There’s nothing like a job as general manager of one our local water districts to give a person a rosy outlook. Seems like only yesterday Allen Short, then riding high as General Manager of the Modesto Irrigation District (MID), was touting a sale of “excess water” to the City of San Francisco. This was just prior to his exit from the MID, a departure expedited by public outcry against the sale.
Now, Oakdale Irrigation District (OID) General Manager Steve Knell has taken umbrage with the Modesto Bee for documenting water district sales to buyers outside the area. The Bee article followed widespread alarm brought about by pumping billions of gallons of groundwater for newly planted orchards on the east side of the valley.
“Is there a crisis?” said Knell in a Bee opinion piece: “In my opinion no.”
Knell proudly offered that in the last decade OID had pumped 70,755 acre feet of groundwater while adding 400,000 acre feet. It certainly sounds like an impressive net gain, but Knell’s math leaves everyone groping for an explanation for the dozens of wells running dry on Stanislaus County’s east side.
Let’s give Knell the benefit of the doubt and agree that OID has plenty of water. If so, it’s one of the last places in the entire San Joaquin Valley so fortunate. Elsewhere, farmers are fallowing their land. The ground in some places is sinking nearly a foot a year as subsidence from overdrafting becomes a regional problem.
Like almost every other water district spokesperson in the long history of overdrafting in the San Joaquin Valley, Knell’s real aim is to preserve the status quo:
“Should we be concerned about new ag pumping to our east,” said Knell. “I don’t know, but I am wary of government imposed solutions that are not consistent with landowners’ historic property and water rights.”
In other words, let’s do what we’ve always done.
It would be nice if Knell’s views were atypical, but the anti-government hysteria that animates them has always been default position of water users in the San Joaquin Valley. As a result, we’ve established an unsustainable system of water deliveries based on the notion that another well or rainstorm will bring an end to our problems.
Meanwhile, those who’ve taken a hard look at the situation offer a grim prognosis. Read Lisa Krieger’s fine essay in the San Jose Mercury News. Modesto’s Vance Kennedy is featured, and there’s a comprehensive review of the water crisis in our Valley. Kennedy has been trying to sound the alarm on our precarious water situation for decades, but in a region where ideology always trumps science, he’s had trouble finding an audience.
That’s probably why Cal Poly’s Charles Burt avoids politics. As an irrigation expert, Burt sticks to facts. His research shows that even before the current drought, there was a 2 million acre foot overdraft of groundwater in California.
Corporate Ag wants to address the problem by diverting even more water away from fish and farmland in the San Joaquin Delta, but Burt claims that strategy would merely return the overdraft to its previously unsustainable levels.
The bottom line is, over a million acres of Central Valley farmland will be lost in the immediate future, with more on the horizon. Some of that loss wouldn’t be all bad, as much of the farming in the southern San Joaquin Valley was unsustainable to begin with and is now diverting water away from far more sustainable sources, including fisheries. Unfortunately, the prevailing powers throughout the Valley share Steve Knell’s views that we should keep endorsing the status quo.
If the past is precedent, we’ll keep using water like we always have. But unless we inventory our farmland and allocate water where there’s a sustainable future for food production, we’re doomed to escalating losses. The great irony is that the losses are as likely to occur for the best farmland as for the worst.
Is it a crisis? Despite Steve Knell’s views, unless things change fast, we can count on an aquifer depleted beyond recovery. Recent reports indicate the state is ready to step in with a revised groundwater policy. It’s long past time.