Tuesday, August 11, 2020
Aug. 11, 2020

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Don Brunell: Our state must avert California’s water wars


California is in the midst of a fierce water war, a conflict that holds lessons for residents of Washington.

In many ways, we are alike. Both of our states’ populations are growing and we have some of the world’s most prolific agricultural regions, which require lots of water.

Washington is served by a vast network of storage reservoirs that make up the Columbia River drainage. It stretches from the northern Canadian Rockies to as far south as Wyoming.

On the other hand, California, with its 38 million people, has a series of reservoirs in the Sierra Nevada Mountains but draws heavily from the Colorado River.

A 1922 compact governs the amount each state takes from the Colorado River. A big problem is that California, which gets two-thirds of its water from the Colorado, has taken more than its share. Now the state of Colorado wants to keep more of the water for its population growth.

There are no easy solutions. One remedy floated in California is to raise the 602-foot high Shasta Dam on the Sacramento River by 18.5 feet. That suggestion has touched off a war of its own.

Even during wet years, there is barely enough water in California to nourish arid farmlands, supply thirsty cities and flush young salmon down its rivers to the sea.

The problem is exacerbated by a prolonged drought that is now heading into its fourth year.

In early March, California’s hydrologic survey revealed that the Sierra Nevada snowpack is far below normal and 2015 could bring the lowest level in nearly 25 years. Drawing additional water from the Colorado isn’t an option because that drainage has experienced a water shortage for the last 15 years.

The stakes are high and tensions are rising. It is estimated that water from the Colorado River alone adds $1.48 trillion to our nation’s economy.

In 2014, California’s agricultural economy lost more than $2.2 billion and shed more than 17,000 jobs as farmers fallowed nearly a half million acres of fields, according to estimates by the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis. Barring an unforeseen deluge, the losses this year are expected to be even higher.

It is likely that, once again, one of the hardest-hit areas will be the southern part of the Central Valley, which gets all of its imported water from Bureau of Reclamation projects. Last year, 220,000 of the district’s 614,000 acres were fallowed and even more lands may go barren this year.

Even if the Pacific Northwest could bail out California, this year would not be the year to do so. We, too, are short of snow in the Cascades. At the end of February, some snowpack monitoring stations near Mount Hood recorded no snow for the first time in at least 33 years.

The bottom line is we also need water for our 1.8 million irrigated acres of farmland, of which three-fourths depends on surface water accumulated in reservoirs.

Our state must protect its $49 billion food and agriculture industry, which employs approximately 160,000 people and contributes 13 percent of the state’s economy. Our state’s population is growing as well, surpassing seven million people.

Finding enough clean, fresh water is a worldwide challenge as population, food production and industries expand. That’s a long-term issue, but for now, competing interests in our state must find ways to avert what is going on in California.

It won’t be easy, but taking the battle to Congress, state capitols and courts only creates winners and losers. Solving this problems requires creative leaders and innovative thinkers with broad vision who are able to find common ground, compromise and new approaches.

Don Brunell, retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, is a business analyst, writer, and columnist.