Denny Orellana and his son Michael, 9, take a look at the rain-filled Santa Clara River during a walk in Canyon Country last January. Tom Cruze/for The Signal
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California is finally embracing its rivers.

We Californians have long celebrated our coastal splendor and beautiful mountains. But our rivers were seen as mere plumbing for our hydration convenience.

Now California’s communities, seeking space for environmental restoration and recreation (and some desperately needed housing), are treating rivers and riverfronts as new frontiers and are busily reconsidering how these bodies of water might better connect people and places.

But the new thinking is opening up new conflicts that touch on public health, housing and economic development. So many California places now are making so many plans for so many rivers that we may have to ask just how much change our rivers can handle.

Some of these conflicts are bigger, updated versions of older battles. The so-called California Water Fix — Governor Brown’s plan to build two tunnels under the California Delta – is really just another chapter in a decades-long battle over how the state manages its longest and most important river, the 445-mile Sacramento.

The tunnels would reroute Sacramento waters to create a more predictable water supply for Southern California.

The newer – and, potentially, nastier – fight involves the river that, with the Sacramento, forms the Delta: the overtaxed and often dry San Joaquin.

State plans to restore fish species by leaving more water in the San Joaquin and its vital tributaries, the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus, represent the hottest battle in this new era of river appreciation.

The river and its tributaries are part of the landscape of Yosemite and other national parks, support wildlife, supply the world’s most productive agriculture, power four million homes, and help deliver drinking water to 25 million Californians.

But the state wants the San Joaquin to do even more for fish species. And those who currently rely on the river for its water say that is too much to ask.

San Francisco officials argue that the state plan to leave more water in the river could force their city to ration water. San Joaquin Valley officials have all but declared war on the state proposal, arguing that the state has underestimated consequences of cutting water to existing users.

“With substantially less water, jobs will disappear, land values will fall and less will be collected in taxes,” wrote the Modesto Bee’s Mike Dunbar early this year in a withering critique of the state’s approach.

“A congressional report already calls us the Appalachia of the West; with less water, we could be the Sahara,” Dunbar wrote.

Such fighting over water in California, while hard, can be easier than making peace. Back in 2010, stakeholders in the far north of California (and southern Oregon) negotiated agreements to restore the Klamath River basin by sharing water and removing some dams.

But the deal required the agreement of Congress, which failed to act, forcing players to try to move forward themselves with certain aspects of the agreements.

In Los Angeles, a complicated debate has erupted over competing plans to restore the L.A. River, the famous concrete flood control channel. Many Angelenos see a beautified, renewed river as the spine of nothing less than a new L.A. with new open space, denser housing, and more amenities for pedestrians, bicyclists and, on the river, boaters.

But there are growing clashes between the river’s elite and grassroots champions over details and control.

Rivers are also a big part of the conversation elsewhere in urban Southern California. Ventura County’s tight development restrictions have allowed for restoration of the Santa Clara River, the closest thing Southern California has to a wild river.

The 96-mile Santa Ana River, which runs from near Big Bear all the way to Huntington Beach, is a hot topic in three counties—Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange—inspiring plans for parks, bike and equestrian trails and riverfront economic development.

Further south, San Diego wants a parkway along the length of the San Diego River.

That I’ve gotten this far without mentioning perhaps the most endangered river in America — the Colorado — is testament to just how river-crazy we’ve become.

Drought, climate change and the demands of agriculture and western cities are crushing the Colorado. And Mexico is demanding the river not dry up before it reaches the Gulf of California.

All of California’s river dreams could be roiled by the currents of the Potomac. President-elect Trump has bizarrely denied California is in a drought while promising farmers quantities of water that defy nature’s laws.

I suppose we’ll cross that river when we come to it.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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  • Brian Baker

    Well, this column isn’t by a “local”, apparently. I guess it’s a syndicated column.

    That being said, it raises a couple of points to address. First, for far too many years the water resources of this sorry state have been crippled by the extreme measures taken to “protect” some dinky, obscure, meaningless fish that swims around there. That’s gotta stop.

    On top of that, while we sit right next to the largest body of water on earth, the Pacific Ocean, an absolutely unlimited supply of water, instead of spending the money to build water reclamation and desalination projects we’re spending tens of billions of dollars on an absolutely useless not-so-high-speed train project that no one wants, and that won’t even meet the “promises” made to enact the legislation through proposition that created it in the first place. An absolute swindle and boondoggle perpetrated on the people of this state. That, too, has gotta stop.

  • indy

    The responder her to the Op-ed makes some misleading assertions and for the most part, recites the long-standing GOP opposition to value of the environment versus just making it a ‘dump’ for economic pollution.

    When animal species are declining due to environment pollution, this is akin to the ‘canary in the coal mine’ where miners noted that a canary that stoped singing is being chocked by gases harmful to humans.

    The same analogy appears to the environment as manmade chemicals create unhealthy conditions and thus animals start dying from same.

    Most economic projections don’t include quantifying the environmental externalities not found on the traditional ‘balance sheets’ of corporations.

    The poster goes on to support the current GOP position of libertarian market fundamentalism where ‘limitlessness’ is asserted by not supported by facts.

    Nobody you know has ‘limitlessness’ money . . . yet the poster makes the case that desalination of water is ‘costless’ and doesn’t create any other ‘trade offs’ for energy noting that desalination is ‘energy intensive’ and adds significantly to the cost of just capturing water that runs off from rains.

    Unfortunately, the poster leverages the decades of misinformation from GOP supporters that both devalue the environment and assert limitless economic growth is possible.

