FriantKern Canal

The Friant-Kern Canal conveys water from Millerton Lake near Fresno and delivers it to water users from Chowchilla to Bakersfield. Because of drought conditions, the only likely recipients of water from the system this year will be urban users. Agricultural users are slated to get zero surface water.

Could California drought be 'Katrina' moment?

California's North v. South water debate becomes ironic as Southern California continues to build more storage and infrastructure State lawmakers have twice now pulled an $11 billion water bond from the ballot for political reasons Like after Katrina when infrastructure needs were addressed, some think current California drought could force state to finally address inadequate water storage and infrastructure    

When it comes to water in California, 2014 may go down not as North v. South, but the haves and the have-nots. The irony is who has it and who doesn’t.

While panels made up largely of water agency officials were discussing the one commodity California is in woeful short supply of, two blocks away California’s reactionary political class was feverishly working to introduce legal mechanisms to address that problem while one end of the state rose as a shining example of how determination succeeds.

At a conference on water hosted by Capitol Weekly and the University of California Center in downtown Sacramento, panelists seemed to agree that the circumstances facing California relative to its water supply is due in large part to poor planning and political expediency.

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Political expediency was apparently in high gear as the conference opened as several lawmakers who briefly attended scurried back to the State Capitol to participate in the flurry of water bond measures being introduced. In the days following the conference, the number of water bond measures introduced quickly rose to seven.

Knowing what was taking place several blocks from where the conference was being housed, some of the panelists seem stymied as to previously-passed bond measures and Sacramento’s inability to convey the money from those bonds to the water projects most useful to California.

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California lawmakers originally wanted to put an $11 billion water bond measure on the ballot in 2010, but politics caused them to balk at that. Talk of trying again in 2012 stalled because of competing issues and more politics, now the issue could be slated to go in 2014 unless the legislature elects to forestall it again because of the gubernatorial election later this year, or for some other reason. As if the political waters needed to be stirred even more, several other water bond measures are being debated in the state legislature.

Speaking to previous bond measures, Joe Caves, a partner at the Sacramento-based Conservation Strategy Group, was critical of California’s inability to timely use bond money on key infrastructure projects. The Conservation Strategy Group (CSG) is a consulting and lobbying firm specializing in environmental and natural resources strategy and advocacy. CSG represents land trusts, environmental groups, conservancies and public agencies before the California Legislature and administrative agencies.

Prop. 84 money unspent

For instance, Proposition 84 was a $5.4 billion voter-approved initiative in 2006 that was billed as “the Safe Drinking Water Bond.” Reporters at a press conference on the drought recently asked why this money wasn’t previously spent on projects as it was learned that some of the money from that bond makes up nearly all of the money currently in the Governor’s drought package.

“It’s a very astute question,” Caves said. “And the reason is that it wasn’t a priority to spend it.”

Political priorities came up repeatedly during the day-long meeting as parties with varying perspectives on water seemed to agree that the political will to invest in California’s water infrastructure is only addressed during a crisis.

“When there’s enough water it’s not a priority,” Caves continued. “Nobody wants to spend money on (water). Budget issues prevail.”

John Woodling, executive director of the Regional Water Authority in Sacramento echoed that sentiment.

“The problem is we work on drought issues when it’s dry and flood issues when it’s wet and we don’t pay attention during the other times,” Woodling said. “When (Hurricane) Katrina happened in New Orleans, that paradigm shifted in terms of flood, and we now continue to do the flood projects and build the levees and work on the spillway at Folsom when it’s a dry year. Maybe the silver lining is this is the ‘Katrina’ of water supply and we can commit to the long-term projects that really allow us to get things done even if it starts raining next fall.”

At the crux of the reporters’ question was one about “shovel-ready” projects, for which the Governor says he has freed up money. Panel Moderator Anthony York of the Los Angeles Times said California Department of Water Resources (DWR) Director Mark Cowin was recently asked how much of the governor’s $510 million proposal would be part of the “shovel-ready” the governor mentioned.

“He told us about $30 to $40 million dollars’ worth of projects were ready to go,” York said. “That’s not a very big chunk of the $510 million that was made available.”

