Saturday, December 26, 2009




There will be wildly contentious battles over ballot propositions this year, with fights over a possible repeal of the Proposition 8 ban on same sex marriages, whether to hold a state constitutional convention and whether to legalize marijuana completely, to name just three hot-button initiatives heading for a popular vote.

But the biggest fight, the sharpest split, may come over water. No one knows for sure, but the water plan and an associated bond issue approved last fall by state lawmakers might determine who will become California’s next governor. All major Republican candidates back the plan, while Attorney General Jerry Brown, the lone significant Democrat now running, hasn’t said much about it.

No one knows, also, whether Mark Twain really did say back in 1875 that in California, “Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting over.”

Whether it was his or not, the remark remains as apt as ever today, almost 135 years after it was supposedly first uttered.

The fighting this year will be over that as-yet-unnumbered water bond proposition, an $11.1 billion tar baby strongly backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It’s vital to pass this, he and other advocates say, if there’s to be progress toward assuring adequate water supplies for all parts of the state. There’s money in it for new dams, groundwater basin protection, environmental protection in the vital Delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and many, many local projects. Almost every lawmaker put something for his or her district into this package.

Unlike past plans like the putative Peripheral Canal vetoed by voters in 1982, which would have carried water around the Delta in a concrete-lined ditch, this one has backing from some major environmental groups. Both the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund signed onto the water plan before it passed.

But whatever good will that reigned when the water measures passed in October quickly gave way to the discord usually prevalent whenever changes in California’s water situation near reality. Brown, who okayed the Peripheral Canal idea while governor 28 years ago, was badly burned by the public’s rebellion against it; maybe that’s why he’s being cautious now.

But others are not at all reticent. No sooner had Schwarzenegger signed the water package than Delta area legislators, fishermen and Indian tribes claimed it would lead to utter destruction for the Delta – this despite creation of a Delta Stewardship Council designed to preserve species and water quality there.

They seized on Schwarzenegger’s almost immediate announcement that he intends to pursue something like a Peripheral Canal, charging that because the governor will appoint four of the seven Stewardship Council members, “you can be sure…the canal’s construction (will be) a priority for the council members…” This, of course, ignores the fact that Schwarzenegger will be governor for less than one year from now, while it will be many years – perhaps decades – before dirt is turned on the projects now contemplated.

Realities like that don’t stop the emotional responses water always spurs, emotions likely to split the state on a north-south basis when the bond battle heats up next fall. Cries that vast quantities of Northern California river water are wasted washing cars and watering lawns in Central and Southern California were heard less than a day after the package passed. There will also be financial issues with the bond package, which would cost about half a billion dollars yearly to repay and contains an estimated $2 billion worth of pure “pork.” And some in the Delta area call for revival of the long-dormant Auburn Dam as an alternate to the Peripheral Canal or for a system of gates and locks within the Delta itself.

In the meantime, plenty of other fights are already underway in courts and within the bureaucracy. On those fronts, no sooner had federal Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asked for a National Academy of Sciences review of the environmental findings that led to reduced water pumping from the Delta last spring and summer than two environmental groups asked a judge to give even more protections to the threatened, minnow-like Delta smelt than it now enjoys.

The Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity and the San Francisco-based Bay Institute sued together, demanded both endangered status for the Delta smelt and protected status for the similar longfin smelt.

At the same time, the Fresno federal judge who ordered pumping reduced ruled that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation should have considered more environmental impacts like depletion of underground aquifers and more particulate air pollution via dust from fallowed fields before enacting its plan to protect the smelt.

It’s a picture so complex and laden with emotion that no one can reliably predict the election outcome. And it will produce an expensive campaign likely to prove again (on all sides) the wisdom of yet another Twain aphorism: “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.”

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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