Community Columns

California needs water, not stubborn political games

After years of defending its proposed water grab from our region’s rivers, the state Water Board chose to ignore all science and impose orders to take the water anyway. Likewise, until recently when Gov. Newsom wisely said “no” to the twin tunnels, the state insisted on devastating the Delta by stubbornly refusing to consider alternatives. And five years after passage of the historic 2014 water bond, no new water storage facilities have even started construction.

The state does a fine job of reducing water supplies to communities in need – whether through conservation orders or new groundwater restrictions, both of which are important parts of the solution to protecting and preserving water supplies for the future. But these efforts need to be coupled with equally aggressive actions to increase the availability of water, and in that regard, state leadership has been wholly absent.

Now, the state Legislature is at it again by seeking to pass a bill that would stop an innovative project in Southern California that captures water before it evaporates and increases reliance on local water supplies without any harm to the environment. Such projects are essential to balancing water needs between north and south and protecting Delta water supplies.

Making its way through the Legislature is Senate Bill 307, which would allow a Sacramento agency to kill this project that would provide water to 400,000 residents in Southern California. The Cadiz Water Valley Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project, known locally as Cadiz, plans to capture and conserve billions of gallons of renewable groundwater that would otherwise turn salty and be lost to evaporation. The project was reviewed and approved in accordance with the California Environmental Quality Act, separately by the local county of San Bernardino, and then upheld in California’s courts in a dozen cases.

The project has drawn the ire of some environmentalists, many of whom challenged the project during the CEQA process and lost. They have turned to allies in the Legislature to provide them another bite at the apple, creating a new requirement for a two-year impact review of the project by the State Lands Commission.

Using legislation to undermine several legitimate court rulings and CEQA approvals is enough reason to dislike SB 307, but there are other reasons this legislation is flat-out dangerous.

If you don’t know how tough CEQA standards are, just ask any lawmaker who voted in favor of CEQA exemptions for sports stadiums in Sacramento and Los Angeles. It is of great concern that SB 307 now appears to be saying CEQA isn’t enough. Does our state really care more about sports stadiums than clean water?

While SB 307 targets one project in one part of the desert, it is conceivable that this precedent will be used by any opposition to add “just one more review” on needed water projects.

Southern California needs water. It relies on imports and has long been saying it needs more local supplies. The state Legislature should be helping Cadiz get implemented to take pressure off the strained supplies from the Delta and the Colorado River. Instead, it seems poised to pass a bill on Cadiz that could be used to kill it off.

Once again, it is time our area unite and say “enough.” Gov. Newsom has said we need a “yes, and,” not an “either, or” approach to water. By killing off Cadiz, SB 307 would clearly defy his calls to work together to solve California’s water crisis. The Legislature should be advancing bills to ease the construction of new and innovative water supply projects, not stop them.

It’s time for lawmakers to stop nonsense bills like SB 307 and do what is in the best interests of all Californians, including those in the Central Valley who contribute so much to the state. Ensure all options for water are truly on the table; don’t keep handing disconnected Sacramento agencies the keys to kill them.

Terry Withrow is chairman of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors. He wrote this for The Modesto Bee.