FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, MAY 29, 2009, OR THEREAFTER
BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
"SENSIBLE IDEAS FOR SOLVING WATER CRISIS"
If you think California has had a budget crisis over the last two years, sliding into deficits that could reach $23 billion by the end of next year even with the new taxes authorized in February, wait 'til you see what awaits in water.
Yes, this has been almost a normal year for Sierra Nevada Mountain snowpack and for rainfall around the state. But because of a court order and the after-effects of previous water decisions cutting supplies from both the Colorado River and the Owens Valley just east of the Sierras, it won't do much to stop impending water rationing in many areas.
But the good news is that at last someone has stepped forward with a sensible statement of principle that makes adequate water supplies for farms and cities in Central and Southern California and the San Francisco Bay area an equal goal with water quality and fish survival in the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.
The delta serves as a funnel for water pouring each spring from the western slopes of the Sierras and the southern Cascade Range, with huge pumps at its southern end relaying fluid to the state Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project.
Those pumps are not operating just now and won't until mid-June, the second year of a thus-far-unsuccessful effort to revive the endangered minnow-like Delta smelt fish species at the expense of water supplies elsewhere. Smelt numbers did not climb in the first year of court-ordered water pump shutoffs, and there's some doubt they ever will. But many millions of gallons of high quality fresh water have flowed into the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean as a result.
How to revive the delta environment and still meet urban and farm water needs from Oakland to San Diego is the focus of the independent, governor-appointed Delta Blue Ribbon Task Force, which has now developed what looks like the best plan yet for solving the water crisis:
Increase use of recycled water for lawns and industry, the task force suggests, while building more desalination plants to make ocean waters drinkable. Add infrastructure like new reservoirs and possibly a peripheral canal bringing water around the delta in a concrete channel that would allow control of runoff to the sea. And police water rights permits more tightly, making sure farmers do not use more than they're entitled to take.
There also may be some merit to a lawsuit filed in Sacramento near the end of last year. This action demands the long-term fallowing of many thousands of acres in the western San Joaquin Valley that are so tainted with toxic selenium, mercury and boron that farming them causes the chemicals to drain back into the San Joaquin River and then into the delta.
The lawsuit contends that since 80 percent of California's surface water is used by agriculture, all urban shortages could quickly be resolved by holding the polluted farmland out of production until it can be cleaned up - something that's not in the immediate offing.
About 100,000 acres in the vast Westlands Water District are already out of production because of poor drainage and chemical saturation, but the lawsuit contends farming and irrigation should stop on much, much more land.
The suit comes from the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and a self-designated watchdog group called the California Water Impact Network.
While it's long been known that taking water from farms could resolve any urban shortages, large farms in the Central Valley have held rights for more than 70 years to most water in the big state and federal aqueducts. Urban water districts bought some of those supplies to ease rationing during the droughts of the 1980s and '90s and probably could again later this year and next.
One question the new lawsuit might resolve: Does a farm retain water rights even when its fields are too polluted to plant? If not, then urban water suppliers like the Metropolitican Water District of Southern California and the East Bay Municipal Water District might suddenly find themselves with an unexpected surfeit.
The bottom line: After many years of stalemate, it appears some constructive potential solutions to long term water issues may be percolating to the surface. If that's not true, California can expect a water crisis in the near future that will make the long-running budget crunch look like child's play.
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net