Scott Wilk: Water woes need bigger fix


California has always been a battleground for water. From Central Valley farmers to thirsty Southern Californians, our state is full of folks vying for their share of our most precious resource.

Back in the state’s infancy, our leaders recognized this issue and took action to address it. They built an impressive network of dams and reservoirs, along with an unprecedented water-conveyance system to move water from the soggy north to the parched and populous southern regions.

California was an innovator in technology even back then, when technology meant dams, aqueducts and other infrastructural modernisms.

Now, though, while the Golden State remains a bastion of innovation, we’ve allowed our water infrastructure to languish, replaced in our minds by shiny new advancements in other areas.

Water collection, storage and conveyance have sadly fallen to the bottom of our long list of priorities.

Today we pay the price. Our neglect of this vital infrastructure network has cost us billions of dollars and thousands of jobs.

The recent failures at the Oroville Dam alone are estimated to cost more than $200 million in avoidable, but now necessary, repair costs.

You see, officials knew the spillways were at risk. They knew it 12 years ago. And they did nothing. They simply added the dam to the long list of “deferred maintenance” projects to be taken care of at some undetermined later date.

That list now totals more than $13 billion for water-related infrastructure alone; $57 billion when you include all infrastructure managed by the state.

But our failing water storage doesn’t only hurt us in terms of cost to the taxpayer. We’ve witnessed first-hand the impacts of the drought.

Fields go fallow, businesses and residents pay exorbitant rates for water, jobs are lost, unemployment rises, and so on. It has been devastating to our state.

This year we received a blessing: The wettest winter in recent memory dumped dozens of inches of rain up and down the state. The drought, one would think, has finally come to an end.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.

Decades of inattentive water policy have left us with no way to catch or hold the water that comes our way. So while we would hope wet years like this would float us in the dry ones inevitably to come, without water infrastructure repairs and improvements that just isn’t going to happen.

More than half of the water dropped on our state this year will flow straight out to sea. There will be no end to the drought; our storage capacity is too drastically inadequate for that.

In 2014, recognizing our need to rebuild and bolster our crumbling and insufficient water storage and conveyance infrastructure, Californians passed Proposition 1— a $7.5 billion bond dedicated to solve these very issues.

Three years later, not one dollar of that bond money has been allocated to those ends. Instead, bureaucrats in Sacramento have placed needless and costly requirements on the funds and anyone wishing to use them to solve our infrastructure problems.

So as the rain continues to fall over the Golden State, and we watch millions of gallons of water rush out to sea, bypassing our failing water storage mechanisms, we do it while the State Water Resources Control Board – the agency responsible for administering Prop 1 funds – sits on more than $7 billion in bond money designated to build new dams and reservoirs to end our drought and provide water security for the future.

I was proud to have co-authored Prop. 1, and I was even more proud of the people for taking meaningful and decisive action in the height of our water crisis.

The people have spoken, but our state government has failed to provide the solvent water infrastructure system we need. They have wasted, withheld and siphoned away money from these needs.

It is time for a reprioritization in Sacramento and recommitment to serve the people of this state rather than the people of the statehouse.

California will likely always be a battleground for water. But if we would only get back to the innovative, nation-leading mindset we once had on this issue, we might come out OK.

If we could get back to daring to undertake ambitious infrastructure projects the way we once did, we might just solve this issue – and in the process re-establish our place as the true leader of the world on infrastructural ingenuity.

Scott Wilk represents the 21st Senate District, which includes the Antelope, Santa Clarita, and Victor valleys. He lives in Santa Clarita.

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