California water plan faces challenges

The most comprehensive statewide California water conservation and development plan cobbled together in almost a half century seems to be springing leaks almost before it is launched.

It is becoming obvious the five-bill package pact that was nailed and glued together in marathon legislative sessions earlier this fall has more leaks than the Titanic, if the comments from three water experts at the Western Growers annual conference are any indication.

After reviewing for vegetable and fruit growers the recently passed water package at the WG convention in Las Vegas, the three experts were asked if California is better off in facing its water crisis, and they responded:

• “Yes” from Dan Nelson, executive director of the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority.

• “Probably” from Phil Isenberg, former state assemblyman and chairman of the governor’s Delta Vision Task Force.

• “Worse” from John Herrick, South Delta Water Agency counsel and manager.

The fourth billed “The Politics of Water” panelist Laura Harnish, regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund West Coast, was a no-show.

For more than an hour the three experts detailed challenges that face implementation of the ambitious water package passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor after contentious and protracted debate. They spoke two days after the bills were signed.

However, each acknowledged that passage of the plan was at least a start toward solving the water crisis for a state with a water collection and delivery system to supply 20 million people water in an arid environment where more than 34 million thirsty people call home today.

The five-part package includes:

• Creation of a Delta oversight board to try to bring some consistency and restoration to the turnbuckle of California’s north-south water delivery system.

• A conservation element that requires a 20 percent reduction in urban use and a mandate for agriculture to use best irrigation practices.

• A groundwater monitoring program.

• An increase in penalties for illegal water diversions.

• And the big one — an $11 billion bond proposal to create new surface storage (dams) and groundwater storage ($3 billion); Delta restoration ($2 billion), and a catch-all $6 billion for urban conservation.

“There are a lot of good things” in what Herrick called a “very comprehensive package.” However, he called it fundamentally flawed, since it espouses a co-equal goal of water supply reliability and Delta ecosystem restoration.

He called it a goal that cannot be met without more water supplies. Herrick represents an area that would be directly impacted by the “Peripheral canal,” an idea that was floated and torpedoed in the 1980s. The canal then and now would be built to move water around the Delta rather than through the waterways.

The idea has resurfaced with seemingly more statewide support. However, Herrick indicated that the support among Delta cities and agricultural interests is still not there just as it was missing before when voters statewide rejected it.

He said there remains distrust over any canal operation across or around the Delta. While there have been safeguards proposed for any canal operation, Herrick points out that current safeguards for moving water through the Delta have been circumvented in times of crises.

Isenberg, who spent seven years as Sacramento’s mayor before spending 14 years in the state assembly, said the water package signed recently is “not designed for people to easily understand.”

However, he called the package the first major statewide water development presented to California voters since the 1960s; the end of a 49-year political stalemate.

Isenberg chaired a blue ribbon panel that last fall released a Delta vision strategic plan after 20 months of studying the fragile Delta, home to 500,000 residents and 750 species of plants and animals. It is also the hub of the state’s major conveyance system.

The report labeled the Delta in crisis with several fish species at historic lows, which has prompted the regulatory agencies and the courts to severely reduce water supplies pumped through the Delta.

His panel recommended 22 strategies and 73 actions to restore the Delta. That task would not be taken over by the Delta advisory panel created by the recent legislation.

There are now 200 federal, state and local government agencies with regulatory authority within the Delta, said Isenberg. This makes managing the Delta difficult. Hopefully, the Delta advisory panel would unify management of the estuary.

For years, Isenberg said California’s water supply has been considered abundant. This legislative package acknowledges the fact that this is no longer the case and the goal of any water development and conservation effort must focus on the reliability and sustainability of California’s water supply.

Nelson, whose authority represents 29 water agencies serving 1.2 million acres of farmland mostly on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley, echoed Isenberg when he said the water package recognizes, for the first time, California’s water supply is “finite” and that everyone in the state must manage that supply with accountability.

He encouraged agriculture to “embrace” water conservation and water use accountability. “California agriculture (now) does more with less (water) than any place in the world. Don’t be afraid to be accountable.”

With surface water growing scarcer, urban area and agriculture are tuning to groundwater for people and crops. “It is inevitable. This legislative package sets the state on a path to get our arms around groundwater (monitoring),” and to make sure the state’s groundwater supply remains sustainable and reliable.

California basically has no mandatory groundwater monitoring or regulations, like many other areas of the nation. Suggesting such oversight makes the groundwater part of the water package very controversial.

However, the water package signed by the governor is “not draconian” said Nelson, but it sets a path for the water crisis to be solved on local levels.

However, for the near term, it will not be state or local agencies controlling the state’s water supply. It will be federal implementation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), Central Valley Improvement Act (CVIP) and the Clean Water Act.

Nelson calls federal involvement in California’s water supply the “wild card” that is apart from the challenges posed by the five new state laws.

“If the feds are not standing with you, you cannot solve California’s water crisis,” said Nelson.

The federal government and enforcement of ESA was largely responsible for idling 400,000 to 500,000 acres of farmland on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley in 2009, said Nelson.

The other part of the water crisis is the result of three years of drought.

In the past when a water shortage surfaced in a drought as a critical issue, subsequent rains caused the crisis to go away.

Not this time, according to Nelson. If California receives normal rainfall and snowfall this year, only 10 percent to 30 percent of contracted water supplies will be delivered to the West Side.

If moisture is “way above normal” this winter and next spring, deliveries may go up to 35 percent to 40 percent. An abundance of water may be in the north state from a wet winter for use in the thirsty south, but it cannot be moved through the Delta until issues are resolved with the Delta smelt and winter run salmon — both fish species considered in danger of extinction.

Nelson, Isenberg and Herrick did offer a bit of optimism that California has embarked on a destination to solving the water crisis.

However, not everyone, even within the agricultural community, has their oars in the water on the vessel called California’s most significant water legislation in a half century.

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TAGS: Legislative
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