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Getting California every last drop

Two pieces of legislation promise a little relief for our drought-plagued state.

October 27, 2009

Amid the posturing and foot-dragging over a major legislative package to secure the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and the water arteries that flow from it, the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this year quietly came together on important new laws to encourage cities to make better use of the water they have. That's especially important here in comparatively dry Southern California, where we'll have to rely more on local water than on any new imports from the north.

Schwarzenegger signed SB 790, which allows cities and other local agencies to apply for previously approved state bond money to recapture storm-water runoff that otherwise would flow, usually untreated, into the ocean. The bill by Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) makes funds available from Proposition 84, a 2006 bond measure, and Proposition 50, a 2002 measure.

Even in non-drought years, Southern California's annual precipitation rate only slightly keeps the region out of the desert category, yet runoff from storms in the San Gabriel Mountains could supply us with much of our needs, recharging groundwater and filling catch ponds and wetlands -- if it didn't race through the basin and out to the sea. Even runoff from more urbanized areas could, and should, be captured.

Los Angeles already has begun projects to keep storm water, with the landmark Proposition O bond passed by voters in 2004. More work is needed. SB 790 won't finish the job, but if the city applies for and wins some of the funding, it can help.

Another step forward for many Southern California cities is AB 1366, a bill to allow cities to regulate the use of residential water-softening systems. Why is that such a big deal? Because many such systems pump so much salt into the sewage that it is rendered unfit for reclamation and reuse. Cities and water and sanitation districts had lacked the power to decide how to handle the problem. But after a Santa Clarita ballot measure last year, and now this statewide legislation by Democrats Mike Feuer of Los Angeles and Anna Caballero of Salinas and Republican Audra Strickland of Thousand Oaks, local agencies can deal with the issue.

Both of these measures were hard-fought, and for good reason. There are lots of demands on bond money. And legislation that allows cities to ban certain kinds of water softeners hits companies like Culligan pretty hard. But they are necessary steps to leading Southern California to a more sustainable water future.

Now it's time to finish work on the bigger issue: a comprehensive delta package. The lawmakers and the governor must show that, when push comes to shove, they are up to the task.

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