The California Legislature approved a water deal this week, but sadly it’s weaker than the proposal that almost got jammed through at the end of session a few weeks ago. Sen. Fran Pavley’s effort to put meaningful water rights reform into the measure fell victim to 11th-hour dealmaking. Pavley’s reasonable initiative was perhaps the most critical part of the package. The proposed bond measure also has soared to over $11 billion (water pork for all!), and claims that the funds have not been earmarked for a peripheral canal and storage may be legally accurate but surely not politically correct. Statements from the governor, water districts and legislators make it clear that the intent of the water legislation is to enable the ill-conceived re-plumbing of the Delta to proceed.
I certainly wasn’t surprised that a water package passed through the legislature in special session. The water crisis is as big a problem in California as the financial crisis. However, I am deeply disappointed.
It makes no sense to provide momentum for a peripheral canal without statewide mandatory water metering within the next few years and water rights reform. In addition, mandatory 20% water conservation targets should apply to everyone in the state, including agriculture. Urban areas only use 20% of the state’s water, yet mandatory conservation only applies to high density areas. Urban success will only result in a 4% reduction in California water use, not nearly enough to sustainably manage California’s ongoing water crisis.
With the magnitude of the problem, the legislature and the governor had a chance to move forward with critical and equitable water reform for California. Instead, the approved measure funds another series of studies and does little to solve the water crisis in the short or long term.
Cynics may say that the big winners were consultants, lawyers and agriculture, but in reality, all of California lost. Perhaps, the legislature will further reflect on the inadequacy of the water package and move forward with meaningful water reform next year or in the next legislative session under new gubernatorial leadership. (Insert your own “when pigs fly” analogy here.)
Maybe state leadership will reconsider if the bond measure goes down in flames. It is hard to believe that the public will approve an $11 billion bond under these financial conditions when we can’t even sell the billions in bonds from Props 84 and 50. Numerous critical projects funded by these water bonds are still on hold and the $5 billion from Prop. 84 has barely been tapped. If the Sierra Club, which opposed the latest legislative package, decides to oppose the bond measure, there will be almost no chance of the package passing.
So what’s needed? Here’s my not-so-short list:
- statewide mandatory conservation targets that apply to everyone and every user group and get our per capita potable water use rates to 100 gallons per day by 2020.
- statewide water metering
- statewide Low Impact Development requirements
- plumbing code modifications that mandate waterless urinals in all public buildings by 2020
- targeted incentives for increased use of stormwater for groundwater augmentation
- mandatory statewide water recycling targets and use requirements
- complete reform of the state’s antiquated water rights system to make California live within its water budget
These changes would mark meaningful reform instead of business-as-usual bonds and bureaucracies. Because the water crisis isn’t going away any time soon, there will be plenty of opportunities to move forward on water management reform. How much worse the crisis has to get before we shift from incrementalism to true reform is anyone’s guess.