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Marching To Our Own Grave

The governor just changed the name of a program farmers never would have supported, called it Emergency Drought Legislation, and farmers swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

Feb 26, 2014

When Central Valley farmers marched on Sacramento in January they didn't realize they were playing right into Governor Jerry Brown's plan to repackage and sell his dormant California Water Action Plan. He hadn't even mentioned it during his budget news conference and devoted only two sentences to it in his State of the State Address. What did the governor need from us to get his plan going? He needed the public to demand something be done. So, when farmers marched on Sacramento, the governor had the public demand he needed to push his agenda forward. As George Skelton writes in his Los Angeles Times article, "Then loud cries began emanating from farmers and Republicans demanding that something be done about the drought."

So what did the governor do to give the farmers what they were asking for? Again, according to Skelton: "So Brown cleverly combined most elements of his action plan with new relief aid and some water efficiency legislation written by Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and labeled it an emergency drought bill. Presto: Front page news around the state."

The governor just changed the name of a program farmers never would have supported, called it Emergency Drought Legislation, and farmers swallowed it hook, line and sinker. The governor just gave farmers what they thought they were asking for. It's almost like he planned the march himself. Nah, how could that be? Perish the thought.

 

Brown makes the sale on water program

Remaking the Water Action Plan as emergency drought legislation attracted the guarded support of Republicans and environmentalists.

George Skelton/Los Angeles Tinmes

SACRAMENTO — If a product doesn't sell, try repackaging and renaming. That's a proven strategy, whatever you're peddling.

Good timing also helps.

Thus, when the governor's California Water Action Plan sits on a shelf unnoticed for a while — and outside it is very dry — reshape and rewrap the contents as Emergency Drought Legislation.

Bingo. There's a buying frenzy.

Gov. Jerry Brown and his administration spent months, behind the scenes, crafting his Water Action Plan. On Jan. 10, he devoted significant space in his annual budget proposal to the $619-million plan. But few legislators, interests or journalists were attracted.

Even Brown didn't appear to be moved. He didn't mention the plan at his budget news conference. And in his State of the State Address, the governor talked about it in only two sentences.

There was virtually no marketing to the public, just the usual internal gab among bureaucrats.

Then loud cries began emanating from farmers and Republicans demanding that something be done about the drought.

So Brown cleverly combined most elements of his action plan with new relief aid and some water efficiency legislation written by Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and labeled it an emergency drought bill.

Presto: Front page news around the state. Guarded praise from farmers and environmentalists. And bipartisan political support, although Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway of Tulare quibbled about it being "just a drop in the bucket."

"You can't manufacture water," Brown said at the unwrapping last week. "You can desalinate it. You can capture it. You can store it. You can move it. Within those constraints, that's exactly what we're doing."

There should be more desalinating and storing, but give the governor credit. It was a smart move and exactly what government should be doing — what it should have been doing more of in the past and will need to do in the future: Making better use of the water we already have in a state where much of the land is arid and artificially made fertile with irrigation.

This makes more sense than mucking up a bucolic estuary by boring two 40-foot-wide, 35-mile-long tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Brown's intensely controversial $25-billion replumbing project to move fresh water from one agriculture region to a more powerful one.

Some tunneling may be warranted, but a single, smaller burrowing could be sufficient and certainly would be less controversial.

In the long run, what's sorely needed in California is a reprioritizing of water use. Currently, agriculture claims 80% of the state's developed water. And 55% of exported delta water goes to two irrigation districts in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

Brown's emergency legislation is on the right track. It totals a relatively modest — "drop in the bucket" — $687 million.

It would spend $549 million in voter-approved but untapped water bonds to provide construction grants for shovel-ready projects. They'd build facilities for capturing storm runoff, recycling used water and recharging aquifers.

An additional $40 million for water-efficiency projects would be generated from cap-and-trade fees on polluters. There would also be increased fines for people who illegally divert water.

The rest of the money would be drawn from the state general fund and be used for projects such as decontaminating groundwater, strengthening conservation, modernizing irrigation and clearing brush to prevent wildfires.

There would be $46 million for emergency housing and feeding of people out of work because of the drought. Drinking water would be provided for communities about to run out.

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