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Cam Noltemeyer: Is more debt the answer?

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: November 18, 2009 8:22 p.m.
Updated: November 19, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Recently the governor signed new water legislation that hopefully will help solve California's growing water problem.

It contained many needed improvements, but the solutions may lack the teeth to actually accomplish these laudable goals. And the cost may be far more than the public is willing to swallow.

The legislation creates a Delta Stewardship Council that will hopefully resolve the issues surrounding our failing Delta ecosystem. By Jan. 1, 2012, it must adopt a "Delta Plan" for ecosystem restoration and water management.

But where are the teeth? The council gets operational funds now, but no guarantee in future years. Also, it must hear appeals of state and local projects, but lacks the power to make changes.

The legislation instructs the State Water Resources Control board to develop "flow criteria" to protect habitat in Delta waterways. But then none of them are binding.

The legislation will require 10 percent urban conservation statewide by 2015, and 20 percent by 2020. However, there are no conservation targets for agriculture, the state's biggest water user.

In urban areas, water agencies, such as our own Castaic Lake Water Agency, could pick high baseline consumption rates, which would show they've already met the target and no new conservation is required.

Calculation for water conservation was already an issue brought up by local environmental organizations in CLWA's 2005 Urban Water Management Plan. They believed CLWA's plan arbitrarily overestimated the extent of conserved water that would be available for new development. As part of a settlement agreement, CLWA stated it would provide calculations and data supporting its conservation assertions.
The new legislation will require statewide groundwater monitoring starting Jan. 1, 2012. But still no teeth?

The law requires only reporting every five years but no needed groundwater regulation. Over-pumping that results in water quality degradation can continue unimpeded.

It requires anyone who began diverting surface water after Dec. 31, 1965 to file annual reports. But only reporting is required. There are no provisions to regulate diversions.

Last, the legislation also includes yet another enormous bond - perhaps the granddaddy of all bonds - at more than $11 billion.

Apparently, a statewide poll found the amount of a bond is not a determining factor for whether Californians will vote for it, so why not go for the gold? I don't know what this says for the voting public, but it appears this bond may be the water legislation's "Achilles heel."

What could the governor and the legislators have been thinking? Did they think the public has forgotten the chaos of the last budget negotiations and how deeply in debt our state government already is?

Did they think we have forgotten the painful cuts to health services and education; or the fact that current bonds approved for high-speed rail and conservation projects were halted and cannot be released?

Did they think we don't see how high the debt service from such a bond issue will be - estimated at $800 million more per year from an already strained general fund?

Did they think none of us had seen the trouble California's most recent bond sale had in the financial markets?
Well, some of us did.

Even if Big Agriculture and Big Development get all of us to "drink the Kool-Aid" and vote for this enormous expenditure, the solutions are years away.

It is therefore imperative for our valley that we institute the many simple, cost-effective and obvious water conservation tools available to us.

These include protecting the Santa Clara River and its groundwater recharge basins, using native plants in landscaping substantially reduce water use and perhaps instituting the low-tech improvements required in other cities, such as rainwater and gray water pipes that flow to gardens.

We need to review whether we really have sufficient water supplies for all the tens of thousands of new housing units proposed by the One Valley One Vision plan. We need to accurately report water availability for new development. We cannot build additional housing without water to support our current residents.

In that regard, I would like to close by thanking R.J. Kelly for his Nov. 10 letter "CLWA responds" confirming that the perchlorate clean-up facilities are still not actually functioning, and that this source of supply is still not available to us. We are wondering if the "de-bugging" he mentioned in relation to this process had anything to do with recent electrical problems at one of the pumps?

Cam Noltemeyer is a Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE) board member and a Santa Clarita resident. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. "Environmentally Speaking" appears Thursdays in The Signal and rotates among local environmentalists.


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