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California Water Politics Complicate Brown's Decisions

Governor Jerry Brown says the Bay Delta Conservation Project is needed to secure California's water supply.
Governor Jerry Brown says the Bay Delta Conservation Project is needed to secure California's water supply.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — As California struggles to cope with its historic drought, Gov. Jerry Brown is facing increasing pressure to tackle longstanding problems in the state's water storage and delivery systems at a time when the politics of the issue have never been more tangled.

For Brown, the drought presents both opportunity and risk for a governor facing re-election who also was in office during California's last major drought in the mid-1970s.

It comes as he is pitching a costly and contentious proposal to drill two 35-mile-long, freeway-size water tunnels beneath the Northern California delta, a project that will cost at least $25 billion and is opposed by environmentalists who say it will all but destroy the imperiled estuary and has divided the agricultural community.


The governor also faces mounting pressure from the state Legislature to address an $11 billion water bond measure that lawmakers from both parties agree will require a major overhaul before it goes to voters in November.

Few things are more politically divisive in California than water. Who gets it, who pays for it, where and how it is captured and transported have proven to be political minefields for California governors for nearly a century.

The state's current crisis has gained national attention through pictures of reservoirs turned to mudflats, rivers slowed to a trickle and farmers ripping out orchards and fallowing their fields. The two Republicans in the race to contest Brown's expected re-election campaign are intensifying their criticism and say his administration has not done enough to improve California's water supply or help the hardest hit communities.

Yet policymakers, water agencies, farmers and worried local government officials hope the crisis will produce enough urgency to yield a rare political compromise. Brown told reporters in Tulare last week that "if anybody can get it done, I can get it done."

Now may be the time, said Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis.


"Floods and droughts and lawsuits always bring attention to the water issues," Lund said. "You rarely see big strategic changes in water management without that sort of motivation and attention there."

If the motivation has arrived, so have the politics.

Last month, the Brown administration announced that for the first time it will deny any water allocations to thousands of Central Valley farmers and communities.

In explaining the severity of the situation, Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, urged people "to take a deep breath, put down the arguments we've all had in the past and come together as Californians."

"This is not about picking between delta smelt and long fin smelt and chinook salmon, and it's not about picking between fish and farms or people and the environment," he said.

But those arguments are ever-present in California water conflicts, as they are this year.

Republicans in Congress last month pushed through legislation to override federal limits on pumping water from the delta and stop efforts to restore the San Joaquin River, which Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, said was a "commitment to putting California families over fish."

The city and county of San Diego are battling a war of words over Lake Morena reservoir, a city-owned water source in East County.

Brown called the legislation an "unwelcome and divisive intrusion" that would "re-open old water wounds." It is not expected to clear the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate, but it did prompt Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, Democrats from California, to respond with a proposed $300 million drought-relief package.

President Barack Obama also paid his first visit to Fresno on Friday to address the drought, but it's not yet clear whether his administration will push for a long-term solution such as building more reservoirs.

Already divisive is the governor's plan to build twin tunnels, a 10- to 15-year project that is intended to make it easier to pump water from the Sacramento River to Central Valley farms and Southern California cities.

Environmentalists say the project would suck more water from the already fragile delta, the hub of the state's water-delivery system. Critics say it would further harm the delta's fisheries, increase costs for water users and devastate the agricultural economy by lowering river levels and allowing salt water from the San Francisco Bay to invade.

They also say it would funnel more water out of Northern California while doing nothing to increase the supply.

Central Valley farmers who would benefit from the tunnels share blame for the current water crisis by planting lucrative but water-sucking crops such as almonds, pistachios and citrus that require year-round irrigation, said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, which is fighting the tunnel plan.

"It's mismanagement. If we can't manage with what we have, why can we manage better with tunnels?" she said.

Voters statewide rejected a similar water conveyance plan, the so-called peripheral canal, during Brown's first stint as governor in 1982.

Gov. Pat Brown poses next to a bouquet.
California State Senate
Gov. Pat Brown poses next to a bouquet.

Brown's water challenges also come against the backdrop of history, specifically his father's tenure as governor in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Then-Gov. Pat Brown reached a water deal in 1959, persuading lawmakers and voters to back the State Water Project, an extensive system of reservoirs and canals that was considered an engineering marvel in its day.

It now supplies 25 million people and farms that produce half the nation's fruit and vegetables.

But that system was created for a state with a population half of the current 38 million, and the state has not built a major reservoir in Northern California since 1968.

The most significant step in recent years seeking to address California's water system is the $11.1 billion water bond on this year's ballot, a legislative deal brokered in 2009 that is now considered too expensive and bloated with local pork barrel projects. The bond includes money to move water, store it, protect sensitive environmental areas and ensure clean drinking water.

At least four less costly proposals have been drafted, but Brown has yet to offer his own opinion. One of the plans, offered by two Republican state senators, would eliminate many of the earmarks in the current bond measure but retain $3 billion for water storage, $2.5 billion to protect the delta water supply and $1 billion for clean drinking water.

"We haven't done anything substantive on water policy in this state in 50 years," said Sen. Anthony Cannella of Ceres, co-author of the bond plan with Sen. Andy Vidak of Hanford. "This drought just now really highlights how bad our water infrastructure is in California."

Despite the extreme political challenges, Brown seems intent on securing some kind of sweeping water overhaul. And for that, he deserves credit, said Larry Gerston, a professor of political science at San Jose State University.

"Whatever you think about Jerry Brown's specific proposal, he's the first person to deal with these things on a widespread, comprehensive basis," he said.