Water Policy 2007: The View from Washington and Sacramento
While the reins of political power may periodically shift, the challenges surrounding water in the West remain, impervious to the circumstances that put Democrats or Republicans in the forefront of decision making.
So it stands in the wake of political upheaval in Washington and a newly inaugurated state Legislature in California that the matter of dealing with the most vital resource demands attention. As with nearly all things taken up by state and federal lawmakers, water management is marked by ideological struggles as well as collaboration and compromise.
The Democratic takeover of Congress has notable implications for California and other Western states. Beyond its historic significance, the ascendancy of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, to the position of Speaker of the House is sure to raise the profile of some water matters, including climate change, which Pelosi has pledged to address in Congress this year.
Meanwhile, California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, who have a combined 30 years experience in the U.S. Senate, are poised to act on several matters of importance, including crafting the means to oversee restoration of the San Joaquin River. Speaking upon introduction of legislation in January, Feinstein said the measure is designed to avoid further litigation on an issue that spent nearly 20 years in court before a settlement between environmentalists and farmers was announced last fall.
“The goal of the legislation is to transform the San Joaquin River into a living river and maintain a stable water supply for the farmers of the region,” Feinstein said.
Boxer now chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, where she has already launched efforts to probe climate change. “One of my top priorities will be to spotlight this issue with the help of colleagues from both sides of the aisle with the goal of ultimately bringing legislation to the Senate floor,” Boxer said upon her appointment as committee chair.
Meanwhile, buoyed by his decisive re-election in November, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wasted little time in unveiling a water infrastructure proposal that includes two surface storage projects. New surface storage has long been a contentious issue among various Capitol interests, where calls for new projects have been stymied for years by those who say the state should pursue less costly and more environmentally friendly water supply policies.
Appearing at Friant Dam March 26 to push his storage proposal, Schwarzenegger said he is committed to seeing the state achieve new surface storage in light of the changed hydrologic conditions predicted to occur through global climate change.
“We are in desperate need to have more above the ground water storage and we want to make sure that we put the spotlight on this issue,” Schwarzenegger said. “This is absolutely essential for the state of California, because we need more water storage because of the increased population.”
The package, which would be on the 2008 ballot, hinges on the ability of local interests to contribute a share of the construction costs, a prospect fraught with uncertainty because of questions surrounding the benefits provided by proposed storage projects at Sites Reservoir in the Sacramento Valley and Temperance Flat, upstream of Friant Dam near Fresno.
New surface storage is not on the agenda for Democrats, who control the state Senate and Assembly. “We don’t believe new dams at this point are needed,” said Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, at a Jan. 25 news conference. “They cost billions of dollars and they take years, in fact decades, to build.”
The schism reflects the ideological divide that surrounds the discussion of storage, which some have equated to a religious argument. Capitol insiders say if there is any middle ground in the debate about surface storage it may be found in the idea of storage in the broader sense, which means shunting excess flows to underground aquifers. However, critics counter that conservation and groundwater management, while necessary pursuits, are not enough to meet California’s water needs as it heads into a future of uncertain weather patterns during which capturing runoff flows is paramount.
“The environmental community can’t have it both ways,” said Doug Haaland, member services director for the Assembly Republican Caucus. “You cannot ring the bell and cause panic in the world that sea levels are going to rise 20 feet, based on no credible science, but nonetheless that you are going to lose 90 percent of the snowpack in the next 100 years and that somehow another brick in the toilet tank is going to solve the problem.”
Environmentalists say existing dams can be re-operated to provide increased water supply and flood protection through investment in downstream floodways, groundwater storage and revised management that better balances storage and releases for flood control.
The discussion of storage and other California water issues will revolve around a new crop of legislators in the Assembly and Senate. Although many of the freshmen lawmakers have experience in local government, they, for the most part, are not privy to the longstanding controversies in the water world.
“Unfortunately, they have a limited exposure to water issues,” said Kathy Cole, legislative representative for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD). “But this is a group that wants to get something done. This is a class of freshmen legislators that really comes here with the belief that they are here for a short time and they want to get some significant public policy under their belt.”
Meanwhile, those with policy experience return with continuing issues of concern, such as flood control, or to address emerging challenges such as climate change. Assemblymember Lois Wolk, D-Davis, who chairs the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, takes on the latter with her AB 224, which requires the Department of Water Resources to factor anticipated changes in climate in the process of compiling documents such as the State Water Plan.
“California continues to rely on its historic hydrological record to plan and create its water infrastructure,” Wolk said. “The time has come to look toward the future and include climate change as a key factor in our water planning.”
Hovering over it all is the fate of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta – which has been handed to no less than a small army of scientific and public policy experts who have scrutinized virtually every aspect of the troubled region. Largely recognized as unsustainable for its current uses in the long-term, the Delta has been compared to a hospital patient awaiting the service of a host of physicians, each with a different cure. In February, some of those doctors
(PhDs, not M.D.s) associated with the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) released a report, Envisioning Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, that outlines the woes and potential remedies for the Delta, backed by the premise that serious consequences will occur “if California fails to develop a viable solution and act on it soon.”
Among the viable solutions offered is the idea that fresh water for export be routed around the Delta and sent directly to the pumping facilities. Defeated 25 years ago as a ballot initiative, the idea of a peripheral canal has been rejuvenated as a legitimate option in light of the substantial evidence depicting the Delta’s decline. The notion does not sit well with in- Delta interests, some of whom believe the PPIC report gives a stamp of approval to a peripheral canal.
