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Two types of water: Let the suing begin
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Water is water, right?

Water attorneys who are about to benefit from a deluge of billable hours of biblical proportions beg to differ.

They will tell you there are two types of water flowing between the maze of levees found in the Delta within San Joaquin County.

One type is “naturally flowing” and the other type is “stored.” Swim in it, ski over it, or skip a rock across it and you can’t tell the difference.

However, if you farm in the Delta you are expected to separate the two and only pump what is naturally flowing water.

Water importers who last week wisely opted to cancel the planned two block long Mother of All Slip and Slides in front of Los Angeles City Hall are suing Delta farmers with riparian water rights that predate Los Angeles’ wholesale rape of the Owens Valley 100 years ago. They contend the farmers are irrigating crops with stored water making its 554-mile journey between Shasta Dam and Los Angeles.

How can they tell? 

Or a better question might be is all water behind Shasta Dam stored? That’s a question that seems equally as deranged as the legal one involving a farmer 10 miles west of Lathrop being able to tell which drop of water is naturally flowing and which drop of water is stored as he pumps water from the Delta. 

It is, however, a legitimate question. Above 9,000 feet in such places as the mountains between Tioga and Mono passes in the eastern reaches of Yosemite to Mack Meadows in the eastern Sierra water is flowing unaffected by the drought. It is not from recent rain or snow but from mountain springs. It clearly is not water from manmade storage. It isn’t runoff from Thursday’s brief respite from the drought or even what is left of the state’s melting glaciers. It comes from underground and is naturally flowing.

Similar streams dot the upper watershed of the Sacramento River that run into Shasta Dam. Once water reaches Shasta Lake regardless of the time of year does it automatically become stored water because the holder of specific stored water rights of  so many acre feet hasn’t had their bucket filled all the way to the brim because of the drought? Or is there a certain amount of water that flows into Shasta Lake that is still natural flowing in the byzantine world of California water rights?

Adding to the mix is the reality of farming today in the Delta: The water being pumped is neither beast nor fowl. It has a sharply increasing salinity content meaning the ocean  is working mighty hard during the drought to reclaim what it gave up hundreds of thousands of years ago when the inland sea turned into what we today call the Great Central Valley.

Why does any of this concern you?

The reason is simple. It’s the first volley in what promises to be an all-out war. What’s at stake is livelihoods, food production, your landscaping, the ability to flush your toilet, and not having to make a trek to a staging point for the distribution of bottles of emergency drinking water.

Yes, the drought is getting ready to turn extremely serious.

If we have a repeat of the weather pattern of the past year, come next September most of California will be in a world of hurt. The only thing that can protect the shaky status quo is a succession of above average years for snowpack starting this winter.

And while South San Joaquin County is better situated than most for a wide variety of reasons of which not the least is the century plus prudent and forward-looking stewardship of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, we are in trouble too.

That’s because there’s blood in what water’s left and it will trigger a feeding frenzy among sharks of the water lawyer variety.

Logic and the fact we are a nation of laws would seem to bolster the argument that SSJID’s superior and court adjudicated water rights will see us through the legal and political storm. After all, water rights are designed to bring order during times of shortage and not when there’s so much water that half of California is flooded.

But there are politicians and lawyers out there who believe legal precedents and court decisions of the past should be turned on end to meet their constituents’ and clients’ pressing needs.

What they are pursuing, though, is akin to relaxing the laws regarding bank robbery during a major depression because some people have money and some people don’t.

The law should do more than just matter when you don’t need or want something.

Pray for rain. Pray for snow. If a miracle doesn’t happen, a water war is going to erupt that could very well tear California asunder.



This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.