Water Politics

By JULIET WILLIAMS Associated Press
Posted: 02/15/2014 07:40:12 AM PST
Updated: 02/15/2014 08:54:08 AM PST

SACRAMENTO, Calif.—As California struggles to cope with its historic drought, Gov. Jerry Brown is facing increasing pressure to tackle longstanding problems in the state’s water storage and delivery systems at a time when the politics of the issue have never been more tangled.

For Brown, the drought presents both opportunity and risk for a governor facing re-election who also was in office during California’s last major drought in the mid-1970s.

It comes as he is pitching a costly and contentious proposal to drill two 35-mile-long, freeway-size water tunnels beneath the Northern California delta, a project that will cost at least $25 billion and is opposed by environmentalists who say it will all but destroy the imperiled estuary and has divided the agricultural community.

The governor also faces mounting pressure from the state Legislature to address an $11 billion water bond measure that lawmakers from both parties agree will require a major overhaul before it goes to voters in November.

Few things are more politically divisive in California than water. Who gets it, who pays for it, where and how it is captured and transported have proven to be political minefields for California governors for nearly a century.

The state’s current crisis has gained national attention through pictures of reservoirs turned to mudflats, rivers slowed to a trickle and farmers ripping out orchards and fallowing their fields. The two Republicans in the race to contest Brown’s expected re-election campaign are intensifying their criticism and say his administration has not done enough to improve California’s water supply or help the hardest hit communities.

Yet policymakers, water agencies, farmers and worried local government officials hope the crisis will produce enough urgency to yield a rare political compromise. Brown told reporters in Tulare last week that “if anybody can get it done, I can get it done.”

Now may be the time, said Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis.

“Floods and droughts and lawsuits always bring attention to the water issues,” Lund said. “You rarely see big strategic changes in water management without that sort of motivation and attention there.”

If the motivation has arrived, so have the politics.

Last month, the Brown administration announced that for the first time it will deny any water allocations to thousands of Central Valley farmers and communities.

In explaining the severity of the situation, Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, urged people “to take a deep breath, put down the arguments we’ve all had in the past and come together as Californians.”

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