When Water and Politics Don’t Mix

Dr. Vance Kennedy
Dr. Vance Kennedy

Before the current drought, the water in the Valley was not discussed much beyond the need for residential customers to conserve. Now, all sorts of political interests are entering the discussion with many selfish and hare-brained ideas. The danger is that some of the hare-brained ideas might actually be implemented. Local water districts are under increasing pressure to do something for special interests, and what they may do could have harmful long term consequences for the economic future and wellbeing of the Valley.

Vance Kennedy: Sanity in an Insane Political Environment

Retired hydrologist Vance Kennedy has been attending meetings of the Modesto Irrigation District, and Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors to lobby for the best way to allocate and price water. Given his knowledge and expertise, his voice should be the loudest in the room. His common sense solutions minimize economic harm and maximize optimal water allocation.

Mr. Kennedy has explained at length how flood irrigation by farmers has kept the water table relatively high in Stanislaus County. After fields are flooded, most of the water sinks down to the water table, where it becomes a reserve for drought years. Flood irrigation also keeps fields fertile by washing away harmful salts that would render soil unproductive.

Special urban interests contend that the water rates of farmers are subsidized, below market rates and the cost of delivery. However, Mr. Kennedy wisely argues that farmers only use a small percentage of the delivered water for their crops, that the vast majority of the water goes into the ground water reserve for future use, and that they should only pay for water that they actually use. Based on Kennedy’s method of figuring water rates, farmers are not subsidized nearly as much as urban advocates argue.

Mr. Kennedy notes that if water rates increase substantially, farmers will switch to drip-irrigation. Then, they will use much less water from the local irrigation districts and not pay much more annually for water than they currently pay. They will also start pumping more ground water. In this scenario, a primary source for replenishing ground water supplies will be eliminated and ground water reserves will eventually be depleted.

In wet years, Mr. Kennedy also advocates recharging ground water by flooding farmers’ fields during the rainy season. Historically, much of the San Joaquin Valley was wetlands. However, now that 95 percent of Valley wetlands are gone, the water table would greatly benefit from Mr. Kennedy’s proposal.

Hare-Brained Proposals Gain Traction

Despite Mr. Kennedy’s best efforts, a number of ideas seem to be growing in popularity. The worst ideas lack common sense at best and would be disastrous at worst. The most popular proposal presented to the Modesto Irrigation District is to triple the water rates of farmers. The higher rates will result in lower demand for water. Advocates think that higher water rates for farmers will enable the reduction of electric rates. However, the drop in water demand will offset the higher water rates; not enough new revenue will be generated to allow the reduction of electric rates.

Another proposal is to stop all water from flowing into the rivers. Keep all the water behind dams. This will kill off fresh water fish and drive salmon into extinction. It will also cause salt water intrusion into the Delta and put farmers there out of business. The mantra of this proposal is that people are more important than fish. However, people need fish to eat. Once fish are extinct, they aren’t coming back. River water also flows sideways into the ground, becoming ground water. Dry up the rivers and the water table will fall more rapidly.

Another proposal is to stop all farming except for crops that need little to no water or that are highly valuable. Then sell the water to urban areas or other areas willing to pay retail for the water. Under this scenario, no irrigation water will percolate into the ground or ever again be available for local use. In the long run, future droughts will cause greater negative consequences, including more acute shortages. This proposal will gut agriculture as an industry in the Valley and increase the world wide food shortage.

Another proposal is to reconfigure water rights. Currently, California has at least five times as many valid claims for water as there is water to satisfy the claims. If water is allocated solely using water rights by seniority, quite a few citizens would have no water if the senior claims are honored in order of priority. The fact is, no matter how much the rights are reworked, someone will be shortchanged.

One Possible Solution Adopted and Better Ones Overlooked

Last year, California voters approved a measure to spend billions of dollars to build dams. The dams won’t add a single drop to the water supply during the present drought. The dams will take a long time to build and will be very expensive. If there’s no rain, building dams will be useless.

The ideas of building water desalinization plants and recycling waste water have received some attention, but not nearly as much as the ideas merit. The technology exists to produce large quantities of water at a cost less than twice the present retail price of water. The maximum cost is less than $1500 per acre foot, with the cost dropping as technology improves. Water is presently retailing for around $750 or more per acre foot. If California invested in these overlooked opportunities instead of dams, the demand and supply imbalance would diminish substantially. The impact of the drought would drop significantly, resulting in less damage to the economy and less squabbling over what to do with the existing supply.

What is preventing the best decisions from being implemented is the usual impediment: politics. Vested interests push solutions that will benefit themselves, to the detriment of the public good. The time has come for wise leaders to put politics on the backburner and do what is best and right for the good of all.


Bruce Frohman
Bruce Frohman
Bruce Frohman served on the Modesto City Council from 1999-2003. He believes the best way to build a better community is to have an informed citizenry.
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