Schwarzenegger calls special session on water crisis

The California state legislature did not reach an agreement regarding California’s water issues by the time they adjourned on Sept. 11, so Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called a special session to continue discussions on water. The governor and the senate and assembly leaders have since been meeting in a series of closed-door talks.

California’s water crisis involves several different problems that have exacerbated in recent years. At the root of the crisis is that the majority of California’s water supply comes from the northern part of the state via a system of man-made dams and aqueducts constructed in the 1960s.

This system provides drinking water for 25 million people and supports California’s $27 billion agricultural industry – the largest in the nation.

However, the water system runs through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where it impacts the ecosystem and endangers wildlife. The Delta smelt, a small fish native to the Delta, and the winter-run Chinook salmon have both become federally endangered species, in part due to the disruption of their habitat by the aqueducts.

As a result, a federal court order caused many of the pumps in the Delta to be turned off or reduced.

“There are many factors that are contributing to the decline of the salmon and the delta smelt, but the water exports in the Delta is certainly one of the factors,” said Kate Williams, principal consultant to state representative Jared Huffman, chair of the Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee. “The risk to the state’s water supply and the risk of extinction for critical species has made this a major issue of importance to the legislature this year.”

Many, however, assert that the welfare of a few species of fish is not worth sacrificing the well-being of California’s population. Furthermore, California has also seen a natural shortage of rainfall in recent years, which has led to serious water shortages for farmers and urban areas in Southern California and the Bay Area.

At the heart of the controversy is the debate over how to fix the problem. Some believe a new pipeline around the delta to move the water from north to south is the solution, while others believe that that pipeline could further endanger the ecosystem and water quality of the delta.

An attempt at an agreement was made this year with the creation of Senate Bill 68 (SB 68), which has four basic parts.

First, Delta governance would create a new decision-making structure consisting of appointed members. Secondly, requirements for urban and agricultural water conservation would be created. Next, water management improvements would be made in monitoring California’s groundwater supply and enforcing water rights. Lastly, a General Obligation bond would likely be proposed to fund the project, though the details have not yet been decided.

Legislators failed to agree on the issues involved in the bill, and SB 68 did not pass.

Democrats and Republicans are not only split on the issue, but many Democrats may also be opposed to the bill because funding it might mean more cuts for schools and human services.

Senator Dave Cogdill (R-Modesto), vice chairman of the Natural Resources and Water committee, issued a statement on the matter in September.

“Republicans agree our fragile Delta needs to be fixed, but we have been clear that environmental protection should not come at the price of economic destruction,” he said.

The aim of the special session is to alter the bill and hopefully create a new proposal to vote on this month. Although an agreement to California’s water crisis has yet to be reached, the legislature is turning their full attention to the matter.

“The water supply and ecosystem problems we are facing are at a crisis stage and the status quo is not acceptable,” said state representative Jared Huffman. “The legislature is working to develop a path forward out of 30 years of lawsuits, species decline and water shortages.”

SARAH HANSEL can be reached at city@theaggie.org.

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