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by Wayne Lusvardi | Pasadena California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a drought emergency perhaps to find a legal way around the court order shutting down 85% of water to Southern California and to farmers purportedly to protect the Delta Smelt fish in the Sacramento Delta. Absent any legal relaxation of the California Environmental Quality Act, water agencies all across Southern California are preparing for water rationing or rate hikes to bring about water conservation due the combination of a three year natural drought and the reduction of water to a trickle through the California Aqueduct due to the Delta Smelt environmental lawsuit. Many agencies have already enacted water policing and tiered water rates. Contrary to popular notions, our present water situation is not a drought caused by household waste or even population growth. Conservation and agricultural efficiencies have brought about roughly the same level of water use over the last ten years. Drought is a misnomer. Even Southern California water activist Dorothy Green recently stated there is no "drought." Drought is the natural condition of Southern California . Enough water flows to the sea even in Southern California in a typical rainy winter week to supply the population for a year. So what we experience a "drought" is the lack of water capture and storage (i.e., slippage). What we conventionally call a drought in California is the unpredictable skipping of a peak rainfall year which typically supplies enough water to fill reservoirs to last for a few years. What most Californians don't realize is that even if the recent natural drought ends, a court continues to block 85% of imported water shipments to Southern California due to the above-mentioned environmental lawsuit.  Additionally a bipartisan bill, H.R. 6940, The Drought Alleviation Act of 2008, which proposed to build a hatchery for the endangered Delta Smelt so that the court order could be discharged, died in committee in the Democratic-party controlled House of Representatives on September 23, 2008 due to lack of support by California politicians. This has not deterred local water agencies from continuing to justify water rationing and rate hikes on the notion that it is water waste at the homeowner level that is the cause of our impending water shortage (e.g., swimming pools, azalea and rose gardens, etc.). Now water agencies and city governments want Californians to reduce water usage by 10% to 40% almost overnight either by rationing or rate increases. They fail to mention that farmers north of the Sacramento Delta have surplus water they want to sell to thirsty Southern California this year but can not do so due to the Delta Smelt environmental environmental lawsuit. Farmers in Imperial Valley in southwest California have a full allocation of water from the Colorado River but have stated they do not want to sell water to thirsty cities this year as it would set a precedent. The crisis approach to water policy of Southern California's cities and water agencies busts California 's historical water social contract. Instead of depending solely on local groundwater supplies Californians historically agreed to pay for huge water and hydroelectric infrastructure projects in return for being able to create garden and pool homes in former semi-arid coastal areas. These large water infrastructure projects were built during the last Great Depression and the recession of the 1970’s, caused by an oil crisis, as the stimulus projects of their eras. What got taxpayers to buy in to paying for such large public works and jobs projects was the reciprocating benefits to their home values and nearby recreational amenities. This formed California's water social contract. Environmentally speaking, what large regional water projects actually did was shift water resources from one ecology to create another ecology elsewhere. So the Delta Smelt fish may have nearly disappeared in the Sacramento Delta (possibly due to environmental water quality improvements), while recreational fishing and boating reservoirs, Koi ponds, and gold fish aquariums thrive in Southern California. Thus the calculus of environmental impacts and mitigations is a social fiction. Given the current court-ordered shut off of 85% of Northern California water, which environmental impact should be mitigated: the small upstream impact to the Delta Smelt; or the larger downstream impact to recreational fishing lakes, Koi ponds, home gardens, and aquariums? Californians have paid mega-billions of dollars for water projects and related environmental mitigations for what essentially is a mere shift of ecologies. Now to dissolve the social contract to all those water ratepayers who have paid for our gigantic water infrastructure system and all the accompanying environmental mitigations would be tantamount to judicial double capture, or a taking, by environmentalists. This doesn't even consider the loss of the net gain of cheap hydroelectric energy that is generated by the California Aqueduct after the water crosses the Tehachapis. By continuing to propagate the social fictions that our drought is a crisis caused by wasteful homeowners or farmers, by permanent climate change, or even by drought diverts attention away from the busting of our water social contract. But as the White House Chief of Staff recently said with respect to our national financial meltdown, "you never want a serious crisis to go to waste."  CRO copyright 2009 Wayne Lusvardi Formerly with Metropolitan Water District of So. Calif., Lusvardi has written on water issues in, Privatization Watch (Reason Public Policy Institute) and the L.A. Business Journal. The views expressed are his own.

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