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Water crisis demands attention now

State leaders must forge effective compromises to serve people of California.

Friday, Feb. 27, 2009

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Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in California's ongoing drought Friday. If it sparks a heightened urgency in Sacramento over the state's water crisis, it will be a worthy move.

It's easy to be skeptical. California's water problems -- like its dysfunctional state finances -- didn't arise overnight. We have postponed the debate on a comprehensive and rational water policy for decades, and now that procrastination is hitting us hard.

Farmers are fallowing fields, plowing under crops and bulldozing orchards. The hit to the state's farm production could total $2 billion this year.

After three dry winters, California's reservoirs are at their lowest levels since 1992. That's bad enough, but it doesn't tell the whole story: The state's population was about 30 million then; today it's around 38 million, and demand for water has grown accordingly.

And all that time our leaders have argued back and forth over solutions, without reaching any sort of useful consensus.

We have long advocated a three-part approach to relieving California's seemingly perpetual water woes:

New surface water storage projects -- that means dams, including one proposed at Temperance Flat, upstream from Millerton Lake.

Increased use of underground storage, or water banking.

A dramatic boost in conservation efforts.

Dams, as always, are the sticking point. Farmers and their allies in the Legislature, mostly Republican, want them; urban Democrats and their allies in the environmental movement abhor them.

That could change. A group called the Latino Water Coalition -- mostly Hispanic business and civic leaders -- is lobbying the Legislature's Latino caucus on behalf of new dams and canals. They argue that the water crisis has particular impact on the Valley's largely Latino farmworkers, and they've made some inroads with urban Latino representatives.

State Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, on Thursday proposed a $9.98-billion bond proposal that includes new dams and reservoirs.

A competing proposal released Thursday by Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez, D-Shafter, would use $15 billion in bonds for water efficiency, recycling, conservation and storage projects, including dams.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said this week that "This is the session to aggressively solve California's water challenges."

Let's hope he's serious, because the problem certainly is. And it won't get better until our leaders in Sacramento find the will to forge effective compromises that meet the needs of the people of California instead of the special interests.

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