E&E Calif. bureau's Kahn discusses water commission controversy amid historic drought

As California faces historic drought conditions, California Water Commissioner Anthony Saracino stepped down this week amid controversy. On today's The Cutting Edge, Greenwire reporter Debra Kahn discusses her interview with Saracino and explains how his departure will affect the commission. She also talks about the innovative options California is considering to address the drought.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to The Cutting Edge. As California faces historic drought conditions, a California water commissioner steps down amid controversy. Visiting our D.C. studios from E&E's California bureau is reporter Debra Kahn. Debra, it's nice to have you here on the East Coast.

Debra Kahn: Thank you. Nice to be here.

Monica Trauzzi: Debra, you had an exclusive interview with Anthony Saracino this week about his decision to leave the California Water Commission. What's the background on Saracino's departure?

Debra Kahn: So, Anthony Saracino, he is a California water consultant, been around California water issues for a really long time. He resigned from the commission this week after a bit of an uproar over his position on raising Shasta Dam, which is on the Sacramento River, and it's part of the federal Central Valley Project. It's already one of the largest dams in the country, and it's one of a few proposals that the commission is considering for $2.7 billion in funding from a water bond that California voters passed last year with pretty strong support.

So, environmental groups, as well as Indian tribal members, got upset about his advocacy, because he was trying to keep Shasta on the table, even though raising it would flood part of a protected river that's upstream of the dam. And the language in the bond also appears to rule that out. So, since Saracino was one of Jerry Brown's environmental appointees, the environmental group felt that was a little bit too much of an anti-environmental position for him to be taking, so on May 1st they sent a letter to the state Senate Rules Committee, and he stepped down right before his confirmation hearing, which would've been this past Wednesday.

Monica Trauzzi: So, like you said, there are other proposals here. What do those look like?

Debra Kahn: Well, so far there's about five or six existing proposals that've been floating around since at least the 1990s, when the state and federal governments last took a stab at fixing the chronic water-supply issues in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which is the state's main water-delivery hub. It supplies about 25 million Californians and 3 million acres of farmland. The proposals are located around the state. Some are north of the delta, which sends water south, and some are located in the southern half of the state, which uses most of the water. Some would be new reservoirs, and some would be expansions of existing dams, such as Shasta. Environmentalists want things other than surface storage, because they don't want the rivers obstructed more than they already are, so some other options are groundwater storage and groundwater cleanup.

Monica Trauzzi: This is such a critical time for water in California. Where does this move leave the commission?

Debra Kahn: Well, there's now one vacancy on the commission, which has nine members that're all appointed by the governor, and Saracino was one of the environmental appointees, so now there's an environmental position open, and enviros are hoping that Brown will pick a more kind of traditional, conventional environmentalist than Saracino, who's more of a water consultant. He's done a lot of work for environmental organizations like the Nature Conservancy, but he's also worked for water users as well.

Monica Trauzzi: You live in California. You're experiencing the drought firsthand. What's it like on the ground?

Debra Kahn: Well, it's not too bad in San Francisco, actually, even though its supply, which comes from the Tuolumne River, is less than a third of what it normally is. It really depends on where each region gets its water and how secure its supplies are. So, for example, right near San Francisco in the East Bay, which includes Oakland, the water has started actually smelling and tasting funny, because they're having to save their normal cold water for later in the year so they can release it from the reservoir to send downstream for migrating salmon that need it, so they're now drawing from a location higher up in the reservoir, which is exposed to more sunlight, so there's more algae.

Monica Trauzzi: So, California, bigger picture here, is exploring many different options on how to address this drought. What ideas are being considered that are out of the box and perhaps were not considered before?

Debra Kahn: Well, we have these dams and reservoirs on the table now, which in some cases have been debated for decades, have been studied by the Bureau of Reclamation and have seen really no action. Last year, the Legislature passed a first-ever groundwater law that requires for the first time local agencies to monitor and eventually control groundwater pumping, which supplies about a third of California's water in normal years. So, California's one of the last states in the West, if not the last, to actually regulate that, and the drought helped coalesce public opinion around doing that.

And then, lastly, there's some rumblings now around re-examining California's existing system of water rights, which is more than 100 years old. The musician Moby on Wednesday started circulating an online petition to gather support for that, and there was a study last year by the University of California that found that five times the state's water rights are actually allocated. Basically there's five times as many water rights out there as there are supplies in a normal year, so people are becoming more aware of that, so we'll see what happens.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, thank you, Debra. Your reporting has been top-notch from California. Thanks for coming on the show.

Debra Kahn: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: More Cutting Edge coming next Friday. We'll see you then.

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