San Francisco Chronicle: Time to get real about California’s water supply

by coalitionadmin on March 15, 2012

Time to get real about California’s water supply

Lois Wolk
Thursday, March 1, 2012
Click here to read online.

Thirty years ago voters resoundingly rejected an enormous “peripheral canal” to ship more Northern California water south. Today, that old idea has been repackaged as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. This time it’s even more expensive and less practical. Estimated to cost between $12 billion and $54 billion, the plan is backed by large water interests that say they will pay for a portion. But, in truth, all ratepayers and taxpayers will be the ones footing the bill. It’s time for a reality-based approach, not more expensive pipe dreams.

Despite its new name, this plan has less to do with providing water needed to “conserve the delta” than it does with providing a 50-year permit to divert even more freshwater from the delta through a newly constructed canal or tunnel. Proposed funding for this boondoggle includes a combination of tens of billions in increased water rates and borrowing. That’s your money, not the water interests’ money. The plan is unaffordable, unrealistic and outdated.

I believe that there is a commonsense alternative approach. The plan should be rethought, based first on providing the freshwater necessary to revive the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the largest estuary and fishery ecosystem on the Pacific Coast. Only then can we determine how much water can be safely exported, and by what means. Science, not politics, should guide the process.

Meanwhile, there are practical and affordable steps we can take today to reverse the environmental decline of the delta and improve water supply security for every region of the state. We can do so without pitting the north against south, the environment against the economy, or taxpayers against their government.

Here are some suggestions:

Increase regional self-reliance: Millions of acre-feet of new water can be developed quickly at the regional and local levels without environmental conflict or budget-busting expenditures. By utilizing innovative, fiscally sound water strategies, including small reservoirs, water recycling, desalination and groundwater storage and cleanup, we can reduce rather than increase reliance on the ailing delta.

Improve the delta ecosystem: The current Bay Delta Conservation Plan envisions more than 100,000 acres of controversial restoration projects at a cost of $4 billion – a cost the public is expected to shoulder through increased borrowing. Instead, we can begin today with smaller scale restoration programs, in the 5-acre to 15,000-acre range. Successful models already exist, including partnerships with local government in the Yolo Basin Wildlife Area and Liberty Island, and partnerships with private landowners in the Suisun Marsh. These models should be replicated.

Screening the existing pumps used to export delta water would decrease fish kills, help stabilize the fishery and reverse the environmental collapse of the delta.

Secure delta water: The possibility of levee collapse in the delta threatens the ability to move water to other regions of the state. Currently, delta levees are maintained by local reclamation districts for protection of agricultural lands. With partnerships, cost sharing and improved engineering, we can strengthen the delta levees and reduce these risks. Best of all, we can use existing unspent bond funds. No new taxes are necessary.

Enormous statewide engineering projects that move water from one part of the state to another are a thing of the past. They represent decades of worn-out thinking. We have evolved. It’s time to set aside these expensive pipe dreams and get real about California’s water future. Let’s start now.

State Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, represents the Fifth Senate District, serving the delta communities of Sacramento, Dixon, Vacaville, Stockton, Tracy and Manteca.

This article appeared on page A – 14 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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