California Grapples with Water Shortage
STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
You know, I went to a college in a part of the country where there were wet counties and dry counties. It was a big political issue. In California, many counties are dry, and that's a big political issue, although we are not talking about alcohol.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has called a special session of the legislature to deal with the state's biggest water shortage in 15 years. The problem is serious and complex. And as NPR's Ina Jaffe reports, lawmakers are coming up empty.
INA JAFFE: What's worse than not having a plan to solve California's water crisis? Not having two plans. Governor Schwarzenegger's got one, the Democrats in the legislature have another. Neither of them can get enough votes, and compromise seems unlikely.
The deal breaker is dams. Schwarzenegger's proposal calls for spending more than $5 billion to create two new reservoirs and expand another. His bill is being carried in the legislature by Senator Dave Cogdill.
INSKEEP: Most folks realize intuitively that the reason we got through this dry year and dry years in the past is because we have kept water in reservoirs.
JAFFE: No one knows how long the current dry conditions will linger. Last year was bad from one end of the state to the other. Snow pack in the Sierras was well under half of normal. Los Angeles had record-low annual rainfall, just over three inches. So Democrats also want to store water for a non-rainy day, but they want to clean up polluted aquifers and store the water underground.
Senate leader Don Perata says dams just don't make sense.
INSKEEP: It's a more expensive way to go, it takes longer. Why not take this safe, sure path that also happens to be cheaper? And we have not been able to bridge that gap. It's philosophical. It's ideological. It's not rational.
M: Well, it leaves us in limbo, which makes it very difficult to do our business.
JAFFE: And what a business that is.
Jeff Kightlinger is the general manager of the Metropolitan Water District, which wholesales much of the water used by the 18 million people of Southern California. The MET, as it's called here, brings in water from the Colorado River to the east and from the state's northern and mountain reservoirs.
M: And typically that is enough of a safeguard because they don't usually go dry all at the same time.
JAFFE: But the Southwest, including the Colorado River, is in an eight-year drought.
M: And in fact it's the eight driest years ever recorded on the Colorado River.
JAFFE: So that supply has been cut in half. Then there is the water brought by aqueduct from the north. It's been curtailed by the shortfall of snow in the mountains, but it's also been curtailed by a federal judge. He recently acted to protect a pale tiny fish called the Delta smelt. The endangered creature lives where two large rivers meet the San Francisco Bay. This delta is a maze of canals and channels that's a rapidly deteriorating habitat for fish and waterfowl. It also supplies drinking water for 25 million people.
But Jeff Kightlinger says the judge's order means...
M: That we have to restrict our ability to pump water out of the delta and that's effectively going to result in us losing anywhere from 20, 25, 30 percent of our water supply every year from Northern California with or without a drought.
JAFFE: So until a way is found to fix the problems in the delta, Californians are living and drinking and bathing and farming on borrowed time. If legislators had been able to reach an agreement, their bond measure could have been put to the voters on the February ballot. They're now sure to miss that deadline.
So Senate leader Don Perata says he'll go it alone and collect signatures to put his plan on the November ballot as an initiative.
INSKEEP: We've been negotiating for seven months on this bond. It has been well-crafted and I'm not going to let all that work go to - for naught.
JAFFE: And if Perata puts the Democratic bond proposal on the ballot, Senator Dave Cogdill says the Republicans will go to the ballot with theirs.
INSKEEP: Oh, well, it certainly isn't anything new in this state. We do way too much governance by initiative. I think everybody acknowledges that.
JAFFE: And next November, voters won't just be facing dueling water initiatives. They will also likely be dealing with higher water prices as well as restrictions on washing cars, watering lawns, and irrigating farms. That could motivate them to take the plunge where their elected leaders couldn't.
Ina Jaffe, NPR News.