Toward a State of Drought : If California is to avoid extreme problems, water reform is essential

Because water is a precious commodity in California, state water laws are complex and change very slowly. Any change, however minor, is invariably preceded by a lot of labored compromising among competing interests. Thus the Legislature's recent defeat of a major proposal to change how local governments handle water was nothing unusual. But this kind of proposal is bound to come up again and again, until some compromise version become law.

The measure, AB 2673, by Assemblyman Dominic L. Cortese (D-San Jose), would have required that cities and counties identify the source and availability of water to supply any new developments before they could be built. The measure died in committee largely because Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) decided the issues it raised were too complicated to deal with before the Legislature's Aug. 31 adjournment. Lockyer was probably right. But Cortese was certainly right to introduce the bill in the first place, and he or someone else definitely should revive it in the next legislative session. It is an eminently sensible idea--one that other states use to carefully manage growth and water use, but which California has been slow to accept.

Powerful interests in this state feel they should have first priority when water allocation rules are set--farmers, manufacturers and home builders to name just a few. So while farmers, water agencies and even the Sierra Club signed off on AB 2673, real estate developers didn't like it and lobbied heavily to kill it.

Some form of this measure will have to be enacted eventually because nature and economics demand it. Water is a finite resource in California, especially during our periodic droughts. We can no longer afford to build our way out of the problem by digging new canals and dams.

More than three-quarters of California's population now lives in parts of the state that are either desert or semidesert. And some scientists warn that our recent dry spells may mark the return of prolonged periods of drought in the Far West. We can no longer take our water supply for granted. If we do, this still-growing state could stumble blindly into a permanent state of water crisis.

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