California Senate Bill 1199, which would have protected 37 miles of the upper Mokelumne River under the state Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, died recently after being relegated to the Assembly Appropriations Committee suspense file – a sad fate for a passionate piece of legislation.

Given California’s gross over-allocation of water, Wild and Scenic designation was the best hope for us and the Mokelumne. Our county-of-origin water districts may end up regretting their opposition to the designation, as the state Water Resources Control Board already expects the Mokelumne to give 142 percent.

A recently published study, “100 Years of California’s Water Rights System: Patterns, Trends and Uncertainty,” reveals that we have long been dependent on what is commonly called “paper water.” In other words, the state has promised more water to water rights holders than we actually have in our rivers and streams.

Paper water is not necessarily a problem if it merely represents water that is used more than once as “return flow,” such as water from irrigation runoff. Also, some water rights holders actually use less than their allocation. What’s highly problematic is the estimated amount of California’s paper water.

The study’s University of California authors found that “since its establishment a century ago, the water board has issued water rights that amount to over five times the state’s average annual supply.” And that’s just an educated guess, because “the amount of water actually used by water rights holders is poorly tracked and highly uncertain.”

However, the authors believe that their estimate of paper water is conservative, due to the fact that they only looked at post-1914 appropriative rights. It is likely that “other types of water rights (e.g., riparian claims) make the total amount of surface water allocated significantly higher.”

The study looks at the water allocation volumes for major rivers. For example, allocation is 861 percent on the San Joaquin, 391 percent on the Stanislaus, 162 percent on the Tuolumne, 152 percent on the Sacramento, and, as noted, 142 percent on the Mokelumne.

So what happens when water has been over-allocated for decades? “In over-allocated systems, water to satisfy new demands will likely require re-allocation of existing water rights.” That doesn’t sound promising for Calaveras County’s 20,000 acre feet reservation on the Mokelumne. Remember, it’s a reservation. We have yet to apply for the right to use the water.

In a water rights application, we would have to demonstrate a need or “beneficial use” for the water. That is why believers in the “use it or lose it” doctrine promote growth and development. Given that an acre foot of water supports a family of four for a year, 20,000 AF equates to 80,000 people. I don’t see residential development as a viable demonstrated need, at least not any time soon.

Agriculture is a potential beneficial use. Twenty thousand acre feet would irrigate 5,714 acres, assuming an average of 3.5 AF per acre. Even if there is that much arable land available, the cost of the water would almost certainly be prohibitive. And if the $1 billion ag industry in San Joaquin County is, literally, dying on the vine, where do you think the state will prefer to irrigate?

Since it is a challenge for us to put the water to use in the near future, we should have protected it in perpetuity under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

As the Friends of the River website explains, Wild and Scenic designation would have prohibited the construction of any dam or diversion on the protected stretch of river “unless the resources secretary determines that the facility is needed to supply domestic water to local residents and that the facility will not adversely affect the river’s free-flowing condition and natural character.”

That’s sounds to me like local residents are the only ones who have a shot at diverting water from a Wild and Scenic river. An unprotected river is fair game. Given that 142 percent of the Mokelumne’s water has been allocated, I sure wish we locals were now the only ones who had the opportunity to divert water from 37 miles of the river.

When the legislation comes around again, I hope our water agencies will show better sense. I would rather confront the problem of taking water from the river without adversely affecting its “free-flowing condition and natural character” than fight thirsty outside interests with more money and more political clout.

Ultimately, as the study says, “Without improvements to the water rights system, growing human and environmental demands portend an intensification of regional water scarcity and social conflict.” In other words, if water becomes increasingly scarce, Wild and Scenic designation may not matter for any river, because you can’t drink paper.

Even if the drought ends, Calaveras County will not see any appreciable growth without a sustainable water supply. As low on the state totem pole as we are, we should have protected the river. But hey, don’t worry. There’s plenty of water. We have it in writing.

Muriel Zeller is a poet, writer and Valley Springs resident. Contact her at murielzeller-52@gmail.com.

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