2016_ more water battles, but california sees hope _ or just whiskey – watchdog. org

NOW! LOW SODIUM! One sign that California’s water politics are increasingly rational: America’s’ largest seawater desalination plant opened this year in San Diego County. The plant produces 50 million gallons of drinking water daily. By Steven Greenhut | Watchdog. org SACRAMENTO, Calif.

– As the Civil War came to a close, Mark Twain re-invigorated his writing career in a tiny house near the gold-mining enclave of Angels Camp in the heart of California’s gold-rush country. There he wrote the short story eventually titled “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” based on a tale he heard in a local bar. The tale of Jim Smiley and his talented bullfrog has long inspired writers (and even spawned an annual frog-jumping contest at the Calaveras County fairgrounds).

Twain, however, is more often quoted in California regarding water – whether accurately or not, we’ll let the scholars determine – with words so evocative they’ve become a cliché in the state: “Whiskey,” he is supposed to have said, “is for drinking; water is for fighting over.” In 1865, California’s population had just topped 400,000 – and that was after the gold discoveries brought droves of people here from around the world. It’s an arid state, so water has always been something to fight over. But its politics have changed. The political emphasis, it seems, has shifted from meeting the needs of a population that’s now above 39 million to one that often views water scarcity as a means for growth control. As this Watchdog series has pointed out, California’s politics have turned the recent drought into a crisis. The politics have prioritized environmental demands above the basic provision of water resources to the public.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, California built one of the most impressive systems of dams and aqueducts the world has ever known. After that, the focus shifted to demolishing dams and emptying reservoirs to protect fish. The change wasn’t much of a problem when Mother Nature blessed California with “normal” amounts of rainfall – filling those previously built reservoirs and assuring a deep snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. But the drought – one of the most severe in California history – has sparked a particularly vicious spell of fighting, even in the absence of whiskey. Many Californians reacted angrily to news that state and federal officials have continued emptying dams to save a handful of non-endangered hatchery fish – even as farmers fallowed orchards and fields and as suburban residents cut back on lawn watering to avoid heavy fines. Same goes as federal officials moved forward with plans to demolish several dams along the Klamath River (near the Oregon border) as a means to protect fish populations.

Nor did the water crisis stop the California Coastal Commission from holding up the construction of an ocean-water desalination plant over concerns about the health of plankton. But there are signs the pendulum is swinging back toward the rational.

The Legislature put on the ballot a water bond that has at least some serious money for storage – and not just environmental gimmies. Gov. Jerry Brown has been championing the construction of a $15.5-billion project to dig twin tunnels underneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the west coast’s biggest estuary, to provide water supplies southward to farms and big cities.

That controversial project is largely about protecting the endangered Delta Smelt, a fish that often gets stuck in the pumps and causes pumping-station shutdowns. But it does suggest an effort to deal with a major water-reliability issue. And as this series also reported, some local water agencies – San Diego’s in particular – are doing such a good job planning for the future that they have so much water they don’t even know where to put it all. Not all the news was good. For instance, 2015 ended amid acrimony in Congress, as Republicans and Democrats couldn’t agree on the terms of a long-standing compromise (between two states, the feds, Native American tribes, farmers, the fishing industry, environmentalists) dealing with water distribution along the state’s northern border. “Fueled by partisan acrimony over the proposed removal of four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River – a crucial component in a trio of settlements that became known as the Klamath Agreements – Congress has once again adjourned for the year without passing a bill to authorize and fund the accords ,” reported the Sacramento Bee. But from a water storage standpoint, the collapse of the accords isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“Tearing down four perfectly good hydroelectric dams when we can’t guarantee enough electricity to keep your refrigerator running this summer is lunacy,” said U. S. Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, in a statement quoted in that Bee article. This Watchdog series reported on a policy that caused consternation among farmers and residents last year – the state’s determination to lower the level of the massive New Melones reservoir and smaller Lake Tulloch to raise river water temperatures and aid the westward migration of about a dozen fish. Those 12 individual fish – not species, mind you – were almost certain to be eaten by invasive species before they made it to San Francisco Bay. We also highlighted a Modesto Bee story about a project to help some salmon swim safely around Don Pedro Dam, at a cost of between $70,000 and $300,000 per critter. These things might be justified when the state is awash in water – but during a drought? McClintock’s description as “lunacy” seems to apply to these policies, also. But here’s a December 15 news story from the Sacramento Bee: “California drought regulators … backed off a controversial plan to withhold water from farms and cities next year in an effort to preserve an endangered species of salmon, instead choosing a more flexible approach they said still could do the trick.

” Whatever the motivations – the return of good sense among bureaucrats or a response to public outrage – this was good news for farmers, businesses and residents. And there’s the best news of all (and the likeliest means to fix the state’s water problem): Mother Nature has finally been coming through with buckets of rain. Over two days in late December, pouring rain pushed up the level of enormous Lake Tahoe by nearly 2 inches, thus adding nearly 6.4 billion (with a “b”) gallons of water. None of this undermines Twain’s (perhaps apocryphal) words. Water will always be something to fight over in California. But there’s more hope for avoiding a crisis.

If not hope, there’s always whiskey. Steven Greenhut is the California columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune and senior contributor to Watchdog. He is based in Sacramento. Write to him at steven. greenhut@sduniontribune.