Flood of plans muddies water supply solution

Issue Date: July 23, 2008
Kate Campbell

The California water crisis has stimulated a cascade of proposals from political leaders, think tanks and state agencies, aimed at improving the reliability of water supplies and the environment in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

In just the past three weeks:

  • Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein announced an effort to qualify a $9.3 billion water bond for the November ballot.
  • The Public Policy Institute of California issued a report that endorsed the idea of a peripheral canal to carry water around the delta.
  • The State Water Resources Control Board approved a work plan that it said will increase its efforts to improve water quality and habitat in the delta.

At the same time, a new court ruling raised the possibility of further restrictions on water supplies in order to protect threatened salmon. California Farm Bureau Federation leaders and water experts welcomed the focus on the state's short- and long-term water needs as they reviewed the proposals to determine the potential impacts on the state's farming and ranching operations.

"When some people hear the term 'water crisis,' they think of something that's far away," CFBF President Doug Mosebar said. "But for many family farmers, ranchers and their employees, the crisis is here and now. We're looking for proposals that provide the best chance for solving this crisis."

The Schwarzenegger/Feinstein water bond proposal has been sent to the state Legislature.

"There is an urgent need for comprehensive water reform, and this bipartisan plan is offered as a potential compromise that puts us on the path toward restoring the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, expanding water supplies and promoting conservation efforts that will ensure a clean, reliable water supply for California," Schwarzenegger said.

The proposal includes money for:

  • Increased water storage that bond proponents say would ensure water supply reliability and provide flexibility from year to year.
  • Improved water conveyance to increase supply options and reduce regional water shortages.
  • Restoring the delta ecosystem in a way backers say would allow California to take control of its own water systems rather than having operations managed by state and federal courts.
  • Increased conservation and tools to ensure water quality and more efficient water use.

"The goal of this plan is to break the long-standing stalemate over water," Feinstein said. "California is facing an unprecedented water crisis. The combination of drought, court-ordered water restrictions, global warming and an increasing population have placed a major strain on the existing infrastructure."

In announcing the bond proposal, Schwarzenegger said California is facing the most significant water crisis in its history. After experiencing two years of drought and the driest spring in recorded history, he said water reserves are extremely low and would not be able to meet public demand during a major disruption to the state's water delivery system such as an earthquake or levee breach.

Last week, the Public Policy Institute of California introduced what it calls the "best strategy to save the delta ecosystem and ensure a reliable water supply" by carrying water around the delta.

Calling the current water conveyance system "unsustainable," the PPIC report calls for:

  • Allowing some delta islands to flood permanently. The state should invest in the levees that protect what the report called high-value land, ecosystem goals and critical infrastructure—and allow what it called lower-value (agricultural) islands to return to aquatic habitat.
  • Beginning the transition from the current delta management system (pumping water into the state and federal water projects), which, the report says, harms fish and is vulnerable to earthquake, floods and levee failures.
  • Developing a new framework for governing and regulating the delta.
  • Building a peripheral canal to carry water around the delta. The report's authors called that the "most promising strategy" to revive the delta ecosystem and ensure a high-quality water supply for Californians.

The report, which was developed with help from researchers at the University of California, Davis, said that with the proper safeguards, a peripheral canal can be economically and environmentally beneficial. The PPIC-UC Davis team concludes that a peripheral canal is not only more promising than the temporary and ultimately unsustainable "dual conveyance" option—which combines the current approach with a canal—but is also the best available strategy to balance two equally important objectives.

Meanwhile, the State Water Resources Control Board voted unanimously last week for a plan it said is designed to "rescue" the delta. The board, which has primary regulatory authority over both water supply and water quality in California, proposes a plan that relies heavily on stepped-up enforcement of water quality regulations.

The work plan will establish and implement increased water quality objectives for those who discharge water into the delta and its tributaries.

"We want this to be an inclusive process, but the delta is in crisis, and we recognize the need to act quickly," said State Water Board Chair Tam Doduc. "The State Water Board will look at how its authority in water rights and enforcement of water quality standards can best be brought to bear on the problems in the delta."

She said the problems include depleted and endangered fisheries, salinity and alleged unauthorized diversions. The State Water Board plans to release a notice for an October public workshop to move forward on one of the activities called for in its bay-delta work plan—mandatory conservation practices. The work plan also calls for hearings before the end of the year to establish the scientific information needed to prioritize threats to the delta.

Added to the list of proposed solutions to California water problems, state Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland, and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, announced last week that they are introducing two pieces of legislation to fund water storage, reliability and conservation efforts with already approved bond money.

"It's imperative that we get to work immediately improving water conservation, water storage and water management—and that's exactly what these two bills do," Bass told the media. "This package sets a realistic target for boosting water conservation and uses already approved bond money to make big improvements in California's water system."

The two bills that comprise the package include SB 1XX by Perata, to appropriate $812.5 million in Proposition 84 and Proposition 1-E dollars already approved by the voters in 2006.

Assembly Bill 2175, by Assemblymember John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, calls for a 20 percent water conservation target for most urban water agencies by the year 2020. Text of the bipartisan water bond proposal may be found online at www.gov.ca.gov.

The complete text of the study recommending a peripheral canal, "Comparing Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta," can be found online at www.ppic.org. The announcement of the State Water Board plan for the bay-delta may be found at www.waterboards.ca.gov.

In related water developments, Sen. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, convened a hearing in Fresno this week in conjunction with Reps. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and Devin Nunes, R-Tulare. Attendees included Rep. Grace F. Napolitano, D-Sante Fe Springs, chair of the House Water and Power Subcommittee. Testimony focused on the far-reaching impacts of the current drought and the loss of critical water supplies south of the delta due to the curtailment of pumping to protect fish. Comments helped to provide an awareness of the fact that California farmers and ranchers produce food for the nation and, without water, that will no longer be possible.

For more coverage of the hearing, read our Ag Alert Update.

(Kate Campbell is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.