“Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting,” Mark Twain famously wrote. It’ s an observation as true today as it was in the late 1800s.
California’ s history is rich with tales of lawsuits, political clashes, midnight sabotage, even dynamite ignited in 1924 to disrupt the Owens Valley Aqueduct that now brings water to Los Angeles.
But in San Bernardino County — a region that once took on the Metropolitan Water District in a fight for independence — a pioneering dozen are doing things differently: joining forces for the greater purpose of storing water for the future.
This is a group that for 100 years had grappled over water rights, sharing a long and storied history of clashes, lawsuits and adjudication. Today, when other regions of the state wrestle to meet collaborative mandates under the Groundwater Sustainability Act of 2014, the San Bernardino Valley has been working together voluntarily — putting more than a century of experience into best practices for determining how to fairly distribute a region’s most precious natural resource.
The players — San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District, San Bernardino Valley Water Conservation District, San Bernardino Municipal Water Department, East Valley Water District, Bear Valley Mutual Water Co., Yucaipa Valley Water District, Loma Linda University and the cities of Loma Linda, Rialto and Colton, (with West Valley Water District and Redlands expected to join soon) — have learned from the past and recognize that the best way to allocate resources is to draw from science. We must calculate past, current and future needs and develop a formula that ensures that everyone gets what they need and at the right price.
Most of these agencies formed the San Bernardino Basin Groundwater Council this year for the shared purpose of ensuring there are funds available to purchase water in wet years, and facilities in place to store it underground.
This has come about from their long history together — fighting at times, but coming together in periods of need.
Each member of the council contributes water or funding to purchase and recharge groundwater to keep the basin at its optimum level. The allocation and cost is determined according to use, historic rights, conservation, water recycling and other factors developed over a year of open exchanges of concerns and information. Those that need more water, pay more.
It’ s a method that ensures capacity for each entity, but does not penalize those who conserve.
Some might say it’ s best for water districts to protect and serve only their own customers’ interests. Why work with others when they might be taking the very resources you hope to claim for yourself?
Because the groundwater basin is a shared resource and the responsibility for managing it in a practical way must be shared, too. Collaboration gives any cause more power, and with so many local agencies contributing their share to the basin, the amount of imported water being recharged each year is at record highs. The San Bernardino Basin Groundwater Council is a model for what water agencies large and small can do to help resolve California’ s water challenges.
It reflects a practical and cooperative spirit of hard work and honest negotiations that help to resolve the region’ s larger issues of balancing habitat and water promised to communities, ensuring safe drinking water gets to all communities, finding solutions to long-term droughts and addressing aging infrastructure.
Trust is built over time. Relationships like these take a while to come into being, but they start with that small but hopeful first step.
Douglas Headrick is general manager of the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District. Daniel Cozad is general manager of the San Bernardino Valley Water Conservation District.