The Governator takes on Earth

I learned my politics out West, where, as Mark Twain famously observed, “whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.” If California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger gets his way, the candidates for president in both political parties may learn that firsthand. The governor is attempting to get a $5.9 billion bond measure on the February 2008 presidential primary ballot to fund an overhaul of the state’s water infrastructure. His proposal includes $4 billion for dams, $500 million for underground storage and the balance for environmental restoration, water conservation and improvements to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The Delta is far from a local issue. Twenty-five million Californians depend on it for water. It provides 60 percent of Southern California’s supply through a vast network of levees and canals that traverse most of the state. The West Coast’s largest estuary has become degraded in recent years. Robert Twiss, a UC-Berkeley environmental planning professor, has written, “There is growing recognition that the present layout of the levees and delivering fresh water out of the Delta is something we can’t maintain long term.” State and federal courts have recently ruled that water-pumping operations in the Delta were killing smelt and other fish. Those rulings prompted a series of shutdowns of pumps, which cut the flow of water to homes and farms and raised hackles downstream.

California’s persistent drought has shrunk the snow pack high in the Sierras and reduced the flow of water that has filled streambeds for eons. Warming temperatures have turned much of the moisture that once fell as snow into rain. The rain bypasses many of the reservoirs constructed over the years and flows directly into the ocean, carrying pollution with it.

The governor this week announced a series of measures to improve the health of the Delta. Environmental groups said the steps would help but were not enough. “Much more needs to be done,“ said Ann Hayden, a water analyst for Environmental Defense. The governor seemed to agree. “If we want to have a permanent solution to this problem, we have to think big,” he said.

Thinking big is one thing Arnold Schwarzenegger does well. A year ago the governor included money for water storage in a massive $68 billion public works bond proposal. He dropped that in the process of cutting the package by over $30 billion but vowed to bring it up again. He did that in his State of the State speech in January.

In late April state Senate Democrats killed his bond proposal on a party-line vote in the Natural Resources and Water Committee. Environmental groups and the leadership of the Democratic-controlled legislature have opposed Schwarzenegger’s plan, saying that environmental impact studies for two reservoirs he wants have not been completed and that dams cost too much and take too long to build. But the governor is still pushing, working with legislators to craft a comprehensive proposal for the ballot.

Most observers think it is unlikely the legislature will act by September, the deadline for referring a measure to the presidential primary ballot. But the governor professes to be confident something will be done. “Yes, it has stalled now. But in the end I think the momentum in California is growing,” he said back in April. This week he is still working the state, pitching his proposal in stops throughout Central and Southern California.

Whether he succeeds in putting his proposals on the ballot or not, water will be an issue in California and much of the West in the 2008 elections. Climate change, drought, fires, floods and other natural disasters are making people uneasy about the future. And with good reason. Most of the people in California, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Arizona and Colorado live on naturally arid land. They can survive only because of giant reclamation projects that dammed rivers and built reservoirs and sprawling canal systems to deliver water from distant mountains and rivers.

Climate change, aging infrastructure and population growth threaten the water supply to homes and farms. California and other Western states need to rebuild existing dams, reservoirs and canals. In many areas new ones are needed.
Environmentalists will be battling farmers, businesses and municipal leaders over new construction and often over renovation of existing infrastructure. The water wars will continue throughout the early 21st century and many a politician will be caught in the crossfire. If California’s governor gets his way, the first skirmishes may be fought on his turf.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: