Archive for the ‘Water Rights’ Category

This Was The First Year It Ever Went To Zero

via The Guardian

via The Guardian

Yes, it really is that bad. California is shriveling up before our eyes. Staggering under the worst drought in history, the state is confronting the possibility that it might just plain run out of water. Cities and counties around the state are imposing draconian penalties on water wasters  – don’t water that brown lawn, don’t wash that filthy car – and the state is scrambling desperately to divert precious water from where there is some to be found to where there is none. Governor Brown just signed legislation putting a $7.545 billion water bond before the voters. There’s an impressively long and (mirabile dictu) bipartisan list of supporters of the bill ranging from environmental groups through agricultural and construction organizations to the state chamber of commerce. But all that broad support still leaves unanswered the central question of how to divide a disastrously diminishing water supply around a state as populous and diverse as California. Who is more deserving? Almond farmers or vintners? The Los Angeles megacity or the small towns in the Sierra foothills where the ground is literally sinking because wells have run dry?

In the shadow of those snow-bereft mountains, California farmers are emptying their wells of ground water – the aquatic equivalent to eating your seed corn. When that water is gone it’s as good as gone forever: replenishing aquifers is a job of decades and centuries. Jeffrey Sutton of a Sacramento area canal authority is struggling with the fact that this year for the first time, some of its customers will receive no water. Nothing. Zip. Nada. “This was the first year it ever went to zero,” he says. “You can’t allocate water that’s not there.”

If you crane your neck, you can look back 500 years or more to find the Anasazi people who disappeared from the southwestern US. Decades of relentless drought did them in. That was a disaster for them. What to do with the tens of millions of present day Californians? What happens when a whole state finally runs dry? No one sees any easing of the current drought coming anytime soon. And there’s really no question that global warming will only make things worse.

California has always had a parlous relationship with water. There’s a road much loved by sports car drivers called Mulholland Drive that hugs the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s named after William Mulholland, the man who so famously brought water to a sleepy little desert town called Los Angeles. If you want a terrific history of the politics behind that feat, watch Roman Polanski’s brilliant 1974 film Chinatown which is based on Mulholland’s audacious accomplishment. It’s a compelling illustration of just how ugly the politics around water has always been in the Golden State. It doesn’t promise to get any prettier.

Update: In an editorial in today’s Los Angeles Times Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, warns bluntly that the state has “only enough water in storage to get through the next 12 to 18 months, and that’s it.”

Whither Goes Sitka’s Water?

An eerie article in Newsweek earlier this month painted a gloomy picture of the future of water access. Down the road, it portends, scarce water supplies will have been gobbled up by private corporations, only to be doled back out to the thirsty public at exorbitant costs. And in a way, this scenario is already playing out across the globe.

Photo by Alaskan Dude. Some rights reserved.

The article begins with a still-unfolding story set in Sitka, Alaska, where the city’s scenic neighbor, the Blue Lake reservoir, is set to quench thirst more than 6,000 miles away in India. The city of Sitka hold permits from the state that allow it to export up to 95 billion gallons of water every year. In 2006, the True Alaska Bottling Company (TAB) secured a contract with Sitka, handing over to TAB the right to 2.9 million gallons of water per year from the lake, which it intends to ship to Mumbai for processing and further distribution. TAB has partnered with S2C Global, who will build the water-processing facility in India. TAB’s project website explains how the water will make the long journey via ships that can carry between 70 to 100 million gallons of water per trip.

According to one of several S2C Global EDGAR filings mentioning the TAB arrangement, the city of Sitka will receive one cent per gallon of water, making this project very lucrative to the small Alaska town. With arrangements like this bolstering waterside communities and ensuring water for arid nations, what’s the downside?

While water sales from cities looking to privatize utilities may initially boost funds, Newsweek points out that private utilities, with virtual monopolies on the water supply, quickly become very difficult to work with. Performance is hard to monitor, and “according to some reports, private operators often reduce the workforce, neglect water conservation, and shift the cost of environmental violations onto the city.” And as water sources become more limited and demand skyrockets, it’s hard to imagine that private companies won’t see the profit potential in securing water rights wherever they can nab them.

Water rights laws are usually established by the states. In Alaska, these rights, which allow the holder “a specific amount of water from a specific water source to be diverted, impounded, or withdrawn for a specific use,” are defined under the Alaska Water Use Act and administered by the Department of Natural Resources, Division of Mining, Land, and Water. There are no restrictions on who can hold a water right in Alaska. According to the Bureau of Land Management, “state law says any ‘person’ can hold a water right and ‘person’ is defined as ‘an individual, partnership, association, public or private corporation, state agency, political subdivision of the state, and the United States.'” Guess they’ll just go to the highest bidder.

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