Jul 16, 2009

Parched State Searches for Ways to Expand Water Supply

SAN FRANCISCO -- When California's budget impasse is settled, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will have to deal with the state's other big crisis: fresh water.

Gov. Schwarzenegger and other top lawmakers have already drafted plans to attack a severe water shortage in the state, which has suffered a three-year drought.

As soon as the stalemate over how to bridge California's $26.3 billion budget gap is resolved, the governor and legislative leaders plan to introduce a package of water-related measures calling for more water conservation and an estimated $10 billion bond measure to finance more fresh water storage.

"We're going to get that water done this year," said Gov. Schwarzenegger last month at a budget speech in Fresno, Calif. "This is the year of the water. It's that simple."

Water is anything but a simple issue in California, where politicians have long fought over how to divvy up one of the West's scarcest resources.

With some of California's reservoirs now holding as little as 21% of capacity, 60 urban water districts have instituted mandatory water conservation, up from six last summer. The current drought is hurting the state more than in the past, partly because California's population has grown to 38 million people, from 29 million two decades ago.

State officials warn the situation could worsen. "If next year is average or below average in water, we'll have very serious problems," said Lester Snow, director of the California Department of Water Resources.

One complication is a thicket of recent environmental restrictions that curtail how much water can be used.

In 2007, a federal court in Fresno ordered water managers to protect the ecosystem of the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, in part by reducing how much water is pumped through it. That cut water shipments from the mountains of Northern California to arid Southern California by about 30%.

Mr. Snow estimates roughly a quarter of the state's current water shortfall -- which he calculates at about two million acre-feet -- is due to the protections. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, or the average amount of water a family of four uses in a year.

Fixing the way water moves through the delta is now central to the water package that the governor and legislative leaders are pushing.

One idea is to build a new canal to circumvent the delta. California voters rejected a similar proposal in 1982, partly over concerns it would cost billions of dollars. So before calling for a new canal, lawmakers are drafting bills to create an oversight body to iron out details of what the delta needs, said state Assemblyman Jared Huffman.

Another cornerstone of the package is providing more water storage. California's reservoir system was established decades ago, when the state's population was smaller and before climate changes began yielding more rain instead of mainly snow. That change has made it more difficult to capture runoff in reservoirs because rain flows too fast to be captured without causing flooding, Mr. Snow said.

But even as Republicans and Democrats have hammered out a water package in a rare show of unity here, any big-ticket water projects are likely to face intense opposition from environmental groups.

The groups say California already has 1,400 dams and that lawmakers need to fix leaky pipes, as well as better manage state groundwater.

"It's not dams that are needed," said Jim Metropulos, a Sacramento lobbyist for the Sierra Club. "You need to expand the existing water supply."

Some legislators say dams have to be part of any possible solution because future water supplies are likely to remain precarious.

Meanwhile, local water districts are trying to cope.

On July 1, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California reduced supplies of imported water to the agencies it serves by 10% from levels that already were down 10% last year. As a result, the Rancho California Water District, a Riverside County agency that gets much of its water from the agency, was one of several that implemented mandatory conservation measures that day.

Among its new mandates to 42,000 customers: no watering of lawns and gardens between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m., fix leaky faucets and wash only full loads of laundry and dishes. Restrictions have been imposed in more than a dozen other water districts across Southern California, including in Los Angeles and San Diego.

Such measures are likely to become more common. "This is a forever change, that customers will have to start internalizing," says Jennifer Persike, spokeswoman for the Association of California Water Agencies.

courtesy of wsj.com

Write to Jim Carlton at jim.carlton@wsj.com

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