New Hope for California's Water Woes

Before California's legislature adjourned its regular session earlier this month, it had once again attracted national attention for high profile efforts on water and renewable energy as well as a sex scandal that forced Orange County Assemblyman Mike Duvall to resign from office. 

Bills that would set the most aggressive renewable energy targets in the country made it to Governor Schwarzenegger's desk for his signature.  He has until October 11 to sign or veto bills into law.  Yet the 2009 legislative year in Sacramento was characterized by a shift that saw industry lobbyists using the economy as an excuse to attack environmental progress and existing laws as they perpetuated the myth of economy v. environment.  We fought back most of the attacks on California's Environmental Quality Act and the state's pioneering global warming legislation, but some troubling end runs made it through in the last frantic hours of the session.  NRDC also worked around the clock to forge agreement on an aggressive package of water bills that unfortunately didn't make it to the Governor's desk, but is expected to form the basis for continued action soon.

As my colleague Barry Nelson outlines in his blog, the final water policy bill that came together on the last day of the session consolidated five separate pieces of legislation, including a water efficiency bill that NRDC has been working on all year.  The package represents progress in addressing measures crucial to using California's water resources more efficiently and fairly, restoring our ecosystems and providing a more reliable water supply for farmers, cities, and wildlife.

We need improved water management here in California - the most populous state in the country with 37 million residents, 25 million of whom depend in part on water from the depleted Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.  But, as the U.S. Department of Interior stresses in a release issued last week, the Delta is in "a state of full environmental collapse."  On top of all this, California is in its third year of drought, significantly reducing the water supplies available from the Delta. This state of drought may be a taste of the "new normal" in California in a climate-changed future.  As the Obama administration says, it's incumbent on all of us to find "practical solutions that will help California weather the drought and build a sustainable water future."     

That's why we think this package of policy bills reflects a real breakthrough among environmental groups, major utilities, business and agricultural interests.  The package is a big step toward carrying out the recommendations of the Delta Vision Task Force established by the Legislature and the Governor. 

In the waning hours the legislature ran out of time and these water bills did not make it to the governor.  But I have hope that the work the past few weeks marks a big turn in California water policy.   It sets the stage for what we hope can be a breakthrough next year, if not sooner.  We don't want to face another dry year without effective water conservation and retention solutions like my colleague David Beckman recommends for California, and the Delta needs to be managed better if we expect that water source to endure. It's time to face our water challenge in California.