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Is California's New Water Legislation Better Than Nothing?

Despite the happy face being put on by some of the bill's supporters, including Governor Schwarzenegger, I doubt anyone is truly happy with the end result.


A lot of people have asked me my opinion about the new water legislation just passed in Sacramento. Here is a longer version of my piece in the New York Times Bay Area blog page.

After months of negotiations, wrangling, lobbying, and deal-making, much of it behind closed doors and out of public view, the California legislature has just passed a major new water package that includes both complex policy changes and a huge bond request that the voters will be asked to approve.

Despite the happy face being put on by some of the bill's supporters, including Governor Schwarzenegger, I doubt anyone is truly happy with the end result. Perhaps that's too much to expect for a topic as complex as California water and for a bill that tries to do so much at once. I'm certainly not happy, but I believe there was a (mostly) good faith effort on the part of the governor and the legislators and all the other water interest groups to try and produce something.

What will be the ultimate outcome? Are we going to be better off with this bill than with no bill? Will California legislators now say they are done dealing with water, and refuse to tackle the unaddressed, partially addressed, or badly addressed issues? If so, then this package isn't going to be nearly enough. But if instead legislators and other water interests treat it as a beginning, not an end, and work to build and improve on the good pieces, it could be a major step forward. We'll have to wait and see how it changes our actual water problems.

Peter Gleick
Dr. Peter Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute, an internationally recognized water expert and a MacArthur Fellow.

The worst thing about the bill was the process. Too few powerful interests had too much power to determine the content. Anyone who thinks the days of smoke-filled, back-room deals are over is wrong (except, perhaps, about the smoke). Too many other people, communities, and organizations were left out of the process. And while many of us were pressured to support, or oppose, the bills by various friends and colleagues, it became impossible to even understand what bill we were being asked to support, as day by day, hour by hour, good pieces were cut out or weakened and bad things inserted. Even at the very last minute, the bill was significantly watered down in desperate deals cut by a few special interests. This is bad, bad process.

The biggest problems with California water have still not been addressed or fixed in these bills and the most productive question is, how can we move forward from here?

Water Number: Here are four key unaddressed issues:

1. The State must still figure out how to measure, monitor, and report every single water use. As stunning as it may seem to outsiders, we still aren't measuring and metering all water uses, and the new legislation doesn't require us to. Imagine that you had a bank account, but you didn't know how much money was in it, you didn't know how much money was going in each month, and you didn't know how much was being taken out. That's our water use situation. And while that ignorance benefits some special interests, it is irresponsible. The modest requirements for comprehensive monitoring groundwater levels in earlier versions of the bill were fatally weakened at the last minute and there are still no requirements for reporting actual groundwater use or all other uses.

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