The Lasting Agreement - Comstock's magazineIf there’s one thing people in the West know how to fight over, it’s water. California was built ...The Lasting Agreement - Comstock's magazine
If there’s one thing people in the West know how to fight over, it’s water. California was built on scarcity, whether it be gold or silver, land or water. In the mid-1800s, when European Americans arrived to the land where Indigenous people had lived for at least 10,000 years, they wasted no time staking their claims.
A big head-scratcher for those early colonizers was how to get water to sustain burgeoning towns. California’s hydrology didn’t match where people wanted to live. To accommodate growth, most of the state’s largest reservoirs were built between the 1920s and 1980, and in the ensuing decades, people have been arguing over whether we need even more dams.
In the 1970s, battles brewed that directly affected the Capital Region’s water supply, like when East Bay MUD wanted to divert water off the American River. In the 1980s and ’90s, the Capital Region’s population was growing, and in dry years, the river was already oversubscribed, according to reports. The region’s water table — between the soil and groundwater — had dropped in some places by 90 feet, causing parts of the groundwater basin to become contaminated. Competing interests abounded. Just the threat of lawsuits stopped projects dead in their tracks.
“In those days, there was a lot of litigation around water,” says Jim Ray, referring to the period of the 1970s to the 1990s. Ray is president of MacKay & Somps Civil Engineers in Roseville, and a participant of the Water Forum, an agreement that guides greater Sacramento regional water management. The agreement, he says, came out of all this conflict.
The 30-year plan represents the interests of signatories from 40 organizations in Sacramento, El Dorado and Placer counties to provide a safe, reliable water supply, and safeguard the various values of the lower American River. The Water Forum is a nonprofit organization that oversees the agreement, funded by member utilities and a small water connection fee they charge customers. “Our mission is to keep peace on the river and keep peace in the region,” says Executive Director Jessica Law.
The agreement took seven tedious years with a skilled negotiator at the helm to finalize before the 40 organizations signed on in 2000. “The Sacramento Water Forum has been identified as one of these success stories that really adopted this collaborative model and made it work,” says Jennifer Harder, co-director of the Water & Environmental Law concentration at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento.
Now stakeholders are at it again, in the early stages of negotiating Water Forum 2.0, which goes into effect in 2030. Negotiating an agreement that took seven years to do the first time around is, Law says, “definitely a tall order.”