The water wars - Page 4

San Francisco Bay and the delta are dying. Salmon runs are collapsing. Droughts are getting worse. And big agriculture still wants more water
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Illustration by Caitlin Kuhwald

They're concerned that environmental issues will play second fiddle as plans are hatched.

Lloyd Carter, an environmentalist who grew up on a raisin farm in the Central Valley, is suspicious the policy will be weighted toward agricultural interests. "What's most useful is to think of water as cash," Carter told us. "It starts out as cash in the public treasury, and one little segment goes in and scoops out as much as it can. Agriculture accounts for less than 5 percent of the state's economy and they use 80 percent of the water."

Agricultural interests and the water districts that serve them, not surprisingly, view water cutbacks as a signal of government failure and are hard-pressed to go along with anything that doesn't include provisions for new dams and a canal. Rather than recognize limits in the amount of available water, they want new projects that will increase the supply.

The Latino Water Coalition, an organization backed by agribusiness that has put together marches and rallies to protest the water cutbacks, is critical of the proposed package of bills because they say it doesn't go far enough. "For years there's been committee after committee, board after board. If the best that the legislature can do is propose a new committee, how can that be a good solution?" asked Mario Santoyo, technical adviser to the coalition. "There are people who don't have jobs, there's food that's not being grown. It's a human rights issue. There has to be a solution, and it has to be real."

Sarah Woolf, media spokesperson for the Westlands Water District, which is among the most vocal advocates for agricultural water, echoed Santoyo's view. "If you do not have above-ground and below-ground storage and a peripheral canal, then you don't have a solution," she told the Guardian. "There's no point in passing legislation that doesn't solve the whole problem."

But of course, when there's not enough water to go around, building more dams and canals isn't going to solve the whole problem, either.

SELLING WATER THAT ISN'T THERE

Patrick Porgans, a Sacramento-based water policy expert, is critical of the proposed package of bills for a very different reason. "We can't expect the very government that created the problem to solve the problem, because they are the problem," he says.

Porgans arrived at the Guardian office not long ago dressed in a salmon-colored suit with matching snakeskin belt and shoes. The rail-thin 63-year old walks with a bit of a fragile step, but once he gets talking about water, he's a bundle of uncontrollable energy. For more than two hours, he held a pair of reporters in thrall as he unpacked and held up big armloads of charts, color-coded graphs, and government documents.

It's just a sampling from what Porgans calls his "database," and he's got photos: a storage space piled to the ceiling with file boxes containing thousands of pages of documents. This is his life's work, and it's easy to wonder how he even has time to eat and sleep.

In the wake of the 1987-92 drought, his consulting firm, Porgans & Associates, publicized the fact that the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project had pumped more water out of the delta during the dry spell than at any other time in their history of operation. The firm is now suing the government for vioutf8g the Endangered Species Act.

Ask Porgans, and he will tell you that "the peripheral canal is a peripheral issue" because it couldn't possibly address the underlying shortcomings of the water-policy system itself. He pointed out that 80 percent of DWR's operating budget is derived from water contracts, and noted that many top officials in water-project agencies arrive through a revolving door from the water districts themselves.