A severe drought this year may be the only way California can mitigate a protracted, devastating water crisis.
It has been 30 years since a new water project was completed in California. Thirty years ago California's population was 20 million. Today it is 37 million.
For years, inept politicians have failed to resolve the water issues that will eventually bring California's economy to it knees. This may be the year of the kneepads and, finally, a framework to develop more water supplies for the state that could reach 50 million people by 2025.
Agriculture has long had a dog in the California water wars, but no one listens to the people who feed and clothe a nation and world. This year, cities and counties likely will enter the fray because there is a real likelihood cities could run out of water. Already, municipal water suppliers are putting out the word; they are buying water to get through what will most certainly be a water-short spring, summer and fall. Before, there have been willing sellers. If the Delta smelt minnow shuts down the giant pumps moving water through the Delta to 25 million Californians, there may not be any water to sell at any price. Water experts are predicting water deliveries from the Delta will be cut by 30 percent, regardless of how much water is available to move through the Delta from Northern to Southern California.
When all that comes out of the home faucets and water hydrants this summer is air in Orange County, Oakland, San Jose and other population centers, the water crisis gridlock may finally be broken.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed a comprehensive water bond measure last fall, but he and lawmakers have failed to broker a deal. Frustrated with the inaction, the California Chamber of Commerce recently announced an effort to launch its own water bond ballot initiatives.
The chamber is circulating four versions of an $11.7 billion bond initiative. It would include dams, as well as systems to divert water around and through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. This is a resurrection of the Peripheral Canal, a controversial proposal that was defeated by voters in a contentious 1982 ballot initiative.
The chamber initiative may provide the only tools for a reasonably quick solution at the polls to the crisis. The solution will not come from the legislature. The initiative process may once again be the way to move the state forward.
The business-backed Chamber measure is similar to a Republican-backed plan that places an emphasis on dams. The Democratic proposal focuses on groundwater storage and conservation. It will take all three — dams, groundwater storage and conservation to provide a reliable water supply for California's future.
Fixing the Delta should be priority No. 1. When the Peripheral Canal was on the ballot almost 25 years ago, it was a water conveyance issue. Today the Delta fix is much more critical with the need to repair fragile levees as well as restore the ecological health of the Delta.
The looming water crisis for cities also may bring another benefit to California's long-standing problem of environmental obstructionism. Small, loud groups like Friends of the River and Environmental Defense have contributed to the water crisis by challenging anything and everything anyone proposes as a solution. Urbanites have tolerated them, but when the water runs out, some of these environmental groups may find a less than friendly urban audience.
“Take a hike” has a nice ring to it. No one wants a crisis to generate a solution, but it may be the only way out of the state's political morass.