Last week this column explored the crisis in our Delta, the switching yard for California’s immense freshwater transfer system (check it out at www.thepressnewspapers.com in the “Community” section). Now let’s turn to the solutions being pursued – or not – by the powers that be.
“Crisis,” like “tragedy,” is a designation not always well deserved. Those skeptical that our Delta is in crisis should register this simple fact: the politicians – not renowned for their prompt attention to matters of urgency – are in a hurry to do something about it.
The crisis was crystallized on Aug. 31, when U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger placed limits on the amount of fresh water that could be pumped from the Delta from the end of December until June, spawning and dispersion season for the endangered Delta smelt (an “indicator species” that signifies the Delta’s health). It’s widely believed that the pumping restriction could reduce the Delta’s freshwater export by a third. Somehow, the term “mandatory rationing” comes to mind.
Wanger’s dramatic decision was dictated by environmental law, but the true catalytic force was the failure of government agencies to craft a comprehensive solution to a crisis that has been brewing for years: As the boom in California’s population and agriculture creates greater demand for fresh water, the supply of Delta water is decreasing, its quality is deteriorating, and its levees are in dire need of repair and fortification.
On Sept. 11, Gov. Schwarzenegger called the legislature into special session, urging lawmakers to fix the plumbing post-haste. He appointed a Blue Ribbon Commission to hammer out recommendations for a Delta management plan by year’s end. On Sept. 25, the governor unveiled a $9 billion proposal to be placed as a bond measure on the Feb. 5 ballot.
The proposal devotes $5.1 billion to the building of two new dams (Temperance Flat Reservoir near Fresno and Sites Reservoir in Glenn and Colusa counties) plus the expansion of East County’s own Los Vaqueros Reservoir. The rest of the money targets restoration of Delta habitat and levees.
An alternative measure, offered by Senate Pro Tem Don Perata, would invest $5.8 billion in the state’s water system. It doesn’t dismiss the need for dams, but emphasizes conservation and groundwater cleanup, Delta restoration, and the primacy of regional decision-making. In Perata’s words, it “sets up a competitive process in each region to find the projects that provide the most water at the lowest cost.”
The Delta crisis has caused an old and divisive dragon to rear its head: the dream – or nightmare – of a Peripheral Canal. The mere mention of the dreaded conduit, which was soundly rejected by voters in 1982, has reawakened the specter of north-south water wars. Here’s the equation: 75 percent of California’s precip falls north of Sacramento; more than 75 percent of the demand comes from south of Sacramento. A Peripheral Canal would funnel even more water into the current southbound express lane. Although no bond money would be spent on such a canal, Schwarzenegger is open to the idea of seeing it built.
Northerners understandably unenchanted by the prospect of Southerners siphoning off the lion’s share of the state’s fresh water needn’t hit the panic button. Were a Peripheral Canal agreed to (after a brief and convivial chat, no doubt), its completion could take up to 10 years. Those dams the governor aims to build are also a good decade beyond the horizon. Delta restoration, levee fortification and a group effort toward conservation are needed right now.
A drop in the suggestion bucket to the Blue Ribbon Commission: Don’t let agriculture and urban development slip under your radar. According to Contra Costa Water District Assistant General Manager Greg Gartrell, “A 10-percent water conservation in agriculture is the equivalent of a 50-percent conservation in urban use.” And speaking of the urbs and burbs: before we impose the rationing of water, how about rationing new development? “If you build out, they will come.” If you don’t, they won’t.
If California is running out of water, it’s also running out of time. Let’s hope the state’s citizens run out of patience with a commodity in infinite supply: political inertia. East County folk are right to demand action, prompt and smart. If California’s water system blows up, the Delta will likely be Ground Zero, and fresh water will be providing the Delta smelt some company on the endangered species list.