This isn’t the first time the people of this state have faced extremely dry conditions that threatened water supply. In 1991, then-Gov. Pete Wilson declared a similar emergency after California farmers lost crops worth an estimated $455 million. That drought began in 1987 and lasted for five years before the governor took action. His declaration led to, among other things, the establishment of a statewide water bank where those who had enough could “transfer” their excess to those who needed water.
But that act came too late for California agriculture, which suffered another $500 million loss in 1991 after the declaration. A report from the state Department of Water Resources issued in January 1991 said the drought had resulted in a loss of fish and wildlife habitat that would, the department estimated, take years to recover. In fact, a 2004 California Department of Fish and Game study concluded that the steelhead trout population alone, which shrank from 683 fish per mile in 1987 to 22 fish per mile in 1989, took seven years to recover.
Water runoff from the Sierras this year is expected to be a mere 20 percent of normal. Brown found the same threat to Californian lives and property that Wilson did, but his declaration does nothing beyond telling everyone to cut back water use by 20 percent.
Yes, Brown waited only two years to declare an emergency, while Wilson faced five years of drought before 1991. But Brown also set up no mechanism to financially help farmers here in the Central Valley who might lose their livelihood to the weather. Nor did he support a possible bond measure to provide such monies. When directly asked about the possibility of a voter approved water bond during his news conference last week, Brown said he was going to “withhold judgment on that” for the time being.
Hindsight is 20-20 and it’s easy to look back on the drought of 1991 and Wilson’s actions there and say he needed to do something sooner. But the potential benefit of such hindsight is avoiding the same mistakes again.
Brown has responded more quickly; now he must act more decisively. His water policy has focused on transfer systems — read: twin pipelines — that take water out of the Delta and pump it south. It is time to discuss creating more storage around the state to save up water for a non-rainy day.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation says the Central Valley Basin is fed from two major watersheds, the Sacramento River and the San Joaquin River, which includes the Tulare Lake Basin. This system supplies water for six of the top 10 most productive agricultural counties in the state, yet no dam has been built in this system since the 1960s.
It is time for the governor to look beyond the immediate bandage of using 20 percent less water and finally commit to creating more storage in a water system that the bureau of reclamation conservatively estimates over the years has been worth more than $300 billion in crops and related service industries.