The evolution of California water management and distribution will be at the center of Daniel Nelson’s Wednesday talk, “Whiskey is for Drinkin’, Water is for Fightin’ ” – a quote from Mark Twain – at the San Joaquin Valley Town Hall at Saroyan Theatre in Fresno.
The popular lecture series began in October with a sold-out evening with Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer with Steve Jobs. It continues this month with Nelson, the former executive director of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority and a longtime water expert in the Central Valley.
“I’m telling the story of water development and water issues facing Californians, and it’s a fascinating story,” Nelson says. “Starting with the basic premise that fundamental to any society is having adequate water. … What I’m going to be talking about is the story of how Californians accomplished that, and it’s a story of massive and mythical construction.”
We’re at a crossroads, aren’t we?
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Over the course of Nelson’s 34-year career, he has built coalitions and advocated for solutions to address California water woes. He was awarded by the Family Farm Alliance for his “dedication and capable advocacy” on behalf of farmers and ranchers in the western U.S.
At the water authority, where he serves as deputy to the executive director, he helps represent 29 member districts that use water for urban, agriculture and environmental needs within the western central San Joaquin Valley and San Benito and Santa Clara counties. This diverse group all have federal contracts to use water from the Central Valley Project.
Dan’s position is not a political one. That is, he doesn’t represent ‘farmers’ or ‘environmentalists.’ We felt that he could give us the best, most cohesive picture of the past, present and future of our water systems in the least politicized way.
Kristin Telles, program vice president for the San Joaquin Valley Town Hall series
“Everybody needs to be accountable for their water use,” Nelson says, “whether it’s someone in an urban area or a farmer or, frankly, whether you are using water for environmental purposes.”
There is no “silver bullet” to solving California’s water issues, he says, but building additional infrastructure – including new or expanded reservoirs – would help.
“In the wake of a lot of criticism and apprehension about building some additional facilities, my sense is they have to be multipurpose and satisfy a broad array of needs.”
Right now, it isn’t sustainable for anybody.
Any solution must also include more accountability, and “maybe conservation is another way of saying that.”
“The question now is, ‘What is the proper balance?’ The proper balance probably wasn’t in the 1950s and 1960s,” he says.
Back then, agriculture and development reigned, he says, but “some argue today that we have gone too far in the other direction (for conservation).”
There’s a tremendous amount of advocacy, but there’s not a lot of honest dialogue.
Nelson has spent much of his career trying to smooth out the “contentiousness” among groups, all vying for water for different reasons.
“Maybe the most concerning is there isn’t a clear path to developing a consensus amongst stakeholders. … It’s very similar to the gridlock we are seeing back in Washington. You have all these different perspectives kind of in their corners. There’s a tremendous amount of advocacy, but there’s not a lot of honest dialogue.”
Nelson plans to speak honestly.
“We have very diverse values in this state, and I think those diverse values are certainly evident in how we manage our water. That’s what we are struggling with right now. That’s key.”
Attend the talk
The hour-long talk by Daniel Nelson begins at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 17, at the William Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St., Fresno. Tickets cost $30.