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Water Reality Trumps Water Politics

Oct 30, 2009
California's water politics are hopeless. That's the only conclusion I can reach, and it was reaffirmed earlier this week when I attended a Great Valley Center forum on water.

It was not what the people attending the forum said. Great Valley Center President David Hosley said the Legislature's continuing discussion of the issue demonstrated the need for his group's event. Hard to quarrel with that. Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, said he is confident that state lawmakers will pass a package of water bills this fall. "We have some historic legislation on tap," Quinn punned. Again, hard to fault his hope.

No, what confirmed my pessimism was what forum attendees didn't say. Public officials, academics, conservationists and business people talked about water for nearly six hours, but they hardly mentioned the proposed water package in the Legislature. It's not that they don't know or care about it. It's that whatever tinkering lawmakers do to it is highly unlikely to alter the state's water fundamentals.

What would count as fundamental change? A peripheral canal that eliminates the Delta as the central cog in the State Water Project and Central Valley Project. Honest-to-goodness regulation of groundwater extractions. Major state investments in water recycling and efficiency. A legislative and fiscal embrace of conjunctive water management.

I'm not arguing for or against any of these changes. I simply say that anything else even construction of another dam or armoring Delta levees amounts to minor tinkering.

All of which makes an event like Great Valley Center forum, conducted at the Sierra Nevada Brewery in Chico, even more important, because most of the discussion was highly pragmatic. People talked about practical ways of reducing water consumption, which in Chico starts with metering water usage. Mark Atlas, an attorney for the Tehama Colusa Canal Authority, explained how his agency will continue to provide more than 300,000 acre-feet of water to farmers and comply with Endangered Species Act mandates to protect rare fish. Other forum attendees explained that modified flood management practices may benefit the environment and enhance public safety. Oroville City Councilman Jamie Johansson and Colusa small business owner Patrick Kittle spoke of enhanced waterway access for recreational users as an economic development tool.

Maybe I should be more optimistic that the Legislature and the governor will finally overhaul the state's system of managing, regulating and delivering water. Meantime, I'm encouraged by the people who work successfully within the current system, one that absolutely no one would intentionally design.

Paul Shigley