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California governor signs bills to tackle state's water crisis

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - California Governor Jerry Brown on Tuesday signed more than a dozen bills aimed at improving access to water in the state, where drought is common and tension is high over the competing needs of residents, agriculture and the environment.

The new laws attempt to address some of the most immediate concerns, including the difficulty faced by small communities when local groundwater becomes polluted or is over-pumped. The measures also reflect growing interest in California in finding ways to safely recycle wastewater so that it can be used again for drinking and cooking.

"California needs more high quality water, and recycling is key to getting there," Brown, a Democrat, said in his signing message. To speed the effort, Brown also proposed consolidating the responsibility for all water-quality programs under a single agency, the state Water Resources Board.

Water has long been a sore point in California, where the precious resource has been diverted from mountain lakes and streams to irrigate farms and slake the thirst of metropolitan areas around Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Many of the state's initiatives to deal with the problem, including a long-awaited effort to preserve access to water while addressing environmental problems in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, are highly controversial. They face criticism from all sides and often lead to political stalemates.

But the bills signed Tuesday chip away at individual problems bit by bit, many of them meeting little opposition.

"Water is a finite resource," said Scott Shapiro, a Sacramento attorney whose clients include public water agencies. "And it's either in the wrong place or it's in the wrong quality and existing regulations don't allow us to use it in the right way - and each of these laws is an attempt to address some of those limitations."

BLUE BABIES

Among the most difficult problems in recent years has been the pollution of groundwater in communities throughout the state, either because it has been over-pumped or because chemicals used in agriculture, particularly nitrates in fertilizer, have leached into the water table.

Assemblyman Luis Alejo, a Democrat who sponsored three of the bills, said such pollution is common in the agricultural communities that he represents in Monterey County. One of the measures signed by Brown would authorize grants for poor communities that need funds to clean up their drinking water or find emergency replacements.

"There is a small community of less than 500 people where their entire water system was recently put under a court order that they can no longer drink it because of high levels of nitrates," Alejo said.

Among the problems in the county from drinking water with high levels of nitrates has been "blue baby syndrome," in which infants lose oxygen from their blood, Alejo said.

Other issues involve the availability and cost of water.

Some farmers manage the cost of growing their crops by buying or selling water rights during times when the state limits its use for irrigation. One of the new laws would allow more landowners to do that by loosening the requirements for selling the rights.

The law promoting the recycling of wastewater is meant to increase the supply of water and reduce the cost, said its sponsor, Democratic state Senator Ben Hueso.

In his Southern California district, avocado growers are chopping down trees because they fear not having enough to irrigate them, while the Colorado River, which also runs through the district, has had so much water diverted for so long that it's time to find other sources, Hueso said.

"We need to find ways to make water more available for those growers while also keeping water more affordable," Hueso said.

His measure directs state water officials to investigate ways to recycle wastewater so that it is drinkable. The law aims at developing regulations by 2016, although Brown, in his signing message, urged administrators to move more quickly.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Steve Orlofsky)

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