On a day when, ironically, the Obama administration summoned state officials and interest groups to a lecture from the Colorado Cowboy Hat about California water issues, the Temecula Valley Chamber of Commerce presented its comprehensive ‘2009 Legislative Summit’. If the giant water spigot overshadowing everything was too subtle for you, the fact that the only two speakers this year were Tim Quinn, Executive Director of the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA); and Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, who was recently appointed to the (bi)-partisan, joint committee charged with producing a workable bill to resolve the states current water crisis should have tipped you to the subject.
Moderated once again by the Sacramento Bee‘s longtime political columnist Dan Walters, the event brought out the areas business and civic leaders for some discussion of water, infrastructure, taxation and other issues affecting our state. Walters led off the panel referring to this years motto for the event, California, Looking Forward. He applauded the decision to look forward – because looking back is ‘just too depressing’. He noted California’s Boom & Bust history saying it’s almost like ‘we’re addicted to it’.
They were in general consensus that something will be done legislatively to address the issue, maybe soon. They’re just not sure what it will look like. One segment of our legislature believes we should continue to address the issue through conservation measures and higher user fees while another segment agrees with conservation but insists on infrastructure improvements for long term reliability. Guess which side’s in the minority.
I’ve written on the Delta Region (Follow the Water Tour) and followed the water trail from the Oroville Dam to my spigot in Murrieta courtesy of the MWD. A recurring but new theme is emerging – the concept of an ‘alternative conveyance’. Defeated as a solution in 1982, the recent actual drought, coupled with severe regulatory drought has brought the system to it’s knee and the despised ‘peripheral canal’ has morphed into the ‘alternative conveyance’. But as Quinn said “It’s a very different political climate than it was in 1982.” In Sacramento ‘money is the lubricant for true water change. Every interest group comes with a price tag.‘ And they say lobbyists day are numbered! .
The ‘alternative conveyance’ could take the form of a 44 mile long river around the Delta, a hardened canal through the Delta or a tunnel under the Delta. Each alternative has it’s pro’s & con’s, but they’re all better than what we have today. Whichever it turns out to be will come with a high price tag – some of which will certainly be borne by ratepayers (you & me). The reward for this is a reliable supply of water to the breadbasket farmers of the Central Valley and enough to keep the deserts of Southern California Green (you & me). Arguing that water is not so much a partisan issue as a regional issue, they nevertheless succumbed to the reality of politics. Central Valley Farmers (current unemployment rate – 40+%) represented by Democratic Legislators are being increasingly vocal and it’s got some Democrats scrambling to save their seats.
Similarly, some environmental groups are coming on board as they understand the need to preserve the Delta. The 100 year old hand made peat-moss dykes keeping the region arable are in critical condition. Susceptible to earthquake, fire, flood and sabotage, the Delta is a fragile and unnatural ecosystem. It will require a major effort to preserve and will likely still involve some ‘loss’ of land to the estuarial condition that existed until a century and a half ago when the levee & dyke system was introduced to the region. First developed as subsistence farming for small communities, the region is not considered to be a high-producing agricultural mecca – it costs the state more to keep it farm-able than the farms actually produce every year.
Still more strange bedfellows involves a schism between the dwindling ranks of trade unions (workers) and groups like the SEIU, CTA and Prison Workers Unions (public employees unions). The public unions don’t really care one way or the other on the water issue. They are following the money. They know that if California launches the kind of effort necessary to truly address the matter, it will take potential bond money out of the same general fund they’re trying to tap.Besides having 70% of the earmarks already in the budget, they want access to more and infrastructure will compete for the few funds that are available in the shrinking pit that is our state economy.
The best hoped for outcome in the water wars, it appears, would be for the legislature to get out of they way and allow the state to proceed with the recommendation of the Bay Area Conservation Committee. This group has been meeting for the past 3 years or so and has formulated a series of, what appear to be, pretty sound proposals.Certainly better than the proposals considered by the (bi) partisan Joint Water Committee, currently meeting in Sac.
Why is it so many real solutions to problems begin with the words – ‘Well, if we could just get the legislature out of the way…’
Moving on to other areas, Walters bragged about what a real success it has been to go from a quarterly annual budget meltdown to one that will probably at least last until the first of the year before it unravels. “Only in Sacramento is that considered a success”. He also related a recent meeting with the Governor of Montana during his (Walters) recent vacation tour of the west. With all the major issues confronting us, the governors first comment was ‘Boy, what about that Mike Duval.’ Kind of keeps our perception in perspective.
The panel also talked about other aging infrastructure like the state’s highway system , our tax system and Nancy Pelosi. Our roads are rated 2nd worst in the nation (only New Jersey scores lower). We haven’t invested significantly in our roadways & bridges since the late 70’s, when Jerry Brown decided if we don’t build it, they won’t come. As our population soars past 38 million heading toward 50 million by 2030, that theory doesn’t seeem to be holding much credence these days. We have twice as many cars on the road today as we did in 1982 but we still take in the same amount in gas tax. Why is this? Because cars are so much more fuel efficient today that we have twice as many on the road to produce the same revenue for repairs. Yet another unintended consequence of well-intentioned legislation.
Assemblyman Jeffries had the last word admitting that “we are in a mess. The only way we can sustain a recovery is to put people back to work.” He noted that the legislature ‘has either failed to prioritize its expenditures or has prioritized badly handing out money to every interest group with it’s hand out. US! We continue to reward our politicians who consistently bring home the pork for us by re-electing them, while criticizing the pork laden coffers of others.’ “The only way we can take control back is for each of us to get engaged.” He was preaching to the choir.