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Executive Summary for January 15th

A new poll reveals that California’s water problems are still the primary public policy concern for the state’s voters. Yet in many areas, early results indicate that water conservation slipped in December, raising the likelihood that the state will miss its 25 percent goal for the year.

Published on Jan. 15, 2016 Read time Approx. 5 minutes

Poll: Drought Still Top Concern

Californians still rank the drought as their top public policy concern, according to a new poll by the Hoover Institution and the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University.

In the telephone poll of 1,800 likely voters, 77 percent said “dealing with the state’s water problems” is their top concern, outranking the economy, employment, transportation, crime and state budget matters, among other issues.

Republican voters, however, ranked the state’s water troubles as their fifth-ranked concern after the economy, employment, the state budget and illegal immigration.

“Californians understand the drought because their bills are up, their lawns are brown and their water use has been restricted,” Bill Whalen, a veteran GOP strategist who is now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, told the San Jose Mercury News.

Fear that California is ill-prepared for the next drought likely influenced the 53 percent of respondents who said they would support a Republican-sponsored ballot measure that seeks to cancel the San Francisco-to-Los-Angeles high-speed rail line and use any unspent money to build new dams and reservoirs instead. Support for the measure, which is now being circulated, is strongest among GOP and independent voters, the poll shows.

Water issues remain a high priority for Gov. Jerry Brown. On Thursday, he spoke at the annual convention of the Association of California Water Agencies in Sacramento to rally support for his controversial $15 billion plan to build two giant water diversion tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

“If we build the conveyance correctly, if we manage it … then we can produce more water reliably, and the whole system will work better for people, farmers and fish,” Brown said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “And if we don’t get that, the water wars will continue.”

Without the tunnels, he said, “We run the very substantial risk that water to Silicon Valley will be cut off and California’s engine of wealth and innovation will be dealt a body blow.”

The largely partisan crowd received the message well. Undoubtedly, this was helped by the fact that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Servce on Thursday coincidentally reduced water export pumping from the Delta in order to avoid killing endangered Delta smelt. Those water exports serve some 25 million Californians.

“Today, as we speak, we are ramping down the pumps,” said Mark Cowin, director of the California Department of Water Resources, according to the Sacramento Bee. “We’re going to miss an opportunity to export water to Southern California during this weekend’s storm because of this concern [over the smelt].”

And therein lies the rub for those who oppose the tunnels. Native fish are imperiled, they argue, precisely because freshwater is not allowed to flow through the Delta unimpeded, upsetting the habitat and life cycle of native species. The proposed tunnels could only aggravate this problem, depending on how and when they are operated.

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, said viewing the recent rains as a missed opportunity to ship water south is misguided.

“How will the Delta ever recover if fresh waters are never allowed to flow through it, even in rainy seasons?” she said.

More Slippage on Water Conservation

Water conservation results for December are leaking out from local water agencies, and the numbers don’t look good.

Numerous water agencies are not meeting their state-required conservation targets. That’s not unexpected, given that it is widely recognized that big savings are more difficult in winter, since there is little or no landscaping irrigation to cut back on.

But it means California is likely to miss Gov. Jerry Brown’s 25 percent annual conservation target come February, when the final tally is made.

The biggest indicator is San Diego, California’s second-largest city, which cut water use by 18 percent in December, missing its 20 percent target.

“Much less water is used outdoors in the wet winter months, and that makes it much harder to achieve significant water savings,” said Dana Friehauf, water resources manager at the San Diego County Water Authority. Nevertheless, she said, “An 18 percent decline for a month when water demands are already much lower is a major achievement.”

Numerous water agencies in the Palm Springs region also missed their December targets, turning in dismal results.

Coachella Valley Water District customers reduced their consumption by just 3.6 percent in December. Their goal was 36 percent. In the Desert Water Agency, customers saved 9.5 percent, but their goal was also 36 percent.

“I’m hopeful that this is an anomaly and we’ll see it push back up in January,” said Katie Ruark, conservation manager at the Coachella Valley district.

That’s not likely. Although solid rain in January may help by suppressing any winter irrigation happening in the region, it won’t be enough to make up that much ground. The region also has a record of poor performance on conservation last year: The Coachella Valley district was one of several in the region that was fined $61,000 by the state for failing to meet its conservation goals. And fully one-third of its customers have been paying monthly penalty fees — to no avail, apparently — for failing to reduce their water conservation enough.

In the San Joaquin Valley, the city of Ceres also missed its December conservation goal.

Even now, according to The Desert Sun newspaper, sprinklers can be found running on days when it’s not allowed in the Coachella Valley, some people still hose off driveways, and water can still be seen running in gutters. This is despite the fact that the Coachella Valley district has ramped up its spending on water conservation programs from $875,000 in 2013 to a whopping $6.7 million budgeted for 2016.

Joan Taylor, conservation chair of the Sierra Club’s local Tahquitz Group, said one of the problems is that water still remains far too cheap in the region. When she goes hiking in the mountains and looks down at the valley, she said it’s distressing to see how many areas continue to be covered with green grass.

“My feeling is that there’s just such an enormous waste of water in the desert,” said Taylor. “We have this wonderful fossil water [groundwater] here and it shouldn’t be sprayed up into the air over turf. It’s just nuts.”

Top image: The endangered Delta smelt this week again triggered water diversion cutbacks in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which was good timing for Gov. Jerry Brown as he promoted his $15 billion water diversion tunnel in a speech before the Association of California Water Agencies. (University of California, Davis)

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