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Are Policy Makers Exacerbating Drought Scares? That's What It Looks Like in California

Like much of the West, the state has serious water issues, but Mother Nature is only partly to blame.

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And others are worried, too.

"The governor has powers under the emergency declaration to invoke certain things -- this particular drought proclamation went further than others have in terms of emergency proclamations in the state," explained McIntyre. "For instance, he is relaxing water-quality laws, clean-water-act laws and the California Environmental Quality Act, under his drought proclamation.

"Because we don't know what will signal the end of this emergency, and what kinds of projects might be eligible to receive these kind of exemptions, for instance there is some concern that the exemption could be used to build a desalination facility, which will take years to build and will not help this particular drought.

"The things that would help now, like water conservation and to some extent, one-year water transfers, don't require CEQA, so some of us in the enviro community are concerned and are curious as to why the administration has chosen to exempt these particular laws when they aren't needed to address the drought."

So, is the governor politically motivated in his drought-emergency declaration? Is he trying to squeeze in more water transfers from north to south and help get his $9 billion pet project of new dams and the extremely controversial peripheral canal into the works?

There are definitely some who think so.

Water researcher and writer Rachel Olivieri wrote:

Cloaked as a restoration project, should the central delta be bypassed diverting the Sacramento directly to canals and off-stream storage reservoirs, the central valley and southland water boosters will be well positioned for an ultimate water grab to fuel economic determinism and contrived population growth projections down to the last drop.

Environmentalists like McIntyre are concerned not just with the canal idea, but with other water transfers, including the state's "drought water bank," which asks Northern California farmers to sell their water to Southern California.

"We are already seeing projects being exempted," said McIntyre. "For instance, involving the drought water bank, which is a group of large-scale water transfers from Northern California to the San Joaquin Valley in the south. DWR has filed for an exemption under the California Environmental Quality Act and has asked for a relaxation of water-quality standards in the delta in order to move that water."

A lawsuit has followed as a result. The Butte Environmental Council, along with the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and the California Water Impact Network contend:

The California Department of Water Resources and Gov. Schwarzenegger have prepared to launch a water-transfer program that will devastate the northern Sacramento Valley and continue the destruction of the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta.

But just how devastating depends on how much water actually gets transferred. If Northern California farmers decide to use more groundwater and sell their river water to San Joaquin farmers, there could be ecological consequences. There are already parts of the San Joaquin Valley where the land has dropped 30 feet because the groundwater underneath was pulled out.

But friends in high places may come in handy for southern farmers. Feinstein seems to be behind the effort, according to a letter of hers published in the Central Valley Business Times after a meeting "by the senator to bring together the major stakeholders -- farmers, ranchers and state and federal water and wildlife officials -- to discuss possible solutions for the drought, including the need to move water south of the delta."

Is it Good for California?

So, is all the talk from the governor and his administration about a new canal and a drought water bank really their earnest answer to solving the state's water problems? If so, it seems they may only end up creating more problems.