariably referred to as “Central Valley farmers.” Actually, the chief recipients of water delivered from the northern part of the Valley, properly known as the “Sacramento Valley,” have been farmers in the southern part of the Valley, most accurately referred to as the “San Joaquin Valley.”
Together, the two valleys—so named for their dominant rivers—are called the “Central Valley,” which includes Bakersfield to the south and Redding in the north. Farmers in the southern San Joaquin Valley long ago “grabbed” the local rivers, including the fabulous San Joaquin—they drained them dry. Then they looked north and to state and federal assistance for even more water. They scored the daily double when they got a massive water project from both government sources.
The federal water project is named the Central Valley Project because it sends water from the Sacramento River through the San Joaquin Delta south to farmers in the southern San Joaquin Valley. The State Water Project, even bigger than the Central Valley Project, delivers water both to southern California (about two-thirds of its volume) and San Joaquin Valley farmers. Both the state and federal projects are taxpayer-funded.
The federal project was conceived during the New Deal as a way to take advantage of the excellent soil in many parts of the arid southern Valley. Early on, in order to discourage exploitation of public resources by moneyed interests, federal authorities stipulated water from the Central Valley Project would go to farms with a maximum of 160 acres; a husband and wife could water 320 acres. The water was delivered at well below the cost of delivery.
Almost immediately, the 160 acre rule was done away with. As is always the case with Valley water, powerful political and economic players dominated the discussion. And even before the rule was suspended, the big landowners had sons, daughters, nieces, nephews and grandchildren on (or sometimes off) their books as “owners” of 160 acre parcels.
Today, “our water” is “grabbed”—bought, sold, and consumed—by the biggest players in the water game. These few biggest players, the Boswells, Resnicks, and lesser-known farmers like John Vidovich, buy and sell water in staggering amounts.
In 2016, Vidovich, who owns over 100,000 acres of Valley farmland, sold permanent rights to 1400 acre feet of Valley water to the Mojave Water Agency in San Bernardino County for $73 million. His water shenanigans and those of other big players in the water game have seldom garnered other than momentary local notice, but their stealth operations may soon attract far more attention with the publication of The Dreamt Land, Mark Arax’s new and colossally informative history of land and water use in the San Joaquin Valley.
It turns out “our water” was grabbed long ago and continues to be grabbed and commodified by the Valley’s most powerful players of the water game. The biggest of all, Resnick, Boswell, Vidovich and company, don’t even live in the Valley. The complete story is in Arax’s new book, required reading for anyone with even a remote interest in water issues throughout the state.
More to the point, it could be that Arax’s meticulously researched reporting will bring much-needed clarity to ongoing discussions about, “our water.” We might even be encouraged to ask how it is that we get so little material benefit from our water when it is consumed and traded by billionaire businessmen who don’t even live in “our” region.
Marco Moreno says
The Federal Project was a state “project” at first. However, the state of California just simply did not have any money so the federal government took over under the New Deal. Later and after the “Big Recession” the state developed what is known as the State Project that starts in Shasta and ended in Perris lake over Riverside County.
Joe burgess says
I believe there is a typo. 14,000, not 1400, acre feet of water rights were sold in perpetuity. That makes a difference in billions of gallons
Damon Woods says
Thanks for the information. Sure wish this State would wake up one day, and start developing DeSalination plants- as 97% of the water on this planet is in the ocean. Normally, I am on the opposite side of the aisle from Mr. Caine , and I would add is – I wonder what that newcomer Josh Harder will do about all of this – will he stand up to the Left leaning California’s stance , or will he just go along with them?
Eric Caine says
Mr. Woods: “Right-leaning” Jeff Denham supported the Twin Tunnels and voted to prohibit lawsuits against the California Water Fix. The Twin Tunnels were clearly meant to deliver more water south, including water from OUR Stanislaus River, water Oakdale Irrigation District routinely sells to buyers far SOUTH of US. I capitalize for emphasis. While Oakdale Irrigation District persists in selling OUR water, the last great aquifer in the San Joaquin Valley, located in the eastern foothills of Stanislaus County, continues to be depleted and OUR friends’ and neighbors’ wells continue to go dry. The confusion caused by calling all farmers Central Valley farmers has enabled Big Ag to hide under the cover of “family farming” and reap what amount to huge welfare subsidies paid for by taxpayers who receive no benefits from their state and federal projects. It is very interesting that many of the same people who protested vehemently about proposed water sales by the Modesto Irrigation District actually encourage sales by the Oakdale Irrigation District. What could be their motives? It’s no accident that “right;leaning” Kevin McCarthy, “right-leaning” Devin Nunes, “right-leaning” David Valadao and “right-leaning” Jeff Denham were all on the same page when it comes to sending OUR water south. And it’s well-documented that both Mr. Resnick and Mr. Vidovich have turned around and sold water to developers and/or buyers out of their regions. Turning water into a for-profit commodity subsidized by taxpayers who absorb costs while billionaires reap the profits is an assault on the public trust.
John Duarte says
This article conflates the interregional state and federal water projects with our local facts. The Don Pedro Dam and our highest priority water rights are locally controlled, benefit our entire community and the environment, and were built with our own forefathers resources and vision.
