California's water future at a crossroads

A state commission begins deliberations on how to spend $2.7B for water storage.

 

Last fall, when California voters were about to go to the polls to weigh in on a complex proposition to improve the state’s water situation, some environmental groups balked. Though the bill, Proposition 1, to authorize the raising of $7.5 billion on the bond market, promised money for better parks, more wildlife habitat and the restoration of urbanized rivers (like maybe the one that runs through Los Angeles), it also set aside $2.7 billion for “water storage projects” that have a “public benefit.”

But it was never quite clear what those words meant. Would the $2.7 billion become seed money for two new dams on the state agricultural industry's wish list? Or would it go toward groundwater storage projects that keep water closer to home? The bill was written to be "tunnel neutral," meaning it wouldn't automatically pay for a pair of canals that Gov. Jerry Brown wants to build, to draw water from the Sacramento River and ostensibly reduce pumping from the ecologically stressed California Delta. But it wasn't "tunnel negative," either. 

It’s mystery meat,” Adam Scow, California director of the activist nonprofit group Food and Water Watch, said of that $2.7 billion pot. Nevertheless, with Brown's juggernaut of support lined up behind it, the water bill passed easily, with 67 percent of the vote. So now Prop 1's opponents have a new cause: Riding herd on the nine Governor-appointed members of the California Water Commission, the people who will decide how the money gets spent.

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Formed in 1913 to referee water-rights wars in the state, the California Water Commission now exists to advise the Department of Water Resources and supervise the State Water Project. In its current incarnation, it includes at least one bonafide environmental leader of a conservationist bent, Kim Delfino of Defenders of Wildlife, but also one passionate advocate for Central Valley farmers and their water rights, grower Joe Del Bosque, who last year got President Obama to visit his farm with a tweeted invitation. Also on the commission are a Silicon Valley contractor, an engineer, a water district manager, an educator and a consultant. Joseph Byrne, a Los Angeles attorney specializing in California environmental law, was appointed in 2010 and serves as its current chair.

The commission has just begun to deliberate on that $2.7 billion; much of their January 21 meeting was spent setting rules for that process. Members of the public who showed up to speak weighed in heavily on the conservationist side, warning against big water-storage projects that will exacerbate California’s already undeliverable promises to farmers. Such endeavors “have a long history of claimed environmental benefits that didn’t come to pass,” said Barry Nelson of Western Water Strategies, formerly of the NRDC. Tim Stroshane of the Environmental Water Caucus pushed for expanding the use of existing groundwater basins, such as the one in north Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley; “investing in them will lead to less demand for imported water,” he told the commission. “Real water reliability would result.”

The commission has a deadline to finish its Prop 1 work by the end of December of 2016, at which point — assuming they meet that deadline — California may have moved a tiny bit toward a more sustainable water system. Or the state will have continued farther along its current path, in which no storm, no matter how big, can make a dent in the current, grindingly persistent drought. Already agricultural interests are circling the wagons around their share, accusing Brown of reneging on his promises by allocating $532 million in Prop 1 funds for stream restoration, recycling projects, aquifer cleanup and other environmentally friendly ideas. Never mind that such projects were in the bill from the start — they are, after all, what got environmentalists on board — and don't cut into the water storage funds. 

No doubt the water commissioners, too, will anger some segment of the state’s population, no matter what they decide "water storage" means for California's future. But they also have a chance to set the state on a course toward fewer crises, and hence fewer water conflicts.  As Department of Water Resources director Mark Cowan said at the commission’s January meeting, the “new responsibilities that come with Prop 1 make these probably the most important years in the California Water Commission’s history.” The commission may not, as the Pacific Institute's chief water wonk Peter Gleick rightly argued last November, be able to solve all of California's problems with Prop 1 funds. But their work might just mark the start of asking the right questions.

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor of High Country News. 

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