“The report supports the idea that the Delta is lost so we have to do something radical and that scares us because it is factually incorrect,” said John Herrick, General Counsel and Manager of the South Delta Water Agency.
According to sources, the Delta’s dire circumstances have forced stakeholders to take nothing off the table in pursuit of a viable, long-term solution. “There is a very wide recognition that there is a window of opportunity but it won’t stay open long,” said Tim Quinn, vice president of State Water Project (SWP) resources for MWD.
The extent to which legislators discuss the issue remains to be seen. A bill by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-San Mateo, which never saw the light of day last year, has returned as SB 27, a $5 billion bond measure that would authorize construction of a conveyance system around the Delta. According to the bill, the prospects of major catastrophe in the Delta from earthquake or flooding require a revamp of the system, which has been described as the hub of the state’s water supply.
“The state’s economy and the state’s budget would be significantly impaired if there were a levee collapse and water supplies were not protected in advance, with that impairment of the economy very likely being more severe than that caused by Hurricane Katrina,” the bill says. “Because of the potential for disruption of the state’s water supplies and to help in restoring salmon and other fish species, it is critical that the existing major water intakes in the Delta be relocated.”
This issue of Western Water looks at the political landscape in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento as it relates to water issues in 2007. Several issues are under consideration, including the means to deal with impending climate change, the fate of the San Joaquin River, the prospects for new surface storage in California and the Delta.
NOTE: A complete copy of this 16-page magazine is available from the Foundation for $3. Visit our Products Page and add the March/April 2007 issue of Western Water to your shopping cart, http://www.watereducation.org/store/default.asp?parentid=7
Each year our program director, Sue McClurg, creates an annual report that includes highlights of our activities in the last year. When we look back at our projects during each year, we are always amazed at how we accomplished all that work. I’m sure you have similar thoughts when you analyze how much you do each year.
Last year we reached a broad audience with publications, maps and videos on various issues including Central Valley flooding and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta infrastructure. We created a major campaign to educate the public on sources and quality of drinking water by using our web site, radio spots and a public television program that is airing this spring and summer on your local PBS station. PBS broadcasting of our documentaries helps us reach millions of Americans and helps them understand more about water issues. Our water tours of the West and in California, conducted by educator Judy Maben, help people understand water issues at the ground level.
One growing project at the Foundation is our school education program (Project WET) and other special school curriculum. We believe in Abraham Lincoln’s saying, “The philosophy of the school room in one generation is the philosophy of the government in the next generation.”
This year’s work at the Foundation is being carried out by a staff of nine full time employees and a couple of part time assistants. We have just completed our 2006 annual report (contact us for a copy) and I thought you might be interested in how the Foundation gets its funding.
The high-quality publications and the programs of the Water Education Foundation depend upon many funding sources. Our work is supported by some federal, state and private grants (41 percent of our revenue), contributions (24 percent), funds from our tours and briefings (23 percent) and our product sales (about 10 percent).
While the Foundation continues to accomplish our objectives and grow, it is always a struggle to find funding for all the projects we want to undertake. Getting people to support nonpartisan education often is a tough sell. We don’t sell water or levy taxes but depend on people supporting the services and products we create. So we look to you to support the Foundation.
Our mission is simple – but difficult. We try to create a better understanding of water issues and help resolve water resource problems through these and other educational programs. We’ve gained lots of respect doing this work and I would like this work to continue to benefit future generations.
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In the News
Officials with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) have announced plans to deal with the troublesome issue of San Joaquin Valley drainage through an in-valley solution that retires farmland while devising the means to treat contaminated runoff.
Under terms of the proposal, announced in March, nearly 200,000 acres of farmland would be permanently retired. Land retirement is viewed as one way to deal with the problem of poorly drained property on the western side of the valley. Decades of irrigation have left Reclamation with the problem of disposing of drain water with high accumulations of salt and selenium, naturally-occurring soil elements.
Reclamation is under a federal court order to provide a drainage system for lands with a high water table that hurts crop production. The drainage issue has been around for 50 years, with a host of activities occurring since that time to ferry drain water from the bowl of the Valley. Thirty years ago, a portion of the San Luis Drain was completed, with 120 miles of collector drains servicing a 42,000-acre portion of the Westlands Water District. However, the toxic effects of selenium-tainted drain water on aquatic birds at the Kesterson Reservoir “significantly changed the approach” to drainage solutions, according to Reclamation.
After further consultation concluded that an in-valley solution offered the best chance for success, court proceedings compelled the federal government to detail how it planned to deal with the problem through a variety of methods. In 2006 an environmental document for an in-valley alternative was completed.
Meanwhile, Reclamation and farming interests are exploring the means by which ownership of part of the Central Valley Project is turned over to farmers (including part ownership of San Luis Reservoir) in exchange, the farmers clean up their own lands. The effort is spurred by the more than $2 billion estimated to build treatment facilities and retire farmland. A concept paper undertaken by Reclamation and its contractors found that “none of the alternatives being of net positive national benefit nor economically justified,” and that “in light of constraints on the federal budget there is doubt that Reclamation could obtain the necessary appropriations to implement the alternatives in a timely manner.”
What ultimately prevails remains to be seen as the process would require federal legislation to implement. Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, called the privatization proposal “an unprecedented development, to say the least,” while Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, called the plan “a far better deal for the taxpayers.”