07/04/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Water Debate We Are Not Having

Drought and recession are taking their toll in California, but perhaps the greatest pain is being felt in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley, where unemployment is spiking. Many blame the Endangered Species Act for limiting water for farms in order to protect salmon, smelt and other fish. Others counter that salmon are a critical part of our natural heritage, that the fishing industry also supports families and, after all, fish are food too.

This battle has raged for decades, most recently in Washington where Congress is considering a waiver of endangered species protections to send more water south in this dry year. In light of the economic disaster facing the Valley, it is easy to sympathize with those looking for quick solutions. The premise behind the waiver proposal -- that problems facing San Joaquin agriculture will be resolved if the massive pumps that move water from the Delta to the Valley are turned back on and the water flows again -- is an appealing one.

Putting aside the question of whether pumping more water would mean the demise of our salmon and other fisheries; would ending endangered fish protections secure the economic health of the San Joaquin Valley's agricultural sector? The answer is no. Protections for endangered fish are not the major cause of farmers' water-related pain. Officials estimate that without restrictions on pumping to protect endangered fish, farmers who receive water from the State Water Project might see their irrigation allocations reach 35 percent this year instead of 30 percent, while allocations for south-of-Delta farmers using the federal Central Valley Project would see an increase in their allocations from 10 percent to 15 percent.

So while we acknowledge that protecting fish somewhat reduces the amount of water available for San Joaquin farming, and that this has economic impacts, the question remains: would eliminating endangered species protections restore economic health to the Valley?

Again, the answer is no. The premises of the past, that water will always be cheap and the supply limitless, have little place in 21st century California with its roaring population growth, millions of acres in agricultural production and major dams on all Sierra rivers. In the 1970s, the federal and state projects pumped about 3.6 million acre-feet of water annually from the Delta. That amount has increased steadily to 5.8 million acre-feet in the 2000s, an increase of nearly 700 billion gallons of water per year.

This trend is not sustainable, with or without the Endangered Species Act. Congress could enact the proposed waiver, indeed we could lose all of our salmon, but at some point California would still bump up against limitations on the amount of water in the system, the rising costs of extracting and moving it, and the increasing droughts associated with climate change.

Rather than embrace the false hope that we can continue to take ever-increasing amounts of water from our rivers and streams, we should recognize that a prosperous future depends on both agriculture and cities learning to live within a water budget. We can and should set realistic expectations about what reasonably can be diverted from the natural system, without risking our economic future.

We have tremendous opportunities not only to conserve, but also to make different choices about water. We can look at ways to use, convey and market water more effectively in the agricultural areas. We can also make better urban choices as well; Riverside, Fresno and Kern counties use twice the residential water per capita as coastal southern California and the Bay Area.

California is blessed with an abundance of water, but is hampered by laws, infrastructure and habits from another time. There are solutions, including better ways of moving water among users, rational pricing and institutional reform. These are win-win solutions that will benefit everyone in the state and create the economic and environmental stability that we all want and need. But that is the discussion we are not having while we are looking for short-term fixes, pointing fingers and blaming environmental protection for our problems. Sooner or later California is going to change how it uses water. We can do it before we lose our fish, or after.

Cynthia Koehler is a Senior Consulting Attorney with Environmental Defense Fund who has 20 years of water policy and natural resource law experience.

Laura Harnish is California Regional Director and Senior Director of the Center for Rivers and Deltas of Environmental Defense Fund.