Action on California’s water supply is long overdue

Water is the lifeblood of society. Ask any archeologist digging through the bone dry ruins of lost civilizations that have turned to dust. We’re not immune, and we’ve been warned. Mid-West floods, Hurricane Katrina, daily news articles, all tell us of the danger.  Unfortunately, with a hyper-partisan 24 hour news media, the message of a water crisis gets lost. After all, when you turn on the tap, clean water comes out.

Ask the farmers, struggling to get the water they need as they watch the most fertile agricultural valley in America slowly turn into a dustbowl. Ask manufacturers that can’t expand or are closing up shop because the clean water they need is unavailable. Ask homebuilders who can’t legally build housing developments without an additional source of water for those new communities. Virtually every industry in our economy, and the jobs that go with them, depend on a reliable water supply.

Already an arid climate sprinkled with sporadic periods of heavy rain, California’s getting hotter and drier as climate change alters global weather patterns. Our natural reservoir, the Sierra snowpack, is shrinking, holding less water and melting earlier in the spring. Our underground aquifers are being over drafted and suffer from contamination.

Our brilliantly engineered water supply system of reservoirs, canals and the world’s highest hydrologic lift over the Tehachapi Mountains has allowed us to live as if water is an abundant commodity.  It’s been the foundation for one of the world’s greatest economies, but it was designed in the 1950’s for a population of 16 million people. Today, over 36 million people strain that system, and the environment, to the breaking point.

The physical heart of the system, the Bay Delta, drains six of California’s great rivers as they flow through San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean. And it’s in deep trouble. In human terms, we’re on the verge of cardiac arrest.

Two-thirds of the state’s population relies on the damaged heart of the Delta for their drinking water. Major industries and the jobs they provide, like agriculture and Silicon Valley’s high tech hub, will shrivel away without it. A catastrophic event in the Delta, much like a heart attack, will cripple our state.

Rising sea levels, like  high blood pressure, add stress on over 1,000 miles of creaky, aging levees built on soft, peaty soils that have subsided, in many cases over 25 feet in the last century. A strong winter storm could overwhelm the fragile system. An earthquake could easily destroy the levees, flooding vast tracts of the Delta, cutting off water supply to millions, wreaking havoc and years of drastic economic and social dislocation.

It’s way past time to take action. Massive pumps that suck water through the Delta have altered the natural flow of fresh and salty seawater, devastating fish populations and damaging the natural habitat. A new gravity fed conveyance system, moving fresh water around or under the Delta, will allow the natural fluctuating-estuary to reassert itself improving the Delta habitat for fish and wildlife. It will also guarantee a far cleaner, more reliable, water supply for tens of millions of Californians. 

Like major surgery, it won’t be cheap. But state tax dollars won’t be used to pay for it. This new conveyance and Delta habitat restoration will be user funded. The water districts that directly benefit, that supply millions of water customers, including industry and agriculture, will finance the project, not the State General Fund.

We applaud Governor Brown and Secretary of the Interior Salazar for their focus on and support for this effort, called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Yes, we want the thousands of jobs that will be created to build this project. But more importantly, all of us need the jobs, the quality of life and the environmental health that the Bay Delta Conservation Plan will help ensure for the next generation of Californians.

Ed’s Note: Jose Mejia is Director of the California State Council of Laborers, Daniel Curtin is Director of the CA Conference of Carpenters and Tim Cremins is Political Director Western Region of the International Union of Operating Engineers.

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