Water War in California: Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Summer battles are heating up in California over an $11.1 billion water bond.

You can lead taxpayers to a bloated water bond but you can’t make them drink  – even if you color coat the controversial measure as the Safe, Clean and Reliable Drinking Water Supply Act of 2012. EcoSalon first reported on this important environmental issue in 2010 when it was first to be on the ballot. But Prop 18 was delayed until the November election by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger who didn’t want to jeopardize its passage.

He crafted his plan during a drought crisis witnessing fields going fallow, unemployment rates reaching 40 percent in some Central Valley farm towns and an ecological collapse in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta where salmon run was nearing extinction.

“It’s critical that the water bond pass, as it will improve California’s economic growth, environmental sustainability and water supply for future generations,” Schwarzenegger said.

But environmentalists and others have lined up against it, accusing state republicans of being more concerned with dams that subsidize big agribusiness than ecosystem restoration, groundwater cleanup, funding for safe drinking water, recycling and drought relief included in the bill.The centerpiece of the bond is a proposed massive new dam on the San Joaquin River east of Fresno.

Groups like the Sierra Club argue the bond is “all wet” since the bulk of the billions will go to dams – some owned in part by private corporations, as well as a new peripheral canal or tunnel. 

“Rather than address our problems as a one-time purchase, we need to come up with a steady stream of financing that we can use to take on the big, ongoing problems facing our state’s water systems,” the Sierra Club posted on its website.

Gov. Jerry Brown is a vocal  proponent of the canal first introduced in the early 1980s to divert water south from the Sacramento River and the Delta. Economists now figure the project will run $53.8 billion, more than first estimated. Brown also is also defending a $68-billion plan to build a high-speed rail system despite a $15.7 billion deficit and goal to raise taxes.

As Brown sees it: “California is growing. This is not Europe. We’re very entrepreneurial, very innovative, and people are still coming here. We need to make sure we have a realizable water supply.”

To that end, the thirsty state would borrow a hefty $11.1 billion to overhaul its water system for the first time in six years when Prop 84 authorized $5.4 billion on projects. It all began with Prop 1 in 1960 when the State Water Project was created and regularly replenished since with bond issues.

One reason it has created sharp divisions is the astronomical bond debt incurred – around $89 billion from the previous issues which is paid off yearly in payments of about $10 billion. The cost of the new bond along with complexities over the damages of construction projects prompted Governor Jerry Brown to suggest it be delayed until the 2014 ballot, and the move could still happen in mid summer.

Even so, it is clear something has to be done since California now faces water challenges affecting all of its major sources for the first time in its history.

The Los Angeles supply from its Owens Valley system is the lowest on record; The Colorado River system is suffering a prolonged drought that has wiped out surplus supplies once available to Southern California and with record low rainfall means  groundwater basins aren’t being replenished.

And the Delta, the most important estuary in the state, faces serious challenges. The expansive inland river and estuary in Northern California where major rivers from the Sierra Nevada converge before heading to San Francisco Bay has seen cuts in supplies by as nearly as 30 percent.

The water serves millions of acres of farmlands and 25 million people via the Central Valley Projects and State Water Projects. It is just as important to wildlife including a variety of birds and fish species such as threatened smelt. Some 80% of commercial fisheries live in or migrate through the Delta and it is habitat for 500 species of wildlife.

Still, some argue the pork-laden bond in its current state has no chance of passing as voters mining for water ask how can the state possibly afford it.

“All everybody’s been talking about is an $11 billion bond when we’re broke,” said John McManus of the Earthjustice environmental group.

Broke or not, it appears climate change will only continue to add to water shortages, a reason water is now considered more precious than oil and more valuable than gold. Water wars – such as the feuding over the bond in California -may be just the tip of the iceberg as runoff becomes even scarcer.

Image: water and power; Metropolitan Water District: US Fish and Wildlife

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.