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Editorial: Whoa! Stop the rush on governor's water plans

At this point, his ideas for new dams are sketchy and won't help troubled Delta

September 14, 2007, Sacramento Bee Editorial.

Up until a few weeks ago, it appeared that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan to spend $5.9 billion on water projects was going nowhere. But then a federal judge cut back water pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, giving the governor a new peg on which to hang his dam-building hat.

Tuesday, Schwarzenegger called a special session that will focus partly on water. Yet that doesn't mean we'll see thoughtful deliberations on this most complex of issues. Lawmakers have plans for travel junkets, so Senate leader Don Perata wants to strike a water deal by Wednesday. Otherwise they might find it difficult to make a Sept. 27 deadline for placing a bond issue on the February ballot.

Clearly, the situation in the Delta should prompt some urgency. Its levees are vulnerable to earthquakes. Rising sea levels threaten to salinate the drinking water for 25 million people. More immediately, the ruling by Judge Oliver Wanger could mean a 12 percent to 37 percent reduction in water exports from the Delta.


The problem, however, is the governor's plans for new reservoirs do little to help the Delta, and could prove to be a wasteful investment. Democratic leaders seem to realize these risks. Yet they also need the governor's support for a modification of term limits on the next ballot. So there's a chance they may try to appease the governor by agreeing to spend vast sums on some of his half-baked projects.

One of these projects is the Temperance Flat reservoir the governor wants to build above Friant Dam near Fresno. The governor touts Temperance as a flood control project, but it is mainly supported by San Joaquin Valley farmers who hope to gain a new supply of subsidized water. Studies suggest this water could cost at least $350 an acre foot -- at least seven times higher than what growers currently pay in the area. Will farmers pay this cost? Not a chance. Someone else will have to cover the difference.

Another project on the governor's list is the proposed Sites reservoir -- an off-stream facility that could cost more than $2 billion. Who would benefit? Who would help pay for it? At this point, the state isn't sure. For a long time, it was assumed that the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District would be a beneficiary. But on Aug. 8, the district wrote a letter to the Department of Water Resources questioning the state's plans to make the district pay for part of the plumbing.

There may be a need for future surface storage of water, but Schwarzenegger hasn't come close to making a case for these projects. Indeed, it's surprising that a governor with such an innovative record of tackling climate change still focuses only on 19th-century tools for solving the state's water woes.

Six billion dollars is a lot of money. It could be put to good use if the state were to identify projects that could help move water through the Delta while repairing its abused ecosystem. Some funds could also be distributed through a competitive process, in which regions identify the cheapest way to enhance their supply -- through water recycling, clean-up of aquifers, conservation or storage.

At the same time, elected leaders must recognize California faces not just a water crisis, but a fiscal crisis. If they want to add to the state's yearly debt service, they need to identify what programs they'd cut to pay for improved plumbing.

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