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The glass is still half full

It’s no tragedy that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democrats in Sacramento may fail to reach a compromise on a water bond for the February ballot. Sure, it’s a setback for constituents in the Central Valley who sought extraordinary levels of statewide backing for dams in their communities. And it signals a political defeat for the governor, who has made water policy a centerpiece of his agenda this year. Nevertheless, it could still be a victory for California.

With climate change and population growth looming on the horizon, the state must secure its water supply. But despite Schwarzenegger’s repeated assurances, building a few expensive dams is not the key to achieving this goal. Neither is the alternative proposal from state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland), who seeks a bond measure to fund regional groundwater cleanup, conservation and storage projects. The most crucial project remains reworking the way the state moves water through the environmentally sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Postponing action on a bond in no way derails several ongoing initiatives that aim to fix the delta, including the governor’s own widely lauded Delta Vision Process, a study whose findings are slated to be delivered by the end of the year. Indeed, putting off a bond gives voters, freshly reminded of the importance of updating the state’s water system, an opportunity to hear what the experts have to say about the state’s most pressing water crisis before they’re asked to decide on any “comprehensive” plan.

It’s unclear what will happen with the bonds now. Schwarzenegger’s aides are still trying to get their proposal on the ballot in February, but their prospects are uncertain. The two sides might come up with a compromise measure for the November 2008 ballot, or Californians might be faced with the dismal prospect of deciding on two competing measures next fall. That last alternative is the worst. Asking voters to choose between dueling bonds -- neither of which solves the main problem -- would mark a historic failure.

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Sensibly re-plumbing a parched state of 37 million people and 26 million acres of farmland isn’t easy. We elected our governor and legislators to tackle such problems. When they petulantly toss the task to voters, offering “solutions” that are hard to understand, not open for amendment and insufficient to solve the state’s problems, it’s nothing less than an abdication of duty.

The conversation on this bond may be coming to a close, but a promising discussion about California’s water future could now get off the ground -- if politicians in Sacramento will let it.


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