By Dan Walters - email@example.com
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE – It's almost December, but anyone driving in the bone-dry Lake Tahoe basin is more likely to encounter blowing dust than drifting snow.
Northern California, it's becoming more evident every day, faces the scary prospect of a second dry winter that will not refill its badly depleted reservoirs. How depleted? Shasta Lake, at the head of the Sacramento River system near Redding, can hold 4.6 million acre-feet of water but contains just 1.8 million. Lake Oroville, with a capacity of 3.5 million acre-feet, has just 1.3 million. Folsom Lake is scarcely one-quarter full.
On Monday, the state Department of Water Resources told the water agencies that serve two-thirds of Californians that they can expect just 25 percent of their normal allocations next year, down from 60 percent this year. Several cities in Southern California have declared water emergencies. The fire danger remains high, as this week's Malibu fire underscores. Within a few days, a judge's order that curtails water deliveries to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to save endangered fish will take effect.
This is the immediate crisis, and there's very little that politicians can do to avert it. But it's part of a longer-range crisis that's been developing for decades in a political vacuum. It may worsen if the warnings about global warming prove true, because winter snows will lessen, and more of the state's precipitation will come in the form of rain.
Against that background of immediate water shortages and long-range peril, are the Capitol's politicians rising to the occasion? Not noticeably.
Yes, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders are talking about making a multibillion-dollar investment in water conservation and storage. And talking. And talking. But the philosophical and partisan conflicts that have stalled water policy for decades are as strong as ever. Tellingly, on the day that state water officials delivered the bad news to Californians, Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders met again to discuss the long-stalled water plan and failed again to reach agreement.
The pivotal point is whether the state should build new reservoirs as part of its water plan or rely on conservation and other forms of non-storage water management to meet its needs, such as shifting more water from farmers to residential, commercial and industrial users.
Schwarzenegger proposes reservoirs, but Democrats, under intense pressure from anti-reservoir environmental groups, have been reluctant. The lead Democrat on the issue, Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, finally agreed to place $3 billion in the proposed water bond for reservoirs. Republicans, however, are insisting that the money be appropriated permanently, fearing that environmentalists would block its use if it remains subject to legislative appropriation.
Their fear is well-founded. Environmental groups see water supply as the key element in land use and other development issues and believe that restricting supply will somehow slow growth – disregarding the simple demographic fact that California's population growth stems almost entirely from immigration and babies. Thus, the never-ending debate over water really isn't about water so much as it is about how and if California will continue to grow.
There is no small irony in that conflict. Those on the political left who oppose new reservoirs generally oppose immigration restrictions and universally believe in global warming scenarios that imply the state needs more storage to capture winter rains and offset the loss of snowpack.
Storage could be in some form other than traditional reservoirs, perhaps, such as replenishing underground aquifers – but anyone who thinks we don't need it in some form is intellectually dishonest.