Marin Independent Journal, “Marin Voice: Water Reforms Biggest Step in Years”, December 21, 2009 By Gary Bobker and Barry Nelson

As always California is way ahead of the “game”. These new wars are related to global climate change. California, for other reasons, has already been through water wars.

Matt

ONE MONTH AGO, the Legislature passed, and the governor signed, a package of water reform bills. Since then, the new laws have inspired about as much misinformation as the health care debate in Congress.

The state administration hails the package as the long-awaited solution to California’s water wars. Others, like Lynn Axelrod (Marin Voice, Dec. 11), call it a sell-out to corporate agriculture.

In fact, it’s neither.

Instead, it’s the first major step in decades by the Legislature to reform the outdated policies that have fueled the collapse of the Bay-Delta ecosystem, the closure of the state’s salmon fishery, and increased the vulnerability of water supplies to climate change. The new laws do not reform every part of water policy – a simple reflection of political reality.

But make no mistake; this package points state water policy in a new and positive direction. Its passage is a testament to the persistence and vision of Assemblyman Jared Huffman and a few other legislators.

What does the package do?

It establishes a new Delta Stewardship Council, which will prepare a master plan to protect the Delta and coordinate the currently fragmented efforts of the many agencies that control Delta land use, water operations and flood management. It creates a new conservancy to restore critical habitat.

It sets a new state policy of reducing reliance on delta water supplies. The bills mandate aggressive state-wide urban water conservation, requiring other communities to make the investments in efficiency that Marin has made for years.

It also requires California, for the first time to measure groundwater levels state-wide. Any one of these provisions would be important, together, they’re historic.

Among the most important provisions are new ecosystem protections, including a required first-ever comprehensive assessment of how much water is needed to protect the delta’s public trust resources.

Our organizations have fought for two decades to secure this determination. Future plans for the delta are also required to meet the state’s highest standards for endangered species recovery and habitat conservation.

Importantly, none of these reforms depend on passage of the $11 billion dollar water bond up for a vote next year.

Finally, although the package does not resolve the delta conveyance question, including the administration’s proposed peripheral canal, it does raise the bar in several important ways: by requiring the state to protect public trust resources and restore endangered species by requiring the evaluation of alternatives to a canal; by prohibiting construction of any conveyance facilities until the state issues a permit with binding delta protections; and by requiring water exporters instead of taxpayers to pay for any new facilities. With these strong new protections, the most likely result is that less water will be pumped from the delta, not more.

True, the package includes only modest requirements for agricultural water conservation. But it requires the state to quantify agricultural efficiency, setting the stage for the development of numeric conservation targets in the future. It’s an important first step.

These laws will not solve all of our state’s water problems. More remains to be done to improve agricultural conservation, restore fisheries, and strengthen enforcement against illegal water diversions. But this package is a dramatic improvement over a status quo that is not working for the environment or water users.

There’s a reason California was unable to pass major water reforms for decades: the issues are complex and fraught with political challenges. The reforms of 2009 happened because a few leaders were willing to step up, knowing that no one would be perfectly satisfied.

Assemblyman Huffman delivered for the public trust, and has earned the public’s trust.

Gary Bobker is the program director at the Novato-based Bay Institute. Barry Nelson is a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco.

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