Our view: It’s OK to stop, take a deep breath with state water policy

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s call on Monday for a new comprehensive water plan for California looks like a smart timeout on one of the state’s trickiest and most intractable battlefronts.

As with many political hot potatoes, there is no way to make everyone happy when it comes to water management, because the sides have mutually exclusive goals:

  • Environmentalists want more water flowing down rivers to create better fish runs and to flush the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
  • Thirsty and wealthy interests south of us need a lot more water to grow their crops and their cities.
  • Both of the above look to our region — the relatively water-rich Northern San Joaquin Valley, including the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers — for the solution to their problems. Simply put, they want to take some of our water. Too much of our water.

Because the law, in the form of long-held water rights, is on our side, the have-nots have spent years and decades building support in Sacramento in hopes of changing the tide. A big shift came in recent years as Newsom’s predecessor, Jerry Brown — not immune to pressure from the left — endorsed a scheme to simultaneously flush the Delta while shipping south more water than already is flowing that way, through two ginormous tunnels under the delta. The flow change could rob the city of Modesto of an important water source, put thousands out of work and do serious damage to our farm-reliant economy.

We’re not about to just give it away, so water agencies in our area have brought various lawsuits challenging a December decision by the appointed (not elected) state water board that essentially approves swiping our water.

This boiling cauldron of a water scene confronted Newsom as he took office a few months ago. Hoping to score some points in the Valley, he quickly removed the chairwoman of the state water board, Felicia Marcus, who largely was accused of ramrodding the December decision. And the governor recently affirmed his desire to scale back the southern conveyance plan, to one tunnel instead of two.

Now comes Monday’s executive order, which Newsom calls a water resilience portfolio. He’s assigning secretaries of three important state agencies — the Natural Resources Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Food and Agriculture — to come up with a comprehensive plan covering all aspects of water, including climate change, groundwater and water safety.

So what do we make of this executive order?

First, we would prefer that the governor drop any mention of the tunnel, but that’s not realistic. That he assigns the agencies to take a fresh look at the “new single tunnel project” probably is about the best we could have hoped for.

Rep. Josh Harder — who cozied up to Newsom in fall campaign visits, when they both were running for office — blasted the tunnel reference as “a complete non-starter for me” in his reaction to Newsom’s executive order. Harder is in the uncomfortable position of being forced to oppose his Democratic Party leaders for political convenience, because his constituents are almost universally appalled at the state water grab (friends with the Tuolumne River Trust, we’re not ignoring your views; you’re just in the clear minority on this).

Such is the life of a Democratic politician in the Valley; representatives like Gary Condit, Dennis Cardoza and Adam Gray have done the same awkward dance. Gray, who represents Merced County and part of Stanislaus County in the State Assembly, was silent on the tunnel in his reaction to Newsom’s executive order, choosing to focus on praising the governor for confronting the water maelstrom with a fresh look to future needs.

Second, it’s good that the governor added juice to completing voluntary agreements on river flows. That’s code for crucial negotiations between the state water board and our water agencies. If successful, these talks could negate the legal war that’s just starting which promises to make happy only the water lawyers. As long as our envoys don’t give away the store, these negotiations remain our best hope for a positive outcome.

Third, the executive order is a signal that the governor appreciates what a mess California’s water policy has become. Taking a step back to assess where we are, where we’re going and what’s needed to get there is a welcomed timeout.