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State water decisions are for the birds
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It’s a miracle.

The water conditions at state reservoirs continue to drop to record lows, mandatory water cutbacks are universal, there isn’t a serious storm system in sight, and California continues to burn as four years of severe drought have left most of the state tinder dry.

It is against that backdrop the bureaucratic water gods at the State Water Resources Control Board lifted curtailment orders last week for some Northern California farmers. It means those farmers holding water rights dating back to between 1903 and 1914 can resume pumping from the Sacramento and Feather rivers as well as the Delta.

If there is no new water in storage and “natural flows” in virtually every river would be non-existent today without tapping into dwindling reservoir storage, what’s going on?

Then there is the issue of how lifting the curtailment order now that the growing season is essentially over and given the fact there hasn’t been any rain of measureable consequence: What good is this doing farmers? Plus why only two rivers and the Delta?

It seems fishy, doesn’t it?

Actually, it’s for the birds.

California’s bureaucratic water gods aren’t worried about water rights, farmers, or even people for that matter. What’s driving this decision is literally the birds.

The two rivers happen to supply a substantial number of rice growers who flood their fields after harvest to hasten the decaying of the remnants of the rice plants. Those flooded autumn fields serve as critical habitat for upwards of 6 million migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway. The same is true for the countless islands in the Delta.

It explains why out of the blue with nothing changing in the state’s immediate water outlook except for water levels in reservoirs that continue to drop and no natural flows to tap into that farmers are being “blessed” with the restoration of their water rights.

Is this a bad thing? That’s definitely not the case for the birds.

But for the rest of California it is very bad. And it’s not because the water involved will somehow be the death knell for more orchards and even trigger tighter urban water restrictions. It’s due to the deceit.

As drought fed wildfires ravage the state, reservoirs have brown bands around them resembling marks left on rapidly draining bath tubs, 800,000 acres of farmland are out of production, and many parts of the state are going retro with Dust Bowl landscaping no one believes the water situation has gotten better.

So why not be upfront with California’s 38.8 million residents and tell them the real reason behind the lifting of the curtailment order on two very specific rivers and the only Delta on the Pacific Coast of the Western Hemisphere?

The reason is simple. An uninformed public can be better manipulated.

The official line is the lifting of the curtailment orders is simply following California water law that is based largely on insuring the rights of those with the oldest claims. And since water use by even more senior water rights holders was reduced “on their own,” it freed up more water.

Strange, but that isn’t the state’s attitude on other rivers including the Stanislaus River where the rights of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District and Oakdale Irrigation District that for all practical purposes trump everyone else’s on the watershed.

But the Stanislaus River is “different” because the state has to get water somewhere for fish flows.

At least that is how the situational ethics of the state’s bureaucratic water gods see it.

The state holds back water from Feather and Sacramento rivers water rights holders and those in the Delta who almost all are farmers. It essentially forces them to fallow land or reduce planting by arguing they have to make sure everyone has sufficient water. But then when water isn’t as critical for farming they lift the curtailment order to help the birds.

The water that is now being allowed to pump won’t simply allow rice growers to accelerate the decay of harvest plant debris but will help create a large chunk of the 300,000 acres of managed wetlands that rice growers provide for birds. Last year due to dwindling water supplies they created only 100,000 acres. The curtailment order — if left in place — could have driven the number down even lower.

It is clear that state water policy — as controlled by the Water Resources Control Board — isn’t about addressing all needs and sharing the pain equally while acknowledging and upholding water rights law.

It’s predicated on putting fish and birds first and foremost.

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