Opinion
Get Opinion in your inbox -- sign up for our weekly newsletter
Opinion L.A.
Opinion Opinion L.A.

Newton: Refighting California's water war

When Gov. Jerry Brown wrapped up his tenure last time through, he left a huge unresolved question for California: In the wake of a failed 1982 initiative to fund the so-called peripheral canal, how would the state distribute and safeguard its water supply?

How to maximize the water supply and allocate it fairly has been debated often in the years since without producing a solution. But it now looks as if Brown intends to finish up this piece of unresolved business.

Earlier this month, state water officials presented him with the basics of a plan that would have profound implications for the future of California, as well as the legacy of its governor. If it is approved by the relevant state and federal agencies and overcomes any legal challenges, it would reroute water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, diverting freshwater around the marshy area that sits below sea level and transporting it, either by tunnel or canal, into the State Water Project, which serves parts of the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California. The plan calls for extensive habitat restoration as well.

That sounds simple enough, but even the hint of it resurrects an exceptionally divisive debate. In the early 1980s, Brown's proposal for a peripheral canal — which had much in common with the project now being proposed — split Californians along geographic lines. Wildly popular in Southern California, the idea was reviled in the north. I was in high school in Palo Alto when it first began to circulate; my friends and neighbors could not mention the proposal without deriding it as a Los Angeles "water grab." Some Northern Californians even advocated splitting the state in two.

Proposition 9, the bond measure that would have paid for the canal, went down to a narrow defeat that highlighted the tensions between north and south. Los Angeles County backed the measure by 61% to 39%; in Northern California, meanwhile, more than 90% of voters in many counties opposed it.

This time out, the regional dispute is far more muted — and for good reason. At its core, this is not an attempt to draw more water from north to south but rather to shore up a vulnerable system whose failure could cast the state into chaos.

Protecting that system is the central preoccupation of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and it has played a key role in shaping the $16-billion proposal, most of which it would pay for with increased rates to its customers. They won't like that, but the project is, in the words of Assistant General Manager Roger K. Patterson, an "insurance policy" protecting the state's water supply against an earthquake that could destroy the levees that keep seawater out of the delta. Such an earthquake could flood the delta and wipe it out as a source of freshwater within hours. Experts say it might take three years to restore supply, in the meantime depriving both Southern California and the Bay Area of almost a third of their water supply.

Patterson and his boss, General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger, laid out that scenario in a recent interview, surrounded by the history of this issue. We spoke in Kightlinger's office, its walls and tabletops covered with mementos of California's mind-boggling water system, much of it engineered by Brown's father, Gov. Pat Brown. As we spoke, Kightlinger offered water — tap water.

The implications for Northern California have helped prevent this debate so far from being a repeat of the north-south split that drove a wedge through the state in the early 1980s, but there's plenty of time for feuding to break out before this is over.

Kightlinger knows better than to take victory for granted in this debate. His predecessors were the villains of those water wars in the 1980s, and he concedes that even three or four years ago, the words "peripheral canal" could start a stormy debate. This time, though, he sees a chance: a more receptive electorate, a project paid by users rather than taxpayers and a governor with something to prove.

"People now are saying: 'We get it,'" Kightlinger explained. "Something has to be done."

And as for the governor? This project, as Kightlinger noted, began with "the father, and then the son, and now the son again." It's a chance to complete a bit of history.

Now if Brown would only take on the other unresolved piece of business dating back to his last time in office: What to do about Proposition 13.

Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at jim.newton@latimes.com or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • Don't gravelscape L.A.

    Don't gravelscape L.A.

    People are starting to panic about their lawns. The Metropolitan Water District is adding $350 million to its lawn removal rebate program and homeowners are scrambling to rip out grass and replace it with something easy and oh-so drought tolerant — gravel or artificial turf. At least one lawn removal...

  • Trading grass for cash: MWD has a winner on its hands

    Trading grass for cash: MWD has a winner on its hands

    The drought warnings have sunk in. So many Southern Californians want to rip out their water-hogging lawns that the Metropolitan Water District nearly ran out of money for turf removal rebates. In the last year, residents, businesses and public agencies filed more than 45,000 applications seeking...

  • A drop in L.A.'s water-needs bucket

    A drop in L.A.'s water-needs bucket

    At long last, and thank goodness — the rain. Good for the gardens and good for tamping down wildfire danger (although exacerbating the hazards in areas already burned). A drop in the bucket, but a very welcome one.

  • John Perry, San Juan Capistrano's water watcher

    John Perry, San Juan Capistrano's water watcher

    It started with a few ticked-off residents of the Orange County town of San Juan Capistrano. The city was charging them too much for water, they argued, in violation of the California Constitution, courtesy of Proposition 218, a taxpayer-revolt law passed in 1996. A state court of appeal agreed...

  • In the water crisis, it's time to move beyond the farms vs. cities mindset

    In the water crisis, it's time to move beyond the farms vs. cities mindset

    At this point, just about every Californian with a pulse knows that agriculture uses 80% of the state's water, and cities 20%. This talking point is true as far as it goes, but that's not very far. You have to limit your vision to the water consumed by humans, “developed” water. This perspective...

  • How phantom flushing wastes water, and how to fix it

    How phantom flushing wastes water, and how to fix it

    As California faces unprecedented, mandatory water restrictions, the big question is where, exactly, the cuts should come from. Experts and pundits alike most frequently mention agriculture, because of its disproportionate water usage. They also single out golf courses, cemeteries and other places...

  • If not this California delta plan, then what?

    If not this California delta plan, then what?

    In years of average rainfall, when pumps at the south end of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta lift water to two parallel aqueducts to begin the journey to Central Valley fields and Southern California households, the suction reverses the flow of the San Joaquin River, one of the state's two...

  • What do you get if you map coming climate disasters? Hello, Pacific Northwest.

    What do you get if you map coming climate disasters? Hello, Pacific Northwest.

    During the 1930s, the Dust Bowl drove millions of people out of the Great Plains. Thousands of the residents who left New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina never went back. Not that many thousands of years ago, shifts in Ice Age glaciers drew people from Siberia across a then-existing land bridge...

Comments
Loading
80°