The Central Valley: where oil and water mix
It’s August, and the California legislative session is winding down to its August 31 finale. Just as Sacramento heats up (literally and otherwise), I’m off on vacation! I will be taking a break from Cliffnotes for the next two weeks, which means today will be a lightning round of notes.
This week California is focused on our two most valuable liquids – fuel and water. The Central Valley is ground zero for the battles over both these commodities, which is why it’s no surprise Fresno’s Assemblymember Henry Perea is playing a key role. Here’s what’s happening:
Asm. Perea’s AB 69, which would delay the January 1 deadline for transportation fuels to come under the state’s carbon trading program, is winding its way menacingly through Senate committees – cheered on by a slew of oil industry front groups. I’ve made my own opposition to this bill clear in past posts, but I’m by no means alone: The California Labor Federation, the State Building and Construction Trades Council, and Bay Area Rapid Transit argue that the bill would deprive the state of funds that promise to provide tens of thousands of jobs in building and operating low-carbon infrastructure. Dozens of environmental, health, and cleantech groups have also registered their opposition.
The Sac Bee’s Dan Walters predicts the legislature will likely park the bill in committee without an up or down vote this year, meaning that the January 1 deadline will arrive and companies will start doing what they’ve already been planning since AB32 passed back in 2006: cleaning up their fuels and turning toward lower-carbon solutions. Seems like a good outcome to me, so long as it’s coupled with programs that specifically work to provide low-income drivers with better, more efficient vehicle and transit options – like those proposed in Sen. De Leon’s Charge Ahead California legislation, which aims to put a million zero- or near-zero emission vehicles on the road by 2023.
California’s drought conditions crossed a grim threshold late last month, with over half of the state now experiencing “exceptional” drought conditions, the most severe rating on the U.S. Drought Monitor’s scale (the past seven months have also been California’s warmest on record – not, perhaps, a coincidence). Last week, after attempting (but failing) to adequately cut water consumption through voluntary conservation measures, the State Water Resources Control Board implemented mandatory restrictions enforced by steep fines.
While restricting water use this year is a necessary – and painful – process, it won’t insulate California from the risk of severe drought in the long-term. California’s long-term climate risks include increased heat and lower precipitation, which will likely lead to more extended and frequent drought conditions over time. With those risks looming, state leaders are under pressure to pass a water bond that would overhaul California’s water management system, providing critical funding for water storage, groundwater management, safe drinking water improvements, conservation projects, and other key needs. Legislators have mere days to come to an agreement on the bond language and size before ballots go to print. While nearly all agree that the current $11.1 billion proposal – proposed back in 2009 and repeatedly delayed from a public vote – is too large to pass, there isn’t consensus on the final ideal number. Governor Brown has proposed a lean $6 billion package, Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis) advocates a $7.5 billion bond, and Asm. Perea (D-Fresno) is sponsoring a $9.9 billion plan with substantial support from the thirsty Central Valley.
Perea’s plan acknowledges the critical need for more water storage in the parts of the state with heavy agricultural and industrial water users. It’s a key sticking point in this debate, with Republicans and Central Valley Democrats joining together to oppose the other plans’ trimming of storage funds from $3 billion to $2 billion. Frankly, on this one I agree with Asm. Perea: Investments in durable infrastructure that will reduce our risk of catastrophic water shortages are investments worth making – especially given that we’re already overdrawing our groundwater reserves and that climate change threatens to make future droughts more frequent and severe. Southern California, which invested in storage capacity along with strong conservation policies years ago, is in a better position to deal with this year’s drought than many northern counties. While even those reserves are now at record lows, the state should take a page out of that region’s playbook when planning ahead for future drought years. That’s why I also like Sen. Pavley’s approach in SB 1168, which would finally put a framework in place to manage California’s dwindling groundwater resources – the one water resource in our state that’s never been regulated.
The fact that Asm. Perea is opposing climate action through AB32 expansion, while promoting climate resilience through the water bond, highlights an important political reality in this state: the politics of water don’t always fall along the same lines as the politics of energy. As the Sac Bee’s Jeremy White writes “when it comes to water, geographical divisions play a crucial role and can even supersede partisan lines.” In reality, these issues are two sides of the same coin: climate resilience measures like water storage are an important step we must take to protect against climate impacts that are already “baked in” to our system because of decisions we made years ago, but lowering our overall carbon emissions is how we’ll avoid those impacts compounding far into the future.
Finally, some good news to remind us that our good state climate work isn’t going unnoticed in the rest of the world: Last week Governor Brown signed an agreement with Mexico that aims to export California’s best-in-class climate policies to our neighbors to the south. It’s a partnership that makes sense, given that large parts of Mexico and California face similar climate risks: much of Mexico is also experiencing a severe drought, and the Colorado River basin, a source of drinking water to residents of both southern California and northern Mexico, has reached record lows.
And that’s it for this week! I’m off to eastern Quebec, another California partner in the fight against climate change. See you in September!