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Water wars stepped up due to drought pressures may tear California asunder
Correct Dennis Wyatt mug 2022
Dennis Wyatt

We are in the fourth year of a drought and the second drought period in the past decade.

Remember, however, that one man’s drought is another man’s monsoon.

If that doesn’t make any sense then you haven’t been paying much attention to the ultimate recession proof job in California — attorneys specializing in water issues.

Lawsuits centered on water issues are filed on a regular basis in California whether the state’s water cup is running dry or flowing over.

And rarely are water lawsuits straightforward single layer concerns to unravel.

There are even lawsuits based on the question of what exactly water is.

Water is water, right?

Water attorneys who benefit from a deluge of billable hours of biblical proportions beg to differ.

They will tell you there are two types of water flowing between a maze of levees found in the Delta.

One type is “naturally flowing” and the other type is “stored.” Swim in it, ski over it, or skip a rock across it and you can’t tell the difference.

However, if you farm in the Delta you are expected to separate the two and only pump what is naturally flowing water that passes by your intake.

Back in September 2014 at the depth of the last drought, water importers wisely opted to cancel a planned two-block-long Mother of All Slip and Slides event planned for fun in front of Los Angeles City Hall.

They were a bit concerned that the optics would undermine a lawsuit they had just filed that one could argue was as much to build up support for a Delta tunnel as it was to answer a unique California take on the egg or chicken question.

The water importers were suing Delta farmers with riparian water rights that predate Los Angeles’ wholesale “rape” of the Owens Valley over 100 years ago. Their contention was that the farmers were irrigating crops with stored water making its 554-mile journey between Shasta Dam and Los Angeles.

How can they tell?

Or a better question might be is all water behind Shasta Dam stored? That’s a question that seems equally as deranged as the legal one involving a farmer 10 miles west of Lathrop being able to tell which drop of water is natural flowing and which drop of water is stored as they pump water from the Delta.

It is, however, a legitimate question. Above 9,000 feet in such places as the mountains between Tioga and Mono passes in the eastern reaches of Yosemite to Mack Meadows in the eastern Sierra water is flowing although reduced to more of a trickle by the drought.

It is not from recent rain or snow but from mountain springs. It clearly is not water from manmade storage. It isn’t runoff from this week’s brief respite via mountain showers from the drought or even what is left of the state’s melting glaciers. It comes from underground and is naturally flowing.

Similar streams dot the upper watershed of the Sacramento River that run into Shasta Dam.

Once water reaches Shasta Lake regardless of the time of year does it automatically become “stored” water because the holder of specific stored water rights of so many acre-feet hasn’t had their bucket filled all the way to the brim because of the drought? Or is there a certain amount of water that flows into Shasta Lake that is still natural flowing in the byzantine world of California water rights?

Adding to the mix is the reality of farming today in the Delta: The water being pumped is neither beast nor fowl. It has a sharply increasing salinity content meaning the ocean is working mighty hard during the drought to reclaim what it gave up hundreds of thousands of years ago when the inland sea turned into what we today call the Valley.

Why does any of this concern you?

The reason is simple. It’s one of endless volleys in California’s non-stop water war. What’s at stake is livelihoods, food production, your landscaping, the ability to flush your toilet, and not having to make a trek to a staging point for the distribution of bottles of emergency drinking water.

Yes, the drought is getting ready to turn extremely serious.

If we have a repeat of the weather pattern of the past three years, come next September most of California will be in a world of hurt. The only thing that can protect the shaky status quo is a succession of above average years for snowpack starting this winter.

And while Stanislaus County is better situated than most for a wide variety of reasons of which not the least is the century-plus prudent and forward-looking stewardship of the Turlock Irrigation District, we are in trouble too.

That’s because there’s blood in what water’s left and it will trigger a feeding frenzy among sharks of the water lawyer variety.

Logic and the fact we are a nation of laws would seem to bolster the argument that TID’s superior and court adjudicated water rights will see us through the legal and political storm. After all, water rights are designed to bring order during times of shortage and not when there’s so much water that half of California is flooded.

But there are politicians and lawyers out there who believe legal precedents and court decisions of the past should be turned on end to meet their constituents’ and clients’ pressing needs.

What they are pursuing, though, is akin to relaxing the laws regarding bank robbery during a major depression because some people have money and some people don’t.

The law should do more than just matter when you don’t need or want something.

Pray for rain. Pray for snow. If a miracle doesn’t happen, a water war is going to erupt that could very well tear California asunder.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Courier or 209 Multimedia.