Low lake levels leave marinas high and dry at Shasta Lake in 2015

California earns poor grades for water management

It’s not every day that farmers and the Natural Resource Defense Council agree, but when they do it’s stuff like this that makes the irony oh, so sweet.

In its latest newsletter Families Protecting the Valley points out this jewel of a nugget.

While the State of California gets poor grades for its handling of the drought and water resources, it was State Water Board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus who responded like a teenager when asked why the grades on her report card were less than stellar.

The NRDC gave California a 1.5 grade point average over its handling of the drought in a report titled “Thirsting for Progress: A Report Card on California’s Response to the Drought.”

Marcus’ public response in a story carried by NPR affiliate KQED Science makes this rich, because – wait for it – Marcus was once the western director of the NRDC.

Yep! The very group smacking the back of California’s hand for its management of the drought is the same group she formerly led.

I told you the irony would be sweet.

The report card gave California a “B,” “B-,” two “D’s” and an “F” over its handling of the drought in five separate categories. The highest grade was issued for the state’s urban water conservation and efficiency. This may be due in large part to the mandatory water rationing ordered by Gov. Brown earlier this year.

For its only failing grade, the NRDC said the state did nothing to restore the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary.

No surprise there.

Of the two “D” grades earned, one was under the category “agricultural water conservation and efficiency.”

I’ll argue that California, particularly Marcus’ board, should have earned an “A” in that category because it was the State Water Board (SWP) that curtailed nearly 100 percent of the state’s surface water to farmers. The only reason I don’t give the SWP an “A+” in this category is some farmers received some surface water.

Some credit due

To Marcus’ credit, she defended farmers in a media conference call earlier this year as reporters lined up, one after another, to quiz her about why farmers weren’t being asked to conserve water when residents were being told by the Governor to cut back at least 25 percent. The tone of the questions was condescending, as if urban residents were shouldering the largest burden of water cutbacks while farmers continued to waste water.

When asked why growers weren’t subject to the same water restrictions issued to urban residents, Marcus said rightly: “We’ve curtailed them.”

As for the efficiency part of the aforementioned grade, it’s the farmer, not the State of California, deserving of an outstanding grade for the expense and effort applied to install and apply water-thrifty technologies.

The other “D” grade came in the state’s handling of storm water capture and reuse. That arguably should have been a failing grade as well given that the state allowed over a million acre feet of runoff to flow out to sea when some of it could have been captured and stored in San Luis Reservoir.

Marcus further complained in the KQED article that the NRDC failed to provide extra credit for legislative passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which does nothing in the short term to alleviate stressed water conditions in a state with nearly 40 million people.

If there is a common goal of the NRDC and California agriculture it is likely in the NRDC’s first bullet point in its report, which reads: “California must prepare for inevitable droughts if we are to continue to support our growing population, thriving economy and healthy environment.”

If “the devil is in the details,” then perhaps the challenges remain daunting.

My “glass-half-full” argument isn’t about getting the two sides to immediately shake hands on millions of acre feet of new surface storage, but in the agreement that state regulators have woefully failed California residents and farms as reflected by the NRDC report card.

This kind of common ground should serve as good a place as any for the two sides to sit down and find a utilitarian solution for California residents, farmers and the environment.

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