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Climate might be right to replumb water system

Mark Twain famously said whiskey’s for drinkin’ and water’s for fightin’. But this year in Sacramento, water’s also for compromisin’.

It’s for using as trade bait -- for applying leverage in wheeling and dealing.

“People are talking about it as a chit to be played,” laments state water director Lester Snow, who’d like to keep the water debate focused on water. But that’s not going to happen.

Problem is, water -- generation to generation -- always has been California’s most contentious issue. It also has been one of the most eye-glazing, until there’s a killer flood or a devastating drought. So politicians, especially during this nearsighted era of term limits, have been avoiding the subject.

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This year, however, there’s potential for rare action.

Democratic support for a new off-stream reservoir could be traded for Republican backing of a comprehensive healthcare plan. Or swapped for a state budget, if lawmakers get stuck in a long summer stalemate. Or, more appropriately, bargained for an environmentally friendly fix to the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Or all of the above.

“Everything’s on the table,” Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) said in an interview. “Healthcare really is important to me. And water really is important to people on the other side.

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“I’d like to figure out how we can make everybody happy.”

Dams -- even if they are built off-stream on Godforsaken flat land -- are opposed by most environmental interests with religious zealotry. They fear an excessive use of water by farmers and developers, citing the needs of fish, waterfowl and all natural habitat.

Never mind that the increased water storage potentially could be used for better managing salmon runs that are declining, and for restoring wetlands. It would beef up flood control, provide more recreation and -- the main purpose -- capture additional water for a constantly rising population.

Environmentalists preach underground storage. Nobody argues with that, but only the enviros seem to approach the issue as an either/or proposition between under- and aboveground storage. They also sermonize about conservation -- wastewater reclamation and low-flush toilets. Nobody quarrels with that either, but it’s not the total solution.

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“That won’t help you in the sixth year of a drought,” Snow says.

“I hear people comparing surface storage and conservation. That’s like comparing a screwdriver to a sledgehammer. They’re completely different tools.... We need to have a legislative debate about storage -- how much groundwater and how much surface.”

The water debate is changing in Sacramento, largely because the climate is, and so will the hydrology. Global warming will convert Sierra snow to rain and result in more rapid runoff, requiring added storage space to quickly catch the water before it tumbles into the sea. At the other extreme, there’ll be longer, more severe droughts and the need for water reserves.

In addition, Hurricane Katrina got politicians pondering a catastrophic earthquake in the delta, where 24 million Californians draw drinking water. The delta also irrigates 3 million acres. And it’s where the Public Policy Institute of California, in a recent study, concluded that “over the next 50 years, there is a two-thirds chance of a catastrophic levee failure.”

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Californians voted for $4.9 billion in flood control bonds in November, but the delta still needs to be re-plumbed. The water flow south is unstable and the fishery is failing.

A big reservoir -- north or south of the delta -- is something Republicans really want and conceivably could get in this legislative session because of the dire warnings and compromise opportunities.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is siding with the GOP lawmakers, even if it is seen in the Capitol as a fence-mending sop after he ignored Republicans on so many issues last year. The governor is sponsoring legislation, carried by Sen. Dave Cogdill (R-Modesto), to place a $5.95-billion water bond issue on the 2008 ballot. It would include $4.5 billion for water storage.

“The Cogdill bill doesn’t go,” asserts Assemblywoman Lois Wolk (D-Davis), who heads the house water committee. She says current state studies of two possible off-stream reservoirs -- one in Colusa County, another near Fresno -- should be completed first. They’re expected late next year.

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Cogdill comments: “We do so much study and so much planning, ‘round and around and around. And we’re just waiting for that earthquake or sustained drought. Then we’ll be falling all over each other to do something. Like in the energy crisis.”

Wolk does say, regarding a delta fix: “If it doesn’t happen by the end of the year, it won’t happen. Then it’ll take a terrible calamity.”

She and her Senate counterpart, water committee Chairman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), both are intrigued by a possible compromise: Building an off-stream reservoir on the San Joaquin Valley’s west side in exchange for operating a more environmentally friendly delta that would pump less, but more reliably, into the California Aqueduct.

“If you could satisfy the Republican demand for storage,” Steinberg says, “and satisfy the water users’ insistence on reliability from the delta, while restoring the ecosystem -- that’s the kind of political combo worth considering very carefully.

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“I’m new to the water wars, but I know the potential for good salable and substantive solutions.”

Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), chairman of the environment committee, even has dredged up the old peripheral canal concept -- pumping water directly out of the Sacramento River and skirting the delta entirely. Voters rejected that 25 years ago, but Simitian says his proposal would contain ironclad safeguards for the delta and environment. “They’d be belt-and-suspenders-and-belt-again guarantees,” he says.

And regarding the many legislative chits on the table, he says: “There’s plenty of opportunity to find common ground on all these issues.”

This may be the year when water’s for healthcare.

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Reach the columnist at george.skelton@latimes.com.


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