Is California's New Water Legislation Better Than Nothing?
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2. The State Water Resources Control Board, responsible for overseeing water rights, enforcing allocations, and preventing water theft and unreasonable use is far too weak. I've written about this earlier. The Board is hamstrung by politics and budget constraints. The new bill does not fix those problems and, in the worst case of last minute, back-room dealing, the modest efforts to strengthen the Board's ability to monitor, enforce, and penalize were stripped out or severely weakened.
3. Some bill supporters claim the bill will "implement the Governor's call to improve water use efficiency by 20 percent by 2020." If only that were true. Very modest targets for improving water-use efficiency were set in the bill for urban users only, and even these are not mandatory or enforceable. More outrageously, however, no such targets were set for agriculture, which uses 80% of the water used by humans in California. Agriculture remains largely unaccountable for how they use water.
4. The only sustainable way to support effective water management is through a user fee on water use. In the long run, asking the voters for bond after bond will not work. We pay for electricity; we pay for milk. The more we use, the more we pay. All users should pay a fee for water use based on the volume of water used. This too was stripped out of early versions of the legislation.
Two additional key uncertainties stand out in the current bills:
- We don't really know how the new institutional management structure for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is going to play out or whether the bill's environmental improvements -- strongly supported by some in the environmental community -- will materialize. It's a big unknown. But the health of the Delta is central to the problems we face and while key elements of the bill may lead to ecosystem restoration, they may not. For some supporters, those potential successes were enough to outweigh the other liabilities. But it is a gamble.
- We still don't really know if there is going to be a major new "peripheral" canal, what it is going to look like, where it is going to be built, and how it is going to be operated. Nor are there any guarantees that ecosystem protections will be strengthened enough to save the Delta if such a canal is built. Some supporters believe (and some bill opponents fear) this bill will smooth the way for a new canal. Time will tell.
If the new California water bill is all there is, it will not be enough to solve our water problems. If this is a first baby step toward fixing problems that have been ignored for a century, then I look forward to the next steps. Soon.
Dr. Peter Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute, an internationally recognized water expert and a MacArthur Fellow.