California Water: Hearts and Minds

I saw an interesting story last night from the Sacramento Bee’s Matt Weiser: “Underground Tunnel Gets Closer Look for Shipping Water Through Delta.” The piece deals with the latest twist on a long-talked-about fix for the plumbing in the state and federal systems that move water from Northern to Southern California. Back in 1982, Governor Jerry Brown promoted a ballot initiative for a massive new waterway–dubbed the Peripheral Canal–that would iron out some kinks in the current system of pumps and canals. Seen in the north as a Southern California water grab and almost everywhere as an overpriced boondoggle, the initiative went down with a 62.7 percent “no” vote.

But because the need and competition for water has only increased since then, the idea has never gone away. It’s back this year as part of the debate over the $11.1 billion bond measure on this November’s ballot. The initiative doesn’t specifically set aside money for a Peripheral Canal, but everyone assumes that at least some of billions in the initiatives uncommitted funds will go to what’s now called a “conveyance” project.

The canal is still the object of fear and loathing in the Delta and elsewhere in Northern California–just another act in the endless plot to take the region’s most precious resource. But one thing different from past years, though: Some major environmental groups have signed on to both the bond and plans for some sort of Peripheral Canal. Why the change of heart? I think it comes down to the widespread recognition that the tortuous method of channeling water from the Sacramento River into the Delta and then into the aqueducts is broken and is a prime suspect in the collapse of the Central Valley’s once-magnificent chinook salmon runs and other environmental problems. The thinking is that if you straighten out the plumbing, you take care of the major hazards to the fish and to the Delta ecosystem.

Once you have the new canal or tunnel, all you have to do is manage the water flowing through it to the benefit of everyone involved.

And that’s the problem. To believe a canal will fix an environmental disaster, one must believe that the demand for new water and the machinations to get it by any means possible will suddenly just evaporate. Letting high river flows sweep through the Delta and out to sea–part of what’s necessary to aid salmon migrate to the Pacific–is condemned as a waste by those who want to put that water to work in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. That belief just won’t disappear overnight.

Today’s outstanding exhibit of that mindset is a move from Senator Dianne Feinstein to essentially suspend the Endangered Species Act to guarantee increased federal water deliveries to the valley (apparently no one has told her that the main reason less water has been going down there is California’s three-year drought; maybe she could write a bill to outlaw below-average rainfall, too). Feinstein says she’s concerned about farm jobs–the areas worst-hit by the drought have been prone to cycles of high unemployment for decades. But the first thing that comes to mind when you hear about her plan is her eager readiness to go to bat for big campaign donors in the valley who are unhappy with federal plans to protect salmon and other endangered species (see “Corporate Farmer Calls Upon Feinstein to Influence Environmental Dispute” by Lance Williams of the Center for Investigative Reporting).

That’s the way the game is played. New ground rules about how water is handled might change that. A new tunnel or canal won’t

Water Project: California Reservoir Watch

The background: The state Department of Water Resources announced yesterday that its “initial allocation” of supplies for the next year is 5 percent. What that means: It’s only promising to deliver 5 percent of the water that customers have asked for. The reason: Three low-rainfall years–nothing Mother Nature can’t handle, but a disaster for us humans–and some limits placed on water shipments to protect endangered fish. The reaction: Agriculture and other water contractors say it sure looks like the sky is falling. So does the governor, whose biggest agenda item for his last year in office is getting the voters to pass an $11 billion bond for water projects. The rhetoric from the water interests has led some environmentalists and other water-policy skeptics to say the 5 percent allocation is little more than a scare tactic to sell the bond.

Whatever the case may be, I noticed an interesting thing in the documents the Department of Water Resources released with its allocation announcement: The water managers are cutting the promised deliveries to 5 percent even though a chart (PDF) they put out shows they have 20 percent more water in the bank than they did last year–when the initial allocation was 15 percent. One of my colleagues at KQED asked the department’s deputy director about this, and the initial answer was along the lines of, “That’s weird–I don’t know.” Later, she suggested the chart was wrong because it didn’t take into account the fact some of the water in storage is already committed to other customers and can’t be allocated. (As a matter of fact, current combined storage at major reservoirs in the Sacramento-San Joaquin system is running 17 percent ahead of last year at this time; of course, last year was really, really bad, and that same group of reservoirs is only storing 72 percent of average for this date.)

The chart still hasn’t been fixed, though, and it lends credence to the arguments that the allocation–which is only a beginning number and is likely to be adjusted far upward as the season progresses–is being used to aid the bond campaign.

