Studying several options is a wise approach to state’s water crisis

Normally at this time, a healthy Sierra snowpack means a good year is in store for local water agencies and their customers. Not so in 2008.

Despite above-normal rain and snowfall, we're facing serious water challenges that no amount of precipitation can resolve. That makes the Legislature's water debate more critical than ever.

For the better part of the past year, legislative leaders and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have been trying to hammer out a comprehensive water bond that would address those challenges. While there is broad agreement on many elements of the package, negotiations continue on the most urgent problem: the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Time is not our friend on this issue. The delta is in an ecological crisis that imperils species as well as our water supply. Every day that goes by without a solution is another day of lost water supply and further deterioration of the environment.

The Association of California Water Agencies is urging lawmakers to move ahead with a comprehensive plan that includes improvements to the current system for conveying water through the delta. Changes are needed to allow the system to protect the aquatic environment and still provide adequate water supplies for the economy.

The need for action has never been more acute. In December, a federal judge ordered significant reductions in water deliveries by the state's main water projects to protect a threatened species, the delta smelt. Another recent action involving long-fin smelt may further tighten the screws. The projects convey water through the delta to more than 25 million Californians and more than 2.5 million acres of prime agricultural land.

Pumping restrictions ordered by the court will reduce water deliveries by as much as 30 percent this year – and similar restrictions are likely every year until we fix the underlying problem. That means local water agencies will have less water available for their customers and will have to rely on extraordinary conservation (even mandatory rationing) and emergency reserves. They will also have less water available to replenish already low reservoirs and groundwater basins for use in future years.

The impacts of the court ruling already are being felt. For example, decisions on new housing and retail developments in Riverside County are on hold because the necessary future water supplies cannot be guaranteed. Growers in the San Joaquin Valley are fallowing some land and reducing some crops due to water uncertainties.

In northern San Diego County, avocado trees are being stumped and some orchards are being pulled out. Some communities, such as Long Beach, already have put mandatory conservation programs in place. Others will likely have to follow suit. For the first time in a long time, California is losing income and jobs because our water supply is inadequate.

ACWA strongly supports a comprehensive solution that includes improvements in the delta's water conveyance infrastructure to reduce conflicts between environmental and economic needs for water. Fortunately, there are two very good public processes under way to study and recommend specific improvements to achieve that goal.

The Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force and the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan are on track to issue major decisions during 2008. In the meantime, Gov. Schwarzenegger has wisely directed state agencies to move ahead with a number of near-term actions as well as longer-term initiatives such as water quality improvements and a plan to significantly expand water conservation efforts to achieve a 20 percent reduction in per capita water use statewide by 2020.

The governor also directed state agencies to begin analyzing four options for addressing delta conveyance, a move designed to get the ball rolling on what will be a very lengthy environmental documentation process for whatever solution emerges from the two public processes under way.

Given the urgency of the delta crisis, the direction is a sound one provided there is opportunity for the environmental studies to be informed by negotiations in the Legislature and within the Delta Vision and Bay-Delta Conservation Plan processes.

Delta improvements are just one part of the picture. The comprehensive solution must also include substantial investments in local water resources, including expanded conservation, water recycling, local and regional surface water and groundwater storage projects, and desalination. These strategies – along with improvements to our statewide water storage infrastructure – are critical to meeting our water supply reliability needs now and in the future.

The ball remains in the Legislature's court. For the sake of California's environment and its economy, ACWA urges lawmakers to continue working with the governor to craft a bipartisan plan to address our deepening water crisis.

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