Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared an emergency on Feb. 27 because of “historic” drought conditions in the state of California. The declaration led to the usual suspects offering the usual knee-jerk responses. Sen. Dianne Feinstein declared that “California is in one of the worst drought emergencies on record.” Water agencies started issuing releases on the potential to cut back water allocations to 15% of normal levels.
Soon after, State Sen. Dave Codgill (R – Modesto) released a $9.8 billion water bond package (SB 371) that looked like it was excavated from the days of disco.
The measure includes some $3 billion for water storage and $2 billion for “Delta Sustainability” (the latest euphemism for that ’70s favorite – the Peripheral Canal). Recently, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) issued a release stating that the Sierra snowpack was at 80% of normal water content. Hardly the stuff of epic droughts.
I’m beyond frustrated by the tactic of declaring emergency to get unpopular and unnecessary projects funded and approved. Not to mention the lack of wisdom in moving forward on a new $10 billion water bond measure when the state’s bond rating is so low that it can’t even sell bonds on the billions left in Props. 84, 40 or 50,
As I’ve said before, the drought is not the issue. A dysfunctional water management system with misguided priorities is the problem.
Here’s how to fix the system:
- Reform the water rights system so there aren’t more rights than there is water.
- Meter all water users
- Institute statewide Low Impact Development and drought tolerant landscaping requirements
- Change the plumbing codes to require more conservation
- Fund water recycling and stormwater capture and use on a major scale before trying to engineer a solution based on new storage and a peripheral canal (Codgill’s bill has only $500 million for water recycling.)
- Modify water and agriculture subsidies so they incentivize planting of low water-use crops
All common sense ideas, but it’s still a helluva lot easier for California to pass another bond measure, even during the worst recession of our lifetimes.
The governor asked for DWR to provide him with an updated report on the state’s drought conditions and water availability by March 30. When the governor sees that the emergency conditions have not been sufficiently mitigated — an act of God is the only potential solution in one month’s time — he will consider: “institution of mandatory water rationing and mandatory reductions in water use; reoperation of major reservoirs in the state to minimize impacts of the drought; additional regulatory relief (including potentially suspending state Basin Plan requirements for water quality) or permit streamlining as allowed under the Emergency Services Act; and other actions necessary to prevent, remedy or mitigate the effects of the extreme drought conditions.” In other words, he will weaken environmental protection in the name of an emergency. Sounds like the Army Corps of Engineers’ old playbook.
Look, I’ve spent most of my career fighting for new sewer, water treatment and stormwater infrastructure, so I’m hardly an anti-infrastructure environmentalist. I just don’t think jumping on another mega-bucks water bond based on the same old solutions is the way to go for California. We can do better than that, and we have to do better.
Right now, urban and agriculture uses are threatened and California’s freshwater and estuarine ecosystems are on the verge of collapse. Unless we immediately jumpstart aggressive water recycling and mandatory conservation, urban stormwater capture and use and wellhead treatment investments and projects, we’ll continue to fight over replumbing the Delta while California’s aquatic ecosystems degrade to the point of no return.