“I think with respect to the answer of $30 to $40 million dollars it really gets down to the definition of ‘shovel-ready’,” said Ara Azhderian, water policy administrator for the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority.

Billion dollar backlog

“Throughout our region we probably have a billion-dollar backlog of projects,” Azhderian continued. “Frankly, we have backed away from pursuing integrated regional water grant funding through DWR because of the limitations on being able to move money out effectively.

“We passed Prop 84 in 2006,” said Woodling. “We’re now eight years later and maybe a third of the money has been allocated to projects and maybe a quarter of it has been spent. So, speedy distribution of bond funds is not one of the state’s strong suits.”

Part of the reason money for these projects sits and goes unused, according to Azhderian, is the onerous permitting process agencies must comply with prior to starting a project.

For instance, Azhderian said the Delta-Mendota Water Authority completed a fish screening project in 2011 on the San Joaquin River Delta that took the agency 10 years to permit and one year to build. The grand irony is that the various state and federal agencies all supported the project, including the California Department of Fish and Game and National Marine Fisheries Service.

Water managers continue to cite constraints related to the federal Endangered Species Act and state regulations enforced by the California Water Quality Control Board.

“For the last 14 months or so it’s been the objectives of the water board that have limited and affected our ability to move water south (of the Delta)” Azhderian continued.

While the Governor’s drought emergency declaration included language to streamline such processes, panelists agreed that California remains decades behind in its water infrastructure needs.

“It’s a lousy time to shop for a fire extinguisher when your house is on fire,” joked Roger Patterson, assistant general manager for the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California.

Patterson’s kidding wasn’t lost in the discussion. Of the water managers on the panel, Patterson’s district is in arguably better shape to weather the drought than are most, if not all of the others. That is because MWD aggressively began pursuing new water storage decades ago in order to stay ahead of urban growth in the region.

“The drought that we experienced in the early 90s really mobilized the thinking in southern California and certainly with the metropolitan board,” Patterson said.

South adds storage

According to Patterson, the MWD board wanted to weather multi-year drought scenarios. Through some strategic thinking that involved conservation and new water storage projects, the agency began a move not seen on such a scale elsewhere in the state.

“We did build some of our own in-area storage, such as Diamond Valley Reservoir,” Patterson said. “We built a large tunnel that can feed our system, and we spent over a billion dollars upgrading our water treatment facilities. In total we probably spent about $5 billion over the last 20 years trying to get prepared for these kinds of situations.”

It hasn’t stopped there for MWD, Patterson said.

While the district currently has about 2.4 million acre feet of storage in surface and groundwater projects throughout the state, Patterson said the district continues to look ahead another 25 years because history suggests that urban growth and water needs will continue.

That was a big impetus behind the district’s construction of the 810,000 acre-foot Diamond Valley Reservoir south of Hemet. Construction on the off-stream reservoir began in 1995 and was completed in 1999. It sources water from the California State Water Project and the Colorado River.

Among its purposes, Diamond Valley Reservoir secures six months’ worth of emergency storage southwest of the San Andreas Fault and reduces southern California’s threat of water shortages during drought and periods of peak summer use.

As impressive as MWD’s projects are, panel moderators carefully avoided turning discussions into a North vs. South argument about water. Rather, it became apparent that the North and the rest of California could learn much from the South when it comes to water.

“We’re in reasonably good shape to deal with this year and probably next year,” Patterson continued. “Our main issue is we don’t know how long this is drought going to last.”

Patterson said MWD will need to rely on some 500,000 acre feet of its 2.4 million acre feet of surface and groundwater storage to weather the drought. The board has also directed MWD staff to assist, where possible, in meeting the needs of other regions in the state. The MWD will also double its conservation program efforts through targeted spending.

Meanwhile, York said the debates in Sacramento over water bonds and how much to spend continue to be political hot potatoes.

According to York, California’s Democratic leadership wants a smaller water bond this year than the $11.1 billion bond that has repeatedly been kicked down the road to subsequent elections. Woodling calls this a dangerous move because it continues to put off the inevitable need for sustainable and secure sources of water in California.

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