Opinion: Brown stands tall for historic water solution

Fifty years from now, August 17, 2011 may be a day that historians note was the “tipping point” that helped ensure California would achieve a comprehensive water solution.  The date is not significant because of an election or any exceptional regulatory action.  Rather, it is the day that Gov. Jerry Brown signaled support for a balanced water solution that, when achieved, can enable California to meet its agricultural and urban water needs for generations to come.  In a meeting with the Fresno Bee editorial board, the governor indicated that some kind of conveyance system must be constructed to move water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (Delta).  It was a powerful and unequivocal signal that should enable the ongoing Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) process from becoming irreparably divisive and dysfunctional.  

As the leader of one of California’s leading water organizations, the Kern County Water Agency, as well as a trained biologist, I know that a win-win solution is possible.  We can protect the Delta ecosystem while also providing water to meet the needs of millions in California.  The solution exists within a shared vision by stakeholders, including sound science to guide the way and a willingness by diverse interests to methodically work through a complex environmental regulatory process.

To date, the biggest obstacle has been finding the political will among all parties to run the marathon that is the BDCP.  There are many different organizations that are directly and indirectly involved in the process.  Each has its own constituency and belief regarding what the final plan should entail.  Without strong leadership at the highest levels of government, the BDCP’s prospects for success are greatly diminished.

That is why the governor’s position is so important.  As California’s chief executive, his leadership fundamentally changes the debate from if the BDCP will be successful to when the BDCP will be finalized so that construction can begin.  Water agencies have already invested more than $140 million to fund scientific planning work, and now are being asked to provide $100 million more. Ultimately, water providers are facing planning and construction costs totaling billions of dollars. California cannot afford a process where special interest groups that have not invested a dime are allowed to drive costs to untenable levels with frivolous legal, regulatory and political games.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, word of the governor’s support for conveyance drew a quick and shrill response from groups who oppose a practical solution.  This rhetoric has no benefit to what is a serious process.  Attacks on the governor on this topic are seemingly motivated by a desire to prevent progress toward a meaningful solution.  Instead of digging into the facts and working productively, these groups have chosen to marginalize themselves.  This may play well to their members, but it does nothing for Californians who depend on a reliable water supply.

The fact is that the Brown Administration, led by Natural Resources Agency Secretary John Laird and Deputy Secretary Jerry Meral, has been thoughtful, fair and committed to researching all alternatives to ensure that the chosen Delta approach meets California’s strict environmental protection standards.  A comprehensive process that results in a solution that provides a reliable water supply while protecting the environment does not favor water providers or environmental interests; rather, it ensures that the final plan is the best plan for all of California.  Neither side will get everything it wants, but California will have a plan that meets its needs.

Gov. Brown is in a position to demonstrate that history tends to repeat itself.  Fifty years ago, in 1961, then-Governor Pat Brown took a bold political stand launching the State Water Project (SWP), which led to the creation of water agencies like the Kern County Water Agency. Gov. Pat Brown demonstrated a willingness to stand up and fight to ensure that our state had the infrastructure necessary to become a model for America.  Imagine where California would be today without the SWP.  Fortunately, we don’t have to.  

This October, the Kern County Water Agency will celebrate its 50th anniversary, and California is again at a critical juncture in its history.   We are fortunate that Pat Brown’s vision for infrastructure improvements is poised to continue through his son, Jerry Brown.  Water providers are optimistic that his vision and the work of his administration can ensure that the water infrastructure will serve California for the next 50 years and beyond.  If we can get there, it will be a remarkable achievement that benefits this entire great state.    

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