Delta peripheral canal would be a costly environmental mistake

Water policy has played a deeply personal role in my life as a farmer and as a Californian, as well as in the lives of my constituents. After countless hours in hearings, discussions and negotiations, trying to formulate fair and reasonable water policies, it was shocking to learn last week that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has arbitrarily and without legislative consultation instigated planning for a peripheral canal.

By this unilateral action, the governor has single handedly short-circuited months of serious negotiations between Democrats and Republicans over a new water bond in order to pursue an already discredited 1950s solution to a modern-day problem. In my many years of involvement in water policy discussions, I have found that most participants, no matter how diverse their interests, are reasonable people, willing to move the state's water policy forward and willing to listen to water solutions that will benefit all the citizens of our state.

I have also spent many days listening to concerned citizens. The San Joaquin farmer is fearful that his access to water could be lost to special interests with more political clout. The Stockton parent is worried about the health dangers of bad drinking water coming out of her kitchen tap. The Davis community leader is concerned about the threat to our natural environment posed by ill-conceived grandiose "solutions."

Just on a fiscal level, the governor's proposal to build a hugely expensive peripheral canal to transport water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is irresponsible in light of the budget crisis facing the state. To burden the state with billions of dollars in new debt for a controversial and unproven engineering fantasy, not to mention the potential environmental disaster a peripheral canal poses, is the wrong path.

What Gov. Schwarzenegger apparently does not realize is that the era of unproven large-scale engineering boondoggles like the peripheral canal is over. Throughout the country, people are suffering the consequences of similar mistakes made in the past.

We need only look at two stark examples. In Louisiana, the Army Corps of Engineers will spend tens of millions of dollars to plug a massive 76-mile channel dug 40 years ago. It's blamed for much of the flooding that destroyed parts of New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina. During its life, the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet also destroyed much of the wetlands through which it flows. One restoration expert calls it "a cancer on the coast of southeast Louisiana."

In Florida, a plan to rescue the Everglades, ravaged to near-extinction, will take more than 30 years to implement and will cost almost $8 billion dollars.

The delta is being set up to be added to the litany of ill-conceived environmental and infrastructure projects that have moved forward without careful planning. Due to years of neglect and irresponsible state policy, the courts have stepped in to protect the delta's frail ecosystem.

The governor must look to the future and not to the failed proposals of the past for solutions to California's water crisis. If he does, he will see that developing a statewide consensus on water policy requires, first and foremost, addressing issues of ecosystem protection, water quality, balanced and fair use, transparent structure and responsible governance. It does not include a peripheral canal.

There are other ways. Millions of additional acre-feet of water are available for addressing water quality and supply. First, SB2XX, the Safe Drinking Water Act, would have safeguarded delta drinking water supplies and promoted groundwater storage, cleanup, conservation and recycling. Also, SB1002 would have helped secure Southern California and delta groundwater supplies. The governor opposed both bills.

If the governor insists on pushing a divisive peripheral canal proposal, the consequences will be enormous. He risks enflaming old regional passions and suspicions, turning Northern Californian against Southern Californian, farmer against city dweller, environmentalist against engineer. This is not the legacy the governor wants to leave the state in his final years in office.

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