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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Landmark California Water Bill

Air Date: Week of

California is having its first wet winter in years, but as Maia Krache of member station KQED in San Francisco reports, the most important change for the state's parched cities and wildlife areas may come from a new bill passed at the end of the last Congressional session. The bill for the first time reserves some of the water from the Federal government's massive water project for wildlife, and allows farmers to sell some of their water to urban users.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

After six years of unrelenting drought, the rains and snows have returned to California, and with them the hope that parched cities, farmland and wildlife habitats will finally get some relief. But in a state where competing interests have fought over scarce water for decades, more than just the weather has recently changed. Maia Krache, of member station K-Q-E-D in San Francisco, reports on a new landmark Federal law that reallocates some of the Golden State's water supply.

(Sound of water and news report of mudslide )

KRACHE: Californians are having to deal with mud-slicked roads and flood warnings for the first time in years. Storm after storm has rumbled over the state, slowly filling major reservoirs. The all-important mountain snowpack approaches 200% of normal in some places, and come spring, this will mean more water for the parched state. But the fundamental change in the California water scene this year comes from Congress, not from nature. The Federal Government owns and runs the biggest water distribution system in the state: the Central Valley Project. For decades, the CVP has served primarily agriculture. But after a monumental battle in Congress last session, a bill emerged that will make more CVP water available to thirsty California cities and for critical environmental needs. National Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope.

POPE: This legislation is the most important single commitment that human beings have ever made to the restoration of this planet, in any country, or on any issue, or at any time. This is the biggest and the best.

KRACHE: Environmentalists like Pope are effusive in praising the reform because the project's decades of water diversions have strained a collapsing ecosystem to the breaking point. As the system has blocked and drained California rivers, fish species have plummeted. No fewer than half a dozen of them are now either protected or being promoted for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The Congressional legislation guarantees a portion of federal water specifically for the environment, for the first time in project history. This water will help resurrect fisheries and provide water for wildlife refuges along the critical north-south migratory bird route known as the "Pacific Flyway." In addition, project users will underwrite a $50 million dollar annual environmental restoration fund.

But the reform probably wouldn't have passed without the support of some of the state's most powerful business interests. They argued the past practice of devoting 90% of Federal water exclusively to agriculture stunted other kinds of growth in California.

(Sound of conversation)

KRACHE: Economic concerns were key in winning vital support for reform from Southern California water official Carl Boronkay.

BORONKAY: We have to have some stability in water supply because industry is taking a second look at whether they want to develop in California or expand existing plants or move away.

KRACHE: Boronkay is General Manager of the gargantuan Metropolitan Water District, serving 15 million people. For decades, cities and farms have been pitted against environmentalists when it came to water. But the new law weds environmental concerns to something guaranteed to win urban support: broad-scale water marketing. Before now, only project contractors -- very few of them urban -- could hope to buy water from the system. Now willing farmers will be able to sell their water to any burgeoning California city for both residential and industrial uses.

But if industry, the environment and the water-drinking public take shares of Central Valley Project water, where does that leave California agriculture? Now ag stands to lose some of its precious water to other users. After six years of drought, even current rainy weather won't make up for the water shortage the system is already suffering. That will take several years of above-average rainfall. So agriculture lobbyist Jason Peltier glumly watches water being drained from the farmer's bucket and warns:

PELTIER: The consequence is land out of production, lost jobs, lost tax base, lost land value. We know those things are real.

KRACHE: Some opponents of the reform bill have estimated taking water from agriculture would cost the California economy billions of dollars and thousands of jobs. That's probably a gross overestimation, according to University of California agricultural economist Richard Howitt. Howitt is studying the economic impacts of water redistribution for the federal EPA. Out of close to $18 billion dollars in gross farm receipts, Howitt predicts a loss to farmers of about 20 to 30 million dollars total. Add to that economic reverberations maybe one and a half times that for the surrounding communities. That's assuming the water market works as planned, says economist Howitt.

HOWITT: We're moving in a direction which will encourage efficiency, which takes into account the values of the environment, but at the same time doesn't penalize the people who use to have the rights by grabbing their water. We'll buy it from them.

KRACHE: California is the number-one farm state in the US, and supplies over half the nation's fruits and vegetables. Some have also suggested that if water is taken away from California agriculture, food costs will go up. But Howitt says that's unlikely, because prices are set in the larger international market -- where even California's abundant contributions are dwarfed. Besides, Howitt says, when farmers are short of water they don't eliminate high-value food crops, but lower-value plantings like cotton and hay.

Farm lobbyist Jason Peltier isn't convinced. But while he's bitter about the hardship he believes the Congressional reform will bring, he's also circumspect.

PELTIER: The reality probably is that we would have lost that water anyway, because of the Endangered Species Act. The Endangered Species Act is now controlling the Central Valley Project.

KRACHE: As fish species come close to disappearing in California, Federal agencies responsible for fish and wildlife are stepping in to limit water diversions. The state of California is also now finalizing new limits to protect sensitive parts of the California river and estuary system. Still, to satisfy the state's conflicting demands and growing population, many veteran observers believe California will have to build new water projects. And that's potential political dynamite. But after all is said and done, the specter of recurring drought remains -- something Californians don't lose sight of, even as rainstorms pelt the state.

For Living on Earth, I'm Maia Krache in San Francisco.



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