Anyway; Since I got into all this stuff yesterday, and since reservoir levels are such a big part of this debate and the state’s well-being, I put together a map showing where the biggest reservoirs are and the current storage levels. Here it is:

View KQED: California Reservoir Watch in a larger map

California Water: ‘Crumbling Infrastructure’?

Sparse posts of late. The reasons are many. Let me toll off some of them: Facebook. Twitter. Another absorbing online project having to do with the future of California water. Work. Non-Internet recreations. Sleep. Dog-walking.

But about the water stuff: the current distraction was triggered by the Legislature’s recent passage of five bills, including an $11.14 billion bond measure, intended to refocus water policy and “rebuild California’s crumbling water infrastructure”–our governor’s preferred formulation and one widely parroted by politicos, pundits, and journalists alike.

Yes, I question the “crumbling infrastructure” line. Why? The system of levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta–an area drained and diked more than a century ago–is known to be in need of constant attention. Some of the levees may even be said to crumble. But the description doesn’t apply elsewhere. The state, federal government, and water districts have invested billions over the past couple of decades to keep their facilities from deteriorating.

“Crumbling water infrastructure” has become the early campaign slogan for the bond campaign. The phrase is standing in for a more complex reality, and one that has nothing to do with the condition of physical facilities. It’s true California’s water system seems broken. But the stress is the result of growing population, an ancient and unresolved battle for water between urban and agricultural interests, and the arrival over the past few decades of a new interest that demands water: environmentalists and fishery groups arguing on behalf of salmon and other species that have been extirpated or brought to the brink of extinction. And add one more factor: Schemes to divert Canadian rivers or the Great Lakes aside, there’s only so much water to go around in California.

One thing that’s struck me as I’ve pored paragraph by paragraph through the bond measure is that we’ve been here before. Just one for-instance. Back in the 1990s, there was a grand negotiation involving the state and federal government and all the interests, including environmentalists. Eventually, the process became known as CALFED–that’s pronounced “cal-fed” and has nothing to do with newborn beeves. In August 2000 CALFED produced a behemoth set of agreements, principles, legislation and environmental studies, all designed to do the same thing the governor and Legislature say they’re doing now. CALFED was to enhance the state’s water system by building more reservoirs, better managing groundwater, and figuring out better ways of moving water from north to south without killing the Delta.

But the consensus that built CALFED disintegrated. Neither the federal nor state governments delivered promised support. The parties to the deal backed out as prospects for progress on any of the basic issues dimmed. The new state legislation specifically supersedes CALFED. Except for that act–killing a moribund program–you wonder how much the new laws will accomplish. Important components are widely denounced, the state’s in no shape to take on the increased debt, and neither are the voters in a mood to write big checks to bureaucrats. And the political climate for the water bills seems simply poisonous: the bills were written virtually in secret, the bond has been faulted for being chock-full of earmarks, and only a small minority of voters express approval of the Legislature or the governor.

What’s next, then? It would be nice to believe some sort of open process could result in solutions that could win support from most of those affected, that would be feasible, and that would be investments in the state’s future. There’s talk of an alternative bond measure that would be much more precisely targeted than the one the Legislature approved. That could be a start, because I would guess that that’s the only way the voters approve a water bond in 2010. And if no money is approved, then California’s looking at another still-born attempt at tackling its water problems.

Spare-Time Work Project

As I was saying the other day, California’s new water bond measure sure is interesting. The voters will be asked next November to let the state borrow $11.14 billion for a whole slew of water projects: water conservation efforts, water reclamation, water recycling, groundwater monitoring, drought relief, and measures that will let local and regional agencies do semi-water-related things like build bike paths near rivers. A good piece of the $11 billion will simply be a pile of cash for the Legislature to sit on and hand out to worthy dam projects and other water-development initiatives. Governor Schwarzenegger signed the bill calling for the bond measure yesterday, and he’s talking as if it’s a done deal. At the same time, snipers have appeared. Legislators from both parties are saying the initiative is flawed and padded with unnecessary spending. Some reporters are getting in on the act, too. I decided to find the text of the bond bill myself and pore through it. Once I started to do that, I started thinking of ways to highlight the spending provisions. A spreadsheet? That’s good if you like raw data. A map? It seemed doable, so I went to work on Google Maps. The result–still a work in progress, and sing out if you have any suggestions–is here and also embedded below. We put it up on a KQED page, it’s gotten passed around some on Twitter and maybe elsewhere. And tonight I found out that one of the governor’s press aides was consulting it (well–the press aide is a former colleague of mine).

View California’s Water Bill: Where Would the Money Go? in a larger map