November 5, 2009
By JENNIFER STEINHAUER, New York Times
LOS ANGELES — California lawmakers on Wednesday approved a series of bills that would vastly overhaul the state’s troubled water system. The water package is the most comprehensive to emerge from the state since the 1960s, when California last upgraded its system for what was a far smaller population of users.
Prompted by a protracted drought — which has reduced water supply, harmed the fishing industry and contributed to crop loss — environmentalists and agricultural interests have agreed to broad concessions.
The plan calls for a comprehensive ecosystem restoration in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta — a collection of channels, natural habitats and islands at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers that is a major source of the state’s drinking water.
It also calls for new dams, aggressive water conservation goals and the monitoring of groundwater use, which other Western states already do. And it paves the way for a new canal — once the third rail of California’s byzantine water politics — that would move water from the north of the state to the south.
The series of bills, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said he will sign, include an $11.1 billion bond issue, which voters will be asked to approve next November. The rest of the roughly $40 billion project would be paid for by localities, largely through new user fees.
The pressing sense among lawmakers that they needed to do something other than oversee the nation’s largest budget crisis provided Mr. Schwarzenegger with one of his largest — and most likely final — policy victories as governor.
“This is the most comprehensive water resources action that California has taken since the state water project in the ’60s,” said Richard Little, the director of the Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policyat the University of Southern California. “First of all, there is so much in it,” Mr. Little said. “And for the first time, they are tying ecosystem enhancement and environmental restoration directly to the infrastructure.
“Before, we always planned the projects and then mitigated the impacts,” he said. “Now it is all on coequal footing.”
Many environmentalists still believe that the bill’s penalties for misusing the water supply do not go far enough. But they won oversight of the ailing estuary, checks and balances on future dams and some mild penalties for failures to conserve water. Local agencies will also monitor groundwater.
Republicans in the state’s Central Valley, who object to water restrictions and always push for more conveyance from the north to the south, also had to back down. “This is a huge step forward for California,” said Laura Harnish, the regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund. “It marks big progress toward managing our water supply and ecosystem in a 21st-century manner.”
Oversight of the Delta canal “has been resisted for a number of years for political reasons,” she said. “We think today, that if there is a canal that is going to come, it is going to be of a size and operated in a manner that” environmental groups could tolerate.
Water usage has been at the center of a statewide battle for decades, particularly concerning the delta, which is near collapse because of overpumping. Further, a three-year drought and a federal order last year forcing water authorities to curtail the use of large pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to help preserve dying smelt has reduced water flows to agriculture and resulted in dust-bowl-like conditions for many farms.
In 2008, more than 100,000 acres of the 4.7 million in the Central Valley were left unplanted. Additionally, environmental problems in the Sacramento River have resulted in a collapse of the Chinook salmon population, closing salmon season off the coast of California and much of Oregon for two years in a row.
At the same time, the state has not built any new water infrastructure in years, even as the state’s population has increased, making it harder to move water north to south — the goal of proponents of a new canal — and to capture excess water in wet years to use in dry years.
Collecting data on groundwater levels — which many rural constituents have resisted because they fear such monitoring will lead to new restrictions and penalties — is likely to help the state better manage both water supply and the problems that can be caused by overuse of that groundwater.
However, the state will not be doing the monitoring, as environmentalists and the Schwarzenegger administration sought; it will be done by the local water authorities, and refusal to go along could result in the loss of local bond money.
Environmentalists also sought hard penalties on what they call “illegal diversions” of water, but that move proved too controversial among Democratic and Republican lawmakers, who threatened to bring down the whole package over its inclusion.
The administration now has to sell large bond offerings to the California public, which may be wary of taking on new debt at a time of great fiscal crisis. But such a move may presage other efforts to fix areas of the state’s infrastructure beyond its ailing water system.