Dan Walters: Drought complicates already dicey water politics

02/04/2014 12:00 AM

02/04/2014 7:35 AM

A crisis, it’s been said, is a terrible thing to waste.

Economist Paul Romer originated the aphorism a decade ago, but it’s since entered the political lexicon.

California is facing a water crisis, the third – and by far the worst – year of drought, with the all-important Sierra snowpack just 12 percent of normal and man-made reservoirs drawn down to historically low levels.

Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a drought emergency, and local water purveyors up and down the state have imposed stricter conservation measures.

Last week, state water officials dropped projected deliveries to agricultural and municipal agencies south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to zero for the first time, and instituted emergency procedures to protect the Delta from saltwater intrusion.

The situation’s only bright spot is that Southern California water agencies, having constructed more storage in recent years to counter erratic deliveries from the north, and tightened up conservation measures, are in fairly healthy condition to ride out the drought.

By happenstance, the drought occurs just as politicians are engaged in one of their periodic attempts to stabilize California’s water supply, and the crisis adds another dimension to already dicey water politics.

The state incessantly debates whether rising water demands – the vast majority from agriculture – should be met mostly by constructing more reservoirs and conveyances or through stricter conservation.

Broadly, big water agencies and users – known colloquially as “water buffaloes” – advocate the former and environmentalists the latter. But Brown and other politicians are all over the map.

Coincidentally, Brown’s administration just published a white paper that embraces both major remedies, but is not specific on what should be done. And with water, the devil is very much in the details.

Brown wants to build twin tunnels to bypass the environmentally troubled Delta and improve stability of shipments southward, but faces very stiff opposition.

There are at least four water bond proposals floating around the Capitol, to replace one already on the 2014 ballot. But they vary widely in details, with additional reservoirs and the tunnels the major issues, and Brown, prior to declaring a crisis, had implied he doesn’t want any bonds on the ballot as he seeks re-election this year.

Meanwhile, what’s happening, or not happening, in the state Capitol is reflected in wrangling within California’s very fragmented congressional delegation over how the feds should respond both to the drought and longer-term water supply issues.

Every faction in water politics may see the crisis as an opportunity to advance its larger cause, but it could just as easily mean a continuation of a perpetual political stalemate.

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