Who will pay for a new water plan?

Funding mechanism missing from Steinberg’s new bill

Once again, California lawmakers are trying to figure out how to deliver a limited amount of fresh water to all the people who need it while improving the health of the Delta and the rivers that feed it.

This week, Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) unveiled a bill that would set up a new government structure—including a Delta Stewardship Council to oversee policy for the Delta—that would enable continued progress toward an ultimate solution.

It’s a credit to the bill’s vagueness that groups as disparate as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Los Angeles’ huge Metropolitan Water District support it. But it lacks critical elements and has Republican lawmakers worried about groundwater monitoring and added regulations.

Funding is the real hitch. Steinberg’s bill doesn’t authorize an expensive peripheral canal around the Delta and two new reservoirs, as Gov. Schwarzenegger proposes, but it doesn’t put the kibosh on them, either. Until we know who’s going to pay for what, however, any plan is dead in the water, so to speak.

Northern Californians are going to want water users to pay for the plan. They figure they shouldn’t have to pay taxes to ship “their” water south, and who can blame them? A big bond measure is in the works, but voters no doubt are leery of adding more debt to the state’s deficit-burdened budget. And it’s not at all clear that water users will be willing or even able to pay the entire cost.

On top of that, long-term predictions are for less precipitation in Northern California because of global warming. In a few years, there may not be all that much water to ship south. Ultimately, the best way to solve California’s water shortage may be the least expensive—innovative conservation and reuse.