Monday, November 9, 2009

California Water Week in Review

The first week of November 2009 was quite a week for water in California.

First, the Chino Basin Water District decided to postpone its massive surplus water auction, which had gained international attention and a projected auction bidding of up to $1000 per acre foot!

More importantly, the California State Assembly and Senate passed a series of bills to create an $11 billion bond package for voters to consider in November 2010 to revamp the state's aging and overstrained water delivery system.

The new water bill's approval came just as UCLA Law's Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment was holding its symposium, "Adapting to a Parched Future: Cities, Development, and the War for Water."

While the initial focus of this seminar was on water/development issues, the newly approved water legislation quickly took center stage among the esteemed panel, which included Ellen Hanak, Director of Research and Senior Fellow, Public Policy Institute of California;  Peter Hsiao, Head of the Los Angeles Land Use and Environmental Law Group, Morrison & Foerster LLP; Brandon Goshi from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California - ably pitch-hitting for CEO Jeff Kightlinger; and Mark Gold, President, Heal the Bay.  Cara Horowitz, Sabin Family Fdn Executive Director, Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment, served as moderator.

Ellen Hanak presented the opening overview of California's current water situation, which is well-known to those of us who follow this issue. She was followed by comments from Brandon Goshi on the importance of water conveyance during normal seasons to replenish the massive storage instructures that MWD has built in Southern California, notably Diamond Valley Lake. He added that MWD supported the water bill package  because it serves the dual goal of ecosystem restoration and reliable water supply delivery.

Peter Hsiao veered the topic back towards water solutions through a thoughtful presentation on how new solar energy panel transmission in the Owens Valley can generate both important non-hydroelectric energy to Southern California as well as mitigate the tremendous windstorms and environmental damage created by the overdrafting of the Owens River for so many years.

Mark Gold explained why Heal the Bay opposed the legislative water package, noting that it tended to nibble around the edges of the problem, rather than promise true water reform. He also stated his misgivings about whether the $11 billion package would pass voter muster next November, adding that even if it did pass, the current inability of the State of California to sell bonds for already enacted Proposition 84, (a water bond act passed two years ago), did not bode well for future bond sales of any type. Asked if HTB would oppose the bond ballot measure itself, Mark stated that it was too early to tell, since that would be a decision of his board of directors. He opined that HTB might stay neutral on the issue.

On a positive note, Mark did state that he felt that several local efforts in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties were bearing fruit in developing with groundwater cleanup and low impact development.

A spirited question and answer period followed, with panelists answering questions from whether the bond will pass (Ellen Hanak predicted yes, since it won't raise taxes and there's something for everyone in it, like a Christmas tree) to the absence of an agriculture representative on the panel.

It's important to note that the approved bond legislation does not include the construction of a new statewide water conveyance (a la the Peripheral Canal), along insiders tell me that the major water users are seeking ways they can fund it in partnership with federal stimulus money.

So what does the juxtaposition of a massive multi-billion dollar water bond with the potential sale to private parties of over 240,000 acre feet of privately managed water mean?

My crystal ball indicates that we will continue to see the powerful disconnect between water politics and reality for at least the next 24 months. Even in a best case scenario for the water bond, its passage next November means that those bonds won't even be floated until spring of 2011 and funding won't flow until fall of that year at the earliest.

How, then, will this affect the small, average water user in the meantime? I don't think it's a stretch to predict continued water rationing with greater fines, more water pipe bursts, and continued ecosystem damage in the delta, coupled with sporadic environmental damage throughout the state in such areas as the Station Fire burn area, where massive water run-off in the Arroyo Seco watershed and possible mudslides, regardless of the amount of rainfall, is inevitable.

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