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Gov. Pete Wilson: California had a plan to store storm water, but Democrats blew it

Gov. Pete Wilson: California had a plan to store storm water, but Democrats blew it
The Los Angeles River is seen swollen northeast of downtown L.A. on Feb. 2 as water from recent heavy rains is shunted out to sea. (John Antczak / AP)

To the editor: George Skelton’s question of why the state and federal governments don’t store more stormwater before it escapes to the sea is not a new one.

In the late 1990s, the federal and state governments did in fact forge a cooperative compact — called “Cal Fed” — to achieve what I said would be “water of sufficient quantity and quality to provide California's needs for fish, farm and factory.” Both state and federal agencies were to budget and coordinate spending and permitting for agreed-upon projects to achieve that goal.

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For some years there was such cooperation, particularly in the funding of conservation and environmental projects. But when year after year I included money in the state budget for surface collection and storage projects to bank against droughts, the money was removed by the Democratic majorities in the Legislature. When agricultural interests rightly complained that they were being cheated out of their fair share of projects, support for Cal Fed evaporated. The bargain had been broken.

Quietly, powerful “no growth” advocates in Washington and Sacramento had given the signal that surface collection was not politically in season. So California continues to dilute the Pacific — except of course during the punishing droughts that take an entirely predictable and avoidable harsh toll.

As Skelton writes, the impacts have been many. Builders in communities that are denied adequate water cannot, by law, respond to California’s crying need for affordable housing. He quotes Jeffrey Mount, a former UC Davis earth sciences professor: “We’re not running out of water in California. We’re running out of cheap water.” That’s what happens when we don’t save water even in times of heavy precipitation.

Pete Wilson, Los Angeles

The writer was governor of California from 1991-99.

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To the editor: Skelton presents a number of reasons why Northern California's abundant supply of water flows out to sea rather than being sent to Southern California. I have another reason.

In 1982, an initiative to build a peripheral canal that would shunt water around the Sacramento–San Joaquin River was on the ballot. The project would have resulted in much of the water that was flowing out to sea coming to Southern California instead.

During the campaign, I spoke to a group of engineers at a hotel near LAX. At the end of my presentation, I spoke in support of the canal. Afterward, someone in the audience said this:

“Several of us here are engineers from the San Francisco area, and I want you to know that everything you said about the proposed canal is accurate. But we want to emphasize one important point: Don’t take our water.”

In other words, many in Northern California would rather let the water be wasted than send it to us.

Martin A. Brower, Corona del Mar

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To the editor: On Feb. 15, the L.A. Daily News published an op-ed article by former Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) in which she expressed support for something the Israelis have been doing for decades — desalination.

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She wrote: “Now post-Senate, as a private citizen of California, I am doing everything I can to encourage state government to provide Californians with a climate-resilient water supply. The time is now.”

California has a permanent, climate-resident water supply. Yes, desalination is expensive, but so is drought.

William Lovelace, Los Angeles

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