Water Woes Bill

California Water Bill and Rural Counties

The Governor signed the "2009 Comprehensive Water Bill", a long fought compromise to promise water for the "coequal goals" of thirsty cities of the south and ag users in the Central Valley, and to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

What is Northern California’s role in this? Stop using water.

In addition to setting priorities for the urbanized portions of the state, the bill sells $11.14 billion in bonds for a variety of water related projects. The $11.14 billion bond has to be approved by voters. Without the cash, the deal will fall through. It remains to be seen if strapped Californians will approve that kind of debt on top of California’s withering social services and growing unemployment. We can expect strange bedfellows seen together in public pushing the bond, as big agriculture, environmentalists, construction labor unions and developers push for passage. The biggest booster of all will be Governor Schwarzenegger, who considers this to be his legacy for the state.

What does the bill (actually 4 bills) do? It provides infrastructure for water in the south, creates new construction projects, and re-establishes water authority.

Water has always been a contentious issue in the West, and this bill was no different. Participants are hard to parse out in terms of "sides", but it seems to have evolved like this: Democrats wanted more conservation, and Republicans, typically, wanted more dams. The South of the state wanted water, and the north wanted cash. Water users and politicians strained traditional relationships, and even environmental groups were at odds over the bill.

In the end, everyone got a little of what they wanted. And, though we’re the headwaters of forks of the Feather and Yuba Rivers, we get the least.

There are some good things in the bill. Several watersheds will receive money for restoration, providing natural reserves for water, instead of draining the mountains into reservoirs.

But, the bill also sets aside $3 billion for "water storage systems" which in some instances means dams. Republican lawmakers worry that water is "wasted" when it flows to the sea. The idea of a natural watercourse is foreign to them, and they think capturing water necessary for healthy tidelands and oceans is "adding" water to the state! Reservoirs are relatively short lived, change flow patterns and temperatures on watercourses, encourage development and generally destroy the health of ecosystems, but above ground water $torage $ystems are e$$ential to the Republican vision. Look for a new water bill thirty years down the road to deal with the "adding" water $cheme.

At the same time the bill spends $250,000,000 in a deal with the State of Oregon and PacifiCorp, owned by Scottish Power http://www.scottishpower.com/ to remove four dams from the Klamath River. Some hope the removal of the dams might restore native populations of fish, including salmon, to the Klamath. Likely, though, water deals cut with big agriculture and big developers by the Bush administration will diminish the benefit to the river and its people. It isn’t clear why Oregon and California should pay to have privately owned dams removed, particularly since the dams’ owner has been making money right along, but everyone wants the dams gone, and this is the price.

The budget looks like this:

  • $3 billion for water storage including dams, but also groundwater projects.
  • $2.25 billion for Delta water preservation.
  • $1.785 million for watersheds
  • $1.5 billion for water supply, which will include a number of projects.
  • $1 billion for groundwater quality.
  • $1 billion for water recycling
  • $455 million for "drought relief", conservation and efficient use.

Orville dam Photo from UC Davis.

Other, more scary things the bill does:

  1. Removes exemptions and requires most users of surface and riparian and pre-1914 users to submit diversion and use statements to the State Water Resources Control Board. It requires a complete description of use.
  2. Creates a misdemeanor penalty of $1,000 or six months imprisonment for making a mistake in the diversion and use statement and a civil liability of $1,000, plus $500 per day for failing to file a use statement.
  3. Creates a civil liability of $25,000, plus $1,000 for each day for tampering with a measuring device and failing to correct the violation after being caught.
  4. It monitors water on all users except the one that uses 80% of the water and has poisoned the delta with selenium: Central Valley agriculture.
  5. It creates the Delta Stewardship Council, an independent state agency, and by "independent" we mean "un-elected." This new state water agency will reach even into our little county, and will have broad powers to plan for our water.
  6. It makes county participation unclear and gives preferences to "integrated water" plans. This later is a mixed bag, on the one hand reducing the influence of counties of origin, but on the other, taking a more complete view of watersheds, instead of artificial political boundaries.
  7. Adds ground water level monitoring, which is currently voluntary for mountain land owners, but will likely become mandatory. There is also a crackdown on "unauthorized" and "unregulated" water users. If only that meant the water rights traders in the Klamath basin, but probably it means us.

For the whole deal to work, the bond will have to be passed by the people.

It remains to be seen if Sierra County, her people, or her watersheds benefit from this, or if we’ll pay, with our taxes and our water, for people down south to benefit.

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