After 40 years of working on California water issues, it sometimes feels to me as if we haven’t learned anything.
When I began my congressional career in 1975, powerful San Joaquin Valley agricultural interests were planning new dams and a new water facility in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Environmental needs were ignored, and enormous subsidies encouraged wasteful and environmentally damaging water use. As I left the Congress in January, despite some important steps forward — including enactment of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act — all of these challenges continued.
Federal water priorities are still being set in response to the demands of politically connected irrigators. Billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on dams and canals to serve a small fraction of the state’s economy, with little consideration of the needs of most Californians and the environment.
Four decades ago, the environmental and fishing communities did not yet have a seat at the water policy table. Today, they are being intentionally excluded from key policy debates.
The drought gripping California and the West should force us to face the new reality of water policy. The policies of the past century won’t work in a future where we will face continued population growth and the effects of climate change.
Federal decision-makers need to acknowledge what most experts know: The era of building big dams that cause ecological havoc and cannot pay for themselves is over. Instead, we need to use existing technology and invest in innovations to generate the water we need at a price we can afford.
The roadblocks to adoption of a 21st century water policy are not caused by federal law, but by bureaucratic inertia and political pressure from beneficiaries of the status quo. Twenty years ago, for example, Congress authorized programs that convert wastewater into clean water. Yet the proposed 2016 federal budget devotes less than 2 percent of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s $1.1 billion budget to water recycling.
Federal policy is mired in early 20th century thinking, in contrast with evolving thinking in Sacramento. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown’s Water Action Plan pointed the way to sustainable water policies, including long overdue groundwater-management legislation. Voters passed a water bond to finance groundwater clean up, water recycling, conservation and — it is hoped — modern water storage rather than traditional dams. These developments show the promise of a new direction.
Here are the cornerstones of an affordable, sustainable water policy:
Reduce reliance on the delta and increase local solutions: State and federal agencies must reduce reliance on the delta. That’s already state policy. Our environment and economy will be stronger when users are less reliant on this overworked ecosystem. Progress is being made here.
Los Angeles, under the leadership of Mayor Eric Garcetti, plans to cut use of imported water by 50 percent by 2024. Many cities are refocusing on local sources, recognizing that conservation is our largest source of new water and that our ocean outfalls represent the next “river” for California to tap into. (Together, those outfalls dump more water than the combined flows of the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus rivers.) These local sources will be more reliable in the future than over-allocated rivers that are subject to intensifying drought cycles.
Embrace credible economics: Huge water projects and water subsidies aren’t just environmentally damaging, they also represent flawed economic policies that harm the taxpayer and California’s economy. Smarter water sources are cheaper as well as greener. A more business-oriented approach will point to sustainable solutions that benefit the entire state, creating more jobs on farms, in our cities and in salmon-fishing communities.
Support agricultural modernization: Some farmers have made strides toward water efficiency, but we need to do much more because agriculture uses 80 percent of California’s water. We can build more sustainable agricultural communities by increasing efficiency; managing groundwater; cleaning up pollution that leaves rural communities without drinkable water; and avoiding an overemphasis on permanent, drought-susceptible crops, like almonds.
Develop restoration programs, not environmental rollbacks: Decades of antiquated water management have helped drive the San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem to its lowest level ever. Yet a few cynical interests are attempting to use the drought to weaken environmental laws.
Sacrificing our environment wouldn’t end water shortages, but it could shut down the salmon fishery, endanger millions of migratory wildfowl and eliminate tens of thousands of jobs. Our natural resources need emergency restoration programs to help them survive droughts — not rollbacks that could lead to extinction of species and impoverished communities.
Adopt a 58-county approach: Rather than policies dominated by a few agricultural counties, California needs a 58-county water policy that meets the needs of the Bay Area, North Coast fishermen, South Coast cities, delta towns and Central Valley farmers.
California and Congress should no longer pursue “water grab” policies that take one region’s water to benefit another. The best way to craft new policies is to involve all California interests, rather than pursue another generation of back-room water deals.
Ours is widely recognized as the nation’s most innovative state — a global leader in entertainment, high technology and renewable energy. It’s time that our water policies tapped into that creativity to use water-management strategies that ensure a thriving future for California’s economy and environment.
George Miller represented Contra Costa and Solano counties in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1975 to 2015. To comment, submit your letter to the editor at www.sfgate.com/submissions.