Water Follies

Water, water not quite everywhere and everyone wants it. That, in one sentence is the conundrum over California’s water.  Most of the rain and snow fall in the north; the majority of the people live in the drier south. For decades, northern water has been pumped from north to south.

California is the nation’s leading agricultural production state. Farmers in the Central Valley depend on water that flows through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. So do about two-thirds of the state’s residences. They are in perpetual conflict, while the Delta degrades. Some water plans would permit salt water to intrude into the Delta, ruining levee-protected farming there.

Many of the levees themselves are weak and subject to flooding. In short, it’s a mess.

Governor Schwarzengger threatens to veto some 700 bills on his desk if the legislature does not act by tomorrow (he faces a legal deadline Sunday for signatures). The legislature is working hard, but is under heavy lobbying pressure from various interests.  One measure, AB 893, a $12 billion bond issue to build new waterworks and Delta restoration projects, is opposed by public employee unions who fear that its passage would prevent them from improving their already cushy salaries and pension plans.  Many Northern California water agencies want to buy more time to deliberate, for they fear their sources will be diverted to Southern California.

A second measure, SB 68, would reform water management in and around the Delta.

Meanwhile, a federal judge several months ago ordered a slowdown in the pumping of water into the canal system serving Central Valley farmers for fear the pumps would suck in thousands of small smelt.  Thus, thousands of acres of agricultural land have gone fallow.  Ardent environmentalists Rep. George Miller, Democrat of Contra Costa County, which borders on the Delta, and Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer champion the smelt. As is so often the case with “environmentalists,” what happens to people and economies  is of secondary importance to fish, birds or trees.

Central Valley Democratic office holders are on a knife edge, according to Willie Brown, one-time San Francisco mayor and Speaker of the State Assembly, in a newspaper column this week. He says that voters in the Valley are ready to turn them out if they vote for any measures that impede their access to water and that put smelt ahead of people.

In this boiling pot lies a rare opportunity for Republicans to pick up both state legislative and Congressional seats if they can thread their way through the issue with positions that support water delivery without degrading the Delta. It’s no small trick, but not impossible.