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Water planning, then and now

The Department of Water Resources (DWR), created by the legislature during a special session in 1956, and the State Water Project (SWP), authorized by the Burns-Porter Act in 1959, have been closely linked almost from their inceptions.

In 1957, DWR published the first California Water Plan, Bulletin No. 3, the last of three bulletins presenting the results of statewide water resources investigations begun 10 years earlier, in 1947.  According to the 2005 California Water Plan Update:

Bulletin No. 3 described a comprehensive master plan for the control, protection, conservation, distribution, and utilization of the water of California, to meet present and future needs for all beneficial uses and purposes in all areas of the state to the maximum feasible extent. . . .  It was to be implemented by a statewide program for the construction of projects needed to control and supply water wherever and whenever the need arises and as projects are found feasible.

In 1960, California voters narrowly passed a bond initiative to fund State Water Project facilities under the Burns-Porter Act.  During the 1960s, the state signed long-term contracts with public water agencies, the State Water Project Contractors, often just referred to as the State Water Contractors.

The State Water Contractors represent agricultural and municipal ratepayers in parts of the Bay Area, the southern San Joaquin Valley, and Southern California.  They are public agencies.  For decades, it appeared that what was good for the State Water Contractors was good for the whole State of California.  So nobody was paying much attention to the relationship between DWR and the State Water Contractors.

Contractor payments make up a substantial part of DWR’s budget, but the SWP itself operates without any budgetary or legislative oversight, a point made repeatedly by Senator Lois Wolk.   Do payments by the water contractors become state (public) funds, or is DWR in effect just holding the money until the water contractors want it for something else (like developing the Bay Delta Conservation Plan)?  It’s hard to know.

DWR has produced some version of a California Water Plan usually every four or five years since 1957.  The most recent was published in 2009.  Last week DWR held a plenary session for the 2013 California Water Plan Update.

It will cover topics that no one was thinking about in 1957, such as climate change, groundwater use, sustainability, and reducing water demand.   It will include input from tribal peoples.  Integrated water management – IWM – is an important part of state planning nowadays, especially when it comes to financing water management.  Managing water in California requires federal, state, and local participation, and since at least 2001, the majority of funding has been local.

The SWP is no longer central to the California Water Plan process.  Hundreds of DWR employees are working on the state’s thorniest water challenges, and many of them know little about the Bay Delta Conservation Plan that costs people in the Delta so much sleep.

But the folks at the top are enthusiastically promoting the Peripheral Tunnels and the BDCP as models of federal/state coordination of the IWM kind.  DWR Director Mark Cowin was scheduled to deliver the keynote address on Day 2 of the Plenary Session.  He couldn’t be there, so DWR Deputy Director Gary Bardini, who had spoken the day before about Integrated Water Management, praised the importance of BDCP as an “alignment” of state and federal efforts.

It was the party line, a reminder of which interests are (still) in charge of California’s most ambitious, 20th-century-style water management effort.

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