Monday, October 20, 2014

Drought, California's water supply, and Proposition 1

Today the most extraordinary thing happened to me: I got rained on while running along the beach in San Francisco. I hadn't figured on that possibility. Aren't we stuck in an epic drought? Yes, we are.

Having just driven through the Central Valley where parched fields and these signs abound and turned on the TV to catch Gov. Jerry banging a drum for a YES vote on Prop. 1 (and Prop. 2), I figured I'd better find out about the measure, the Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014.

California is an unstable, unsustainable quagmire when it comes to water policy. The state is largely a desert, rendered abundantly fertile by siphoning water from rivers and mountains, into which 38 million people have flooded to enjoy sunshine and prosperity. At best, for decades we've been running just a little ahead of water collapse.

With the current drought and the prospect of human-caused higher temperatures in the future, the house of cards that has been our water policy seems to be breaking down. Valley residents whose wells are throwing up sand and brown sludge not surprisingly call on the government to help. It's not clear that the state can or will.

Prop. 1 seems to be a laboriously negotiated Sacramento compromise, a glancing blow at deep problems designed by such broad forces so as to please most everyone just a little. Pretty much all the big guns -- elected officials, both political parties and the state unions and the Chamber of Commerce, and the Farm Bureau Federation -- are on board with it. Some enviros are supporters. Here's some of the pitch I received today from the California League of Conservation Voters.

... the investments within this bond seek to address many environmental concerns that that directly affect water supply and access. Passage of the bond will improve access to and quality of drinking water statewide by funding water quality projects in several categories: safe drinking water, recycled water, regional water security, groundwater sustainability and coastal/ river protection. The bond will directly fund ecosystem and watershed restoration, protecting the California coast, the Sacramento River delta, and watersheds that provide California’s water supply. Finally, the bond takes steps to protect communities with the least access to clean water supplies by creating a technical assistance program and prioritizing state funding on the needs of the disadvantaged communities.

Opponents of Prop. 1 are some strange bedfellows. The Center for Biological Diversity argues for a NO.

1. The bond subsidizes more delta water exports. ... This will be very bad news for dozens of endangered and threatened species that call the [Sacramento River] delta home.

2. The bond will make way for new dams and reservoirs. The bond provides $2.7 billion for additional water storage projects to benefit Big Ag, including the Sites, Los Vaqueros and Temperance Flat reservoirs. Building these dams and reservoirs is misguided: It's a grossly expensive way to facilitate Big Ag's access to minimal additional water resources. The result will harm fragile ecosystems which need this water to survive.

3. The bond fails to bring real water solutions to California. The bond slashes funding for water conservation, efficiency and recycling to $1.5 billion -- just half of what it allocates to build new dams and reservoirs. ...

There's some evidence that opposition involves a pincer movement of the water-rich far north and the arid far south of the state. The Chico Enterprise-Register argues that

We in the north state are expected to solve the water problems south of the delta. We will be compelled to solve those problems whether we like it or not. .... We eye Proposition 1 with suspicion, because history has taught us it's wise to do so. It's a $7.5 billion dollar crapshoot that we're likely to lose, no matter how the dice fall.

Some San Diegans also believe that the rest of the state is failing them.

Marco Gonzalez, a prominent environmental attorney from the San Diego region, said Proposition 1 offers little for the local area.

“From a San Diegan’s perspective, Proposition 1 ignores the fact that we are at the end of the water pipeline, and among the most precarious regions susceptible to impacts of long term drought,” Gonzalez, head of the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, wrote in a recent U-T San Diego commentary. “With more than $5 billion allocated to projects on the San Joaquin River, Shasta Lake, and reservoirs in Contra Costa and Merced counties, San Diego and the rest of Southern California are being hung out to dry.”

Having just spent several hours reading the pros and cons, I am still not convinced that I know which way to go on this. When opponents object that we can't build our way out of our water shortage, they score points with me. As temperatures rise (a certainty) and population increases (not quite such a certainty given the disproportion between housing costs and job opportunities for most people), further fights over who gets the water are a certainty. I'm not sure whether Prop. 1 helps or hurts.

The outfit that distributes these signs urges a NO vote.

1 comment:

Hattie said...

Well I can say for sure that I am glad you got some rain . That's about the extent of it for me. It's the ag industry that uses most of the water. The householders I know in California have practiced water frugality for years, especially in Northern California.

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