Brown makes the sale on water program

Capitol Journal

If a product doesn’t sell, try repackaging and renaming. That’s a proven strategy, whatever you’re peddling.

Good timing also helps.

Thus, when the governor’s California Water Action Plan sits on a shelf unnoticed for a while — and outside it is very dry — reshape and rewrap the contents as Emergency Drought Legislation.

Bingo. There’s a buying frenzy.

Gov. Jerry Brown and his administration spent months, behind the scenes, crafting his Water Action Plan. On Jan. 10, he devoted significant space in his annual budget proposal to the $619-million plan. But few legislators, interests or journalists were attracted.

Even Brown didn’t appear to be moved. He didn’t mention the plan at his budget news conference. And in his State of the State Address, the governor talked about it in only two sentences.

There was virtually no marketing to the public, just the usual internal gab among bureaucrats.


Then loud cries began emanating from farmers and Republicans demanding that something be done about the drought.

So Brown cleverly combined most elements of his action plan with new relief aid and some water efficiency legislation written by Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and labeled it an emergency drought bill.

Presto: Front page news around the state. Guarded praise from farmers and environmentalists. And bipartisan political support, although Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway of Tulare quibbled about it being “just a drop in the bucket.”

“You can’t manufacture water,” Brown said at the unwrapping last week. “You can desalinate it. You can capture it. You can store it. You can move it. Within those constraints, that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

There should be more desalinating and storing, but give the governor credit. It was a smart move and exactly what government should be doing — what it should have been doing more of in the past and will need to do in the future: Making better use of the water we already have in a state where much of the land is arid and artificially made fertile with irrigation.

This makes more sense than mucking up a bucolic estuary by boring two 40-foot-wide, 35-mile-long tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Brown’s intensely controversial $25-billion replumbing project to move fresh water from one agriculture region to a more powerful one.

Some tunneling may be warranted, but a single, smaller burrowing could be sufficient and certainly would be less controversial.

In the long run, what’s sorely needed in California is a reprioritizing of water use. Currently, agriculture claims 80% of the state’s developed water. And 55% of exported delta water goes to two irrigation districts in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

Brown’s emergency legislation is on the right track. It totals a relatively modest — “drop in the bucket” — $687 million.

It would spend $549 million in voter-approved but untapped water bonds to provide construction grants for shovel-ready projects. They’d build facilities for capturing storm runoff, recycling used water and recharging aquifers.

An additional $40 million for water-efficiency projects would be generated from cap-and-trade fees on polluters. There would also be increased fines for people who illegally divert water.

The rest of the money would be drawn from the state general fund and be used for projects such as decontaminating groundwater, strengthening conservation, modernizing irrigation and clearing brush to prevent wildfires.

There would be $46 million for emergency housing and feeding of people out of work because of the drought. Drinking water would be provided for communities about to run out.

Water recycling alone, it’s estimated, could supply an additional 2 million acre-feet of water annually — equivalent to more than two Diamond Valley lakes.

One important piece of Brown’s original water action plan that wasn’t included in the emergency legislation is comprehensive groundwater management. It was deemed too controversial for quick passage — a lot of folks don’t like government messing with their water wells — and postponed for June budget bargaining.

“Groundwater basins are the state’s largest reservoir — 10 times the size of all its surface reservoirs combined,” the governor’s budget document noted. “Eighty percent of Californians rely, at least in part, on groundwater for their drinking water.”

But, it continued, “groundwater overdraft is causing subsidence, permanent reductions in underground storage capacity, seawater intrusion, other water quality problems and environmental damage.”

Absent that messy subject, the urgency legislation is expected to pass in a couple of weeks.

But when is California state government going to get serious about desalination? It is engaged in just one minor effort: a $50-million bond program to provide grants for local desalination projects. Only $8.7 million remain in the kitty.

There are a few projects underway, mostly in Southern California. The biggest, by far, is construction of a $1-billion private plant in Carlsbad near San Diego. It will be the biggest desalination facility in the Western Hemisphere when it begins filtering sea water in two years.

Problem is, desalting water is expensive, uses lots of energy, spews greenhouse gases and can kill fish. Desalinized water sells for around $2,000 an acre-foot, perhaps three to four times what dammed fresh water goes for.

But we should be aggressively moving toward cleaning up less-salty brackish water.

Desalination, groundwater cleanup, storm runoff, conservation — a lot of what Brown is proposing (minus monster tunnels) — are the waves of California’s future.