Thursday, April 24, 2014

Unsustainable, unethical use of millions

By Fraser Shilling

Water sustainability is likely to be one of the most important issues of the 21st century, affecting everyone, regardless of race and income. Realizing this makes people start to feel nervous and insecure, scrambling for their share, making sure they’ve “got theirs.”

Ironically, this response is not very adaptive in a complex and interconnected society like ours. Dividing water up fairly among competing needs and interests is the cornerstone of a democratic society. Making sure there is enough for the environment and people with less political power, while being cost-effective and maintaining economic well-being, is the cornerstone of a sustainable society.

In a lot of ways, Measure I would push Davis back toward the feudal system of water rights of yesteryear, setting a poor example for other communities, affecting salmon and native peoples, and not improving our overall sustainability.

The Sacramento River begins it journey in the lands of the Winnemem Wintu nation, a people who have never relinquished their rights to living as the “Middle Water People” (, despite the construction of the Shasta Dam that eliminated the salmon runs upon which their society was dependent and flooded much of their riparian lands and cultural spaces.

According to the United Nations, acts that “deliberately inflict on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part” constitute genocide. Construction of Shasta Dam resulted in the displacement of Winnemem Wintu people and loss of their diet, culture, livelihood and properties upon which they made their living.

The Bureau of Reclamation is proposing to raise the Shasta Dam. This dam-raising not only will flood more of the Winnemem Wintu’s lands and sacred spaces, it will make it more difficult for them to recover what they have already lost, including the most productive salmon run on the West Coast.

The dam is proposed for super-sizing in order to create a “reliable source of water” for people living downstream. That means us in Davis and other cities in our region ( We will benefit from the raising of Shasta Dam, especially if our water source is the Sacramento River, which will happen under Measure I. Actually, we will come to depend upon it and add our political weight to the strain already being put upon California’s tribes and river systems.

Even smart, progressive, politically conscious people can stick their heads in the sand and complain that regardless of consequence to others, they still need to protect themselves and their kids’ futures. In this case, building a bigger dam and flooding the lands of native people. But is there any alternative to more dam construction in our quest to be sustainable?

Fortunately, people have studied this problem for years, including many of my colleagues at UC Davis and the Pacific Institute, and have concluded that agricultural ( and urban ( water conservation can provide at least as much water as the “virtual water” that the Bureau of Reclamation will create with the raising of Shasta Dam.

For example, researchers at the Pacific Institute found that existing urban water demand could be reduced by 320,000 acre-feet per year just by swapping out water-inefficient appliances with readily available efficient devices, and agricultural demand could be reduced by an incredible 1.44 million acre-feet per year by using more efficient irrigation. Either of these savings would offset the liquid benefits from raising Shasta Dam, making clear that we are choosing to the uneconomical option of building dams and flooding native lands when we don’t have to.

What does this mean for Measure I, and can Davis get the water it needs some other way? Well, like any complex problem — and what water problems aren’t? — that depends on what we are willing to do and how sustainable we want to be.

Our current groundwater supply is affected by chemicals used by regional agriculture and we do little in the way of water conservation, both of which seem to necessitate a switch to the Sacramento River water. At a cost of $113 million, the joint Davis-Woodland project would exercise our water grab on the river, contributing to the strain the river and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are suffering from increasing water demands and little conservation. Who knows how long the river will last under this strain, especially given that every single projection of climate change impacts says we will get less river water, not more?

What if we used that money, or even just our share, to implement conservation actions and/or to provide incentives to regional farmers to conserve water and to reduce fertilizer and other inputs that threaten groundwater? Could we achieve the water conservation that would protect the river, the salmon and the Winnemem Wintu from our water demands?

The California Urban Water Conservation Council and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have independently estimated that water-saving toilets, showerheads, appliances and irrigation could easily pay for installation costs within their lifetime, let alone the increased peace of mind that would come from conserving.

If we took half of the proposed $113 million price tag on Measure I, we could subsidize the water conservation activities of every Davis household to the tune of $1,000 per household, and have $25 million left over to provide incentives to local agriculture to save water and reduce chemical intrusion into groundwater.

The question for sustainable societies in the 21st century becomes less about how much more our little group can extract from the environment and other people and more about how we can all thrive together. That is the question for Measure I and why we should vote no.

— Fraser Shilling is a Davis resident and an academic water scientist and ecologist.

Special to The Enterprise


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