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The Water War & The Cost to African-American Communities
By Madlen Grgodjaian/California Black Media
Published April 6, 2016

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The drought has taken a toll on many communities, including disadvantaged communities, and the pain may just be starting. Recent reports in the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union Tribune indicate new water rate hikes across the state.

While every Californian has felt the effects of the five-year-old drought in their everyday living, with higher food prices, increased water rates and strict state demands for water conservation backed with fines. Those water problems may worsen when our state’s population reaches 43 million by 2030 but still relies on a water storage system built in the 1960s to serve just 19.5 million.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California provides drinking water to 19 million residents in Los Angeles, Orange, and San Bernardino counties. In 2010, when the drought first began, the water district paid $250 per acre-foot to buy water from farmers in Northern California. The price last year doubled to $500 and this year there were reports it reached $700 an acre-foot.

This year more than 37 billion gallons of water could be sold to Metropolitan and other buyers.

“We’re hoping to grow this pie larger,” said Steve Hirsch, the agency’s manager of water transfers and exchanges.

“We’re still pursuing sellers.”

Lance Tennis is a rice farmer who owns about 900 acres in Butte County. “You can’t turn it away. It’s too much money,” Tennis reportedly said.

Metropolitan is dedicated to boosting their reserves and is willing to pay $71 million for 100,000 acre-feet of water. The lucrative offer to purchase water may be more than what rice farmers make from their crops sales.

“Just follow the money. Northern California farmers stand to make more money by leaving their equipment in the barn and fallowing fields so they can sell their water instead. Growing rice costs about $1,600 an acre, and at end-of-2015 prices, they could sell it for $1,208, a loss of $392. Selling water looks good by comparison,” said Mario Guerra, former President of the Independent Cities Association (ICA – Represents 50 cities in the County of Los Angeles, including Compton, Inglewood, Glendale, Monrovia, Claremont, Redondo Beach, etc.) and Mayor of Downey.

Twenty-five years ago many Northern California farmers fought against Metropolitan purchasing their water. Agriculturalists today are more apt to cut deals with the water giant.

“Transfer of water rights from one entity to another may need modern laws, monitoring and simplified regulations for better utilization of our previous natural resource”, said Michael Harris, California Black Agriculture Working Group, chair.

Board of Equalization board member George Runner and state senator Bob Huff (R-San Dimas) are gathering signatures for an initiative to derail the state’s High-Speed Rail project and use its money for new water storage. Which they say establishes people as the top priority for the state’s use of water in a constitutional amendment.

The measure redirects $10.7 billion in existing bond funds, so it incurs no new debt. Taking about $8 billion from rail system bonds and $2.7 billion from the 2014 Proposition 1 Water Bond, it funds building two new dams and increasing the size of two existing reservoirs. It also funds storm-water runoff capture and reuse projects that will help stop Los Angeles from dumping pollution into the ocean each time it rains.

“This initiative does not raise taxes, it does not ask for additional revenue or add any more debt,” vice chair Runner said. “It reallocates unused money from past bonds to make better use of the money in our dire drought for the purpose of providing groundwater recharge and treatment facilities and infrastructure to store new water for California families, businesses and food production.”

On February 22, the California Rice Industry Association (CRIA) and Northern California Water Association (NCWA) formed a new political committee to oppose the Huff/Runner “Water for All” ballot measure named, “Stop the Special Interest Water Grab, a Coalition of Farmers, Water Organizations, Labor, Fishermen and Conservationists.”

Opponents believe the initiative would disrupt the California Water Commission’s current process of allocating the bond funds early next year and jeopardize prospects for major new reservoirs.

“We’re fully engaged in the process that’s been created by Prop. 1,” Tulare County Supervisor Steve Worthley said.

“This constitutional amendment would basically change the whole dynamic, pull the money out from under the commission and give it to another authority that doesn’t even exist today.”

The water initiative would create a new State Water and Groundwater Storage Facilities Authority to choose the projects to be funded by reallocated bond amounts.

Executive Director Aubrey Bettencourt of the California Water Alliance believes such concerns are misplaced. The initiative being circulated for signatures includes a “grandfather” clause that would allow the new water authority to adopt and approve the projects under consideration under the California Water Commission’s process.

“California’s ongoing water crisis continues to stress our reservoirs and groundwater basins and has led to mandatory water cuts and fines on all Californians,” said Bettencourt. “This initiative offers a meaningful way for California to address its chronic problems stemming from aging water infrastructure, increasing population and the ramifications of climate change that will continue to stress our already fragile water system.”

Metropolitan has a responsibility to ensure that our communities have access to reliable and clean drinking water. If this water in-balance continues, where Metropolitan pays more for our water each year, African-American communities could become innocent bystanders who will see those rising costs passed along, in ever-increasing water rates.

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