Capitol Journal: Newsom says he has a fresh approach to California’s longtime water woes

The Friant-Kern Canal is an irrigation canal and part of the Central Valley Project aqueduct.
The Friant-Kern Canal is an irrigation canal and part of the Central Valley Project aqueduct.
(Education Images)

At first blush, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s latest action on water seems fanciful and naive. But it has logic and conceivably could work.

Newsom wants to reexamine practically everything the state has been working on — meaning what former Gov. Jerry Brown was doing — and piece together a grand plan for California’s future that can draw the support of longtime water warriors.

That’s a noble idea, but it seems highly unrealistic. Since statehood, water has historically been California’s most contentious issue — as it has been throughout the West.

There’s a reason why a quote attributed to Mark Twain has become a well-worn cliche: “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.” It’s fact.


“Part of the problem of water is that everybody is fighting to protect what’s theirs and keep everyone else from taking it,” says Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced), who represents part of the San Joaquin Valley farm belt. “They’ve got to work together and collaborate.”

He points out why there’s a ray of hope for an epic truce. San Joaquin Valley farmers, he says, “are insecure about the future.”

So are rival farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta — and, in fact, farmers all over the state. So should be city dwellers and suburbanites, largely because California’s population keeps growing while climate change messes up the way we obtain our water.

Scientists predict there’ll be less snow banked in the Sierra for gradual runoff into rivers and reservoirs. It’ll come down in drenching downpours and flow swiftly to the ocean, unless we can develop new ways of capturing it for reservoir or underground storage.

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The sea will rise, bringing more salt into the delta, which supplies drinking water for 25 million people.

San Joaquin Valley farmers have been over-pumping groundwater, drying up wells and causing land to sink, cracking canals. A 2014 law requires groundwater replenishment and use to be in balance by 2040. That will mean taking at least 500,000 acres of farmland out of production, experts say.

Meanwhile, pumping delta water into southbound aqueducts has devastated salmon runs and damaged the coastal fishing industry.


And there’s an ugly, little-mentioned truth: In the last century, the state handed out rights to five times more surface water than our rivers produce in a normal year.

So it would make good sense for all combatants — “stakeholders,” as they’re called in government-speak — to sit down, reason together and compromise. That’s what Newsom hopes. He’d even like major water agencies — as unlikely as it might seem — to voluntarily give up river water to protect endangered salmon.

The governor issued an executive order Monday directing his administration to develop a grand plan for meeting California’s 21st century water needs. The task went to the state’s Natural Resources Agency, Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Food and Agriculture. They’re expected to wrap it up by the end of the year.

There were few details, but Newsom spelled out some goals.


“The governor’s interested in a new direction,” says Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot. “But we don’t want to start from ground zero and reinvent the wheel.”

Related: California wastes most of its rainwater, which simply goes down the drain »

Food and ag director Karen Ross says, “We have 19th century laws governing 20th century infrastructure while we face 21st century challenges.”

EPA Secretary Jared Blumenfeld: “It’s time for California to catch up with the rest of the world. We like to think of ourselves as being on the cutting edge, but when it comes to water we lag behind.


“In Israel, 80% of the water flushed down the toilet is recycled and used for agriculture. In California, about 8% is.”

Mayor Eric Garcetti gets kudos in Sacramento for recently pledging that by 2035 Los Angeles will recycle all its wastewater and reduce the need for importing supplies.

In his executive order, Newsom reaffirmed an earlier decision to scale back Brown’s delta twin-tunnels project to one tunnel. The project’s purpose is to reduce use of the delta pumps and protect against future salinity by siphoning fresh Sacramento River water from the delta’s northern end and sending it directly into the aqueducts.

But even one tunnel, as currently planned, would be huge: 40 feet wide and capable of carrying up to 6,000 cubic feet of water per second. Delta communities and local farmers fear that during a drought, there could be an L.A. water grab that would practically dry up the river.


Crowfoot says that worry might be handled by designing a tunnel “so it only worked in high water flows, like a weir.”

“We’ll work with them constructively with an open mind,” says Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, who heads the anti-tunnel group Restore the Delta. “We’ll try to get along with these people and see what can happen this time.”

Newsom listed these challenges: unsafe drinking water, flood risks, depleted aquifers, unreliable water supplies for farm communities and the threatened extinction of native fish.

“We’ll need an all-of-above approach,” he said. “Embrace innovation and new technologies.”


But Newsom’s order led off with an eye-roller: “Water is a human right.”

Sorry, it’s a need, not a right. Some guy trying to hike across Death Valley in August isn’t entitled to government water — nor is a developer who wants to build a subdivision in the middle of the Mojave.

But it’s good that the new governor is taking a fresh look at water and hopefully heading in a better direction.

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