Editorials

California’s most pressing need: Water

Skiers move uphill in Sequoia National Park on March 22.
Skiers move uphill in Sequoia National Park on March 22. AP

As if we needed more proof, the Sierra snow survey last week made clear that Californians must continue to conserve water while working to build a more reliable water system.

The snowpack is roughly normal in Northern California. But the situation is worse in Southern California, where El Niño was a bust, delivering half of normal rainfall.

Yet more evidence arrived Friday in the form of a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announcement that while many customers will receive adequate water from the Central Valley Project, farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley will receive a mere 5 percent of their contracted allocation.

California’s existing plumbing is in need of help. The state must protect the environment, but also ensure a reliable water delivery system.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein is gamely trying by offering a detailed and thoughtful 184-page piece of legislation, S. 2533. Californians, Gov. Jerry Brown chief among them, ought to embrace Feinstein’s effort and offer amendments as they see fit. So far, however, John Laird, Brown’s resources secretary, offers faint praise for “much of” Feinstein’s legislation in a one-paragraph, 103-word statement.

And in a visit to The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board last week, Feinstein answered, in a word, a question about whether President Barack Obama has engaged. “No,” she said. Remaining lukewarm or staying aloof is not a sign of leadership.

Even if this year’s El Niño had delivered as hoped, California’s water crisis would not have ended. The state needs three years of above-average precipitation to recover, and far more than that to restore depleted aquifers.

It also needs more storage, underground and above ground, including the long-planned Sites Reservoir in Colusa and Glenn counties, additional recycling and probably more desalination plants.

Even if this year’s El Niño had delivered as hoped, California’s water crisis would not have ended.

Feinstein’s bill would help fund them, offering $1.3 billion for a variety of projects, to supplement the $7.5 billion water bond approved by California voters in 2014. She also seeks funding for additional research so state and federal water system managers can justify decisions to withhold water, or increase pumping to the Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

Feinstein’s bill, like the water bond, is neutral on Brown’s proposal to divert water past the Delta through two tunnels, 30 miles long at a cost of $15.5 billion.

Even if Feinstein can move her bill out of the Senate – and it’s unclear that a senator from the minority party in an election year can do that – she will face a hostile House.

There, Republicans led by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, and Devin Nunes of Tulare and David Valadao of Hanford have their own vision for California’s water. That includes taking aim at the protections provided by the Endangered Species Act for salmon and Delta smelt, the 3-inch-long fish that is on the verge of extinction because of demands on Delta water, pollutants and predation from non-native bass.

The election-year politics are a quagmire. Environmentalists will fight any effort to undermine the Endangered Species Act. An initiative funded by a wealthy Stockton farmer will be on the November ballot to undermine the ability to fund the twin tunnels. A second measure being contemplated would weaken state environmental law.

A new farmer-funded political organization, the National Alliance for Environmental Reform, is gearing up to gather support for its version of the water crisis story by releasing a video, “Dead Harvest.” The group urges more water storage, which is important. It also advocates weakening the Endangered Species Act, one of the nation’s fundamental environmental protections.

Feinstein’s bill states that the measure would not be implemented in a manner that “overrides, modifies or amends the applicability of the Endangered Species Act.” But she runs afoul of environmentalists and salmon fishermen by urging maximizing water deliveries. Her desire to help increase water flows is understandable.

For the most part, California has recovered from the 2008 housing crash and recession. But the recovery is far from even. In San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, the latest unemployment rates were 3.3 percent, 3 percent and 3.8 percent, respectively. In the other California, in Tulare, Fresno and Merced counties, the unemployment rates were 12.1 percent, 10.5 percent and 12.6 percent. The impact of the drought exacerbates the pain.

In some Valley towns, taps have run dry. In others, water is too toxic to safely drink, not a concern for the people of San Francisco and the peninsula who drink pristine Sierra water direct from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

Californians have never much liked sharing water. But some people are not giving up trying. The rest ought to jump in. There is no more pressing issue for California’s future.

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