California's Next Crisis?

The Golden State may soon run out of water, too.


"We've got a crisis in California with energy," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) testified to the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Power Thursday. "We don't want one with water."

Too bad. A water crunch is already looming over the Golden State. Comparisons to California's electricity scare are particularly illuminating, because both problems took root in an irresponsible approach to resources, and both have blossomed in a zero-sum atmosphere that now has environmental, residential, and industrial interests scrambling for what little water is left.

The problem: California is currently home to more than 34 million people, each and every one of whom gets thirsty from time to time. It will have closer to 50 million in 20 years. The state also hosts such multi-billion dollar industries as agriculture, tourism, and computer production, all of which require a steady flow of agua to stay afloat. Rounding out the cast of characters is a hardcore environmental lobby that earnestly defends every inch of undeveloped land as indispensable for the state's ubiquitous endangered species. They all want water, but there isn't enough to go around.

It rains and snows plenty around the state, but storage and distribution facilities were put in place closer to the beginning of the Cold War than the end of it. Those were the good old days, when population stood at around 16 million, rare bottom-feeding fish had not yet been deified, and farmers tilled land that did not require vast irrigation systems sponsored by the federal government. The battle lines are predictable. Urban, industrial and agriculture groups are pushing hard for more "surface storage." That's California-speak for reservoirs. The state's granola contingent is vehemently opposed, of course, predicting doom for countless creatures if anyone blocks a stream or wipes out habitat by making existing dams higher and raising water levels. Just as the state's inability to build power stations in the face of those clashing forces contributed to the blackout problem, California now faces the even grimmer prospect of going dry after stalling for decades on water.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has proposed the "California Ecosystem, Water Supply and Water Quality Enhancement Act of 2001" to make it all better, but the bill might be in trouble already. Two U.S. Representatives, Sen. Boxer, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, California's Secretary for Resources Mary Norton, and at least eight special interest groups such as the Bay Institute and the Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce descended on the Senate subcommittee Thursday to plead their cases. The results indicate that there is no easy solution.

The debate centers around CALFED, a state-federal alliance formed in 1995 to study the threatening crisis. After five contentious years, the political juggernaut finally hammered out a plan to move forward on increasing supply. Feinstein's bill, as originally crafted, would have roped those recommendations into omnibus legislation for consideration in Congress. The feds would need to approve $3 billion, to be matched by about $5 billion more from state and local governments and bond issues. Three particularly crucial "surface storage" proposals would have been "fast tracked" for an up or down vote, which Feinstein hoped would sidestep the partisan bickering and legislative roadblocks that have stymied all efforts in the past.

So much for fast track. Sen. Boxer, along with Democratic Reps. George Miller and Ellen Tauscher, came to fret about the nod toward expediency. Boxer argued that the "take or leave it package" was a bad precedent for the Senate, which would not be permitted to amend the legislation. Of course, the whole point of Feinstein's bill was to keep peeved special interests from stalling the legislation forever with amendments, but everyone agreed that a congressional "rubber stamp" might not be a good idea. Feinstein calmed a few nerves t the beginning of the hearings when she announced that instead of real fast track, her plan now calls for a 180-day deadline for discussion and amendments in an "expedited review procedure." Still, there was also plenty of friction over mandates that would decide who would get the water and what it all would mean for the various fish and birds that currently call the state home.

In a sensible editorial, the Sacramento Bee on Thursday urged all involved to set the rancor aside and debate the issue on the merits, but no one seems overly optimistic. In the great American West, where population is swelling, industry is ballooning, environmentalists are clamoring, and farmers are working on land sprinkled by water from federal dams, no one seems ready to give. If you think they will have to act before it gets too ugly, look at the 1,400 farmers in the Klamath River Basin who have already lost their livelihoods in the interests of the rare short-nosed suckerfish.

There is an old adage about water's political power in the parched western landscape, and it wasn't lost on congressional leaders Thursday. Feinstein, Boxer and Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) each recited it at least once during the hearings: "Whiskey's for drinkin'. Water's for fightin'." Can they make peace before the pipes run dry? Think brownouts.