Friday, February 27, 2009

A tenuous web of water

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency because of a drought, setting the stage for a renewed push to dramatically revamp California's water system.

At the center of this "urgent need to update California’s water infrastructure," of course, is the Peripheral Canal, a controversial project that would direct water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta instead of through it — theoretically ensuring more stable water delivery to Places Previously Unwatered.

State Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Fresno, has introduced a bill to advance this and other measures, namely a dam on the San Joaquin River and other storage projects. Schwarzenegger has said this legislation — the Safe, Clean, Reliable, Drinking Water Supply Act of 2009 — will "get the ball rolling again."

"I know that California’s legislators recognize the need to ensure a clean, reliable water supply and I look forward to working with them to pass a comprehensive water solution this year that increases storage, improves conveyance, protects the Delta’s ecosystem and promotes greater water conservation," Schwarzenegger said.

It makes sense that this bill would come from Cogdill's desk. He represents one of the thirstiest corners of California. Without imported or dammed water, the fields of Fresno would be virtually unfarmable.

It seems obvious that the goal of the renewed push toward a new water system is to ensure that Central Valley farmers and Southern California residents get the wet stuff they've been used to getting ever since the Delta-Mendota Canal and California Aqueduct were built. All other thoughts seem somewhat auxillary.

But there are serious environmental questions that plague such a Peripheral Canal and dam-building spree, and there's been an often-overlooked constituency in the Delta Fate Debate. Namely, the people who call the Delta home.

If that's you, consider the Record's Mike Fitzgerald your champion.

"In the ominous Delta debate, south-state interests maneuver for reliable water. Environmentalists champion the ecosystem. No one gives high priority to the region.

"Us. The Delta's people. The Delta's communities, economies, infrastructure, architecture, history, its other habitats and various ways of life."

It's true there's been a lack of balance when talking about what should be done with California's water system. Farmers, fishers, environmentalists and residents of Northern and Southern California all have a stake. But too often the argument comes down to a one-or-the-other polemic.

Not really a great place to start negotiations.

Luckily, State Sen. Lois Wolk, who represents Tracy and most of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, is introducing a plan that would try to balance these competing interests.

"When saving the Delta, people forget about the Delta. Saving the Delta can't just be about balancing the interests of Southern California, corporate agriculture and endangered fish," she explains. "Doing just that is a recipe for ruin. There are people, communities, recreation, wildlife, history, transportation, and economic infrastructure that must be considered."

Let's not mistake the importance of getting water to where it's needed. Farmers should get water so that they can continue growing. Without water, they're sunk, and so is a vast chunk of California's economy and the country's food supply. But that is not the only concern to be balanced.

No one group has enough water for its needs right now. Residents are cutting back, farmers are fallowing fields, the Delta ecosystem is dying despite pumping restrictions. And Mother Nature ain't bailing us out this winter.

Wolk's bill acknowledges that tenuous web, which is more than many in this debate have done.

Tough choices must be made in the Capitol about the state's water future. No doubt there will be winners and losers. (Hopefully, the losers rhyme with Los Bangeles).

But most of all, let's hope the process is done with the thought in mind that virtually everyone south of Sacramento relies on the Delta in some way.

So far, all we've got is a push for a Peripheral Canal in the interest of the debate's most powerful players. That's simply not good enough with something so important.

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