Looking at Santa Barbara County’s green mountainsides this spring, it’s difficult to imagine that there has ever been a water crisis here. A hike up any number of front country trails is greeted by lush stands of wildflowers and the gentle bubbling of creeks as mountain water wends its way through the foothills on the way to the ocean.
But while the area water supply looks good now, anyone who was around during the multiyear drought that parched the area in the late 1980s knows that, sometimes, the South Coast’s locally generated water supply can be severely stressed. Although in 1991 voters approved access to the State Water Project to ensure that Santa Barbara County water supplies would not be depleted during another acute drought, questions have been raised since the extension was completed in 1997 about the state system’s ability to provide during a crisis.
Not far away, Ventura County farmers, business owners and elected officials — much more reliant upon state water than most South Coast water users — met Friday to discuss the Safe, Clean and Reliable Drinking Water Supply Act of 2010, an $11.1 billion bond measure that will be on the November ballot. The final step in a series of water legislation passed last fall to strengthen the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta — the heart of California’s water distribution system — the bond is designed to fund a number of programs aimed at protecting the fragile Delta and encouraging water conservation around the state.
The Camarillo Chamber of Commerce, which hosted the seminar at Spanish Hills Country Club, invited representatives from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the state Department of Water Resources and others to explain the legislation.
Matt Notley, the DWR’s public affairs director, said the five bills that have already been passed create a cohesive plan for protecting the Delta that has never before been instituted.
“This is a California problem that Californians have to solve,” said Camarillo public works director Tom Fox, who spoke at the seminar, positing that the federal government’s water-related goals have not been congruent with those of the state.
Intended to work in conjunction with the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, the Legislature passed five bills last fall. One establishes a Delta Stewardship Council that must create a comprehensive restoration, protection and management plan for the Delta. Another bill would require a 20 percent reduction in water consumption by both urban and agricultural customers by 2020; failure to comply with the mandate could jeopardize state grants that are currently available to water gencies through Proposition 84. A third calls for a fee to be imposed upon those drawing water from the Delta. The other two bills establish concrete groundwater monitoring and water use guidelines designed to help water officials make better management decisions.
Of course, all of that is contingent upon passage of the $11.1 billion bond issue this fall. While speakers at Friday’s seminar were optimistic about the legislation, a relatively wet season this year may dissuade voters of its necessity. Also discussed was the issue of a peripheral canal — a bypass that would bring Northern Californian water around the fragile Delta levies to reach agricultural and urban water users in the Central Valley and Southern California. While the legislation makes provisions to examine that option, the actual project — which has a projected cost of nearly $11 billion on its own — would not be funded by any of the laws currently being discussed.
John Krist, CEO of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County, said that while the set of laws does not make provisions for new storage reservoirs, it empowers water districts and municipal public works agencies to employ a number of different methods to improve water supply reliability. Included among those, he said, are wastewater treatment and reuse and desalination of groundwater that is currently too salty to use for agriculture or drinking water.
“I’m not big on bond indebtedness, but this bond is essential,” said state Sen. Tony Strickland, R-Moorpark, the event’s keynote speaker. Opining that economic growth would give California more money to invest in infrastructure, he suggested that getting the Delta pumps started was of key importance. Although use of the huge pumps that draw water from the Delta to deliver it to farms and urban users all over the state has been limited because of a federal court order protecting the endangered delta smelt, Strickland offered that perhaps a smelt sanctuary could be created while constitutional scholars work on overturning the judge’s decision.
“The absolute No. One priority is to turn those pumps back on,” Strickland said.
— Noozhawk staff writer Ben Preston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.