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At last, a water policy

Sacramento sets goals and creates frameworks but doesn't make many hard decisions. But at least it's a start.

November 05, 2009

The package adopted by the Legislature early Wednesday is somewhat like a gallon of water poured out of a bucket -- almost impossible to grasp. Its two parts, water policy and funding, are virtually unrelated. Its key provision is a statement of intent (to treat restoring the ecosystem of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and creating a more reliable water supply for California as co-equal goals), and much of the rest of it erects a framework for making hard choices instead of actually making those choices. It does far too little to halt illegal diversions from, and thus continued degradation of, the delta. But it makes an important start after three decades of inaction. It is historic, and lawmakers -- and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- deserve credit for getting this first crucial phase of the job done.

What about a peripheral canal? This package doesn't start it or kill it. A canal to bring water to Southern California from the northern part of the delta instead of the southern part, from which it is currently pumped, already was moving on its own course. But without this legislation, it would have proceeded based solely on how much water thirsty farmers and urban areas wanted, not on what was best for the delta ecosystem. This package imposes a governance structure that will require studies of delta flows and equal consideration of environmental needs. A canal is now no more or less likely than it was last week, but a canal built without regard to stewardship of the delta has been moved off the table, or at least closer to the edge of it.

Nothing in the policy package permits or mandates construction of dams. Instead, lawmakers adopted a separate $11.1-billion bond that must go to voters next year. It would pay for dams, demanded by agribusiness, but also for things Los Angeles needs, including groundwater cleanup -- to provide a steadier local supply of water and reduce the region's thirst for more delta diversions. Is it worth it? Can California afford it, in the midst of the recession and continued demands on the budget to pay off past bonds? Does the reckless ballooning of the bond by $2 billion in the final hours of dickering make it more or less palatable? These are tough questions that must be examined and parsed over the coming months. Meanwhile, the important policy portion of the bill stands on its own without the bond -- but requires as-yet unidentified additional funding from some other source.

Urban areas, for the first time, will be required to meet conservation targets to ensure that city dwellers and suburbanites, not just in Southern California but around the San Francisco Bay and elsewhere, learn to no longer flush away the virtual river of water within their reach. The state would have been better served if agribusiness too had been required to meet tough conservation goals. But the package was never going to be perfect. It is best seen not as a triumphant conclusion to our water debates, but a promising beginning.

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