Dan Walters: Finally, one California water deal gets done

dwalters@sacbee.comSeptember 29, 2013 

California has always been known – even renowned – for the rapidity of its social, economic and political change.

From “Kansas on the left coast” to the most culturally complex society in the Western Hemisphere. From an economy of resource extraction to an industrial powerhouse to the cutting edge of digital technology. From political domination by Republicans, personified by Ronald Reagan, to one of the nation’s bluest states.

However, as these and other evolutionary changes have swept over California, especially in the last few decades, governmental policymaking has, if anything, slowed, leaving large gaps between what’s happening in the real world and what’s happening, or not, in the halls of government.

While one could cite many examples of that disconnect – transportation being an obvious and painful one – water policy is perhaps the most dramatic.

The capture, distribution and pricing of water are densely complex and infinitely controversial matters, because their impacts extend into so many other aspects of life.

There is simply no way to satisfy every stakeholder in the water issue, and those unhappy with whatever water policy is at issue have an infinite number of ways to block adoption.

That was demonstrated 31 years ago when Gov. Jerry Brown pushed an ambitious water conveyance plan through the Legislature only to see it rejected by voters in a referendum backed by a strange alliance of farmers and environmental activists.

Brown is now back in the governorship and trying to implement a revised version of his plan to bypass the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in transhipment of Northern California water southward, this time with twin tunnels.

However, the outcome is very uncertain, as is the fate of a multibillion-dollar water bond that those in the Capitol are now trying to write.

While those wrangles remain unsettled, however, another water issue in Southern California, which also simmered for decades, may finally be resolved.

A Sacramento judge has given what appears to be final approval to a long-pending plan by the San Diego Water Authority to buy several hundred thousand acre-feet of water each year from the Imperial Irrigation District, 100 miles to the east.

Imperial is California’s OPEC of water, controlling three-quarters of the state’s Colorado River water, and San Diego wanted to buy a relatively small portion to give it more independence from the Metropolitan Water District, Southern California’s water colossus.

San Diego’s bid engendered many years of very expensive and very nasty legal and political wrangling with MWD, which saw it as a threat to its hegemonic control. And although it’s now a done deal, it illustrates the inherent difficulty of making water policy for such a large, complex and fractious state.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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