Passing around an empty cup

During these last months there has been three major issues facing the state of California that are creating the perfect political storm. Catastrophic fires have ravaged through our forests and wild lands – threatening many of our rural communities. Predictably, with each new legislative year – another budget impasse – this time with a $15.2 billion deficit time bomb just ticking away.

Yet, perhaps the most important issue facing all Californians is assuring the abundance and availability of high quality water for our cities, farms and environment – our liquid gold. Last year a special session was called by the Governor for enacting a multi-billion dollar water bond measure that ultimately went down in flames. Now the Governor and Legislature have less than two weeks remaining to get another bond measure hammered out and on the ballot in November.

In the face of these looming crises and the Governor's declaration of a drought disaster in the state, the San Joaquin Valley Water Leadership Forum was created. The forum is a bipartisan organization that has evolved over the last half dozen years as the debate over the management of our valley's precious water resources has intensified.

Unfortunately lost in this protracted debate has been a way for all segments of our rural and urban communities to participate in the wise and sustainable use of an ever dwindling supply of high quality water–water that can be used by our farmers and cities, as well as for recreational use and the environment. Many times, competing interests throughout California – who need water in and outside the San Joaquin Valley – would fight their battles here in our backyard. Arguments about river restoration, storage, water banking and levees to name a few would overwhelm any reasoned discussion and possible solutions because of these competing interests.

To many of us it appears that our politicians have becoming increasingly polarized and expedient in their approach to the major challenges facing our valley such as education, public safety, economic growth – and as importantly a secured and abundant source of high quality water to power our well being into the foreseeable future. Rather than just blame the politicians – the Forum accepts the political realities and what that landscape looks like at this time.

Increasingly it appears that the politicians just don't know how to work towards a compromise agreement. Rather, the basic argument remains more storage versus no storage. The San Joaquin Valley Water Leadership Forum has scientists, researchers, water managers, environmentalists, economists, farmers and educators involved with coming up with a comprehensive solution for the valley and the state when it comes to our precious water resources.

No matter how well intentioned we may be, ultimately, things have to "pencil out." Solutions must be cost-effective. Building a dam on a river for surface storage is not necessarily cost effective. On the other hand, creating off-river surface and groundwater storage – with ways to capture precious flood waters – can protect the environment and be cost effective.

One solution we are supporting for the San Joaquin Valley is the partial restoration of the Tulare Lake Basin for surface and groundwater storage of flood waters. As it is now, the politicians want to build a dam on the San Joaquin River. However, the dam would cost close to $4 billion to construct, and would wipe out a significant source of clean hydroelectric power.

Our solution is to take a portion of what was once until the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi river and create twice the storage – all for less than $1 billion. That way we can capture the flood waters of not just one river – the San Joaquin- but also three others – the Kings, Kaweah and Tule that flow out of the Sierra Nevada into the San Joaquin Valley. Furthermore, the Tulare Lake basin is ideally located in between the Friant-Kern a major eastside canal – and the California Aqueduct on the west side of the valley which transports water all the way from the Delta over the Tehachapi Mountains into Southern California. What is the environmental impact? Not much. In fact it could improve the valley's air quality and allow for a freshwater haven for migratory waterfowl and other wildlife.

The Forum refuses to be paralyzed by the political gridlock and polarization in Sacramento. Issues such as water, a dismal educational success rate; increased poverty, lack of well paying and meaningful jobs; air quality, and the protection of prime farm land – are challenges that cannot be left unanswered and accepted as "business as usual." A recent Congressional study found that our valley is the new Appalachia in terms of health and wealth. We cannot allow these problems to continue to go unchallenged.

The Forum will lead by example. The San Joaquin Valley Water Leadership Forum is a way for everyone of us to get involved in the future of our valley in the most meaningful way. We will also collaborate and partner with other existing initiatives who are working earnestly, diligently, and with a sense of purpose and urgency. Time is running out.

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