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
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
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
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.