How publisher of “The Valley Citizen” is motivated to entwine our defense of our communities most vital scarce resource with some unrelated players he finds dubious is possibly worth exploring. Our immediate need is to stand firm in defense of our community and to call out the insincerity and false pretenses of the SWRCB. Mr. Caine questions the legitimacy our resolve to fight the Water Grab even the current Democratic Governor has removed Felicia Markus as the SWRCB chair.
Perhaps we wrongly presume that ours is the valley that this citizen values most. This paper was an opponent of Jeff Denham’s efforts to secure our water. The Valley Citizen has given Josh Harder consistently favorable coverage. There is an opportunity now for our new Congressman Josh Harder to share, in detail, his position on the righteousness of our stance.
Eric Caine says
Mr Duarte: Jeff Denham supported the Twin Tunnels and voted to prohibit lawsuits against the California Water Fix. The Twin Tunnels were clearly meant to deliver more water south, including water from OUR Stanislaus River, water Oakdale Irrigation District routinely sells to buyers far SOUTH of US. I capitalize for emphasis. While Oakdale Irrigation District persists in selling OUR water, the last great aquifer in the San Joaquin Valley, located in the eastern foothills of Stanislaus County, continues to be depleted and OUR friends’ and neighbors’ wells continue to go dry. The confusion caused by calling all farmers Central Valley farmers has enabled Big Ag to hide under the cover of “family farming” and reap what amount to huge welfare subsidies paid for by taxpayers who receive no benefits from their state and federal projects. It is very interesting that many of the same people who protested vehemently about proposed water sales by the Modesto Irrigation District actually encourage sales by the Oakdale Irrigation District. What could be their motives? It’s no accident that Kevin McCarthy, Devin Nunes, David Valadao and Jeff Denham were all on the same page when it comes to sending OUR water south. And it’s well-documented that both Mr. Resnick and Mr. Vidovich have turned around and sold water to developers and/or buyers out of their regions. Turning water into a for-profit commodity subsidized by taxpayers who absorb costs while billionaires reap the profits is an assault on the public trust. The Valley Citizen is dedicated to citizens, and opposed to water grabs by plutocrats and oligarchs.
John Duarte says
Mr Caine – please open an atlas or review whatever map of CA that you may have available. The twin tunnels would have moved water from North of the Delta to the South of the Delta. This would have provided water to the South from the North. Solving water scarcity for agriculture and urban users throughout CA is a good thing for our local water security. When others have enough, they don’t come after our water.
The water grab meant to take our water and flush it out to sea. The SWRCB had very few tools at hand to solve any problems. Their only authority is to force large and untimed river flows. This will be far more devastating and far less ecologiclly helpful than the FERC plans that use multiple tools and refined release plans to optimize benefits and reduce negative impacts. This is all broadly understood through those concerned in this community.
I opposed the permanent MID water sale to SF in 2011. I do not support the OID transfers made that require growers to rely unnecessarily on pumping groundwater. OID transfers to area urban users, i.e. South Stockton, are good for our community. They make housing more affordable and support economic growth. Out of area sales are legitimate only for short terms and in abundant years. OID and SSJID do not control the storage rights in New Melones. Their users have more of a use it or lose it situation than do TID and MID. I would still like to see more irrigation water get used locally. I assume that we agree in this. I don’t know if you are infering that I somehow have supported this otherwise – please cite if you wish.
With our four congressmen, Denham, McCarthy, Valadao, and Nunes cooperating with the Trump administration we had a rare political opportunity to improve water supply for much of the SJV. Maybe this is an area where Congressman Harder can work with Central Valley Republicans. Clearly stating his water positions and strategies for advocating for the valley would be a start.
Eric Caine says
Mr. Duarte: You sound like Jeff Denham, who offered geography lessons in order to divert attention from the facts. Yes, water goes from north to south, including and especially the water Oakdale Irrigation District routinely sells to Westlands Water District, the largest water district in the U.S. despite having no water rights. That water first goes from south to north and the “transfer,” (euphemism for “sale”) is accomplished most recently by OID’s abandoning its water rights. If you would like to see more OID water used locally, encourage its directors to meet the demand for water from farmers within the OID sphere of influence. There is plenty. Perhaps we might both agree that language should be used to enlighten rather than obscure. The phrase, “flush it out to sea,” whether deliberate or inadvertent, is a crime against truth. It is an insult to Delta farmers, an affront to California fishermen, and a slur to anyone with even a faint acquaintance with San Francisco Bay ecology. I heartily recommend Mark Arax’s “The Dreamt Land.” There, you will find that demand for water in the southern San Joaquin Valley is ongoing and infinite. After draining every river, after pumping all the groundwater, after sinking the land itself, Big Ag and its friends are trying to stick their giant straws in our water. They’ve already succeeded in near-destruction of the Delta. What makes you think they care about our aquifer? Improving the water situation for the southern San Joaquin Valley means impairing it for us, for Delta farmers, for California fisherman, and for the ecology of the San Francisco Bay. A bad deal.