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Executive Summary for January 29th

With months of meetings and reviews planned, this is a going to be a big year (perhaps the biggest) for Gov. Brown’s Delta tunnels plan. Plus, desert resort towns aren’t making the cut on water conservation, and here’s what California can learn from Flint, Michigan, when it comes to water quality.

Published on Jan. 29, 2016 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

2016 or Bust for Governor’s Delta Tunnels?

This is a big year for Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to build 35-mile-long twin water tunnels through the Delta – a project that has been on the table, in some form, for decades. Sami Gallegos writes for ABC10 that if construction doesn’t start on it this year, it likely won’t happen ever, because of two key issues. The first is not enough money to pay for environmental studies, and the second is simply political will.

“The review process up to this point has primarily been paid for by potential project beneficiaries (state water contractors) and partially by the federal government,” Gallegos writes. And many of those contractors can’t or don’t want to continue paying for studies if the project doesn’t begin to move forward.

For the most part, support for the project is geographical, with proponents in the Central Valley and Southern California, and opponents in the Bay Area, Delta and other parts of Northern California. Silicon Valley, though, is a key swing vote. Three of Gov. Brown’s key staff visited Santa Clara on Tuesday in an effort to gain support. It seems to have backfired.

“But rather than embracing the idea, five of the seven board members of the Santa Clara Valley Water District – whose support is considered critical to the controversial project – instead voiced skepticism,” the San Jose Mercury News reports. Most of the concern centered around environmental impacts and the cost.

There are still a lot more crucial meetings to come, though. The first happened yesterday as the State Water Resources Control Board met to consider an issue of timing. As it is now, the environmental review of the tunnels is scheduled to be completed in late June, but the board is also scheduled to begin hearings on the project in April. Some see problems with this discrepancy. The board will announce its decision in a few weeks on whether the hearings can proceed before the environmental review is completed.

Water Conservation Problems in the Desert

As a whole, California has done quite well in meeting the governor’s mandate for 25 percent water reduction in the last year. But, as the Wall Street Journal detailed this week, there has been one area of the state that has really struggled to get with the program: desert resort communities like Palm Springs and others in the Coachella Valley, which had even higher mandates.

The biggest problem is tied to how the cities were designed in the first place. They were meant to feel like desert oases, with golf courses and abundant green lawns – not drought-tolerant desert landscaping typical of the climate. And the area’s cultural and economic identity is tied to this lush, green image, which, in light of environmental realities, is problematic.

“It took decades to create an oasis out here, and it will take time to change that to a more desert-wise program,” Craig Ewing, a director with the Desert Water Agency in Palm Springs, told the Wall Street Journal .

These communities also contend that they made water cutbacks before Gov. Brown’s mandate last year, and this makes the most recent round even harder to pull off. Between 2007 and 2015, the Journal reports, the Coachella Valley Water District cut back water usage by 29 percent. Then it was mandated to cut use by 36 percent, but this fall, it achieved 27 percent, earning them $61,000 in fines in October.

Part of the problem seems to be that some folks don’t want to give up their green lawns. And another part is that for those who do, there is a shortage of incentives. For the Desert Water Agency, it had five times as many applications for grass-replacement rebates than it could fund. But in reality, any cuts of 36 percent will also take structural changes and more long-term planning.

What Does Flint Have to Do With California?

For weeks, one of the biggest stories across the country has been the disaster in Flint, Michigan, where people have been drinking water heavily contaminated by lead. California doesn’t have the same problem, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t a lesson here for us, too.

“Although California does not face this specific problem, we are still failing to provide safe drinking water to some of the state’s most vulnerable residents,” writes Caitrin Phillips Chappelle and Ellen Hanak for the Public Policy Institute of California.

The good news, they write, is that nearly all California residents – 95 percent – are served by suburban or urban municipal water agencies that can provide clean, safe drinking water. But there are still 400 rural communities and schools that aren’t so lucky. Tap water in these areas can contain high levels of nitrates and arsenic, and many small water systems don’t have all the resources they need to keep drinking water safe. Chappelle and Hanak recommend consolidating big and small water systems to help benefit rural communities.

“Although the types of contaminants and the scale of the problems differ, California can draw some lessons from Flint’s experience,” they write. “In both places, contaminated water is being delivered to poor communities for whom affordability is a major concern.”

Top image: Gov. Jerry Brown talks to reporters after speaking at the Association of California Water Agencies conference, Jan. 14, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif. Brown continued his call to build a $15 billion twin tunnel system to move water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press)

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