Many California lawmakers are currently patting one another on the back for passing legislation designed to improve the reliability of the state’s water supply, but the issue of how the improvements will be funded has not yet reached a definitive point. The $11.1 billion bond issue - which took a $2 billion hike a week ago, during those last few days of legislative negotiation - to pay for the list of projects included in the five-bill package still has to go to voters, most likely next fall.
“The legislation represents a serious commitment by state government to address California’s water problems,” said Steve Amerikaner, who represents the Central Coast Water Authority (CCWA), an agency administering State Water in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. “Nobody should be holding their breath,” he added, noting the pending ballot initiative. By all accounts, the success of the $11.1 billion initiative depends heavily upon the state of the economy at the time it reaches the ballot.
The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, arguably the heart of the State Water system, has been plagued by a number of problems, which the Legislature has been wrestling with for the past several years. A huge riparian system - simultaneously serving as a reservoir for Southern California tap water and Central Valley farming operations; and as habitat for wildlife, including the endangered delta smelt - the fragile delta is held in place by a system of levees likely to fail catastrophically in the event of an earthquake.
Furthermore, the population of tiny, endangered smelt has fallen prey to huge pumps that suck water out of the delta to convey the Northern California water to the state’s drier reaches. One solution, which has been on the table for many years under different names - it’s currently known as the Delta Bypass - is essentially a canal or pipeline that would avoid the delta completely. It has been opposed by representatives of the areas it would pass through, but has enjoyed support in other areas of the state.
Last week’s legislation included provisions for creation of a special panel to deal with San Joaquin delta issues, study of a bypass canal, and the hiring of 25 officers to keep an eye on illegal water diversions, which are fairly common along the delta due to decades of land subdivision and resulting water-rights confusion.
State Water has only been in Santa Barbara County since the early 1990s. At the tail end of a severe multi-year drought, voters approved a number of measures aimed at improving water supply reliability, including tapping into the State Water Project and building a desalinization plant in Santa Barbara. The desal plant was never fired up, but State Water has been flowing into Lake Cachuma ever since - to be distributed through the South Coast Conduit along with the water from the local watersheds. Yet compared with areas of Southern California that have little or no local water supply, Santa Barbara County uses relatively little State Water. This is particularly true of South Coast and Santa Ynez communities, which enjoy proximity to Lake Cachuma, where most local water is collected.
Even though last week’s legislation is intended to give the San Joqauin delta and other aging components of the State Water Project a breath of new life - with money for new dams, environmental upgrades, and the delta-specific measures - more money than ever before will also be pumped into regional projects. Three billion dollars of the not-yet-voter-approved money has been set aside for groundwater banking improvements designed to diminish dependence on the heavily burdened State Water system.
Water managers on the South Coast argue that healthy groundwater storage capacity is necessary for a more secure water supply, especially for areas divided from Lake Cachuma by the coastal mountain range. “Ground water monitoring and conservation will be examined in detail,” said Bill Brennan, CCWA’s executive director. “It has dropped up to 50 feet in some places [around the state] due to over-extraction.”
Even though the Delta Bypass is seen by many legislators as key to reviving State Water, none of the $11.1 billion is specifically earmarked to fund it. The legislation does make provisions to study it and other alternatives to pumping directly from the delta, however.
The economic climate over the next year could be a good indication of whether or not the bond measure will succeed - although many skeptics, such as former California Assemblymember Hannah-Beth Jackson, have voiced doubt that it will ever get past voters. And even with the financial support of an $11.1 billion bond, it may take a while for some facets of the gargantuan upgrade process to get started. Brennan indicated that some items, such as the Delta Bypass, are likely to run up against lawsuits. The appropriations process, he said, would also be lengthy. But he added that the passage of the bond in the Legislature has already initiated a spate of study and design work by water agencies needing to make upgrades.
The way forward is fraught with uncertainty, but those in charge of making sure our taps always run seem to be pressing forward regardless of the odds ahead of them.