    Even a casual review of key resources like oil and natural gas quickly dismiss these limitless assertions but are ignored by the poster in favor of his ideology beliefs.

    We shouldn’t be planning our future based on terms like ‘swindle and boondoggle’ since the analytical means exist to clearly ‘value’ what we’re destroying in the environment and what effects it has on our long-term outlook.

    We should be focusing the ‘sustainability’ link between population and resources.

    Most Americans are unware that a tradeoff even exist and are unware of prior resource depletion and the unsustainable global population growth (still growing by about 75 million ‘net’ (births minus deaths) per year)

    But I do agree with the poster’s last remark . . . ignoring the environmental reality before us ‘That, too, has gotta stop’.

    Sustainability Information:

    Suggested reads:

    Ecological Economics, Second Edition: Principles and Applications
    Oct 18, 2010 by Herman E. Daly and Joshua Farley

    Energy and the Ecological Economics of Sustainability
    May 1, 1992 by John Peet

    • Brian Baker

      Utter garbage and gibberish.

      “… yet the poster makes the case that desalination of water is ‘costless’ and doesn’t create any other ‘trade offs’ for energy noting that desalination is ‘energy intensive’ and adds significantly to the cost of just capturing water that runs off from rains.”

      And exactly WHERE did I assert that there’s no “cost” to desalination, hmmmmmmmmm…? And where did I discuss capturing runoff at all? Do the words “Pacific Ocean” mean anything to you? Does that sound like “rain runoff” to you?

      What I DID discuss was the monetary issue involved, and you went wandering way off into left field on a completely irrelevant tangent. Please try to keep up here. I’m writing using the simplest terminology I can.

      “We shouldn’t be planning our future based on terms like ‘swindle and boondoggle’ …”

      Yeah, I know you Dem/socialists hate that, because it so accurately describes so many of your programs. Tough, bud.

    • indy

      “So much water is being pumped from the ground in parched California that the land is sinking, according to scientists.

      The more Californians rely on groundwater, the worse these problems will get, experts across industry, government, and academia say. But, they said, the pumping is likely to continue given a confluence of factors that range from urban population growth to an expanding agricultural industry. ”

      • indy


        “Desalinated water typically costs about $2,000 an acre foot — roughly the amount of water a family of five uses in a year. The cost is about double that of water obtained from building a new reservoir or recycling wastewater, according to a 2013 study from the state Department of Water Resources.

        And its price tag is at least four times the cost of obtaining “new water” from conservation methods — such as paying farmers to install drip irrigation, or providing rebates for homeowners to rip out lawns or buy water-efficient toilets.

        “We look out and see a vast ocean. It seems obvious,” said Heather Cooley, water director for the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit research organization in Oakland. “But it’s cost prohibitive for most places in California.”’

        Indy: It’s important to realize that solutions to our water needs are not based on beliefs (libertarian market fundamentalism) or ideology based folklore (more for less).

        As CA continues to add population of about 400,000 net per year, our resources must be divided for more people. This raises the cost of the resources . . . just basic economics.

        Ignoring this for ideology beliefs only puts us at greater risk.

        With respect to desalination, the energy used to put ocean water into fresh water is a major trade off and ignores energy scarcity in CA.

        Here’s the stats for CA oil reserves which have remained flat even though over the last 6 years we’ve added over 2 million people to the state.

        CA natural gas reserves have fallen by more than 25% over the last 6 years:

        And for fracking of same? Yep, that uses a lot of water! So there’s no free lunch here . . . yet all of these ‘facts’ are just ignored and rarely presented in a any media, left, right or middle . . .

        So the resource reality doesn’t map to any political ideology . . . so be careful reading posts that make this assertion.

    • Brian Baker

      Little did I realize that the Pacific Ocean is underground.

      Thanks for the update!

      • tech

        Don’t go out of the box, Brian! It’s obviously disorienting because everything must fail before our breakthrough to a socialist utopia micromanaged by a technocratic ruling class.

        We all know desalination doesn’t work in San Diego, Navy ships/subs and the Middle East, right? You can’t just supply potable water to entire towns after a tsunami, you know! It’s too energy intensive and sacrifices must be made, preferably in the icky 3rd World. Because “sustainability” fanatics are compassionate that way.

        • Brian Baker

          Yes, you’re right, of course. Silly me.

    • indy

      For anyone interested in the outcome of ignoring sustainability, a anthropology professor at UCLA wrote a book on the topic:

      Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: Revised Edition
      Jan 4, 2011 by Jared Diamond

      The book outlines case studies of societies that ignored resource constraints relative to population and the outcome.

      I would also suggest reading:

      The Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archaeology)
      Mar 29, 1990 by Joseph A. Tainter

      This read is also very well done and describes the complexity of modern society and what challenges that presents to maintain any civilization.

      The political option is to continue to believe undocumented political promises and slogans by politicians including their links to such ideology as libertarian market fundamentalism that argues for ‘limitlessness’ in face of the evidence that contradicts same.

      The choice is yours . . .

      • Brian Baker

        “… such ideology as libertarian market fundamentalism that argues for ‘limitlessness’ in face of the evidence that contradicts same.”

        And therein lies the fatal flaw of your Marxist ideology.

        Not only does the free market NOT argue for some kind of “limitlessness” of goods, services, and commodities, it has a built-in mechanism for the preservation of those resources: the law of supply and demand.

        As the supply of anything diminishes, the cost of it rises commensurately and proportionately. This stimulates conservation, as well as research and development of alternatives to that resource.

        Sorry, bud. That’s just the way it is in the real world.