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Day Of Reckoning For Water Is Here

Editorial - Sacramento Bee


California lawmakers face an epic moment in the state’s wrangling over water. They are now are mulling an imperfect but heavily negotiated package of reforms for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the state's use of water.

California lawmakers face an epic moment in the state’s wrangling over water. They are now are mulling an imperfect but heavily negotiated package of reforms for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the state's use of water.

If approved with a reasonable amount of funding, this package holds promise for kick-starting restoration of the Delta, improving monitoring of groundwater, financing new water storage and reducing wasteful water practices and illegal diversions of water.

The package would also ensure a full study of new ways for moving water through and around the Delta, including construction of a canal.

California last faced such stark choices in 1982, when voters were asked to approve a peripheral canal that a divided Legislature had authorized two years earlier. Voters rejected it, and this page applauded. As a Bee editorial said on June 15, 1982, "The defeat of Proposition 9 is an opportunity to reopen these divisive debates" over how to manage the state's water.

As we now know, that opportunity was never seized. Some 27 years have passed, and it's hard to argue that the status quo has served anyone's interests.

The Delta has continued to decline, even with new environmental laws aimed at protecting this estuary. Fish are in peril. Farm districts and cities have seen their water deliveries reduced. The federal courts are threatening to take over the management of water in the Delta, much like they have taken over the state's prison health care system.

Then take a step back and examine the larger picture. Delta levees continue to erode. More could collapse in an earthquake. Efforts to restore wetlands, an essential filter and form of habitat in the Delta, have been fitful. Not enough work has been done to ensure efficient use of urban water supplies, especially in the Central Valley.

The package negotiated by Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg doesn't meet the perfection test. An ideal package would seek stronger management of the state's unregulated aquifers, more ambitious conservation mandates, and adoption of state water fees to help pay for Delta restoration, water efficiency projects and cost-effective storage.

But for California to make any progress on water, there must be compromise. In recent weeks, Steinberg has worked to talk to all sides and modify the package to address many, but not all, concerns.

The bottom line: Is this policy package an improvement on the status quo? The answer is an unequivocal yes. It takes progressive steps forward on efficiency and groundwater, with protections for Northern California's water rights. It doesn't give a green light to a canal. Indeed, such a project would undergo a multiyear review before state and federal agencies sign off on any preferred option for new "conveyance" in the Delta.

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