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Can Californians create enduring drought relief?

Forging a lasting solution to the state's water woes will be daunting

On the perennially vexing subjects of water and the drought, Gov. Jerry Brown has been on something of a roll.

In November, he won easy approval of a state bond measure that meant $7.5 billion for new water projects. In March he signed legislation authorizing $1 billion in emergency drought relief and projects to save water in the future. In April he ordered a mandatory 25% cut in urban water use, the first such restrictions issued statewide. Those orders have so far been embraced by Californians in theory, if not yet with compliance.

But forging a more lasting solution to California's water woes will be more daunting, requiring something that has eluded the state for decades: compromise between the warring tribes of California, the north and the south, environmentalists and agriculture.

Already, to a degree unseen in prior drought periods, there seems to be widespread agreement about the seriousness of the situation. The drought has risen to the top of the list of Californians' concerns, a new poll shows, and not just in regions of the state where water is a constant problem.

Everyone wants an end to the drought, in the form of rain and lots of it. But if the rains come, will they also wash away interest in long-term solutions for the next drought?

"Obviously, you hope it rains — the farmers are suffering, a lot of people have lost their livelihoods because of lack of rain," former Gov. Gray Davis said. "Do we want it? Yes! But it is also true that the absence of rain over a prolonged period has focused the public's attention for long-term, structural reform."

Davis takes that stance as a former chief executive and as chief of staff to Brown when he served as governor in the 1970s, during arguably the worst drought in modern times. In many ways, that drought propelled a civil war over water.

More than the current emergency, the 1976-77 drought was visited mostly upon the central and northern part of California. States of emergency were declared in 23 counties, none of them in the south.

In Southern California, lawns were lush. In Northern California, showers were brief. The south was encouraged to save water; the north was required to do so. The geographic angst spilled into the 1980s in a fierce fight over the Peripheral Canal, meant to bring water from the north to the thirsty farms and cities of the south.

On the ballot in 1982, the canal was supported two to one by Southern Californians. It failed when Northern Californians opposed it overwhelmingly.

But there were only 22 million people in California then, and there are 38 million now, and the drought's reach has expanded too. The mandatory restrictions announced by Brown in April covered the entire state, with the exception of the agriculture industry.

It turns out misery does love company. In a recent Field Poll, 63% of Southern Californians called the drought conditions "extremely serious," a view shared by 75% of Northern Californians.

Support for Brown's demand for reduced water use was almost identical, with 64% of the south and 66% of the north supporting the governor. A poll released last week by the Public Policy Institute of California found more than six in 10 people in both the Bay Area and Los Angeles felt their areas weren't doing enough to respond to water shortages. The poll showed the drought to be the top issue on Californians' radar, outdistancing the economy and jobs.

The governor has two water-related goals — to make it through this drought and to succeed with a more permanent fix in the form of his enormously expensive plan to move Northern California water to the farms and cities of Southern California via twin delta tunnels dozens of miles long. That plan, which would stand as a key element of Brown's legacy, has been beset by disputes among regulators, environmentalists and agriculture, the same sort of feuds that have marked water wars for years.

The discussion will beg the question of whether California's typically short attention span, its term-limit churn and its constant crises will allow a solution that can weather years of compromise, planning and execution.

But a full range of solutions is needed, according to two recent chief executives.

Pete Wilson, the Republican governor during part of a lengthy drought that stretched from 1987 to 1992, blamed pressure from some national environmental groups for limiting the amount of above-ground and underground storage that could have been created then (and eased water problems now). He pointed to counties like San Diego that have increased the size of dams and boosted water recycling and desalinization.

Absent a quick ending to this drought, Californians may opt to support Brown's delta tunnel plan and other efforts to extend what water we have, Wilson said.

"If they think it's the only way, then probably they will at least soon be prepared to do it," Wilson said. "But I hear from people who say it's criminal and needless — there should have been action taken long ago."

Davis, who as governor expanded underground aquifers to store water, urged a commitment to conservation — and, in particular, water recycling. "We recycle everything else in our society," he said.

He said sacrifice will have to come from all parties, even beleaguered agriculture, but he puts little stock in the notion that warring parties will forge some compromise on their own. It's going to be up to the governor and Legislature, he said, to push the state where it needs to go.

"Elected officials should be wary if this drought gets worse," warned Davis, whose tenure suffered when electricity brownouts hit the state. "The finger is going to be pointed at someone."

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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