Written by: George Miller for the San Francisco Chronicle
Today, responding to a global pandemic is every governor’s top priority. When we emerge from this crisis, Gov. Gavin Newsom will face a challenge to ensure California’s future economic and environmental health. In this context, his water policies will represent critical decisions. Along with public health, jobs, energy, transportation, education, housing and fire protection, water is a compulsory gubernatorial priority.
Over the past few months, Newsom has sent mixed signals on water. Recently, his agencies and Attorney General Xavier Becerra sued to block a Trump administration decision that slashed federal protections for endangered species and salmon in the San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem. But, unfortunately, Newsom’s Department of Fish and Wildlife recently endorsed much of that disastrous Trump approach.
There’s another place where Newsom has got it right on water policy. He has said that he wants to “avoid the old binaries” on water. For those not fluent in the coded language of California water, that means avoiding the need to choose between adequate water supplies and healthy rivers.
Newsom is right. This is a false choice. Here are four things he can do to avoid that old trap.
First, the governor can ensure that all of California’s major cities recycle their wastewater. Today, Orange County is the world leader in water recycling. But San Diego, Los Angeles, San Jose and San Francisco have done far too little to drought-proof California’s water supply.
Water is too precious to use once and throw away. Californians take care to recycle soda cans. We can do the same for water, one of our most precious commodities. To make this happen California’s big cities need three things from the governor — a specific goal, strong support and a firm push. And as we recover from the COVID-19 recession, developing these supplies means jobs.
Second, in addition to more droughts, climate change will bring more floods. On the San Joaquin River, the state anticipates future climate-change-driven peak flood flows that are nearly double those of today. Preventing a Hurricane Katrina-style disaster for Central Valley communities like Stockton must be a top priority.
Fortunately, there’s a consensus about how to keep us safe from these floods — restoring floodplains. Giving rivers more room to handle high flows will save lives. It will also recharge groundwater, restore fertile habitat for juvenile salmon, and give Central Valley communities more parks and recreational opportunities. There’s broad support for this “multi-benefit” flood management approach. Delivering it on a large scale will require gubernatorial leadership. Again, this investment can generate needed new jobs.
Third, powerful agribusiness leaders hope the governor will lead a wave of dam building and water grabs. That would lead to extinctions, damage to California’s iconic salmon fishing industry and more toxic algae outbreaks for delta communities.
Here’s another approach:
Parts of the western San Joaquin Valley have made a dangerous gamble by planting thirsty permanent crops on salty soils with unreliable groundwater. There is wide agreement that balancing groundwater use will require a reduction in irrigated acreage. Newsom should seriously explore a large investment in solar farms on this troubled land. If energy transmission is needed, the California Aqueduct’s right of way could provide a corridor. If a new energy market is needed, the State Water Project is the largest single consumer of power in the state.
Solar farms do what all farms do — turn land and sunlight into valuable products. So large scale solar projects are not “land retirement.” They would help farmers grow another crop — electrons — while reducing demand for overtapped bay-delta supplies and groundwater.
Fourth, without aggressive state action, the Trump extinction plan could lead to an environmental disaster, lost salmon fishing jobs and the growing threat of toxic algae blooms in delta waterways. The governor’s suit to block that plan is a good first step. The governor should now direct the state water board to set strong flow standards for the bay-delta ecosystem, protecting salmon, endangered species and the largest estuary on the West Coast. Then he must ensure that the Central Valley Project, which is run by a Trump appointee, obeys those state standards. California must never join the Trump administration’s environmental race to the bottom.
State agencies are now finalizing Newsom’s Water Resilience Portfolio plan. The above ideas should be incorporated into a plan that ensures adequate water for farms and cities, safety from floods, toxic algae-free waterways, and healthy rivers and fish populations that keep fishermen busy and keep local sustainable salmon on our plates.
Yogi Berra once said — “if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.” Gov. Newsom can lay out a new vision for managing water in the Golden State to serve people and nature — all while preparing for green jobs to grow our way out of this recession. That’s how to avoid the old binaries.
George Miller represented the East Bay in Congress from 1975 to 2015 and was the author of the watershed Central Valley Project Improvement Act.