Bill McEwen: Lots of ideas but very little progress on drought

03/23/2014 12:00 AM

03/21/2014 4:14 PM

The third year of the California drought brings a reminder of just how fractured and messy democracy can be. There have been dozens of proposals – seven versions of a state water bond, for example – to improve the water situation and more are surely on the way.

We’re wondering if the politicians are even keeping track of all that has been proposed. To a degree, we understand why this effort is complicated. California is a large and diverse state. Our elected officials represented widely varying interests and constituencies. And tossing out ideas is part of the process – especially as lawmakers attempt to balance environmental concerns against the need to store and move water.

But do we need this many ideas? At times, it appears that some folks are simply looking for a headline or to build a political legacy – instead of helping California responsibly deal with its water crisis.

How do our leaders hope to do right by farmers, city dwellers, fish and wildlife?

Let us briefly review the ways.

Gov. Jerry Brown and some water contractors propose to build massive water tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta as a means of restoring California’s vital estuary and increasing the certainty of water availability south of the delta.

There have been calls by members of the state’s congressional delegation to build large new dams on the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, enlarge Shasta Dam, complete Auburn dam and expand San Luis Reservoir.

And Sen. Dianne Feinstein – who helped broker the agreement – has said it’s time to take a second look at San Joaquin River restoration and the plan to restore salmon runs there.

Add the customary requests for more underground water banking and added investment in conservation measures, and someone looking down at California from 30,000 feet would conclude that our efforts to combat the drought in the short term and find long-term solutions in the face of climate change are a three-ring circus with no one in charge.

Gov. Brown has his tunnels proposal, which has yet to be fully vetted.

The Legislature wants some kind of water bond that seeks more above-ground storage – the disagreements are over how expensive the bond will be, who will pay for it and how much money goes to dams.

The House of Representatives and U.S. Senate have separate plans to deal with the California drought. Each one bears the philosophical stamp of the party that controls its body. Good luck getting the gridlocked Democrats and Republicans inside the Beltway to agree on a compromise that becomes law.

President Barack Obama has weighed in on the California drought. During his visit to Fresno last month, he said: “We’re going to have to figure out how to play a different game. We can’t afford years of litigation and no real action.”

Yet, five weeks later, we’ve seen no real action – other than emergency relief – out of the White House.

Sometimes things do get done, as was the case Tuesday after at least 1,000 people jammed into the rodeo grounds near the San Joaquin River in Firebaugh. Farmers and their workers cheered for politicians who were critical of the Brown administration’s actions – and inaction – on the water crisis.

Later in the day, state water leaders in Sacramento announced that farmers would be able to get whatever water becomes available after public health and safety needs are met. State officials said they made the change because of above-average rainfall in February.

Editor's Choice Videos

Join the Discussion

The Modesto Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service