Elizabeth Emken U.S. Senate

Water

California has an abundance of man-made problems: skyrocketing debt, crumbling infrastructure, and a dysfunctional state government, just to name a few. Yet for all the consternation over our self-inflicted wounds, the Golden State has yet to successfully confront a natural disaster that could potentially be its most devastating problem-the issue of water and our inability to produce a workable solution to controlling our most precious resource.

State leaders continue to grapple with the after-effects of one of the biggest water crises this nation has ever seen. Fishermen and farmers, businesses and communities have been locked in a battle over water supply. The arguments over storage, conservation, and distribution threaten to drown out the voices of reason who are working to adapt our water management system to effectively meet 21st century needs.

Simply put, the problem with California`s water lies with our ideology, not our geology.

Drought has been as constant a condition in California as nature can provide. In the last 100 years, our state has experienced nine periods of drought where there were two or more dry years in succession, occurring on the average every nine years. We need to base our water planning on how to get through a drought.

California water rights law only allows new facilities to store surplus water not needed to meet preexisting rights, therefore we need to expand our water system through new storage, increased conservation, recycling, conjunctive management of groundwater, and improved facilities for moving water. Nothing beats a drought like having saved and stored water before it happens.

Water storage and delivery, however, have been substantially impacted by a regulatory culture that disregards the importance of the water supply on everything from employment to housing. Our over-zealous regulatory culture is crushing business, killing jobs and putting families at risk of losing their homes.

For example, in 1978 the US Supreme Court decided that the federal Endangered Species Act required that endangered species be protected at "whatever the costs." Following this precedent, two recent federal decisions have led to the water pumps in the southern delta being shut off at times that are critical to the growing season for farmers, severely impacting families and their livelihoods, and driving unemployment up to nearly 20%. "Whatever the costs" completely ignores the human toll, and completely shuts down common sense compromise.

What`s the cost to California`s farming industry? Farmers here in the Central Valley are the hardest hit, with lawsuits and punitive regulations doing the most damage. The Delta smelt controversy alone has had an average near term economic effect of more than $500 million annually, and can exceed $3 billion in a prolonged drought. These losses directly impact and worsen the unemployment crisis in the Central Valley.

By the year 2020, California`s population will reach 44 million. This increase, together with all the other demands on our water supply, will result in water shortages even in years with average precipitation and severe water shortages in drought years.

Making matters worse, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the major water source for two-thirds of the state, is increasingly strained with its fragile levies, unreliable water quality, and an over-zealous regulatory burden. Our statewide water storage and delivery system has not been significantly improved in 30 years.

California also faces an ongoing civil water war. The average annual precipitation in California is about 23 inches and produces a total of 192 million acre-feet of water falling as rain or snow in an average year. However, the precipitation varies greatly, ranging from more than 140 inches in the northwestern part of the State to less than 4 inches in the southeastern part of the State. Of that water, 114 million acre feet (59%), falls north of a line drawn from South Lake Tahoe to the Golden Gate. However, 75 percent of the water use occurs south of that line.

In California, water use and supplies are controlled and managed under a complex system of common law principles, constitutional provisions, State and federal statutes, court decisions, and contracts or agreements. It begins with the concept that the people of California own all the water in the state. Water rights provide the right to reasonable and beneficial use of the water, not ownership of the water. Public interests are therefore involved at every level of water management in California.

The State Constitution sets forth the reasonable and beneficial standard and in addition limits water rights by prohibiting the waste, unreasonable use, unreasonable method of use, or unreasonable method of diversion of water. The interpretation of those terms is a matter for the State Water Resources Control Board and ultimately the courts.

According to engineers, we are at the end of the design life for much of the water infrastructure built in the last century. In addition, the state`s antiquated levee system needs repairs to protect lives and property in the Central Valley. California was made great in part by our ability to adapt and to create innovation through our infrastructure systems. These investments have been allowed to wither on the vine because of a bureaucratic regulatory process put in place by Democrats.

Democrats are pros at moving legislation that "looks" like they`re doing something, when the reality is there`s no "there" there.

California needs someone representing us in Congress who`s really "there" on the water issue. Here`s what I will propose as your Representative:

  • Explore and invest in new technology and infrastructure to reduce pressures on our water supply and delivery system. We should focus on infrastructure solutions that directly increase available water.
  • There are four storage projects that have been discussed and studied for decades:
    1. The Sites reservoir, an off stream facility north of the delta. It is located in a natural bowl off-stream of the Sacramento River in Colusa County and has been under consideration for more than 30 years.
    2. Further expansion of Los Vaqueros, an off-stream facility west of the delta, to take full advantage of the existing state-of-the-art fish screens currently in use in the Delta.
    3. The Temperance flat reservoir, which would enlarge storage and be valuable in managing the flows on the San Joaquin River, and
    4. Expansion of the Shasta reservoir on the upper Sacramento River.

These projects should be approved, funded and built. Period.

  • Modernize the federal Endangered Species Act to better recover species, minimize conflict, reduce costs, and remedy other unintended consequences of the Act. This would include a focus on cooperative conservation and landowner incentives, better use of science and replacing the use of critical habitat designations with comprehensive recovery plans that include adaptive management.
  • California annually discharges several million acre-feet of used water to the ocean. Statewide criteria should be established to safely recycle this water to allow it to be reclaimed for potable use. Creating uniform standards would ensure public safety and reduce up-front recycling plant design costs.
  • Further explore the concept of conjunctive management of surface water and groundwater with a goal of reallocating water from wet to dry years to smooth out rates of consumption and increase available supplies.
  • A potential source of water, desalination, is minimally utilized in California, due to the regulatory gauntlet that developers must face - for instance, a desalination project in Carlsbad took 11 years before it obtained its final permit in November 2009. Desalination is used effectively in 120 countries. Let`s give innovation and investment the freedom to develop cheaper processes and help California become the world leader in desalination technology.
  • Undertake a complete cost-benefit analysis with all water projects to confirm payback of investment in infrastructure and demonstrate enhancement to jobs and the California economy.

California will continue to fall victim to the natural cycles of drought and subject itself to a never-ending series of water crises if we don`t act swiftly and decisively to upgrade our water infrastructure. Improving availability, reducing flood risk and maintaining control with a more reasonable system of regulations will provide the stability we need for the resources we require.

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