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The Parching of California

by DAN BACHER

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger issued a drought proclamation and called for “immediate action” at a press conference at the State Capitol in Sacramento on Tuesday, using the event to campaign for his plan to build more dams and “improve conveyance”- a euphemism for the construction of the peripheral canal – to increase water exports from the California Delta to agribusiness and southern California.

“For the areas in Northern California that supply most of our water, this March, April and May have been the driest ever in our recorded history,” Governor Schwarzenegger said. “As a result, some local governments are rationing water, developments can’t proceed and agricultural fields are sitting idle.”

The final snow survey of 2008 in May by the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) showed snowpack water content at only 67 percent of normal and the runoff forecast at only 55 percent of normal.

Before gathered members of the press and the governor’s staff including DWR Director Lester Snow, and Chief of Staff Susan Kennedy, the Governor signed an Executive Order proclaiming a “statewide drought” and directing the Department of Water Resources and other entities to take “immediate action” to address the situation.

The Executive Order does not mandate water rationing, but relies on voluntary measures, so it is largely symbolic. The order directs the DWR “to facilitate water transfers to respond to emergency shortages across the state and work with local water districts and agencies to improve local coordination and help local water districts and agencies improve water efficiency and conservation.”

The order also directs DWR “to coordinate with other state and federal agencies and departments to assist water suppliers, identify risks to water supply and help farmers suffering losses, and expedite existing grant programs to help local water districts and agencies conserve.”

The document also encourages local water districts and agencies to voluntarily promote water conservation. “They are encouraged to work cooperatively on the regional and state level to take aggressive, immediate action to reduce water consumption locally and regionally for the remainder of 2008 and prepare for potential worsening water conditions in 2009,” according to Schwarzenegger.

After touting voluntary measures as the way to supply water to Californians in a drought year, Schwarzenegger used the drought declaration to highlight “the state’s need for infrastructure improvements to capture excess water in wet years to use in dry years like this one.”

“This drought is an urgent reminder of the immediate need to upgrade California’s water infrastructure,” Schwarzenegger stated. “There is no more time to waste because nothing is more vital to protect our economy, our environment and our quality-of-life. We must work together to ensure that California will have safe, reliable and clean water not only today but 20, 30 and 40 years from now.”

The Governor then renewed his call for more dams and conveyance as proposed in his $11.9 billion water bond boondoggle for “water management investments” that he claimed will “address population growth, climate change, water supply reliability and environmental needs.”

The proposal includes $3.5 billion dedicated to the development of additional storage, including the controversial Sites Dam in the Sacramento Valley and the Temperance Flat Dam on the San Joaquin River that a coalition of recreational fishing groups, commercial fishing organizations, Indian Tribes and environmental groups are opposing.

The Governor said he would prefer to get his infrastructure plan passed through the Legislature, but did not rule out putting it on the ballot as an initiative “if that’s what it takes.”

“But let me tell you, I prefer to do the same thing as we have done successfully in 2006, where we sat down and we negotiated and we worked together and out came $37 billion of infrastructure. And now we are rebuilding our roads and we are building extra classrooms, expanding our universities, building career-tech educational facilities and also fixing our levees,” he said.

He emphasized, ” And I don’t see water as a political issue. I think that there are Democrats that want to drink safe and reliable water and there are Republicans that want to drink safe and reliable water and they want to have a guarantee that they’ll have water 20, 30 years from now. So I think it shouldn’t be a party issue, it should be a people’s issue and it should be an issue that is facing farmers and business people. Ordinary people, everybody is suffering when we have no water. So this is why I think Democrats and Republicans must get together and solve this problem once and for all.”

Traci Sheehan Van Thull, Executive Director of the Planning and Conservation League, criticized Schwarzenegger for using “outdated strategies” to deal with the water crisis.

“Governor Schwarzenegger’s drought proclamation offers up a challenge – and an opportunity – for all Californians to conserve water and to work together to find new solutions to solve our water problems,” she said. “Unfortunately the Governor’s executive order relies heavily on outdated strategies that have created the very problems we now seek to solve.”

She encouraged the Governor to embrace measures that will allow California to grow without increasing demand on already over-allocated water sources. “We need strong policies that can decrease water demand, provide climate-resilient water supplies, and truly provide relief for the communities, fisherman, businesses and ecosystems that are suffering from lack of reliable water,” noted Sheehan.

“More and more residents and businesses are facing severe water rationing in California, while water demands and communities continue to grow. While the Governor’s proclamation references the need to provide water for our growth, his executive order relies heavily on the same sources of water that are now in decline,” she said.

She urged the passage of measures such as Assembly Member Krekorian’s Water Efficiency Security Act, co-sponsored by the Planning and Conservation League, that would help prevent rationing by ensuring growing California communities have the water they need without further increasing water demand on over-burdened water resources. However, this measure failed to gain traction in the State Assembly.

“Ensuring that new growth in California will not lead to increased rationing and exacerbate the pending water crisis is a critical step to solving California’s water crisis,” Sheehan said. ”

I found it revealing that Schwarzenegger failed to mention the impact of the salmon fisheries disaster now ravaging California and Oregon coastal and inland communities, the result of abysmal water management by the state and federal governments, in his press conference, press releases and the executive order. While agribusiness, industry and municipalities face water shortages this year, Central Valley fall run chinook salmon and California Delta fish species have faced a “man made” drought, in spite of some good water years, since 2002.

The Sacramento River fall run chinook population has declined from over 800,000 fish in 2002 to less than 60,000 this year, prompting the complete closure of salmon fishing off the Oregon and California coast for the first time in history, along with the closure of Central Valley rivers to the take of salmon except for one small stretch of the Sacramento River in November and December.

Some of the largest annual water export levels in history occurred in 2003 (6.3 million acre feet), 2004 (6.1 MAF), 2005 (6.5 MAF and 2006 (6.3 MAF). Exports averaged 4.6 MAF annually between 1990 and 1999 and increased to an average of 6 MAF between 2000 and 2007, a rise of almost 30 percent, according to the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. For the fish, this massive diversion of water from the Delta amounts to a manufactured drought, engineered by the same state and federal governments that are supposedly are entrusted with protecting fish and other natural resources.

The sudden and unprecedented decline of Sacramento River fall chinook salmon parallels the collapse of delta smelt, longfin smelt, juvenile shad and threadfin shad. These Delta “pelagic” – open water – species have declined because of three reasons (1) increases in water exports, (2) toxic chemicals and (3) invasive species, according to a team of state and federal scientists. More recently, studies point to high levels of ammonia in Sacramento River water as a factor in the collapse of salmon and other California fish species.

There is no doubt we are in a drought. However, we need to use this crisis as an opportunity to mandate increased water conservation and to consider retiring drainage impaired land on the West side of the San Joaquin Valley. Sheehan’s characterization of the Governor’s water plans as “outdated strategies” is absolutely correct.

Rather than relying on outdated strategies such as new dams and “improving” conveyance – building the peripheral canal- we need to adopt new strategies based around water conservation, sustainable agriculture and developing new sources of water such as desalination, provided it is done in an environmentally friendly and energy efficient manner.

DAN BACHER can be reached at: Danielbacher@fishsniffer.com

 

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Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher danielbacher@fishsniffer.com.

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