Commentary

State Water Issue is Complex - The Fresno Bee

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke will shortly decide whether to request a National Academy of Sciences review of the biological opinions that restrict water flows from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

I believe a National Academy review is an important step, and last week I placed $750,000 in the 2010 fiscal year Interior Appropriations bill to pay for it. The National Academy is the most highly respected scientific body in the nation, and a review would settle questions about whether the federal government used the best-available science in determining how much water can be pumped without violating the Endangered Species Act.

In my view, they should look at ways to protect fish without reducing water supply.

In August, I met with farmers in Coalinga. They expressed hope that a review might find the current restrictions unnecessary. Environmentalists hope the restrictions will be upheld. Neither outcome is guaranteed, but I believe we must perform due diligence on this critical issue, given that 13 lawsuits, including one large consolidated lawsuit, are challenging the biological opinions.

There is no quick fix for the chronic water shortages devastating Valley farmers. A real solution to the water problem will not be possible until state leaders create a workable plan to repair the Delta and build new water infrastructure.

Last week, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina proposed an amendment to the Interior Appropriations bill that he claimed would provide more water to farmers. This created the false hope that a simple amendment could end the drought. In fact, it could not.

Let me be clear: Even if the Senate had approved this amendment, it would not have resulted in one extra drop of water. Any attempt to suspend environmental regulations to increase pumping would have been stopped in its tracks by new lawsuits, further delaying efforts to find a comprehensive Delta solution. This ambush only muddied the waters with misinformation and stirred public anger.

"Turn on the pumps" has become a rallying cry. Yet the pumps have been on since June 30, and the Army Corps of Engineers approved a 500-cubic-feet-per-second increase in diversions to the State Water Project between July and September.

Meanwhile, the state Water Resources Control Board approved "Consolidated Place of Use" authority to allow greater flexibility in South Delta pumping operations. The Bureau of Reclamation has approved or facilitated the transfer of more than 600,000 acre feet of water to communities in need, but this is an expensive short-term solution.

A three-year drought and the resulting lack of runoff have deprived farmers of 1.6 million acre feet of water this year. While it is easy to blame environmental regulations and fish for the problem, these account for only 500,000 acre feet -- a lot of water -- but less than one quarter of the shortage.

The rest is due to drought, as well as the fact that California has failed to make the investment necessary to provide a Delta solution that works for both farmers and the environment. In 2008, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and I proposed a comprehensive $9.8 billion plan to increase water storage, improve conveyance, and protect the Delta ecosystem, but the Legislature kept it from the ballot.

In lieu of action from the state, the federal government has invested $40 million in emergency assistance to help Valley farmers. Additionally, the federal government has expedited review of the five-year Two Gates experiment and the Intertie project, which together should help increase water flow.

The future of Valley agriculture is in the hands of all Californians, who must be willing to support strong action and pass a bond to build the water system our state needs. Soon, we will be a state of 40 million people with a water infrastructure built to accommodate 16 million. Our population could exceed 50 million by 2050.

Without a long-term solution to the water problem, it's only going to get worse.