California’s big gulp

Today, Snow and McIntyre begin their Dust-Up with a debate on the political urgency of ending the state’s water crisis. Later in the week, they’ll discuss population growth, water desalination and more.

Don’t be fooled by the rain — we’re in a water emergency
By Lester Snow

It is true that the political focus on water policy has waned temporarily due to the urgency of the budget crisis and the illusion of ample water supplies this year. Fortunately, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not wavered in his efforts to advance water infrastructure investment. Additionally, and despite the near-normal snow pack of this winter, many areas of the state will face shortages and ecosystem problems will continue. The underlying inadequacies of our water management system remain unaddressed.

As the governor and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) have advocated, we must reinvest in water infrastructure to provide for reliable water supplies and a healthy ecosystem.

Much of the state’s water supply is delivered through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Last December, U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger imposed pumping restrictions to protect the endangered delta smelt, a native fish. This means that even if water is available, it may not be delivered. As of March, the State Water Project was delivering only 35% of requested water to communities, farmers and businesses.

In addition to these cutbacks, and even though our mountain snow pack has been measured at near-normal levels this year, we’re still making up for dry conditions in 2007. The state’s most important water-supply reservoirs are well below normal levels. For example, Lake Oroville -- the principal storage reservoir for our State Water Project -- is at about 60% of what it should be for this time of year.

Regarding the snow pack, we need to be looking at the impact of climate change. Experts expect continuing climate change to reduce snow levels and cause more precipitation to fall as rain. And while our natural “reservoir” that is the winter snow pack is being reduced, changing patterns of precipitation will also increase the danger of flooding and the need to capture more rainwater in reservoirs.

In one way or another, all of this centers on the Delta, where we tap our rivers to meet the needs of most Californians. And the delta will not be able to provide reliable water supplies unless we start acting immediately to fix our problems.

Fortunately, Schwarzenegger has shown strong leadership in proposing solutions to our water problems. His Bay Delta Conservation Plan, for example, calls for a collaborative effort by water agencies, other federal and state agencies and environmental organizations to improve water storage, quality, conveyance and conservation to both protect our environment and reliably meet the demands of agriculture, cities, homes, businesses and industry.

The delta’s ecosystem and water-delivery capability cannot be sustained without major changes. At this point, no amount of precipitation will dispel the urgency of fixing the state’s water crisis. There are no silver bullets. We need to invest in water conservation, improved water quality, additional storage and alternate delta conveyance to save the delta and ensure a reliable water supply well into the future. Reforming water policy and reinvesting in California water infrastructure may not be easy, but it is essential to the state’s future.

Lester Snow is director of the California Department of Water Resources.

Old solutions won’t solve today’s crisis
By Mindy McIntyre

There is widespread agreement that California’s approach to managing water for human and environmental needs is broken. Cities and farms are finding that their water supplies are not as reliable as they thought. At the same time, several fish species are facing extinction. Many biologists conclude that one California fish species may be gone by next year.

If everyone agrees that California is on an unsustainable path, then why don’t we link arms to support a solution? The answer is that California is just now coming to grips with the causes of these problems.

Until last year, most of the water establishment believed that they could keep pumping more water from the state’s rivers and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta (the largest estuary on the west coast of North and South America) to meet agricultural and urban demands. In obscure processes such as the Napa Agreement (a closed-door negotiation) and another bureaucracy known as the CalFed, they deluded themselves into thinking that there were no physical or environmental limits -- even as the signs of disaster were plain to see if one just took the time to look.

This view crashed with several related events. First was the near-total collapse of the delta ecosystem. This led to the second shoe falling when a federal judge found that operations of the massive state and federal pumps that move water from the delta were a primary cause of the problem. The court ordered the pumping be cut back -- the first indication that there is a limit to the amount of water that can be exported from Northern to Southern California.

At the same time, studies of the Colorado River indicate that there is a significant possibility that the river in the near future may not be provide as much water to the Western states as it has for the last several decades. Research shows that despite the fact that we have built massive dams on the Colorado River, nature may not fill the lakes these dams create. Compounding all of this is the recognition that climate change is already affecting our Sierra snowpack and water supply.

The governor should be commended for his call for increased conservation. In addition, several other realities will have to be accepted for effective solutions to move forward.

The first is that California’s rivers and streams are already over-allocated. Building new dams to allow more diversions from already water-short streams would perpetuate the problems we are seeing with endangered species and water quality, not lead to solutions.

Second, the condition of our economy requires that we look for new solutions that do not rely so heavily on public subsidies. Any bond presented to voters should serve multiple public benefits and address the needs of California today. We ought to steer clear of bonds that provide new subsidies for a select few based on assumptions and strategies from the past. While we move as quickly as possible to sort out the long-term solutions, the governor should approve the list of immediate actions that everyone agrees are ready to go.

Lastly, California needs to develop water solutions that support a healthy economy while restoring a healthy environment. We cannot rely on strategies from the past to solve the problems they created and address the water issues of the future. I’ll write more on that tomorrow.

Mindy McIntyre is the Planning and Conservation League’s water program manager.

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