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The California Legislature's water torture

Once again, lawmakers' inability to stop squabbling and take action is hurting the state.

October 23, 2009

There is no more politically explosive issue in California than water, so we understand why it has taken a while for the Legislature to come up with a deal on how to fairly conserve, distribute and store it. But enough already.

Legislative leaders have, according to insiders, resolved the most important issues on a series of bills to repair the state's crumbling water infrastructure, preserve ecosystems in the ailing Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, mandate a 20% cut in per capita usage by 2020, create new storage facilities, monitor groundwater supplies and develop new penalties and enforcement mechanisms on illegal diversion. So why is there no bill on the Senate or Assembly floor? Because this is California, whose lawmakers would, if convening aboard a sinking ship, be arguing about the proper protocol for loading the lifeboats while seawater was bubbling around their chins.

With the big questions out of the way, politicians are now squabbling over parochial regional issues that threaten to undo years of work if they can't be resolved. One bill calls for a bond measure worth between $9 billion and $10 billion, most of which would pay for delta restoration and dam construction -- but lawmakers are arguing about smaller individual projects. They're hung up on whether their district will have to ration as much water as some other district, or whether their water rights will be endangered, or on the precise penalty for illegally diverting water. And on it goes.

A Field poll earlier this month found that the Legislature's approval rating had fallen to 13%, the lowest since the poll started in 1983. Voters can respect representatives who make difficult decisions even when they disagree with them, but Golden State lawmakers can't seem to make any decisions at all -- or can't make the compromises needed to get important things done.

It's not the bickering that bothers us; it's that they keep on bickering even in the face of imminent catastrophe. With the state teetering last summer on the edge of default, which would have sparked economic ruin worldwide, the Legislature still couldn't reach a compromise on balancing the budget until weeks past the deadline. Thanks to lawmakers' failure to make court- ordered cuts in the prison inmate population, control over decisions that could result in the early release of thousands of felons is about to be taken out of the hands of elected representatives and given to a panel of federal judges.

We've reached the eleventh hour on water too; if they aren't addressed soon, the state's water management problems could lead to environmental and economic collapse. As Elvis Presley would say, "A little less conversation, a little more action please."

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