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U.S. legislator speaks out on need for California water infrastructure

by Rand Green | March 04, 2009
"California's biggest industry is still agriculture, and the beating that it has taken by burdensome regulations, high taxes, and water and electricity shortages has been staggering," Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) told The Produce News during an exclusive interview Feb. 25.

California's water crisis is "very real" and it poses "an imminent threat to Central Valley farming," he said, alluding to cutbacks in state and federal water allocations that will take hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland out of production this year.

Much of that land has been used for producing fruits, vegetables, nuts and other specialty crops. "We've got to get our priorities straight again and get back to the process of actually building surface water storage facilities - to put it more simply, dams." And that "all comes down to a question of political will."

Rep. McClintock, who served for many years in the California legislature before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in November, laid the blame for California's current water crisis directly on the state's politicians, but it was not partisan finger-pointing. He praised Pat Brown, a Democrat who was governor of California from 1959 to1967, but was critical of Gov. Brown's son, Jerry Brown, also a Democrat, who was governor of California from 1975 to 1983, as well as Pete Wilson, a Republican who served as governor from 1983 to 1991 and who presided over what was at the time the biggest tax increase in the state's history.

"I look back a generation ago when California was spending far less than it is today," said Rep. McClintock. "Our taxes were far lower than they are today, and yet we had the finest highway system in the world, we had the finest public school system in the country, and we were producing electricity and water so cheaply that many communities didn't bother to measure the stuff. And the only thing that has changed between those days and these days is public policy."

He continued, "Pat Brown, having delivered the vast cornucopia of public works for which his administration is remembered, ended with a debt service ratio (the percentage of state budget spent for debt service) of just 2.2 percent," he said. "Then, under the Jerry Brown administration, we abandoned our water projects, some of them mid-construction, such as the Auburn Dam" and at the same time "entered a period of utterly irresponsible fiscal policy."

Today, California's debt service ratio is more than triple what it was when Gov. Pat Brown left office.

In just the last 12 years, "California voters have approved over $17 billion of water bonds," nearly 40 percent more in inflation-adjusted dollars than the entire cost of the California State Water Project in the 1960s.

"And yet we have not added a major water storage facility" in the past 30 years, Rep. McClintock said. "The question arises, where is our generation's state water project? The problem is those funds were frittered away without any kind of a coherent plan decided beforehand on how to spend those [funds]."

At one time, specific water infrastructure projects in California were first planned and then engineered and then ultimately financed by revenue bonds specifically for those public works projects that were paid for not from the general fund, "but rather by the users of the water and power" produced by the project, he said. "Now, it is exactly the opposite. Now we go out and float these increasingly large mega-bonds with no plan on how to spend them."

California's water needs have increased as the state's population has grown, but the state receives more than enough precipitation to meet its needs if it were properly managed.

The Sacramento River's flow is about 10 times greater than that of the Colorado River, Rep. McClintock said. "The difference is, they store about 70 million acre-feet on the Colorado, and we store about 10 million acre-feet on the Sacramento."

Finishing the abandoned Auburn Dam project would be "the most logical place to start" in upgrading California's water infrastructure, he said.

"The most expensive part of that project is the footings cut into solid rock," he said. "Those were completed more than 30 years ago when the [Jerry] Brown administration abandoned it. That would provide 2.3 million acre-feet of water [enough to irrigate some 750,000 acres of farmland], along with 800,000 megawatts of cheap, clean electricity and 400-year flood protection for the Sacramento plain."

For 12 of the past 18 years, there has been flooding in California, much of it in the Sacramento River watershed, serious enough to merit disaster declarations. Not only do enormous quantities of much-needed water go to waste when such floods occur, but the floods themselves take a heavy toll environmentally as well as economically, Mr. McClintock explained.

The good news, he said, is that in California "we've got everything in the world going for us except wise public policy and that is entirely within our power to change."