California urged to resolve delta, water issues — fast

A backpacker gazes at Lake Mead, which has reached critically low levels. (Photo: Oceanfishing, via Shutterstock)

Disputes over California’s fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta, the troubled heart of the drought-stricken state’s water system, must be resolved immediately because what happens there affects the western region, a top water expert says.

Pat Mulroy, the former leader of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, delivered a bluntly worded warning to attendees at the California Water Policy Conference in Claremont, saying the linkage between the Delta and much of the West is clear, “yet many here in California still don’t see the connection.”

“Let’s be honest; nothing has changed. We are still locked in the same battles we were locked in a year ago, two years ago.”

“In order to fix the larger problem facing the entire region, California has to resolve the Bay Delta issue. The two are interconnected. Everyone up and down the Colorado River is watching what California’s doing in the Bay Delta, because what happens in the Delta matters in Denver,” said Mulroy, a nationally known expert on western water issues who headed southern Nevada water agencies for decades during a period of explosive growth.

But despite the severity of the drought, nothing has been done, Mulroy told her California listeners.

“Let’s be honest; nothing has changed. We are still locked in the same battles we were locked in a year ago, two years ago. In the meantime conditions have gotten worse. Every single one of is responsible. Every single one of us could have let go of our innate dislike for certain regions and our innate dislike for certain mindsets.”

Numerous disputes in the Delta include court decisions on species protections, environmental degradation, a controversial plan to drill 35-mile-long tunnels through the Delta to move northern water to the south, and state and federal pumping practices, among many, man other issues.

Mulroy gave no specific suggestions about what to do. She also did not mention actions taken in California, including voter approval last year of a $7.5 billion water projects bond and $1 billion in emergency drought plans announced last week by the governor and legislative leadership.

“Is California really going to exit the global food chain?

She noted that in Nevada, the pain of the drought has worsened this year, leaving Lake Mead at a “critically low elevation.” If the elevation at the water line falls below 1,075 feet, she said, there will be no water available from the lake for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which wholesales water to districts serving most of the south state.

Officials at the San Diego County Water Authority disputed Mulroy’s assertion.

“In fact, California water agencies, including MWD, would continue to receive normal deliveries even if the Lake Mead elevation falls below 1,075 feet, the SDCWA wrote in an email. “Shortage is only triggered if the level of Lake Mead is below 1,075’ on January 1 of any given year.  So, it’s possible that the elevation could temporarily dip below 1,075’ during a calendar year, but if the level is above 1,075’ on January 1, no shortage is triggered.”

San Diego officials added that if a shortage is triggered, “the first cuts are sustained by Arizona and Nevada — not California…”

Meanwhile, in central and northern California, some farmers have been forced take fields out of production because of a lack of water.

“Is California really going to exit the global food chain? Does California really believe that exiting the global food chain is not going to have consequences in other parts of the world? It is. You can’t add two billion people to the planet and not think about global food supply,” she said.

Despite her pessimism, Mulroy said she was optimistic about significant agreements in the Colorado Basin, such as the interim shortage guidelines, as inspiration and hope for finding compromises and moving forward.

“What’s happening (is that) the urban areas are buying water and they are putting it in Lake Mead with no one’s name on it,” Mulroy noted.

“Think about the concept. You protect the system in order to avoid it going into shortages – not to benefit yourself alone but to benefit the larger system.”

Mulroy urged leaders to take action now. “Our world is changing; everything is changing around us,” she said. “Can we get along with one another long enough to help mitigate against the environmental impacts? Because just saying ‘no’ won’t do it. Just saying no won’t solve the problem.”

“Agreements can’t be made in perpetuity anymore, because we don’t know what perpetuity looks like anymore,” she said. “But we can put processes in place that allow us to adapt as we have to.”

Ed’s Note: Adds response from San Diego County Water Authority to Mulroy’s assertion about potential shortages being triggered, 9th-10th grafs. Chris Austin, the founder of Aquafornia, is the award-winning editor of Maven’s Notebook, a blog devoted to state water policy. She is a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly.

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