It’s time to repair and prepare our water infrastructure

As we look in the rear view mirror at California’s driest December in decades it reminds us of two things.

First, California is essentially an arid state sprinkled with sporadic periods of heavy precipitation. Last rainy season was one of the wettest on record; this year may be one of the driest.

Second, all indications are that impending climate change will make our weather even more extreme, unfortunately much drier and hotter with less, but just as unpredictable, rain and snow.

On the bright side, our governor understands this. At his recent conference on extreme climate risks Gov.  Brown stated the problem with his characteristic directness saying we need to “wake people up… to the threats of climate change.”  In fact, 2011 set the record for the number of billion-dollar disasters in the United State resulting from extreme weather events; blizzards, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, drought, floods, and heat waves to name a few.

Unfortunately, this climate crisis comes in the midst of the worst economy in eight decades, the deepest partisan political division we’ve seen since the 1960’s and complex, sometimes confusing scientific data. While our state and nation are deeply divided on many things California voters manage to keep a clear focus on certain important issues. Water is one of them.

In a recent California Field poll an astonishing 84 percent of registered voters agreed (50 percent strongly, 34 percent somewhat) that in spite of last year’s abundant rains “we still have major problems with our water system… and we need to make major investments to upgrade and modernize our water infrastructure to ensure reliable water.”

Our water supply system, foundation for one of the world’s greatest economies, was the product of visionary political thinking and brilliant engineering.  Designed in the 1950’s for a population of 18 million, today over 36 million people strain that system to the breaking point.

The four pillars of California’s water supply — the Bay Delta, the Sierra snow melt, our vast underground aquifers and the Colorado River — all have major problems.

Climate change is expected to reduce the Sierra snowpack 25 percent by 2050. Ground water contamination and over-drafting are limiting that water supply and permanently threatening ancient aquifers. The Colorado River, undergoing its own ecological stress, is dramatically oversubscribed.

Most importantly, the Bay Delta, the heart of California’s water supply, is on the verge of an environmental meltdown. Immediate threats include chemical pollution, salinity intrusion, creaky levees and reduced water deliveries to protect endangered fish populations.  But perhaps the most serious threat of all is the least predictable, an earthquake in the Delta.

One million Californians live in the Delta floodplain and more than two-thirds of California’s population relies on the Delta for freshwater. It is the lifeline to millions of acres of irrigated farmland throughout the Central Valley. Massive levee failure would cause untold human and economic damage.  

Climate change with melting polar ice sheets, rising sea levels, and a hotter, drier California climate add tremendous urgency to the need for investment in Delta repair and restoration. Our existing water delivery system, once the world’s most advanced, is tired, old and on the verge of catastrophic collapse. It was built decades ago for human needs with little understanding of environmental impacts. No longer.

It is now abundantly clear that a clean, reliable water supply and environmental and ecological health are not two separate goals but rather two sides of the same coin. We must have both.              

The good news is there are numerous solutions that will help the duel goals of reliable water for human needs and ecological health, at the same time preparing for the stress of climate change; conservation measures, groundwater restoration, increased surface storage to capture more snow melt, aquifer recharge, environmentally improved water conveyance north-south as well as east-west, desalination and last but truly critical, river and watershed restoration. But they cost money.

In a rare display of bi-partisan politics in 2010 the legislature passed, with a 2/3 majority, an $11 billion bond measure to invest in these solutions. The bonds will pay for the “public goods” portion of rebuilding the state water system, mostly the costs of environmental protection and restoration. More than $30 billion to $40 billion in matching private funds will be provided by ratepayers, public citizens and businesses that rely on clean water in their daily and economic lives. Wisely, the legislature spread these expenditures out over a decade to bring down the yearly cost to the state general fund and soften the impact on water users.

More good news is that voters, by a 55-41 margin, believe that “because of the state’s high unemployment rate, now is a good time to be making investments in water projects because it will create jobs and put many Californians to work.”  Sixty-two percent 40 percent strongly, 22 percent somewhat) support the idea that it would be worth billions of dollars of investment “to ensure that the state has a reliable supply of water.”

Californians have always taken the long view on water. They know every job and every family in California needs reliable water. They also know it won’t be easy or cheap but it must be done. They know too, that environmental impacts can no longer be ignored. But most of all they know the squabbling must stop and the action must begin.          

Our future depends on it.

Ed’s Note: Danny M. Curtin is the director of the California Conference of Carpenters and a commissioner on the State Water Commission.

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