It is absolutely essential to the state economy and to the quality of life for all Californians that we pass a comprehensive water bond now, to ensure that water continues to flow to California’s homes, farms and other facilities for the foreseeable future.

The $9.3 billion bipartisan water bond proposed by Governor Schwarzenegger and U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein earlier this month provides a solid framework for tackling California’s water challenges, and a much welcomed shot in the arm for an issue that’s been on the backburner for too long.

I’ve been working with my colleagues at the Capitol and in Washington for almost two years to arrive at a comprehensive water plan that would increase water storage, improve how that water is transported across the state, and revitalize the ailing Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Everyone agrees that California urgently needs to address California’s critical water woes, and as the saying goes, admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery. As is often the case in complex policy issues, the devil is in the details.

While I agree with Senate Pro Tem Don Perata that we should spend the as-yet-unallocated $872 million in funds from previous water bonds, we have to approach our water problems in a comprehensive, rather than piecemeal, manner. We cannot afford to let this vital issue be waylaid by partisan politics.

Additional above-ground storage must be part of the ultimate bond plan, which must be approved in time to go before the voters on the November ballot. This isn’t a philosophical stance, it’s plain commonsense. California simply has to be able to catch and store more precipitation and snowmelt in order to decrease flood risks in rainy years and boost reserves for dry times.

Like so many other parts of California’s infrastructure, the system of canals, reservoirs and levees we use to store and move water in and around the state is straining from age and overuse. At the same time, our population continues to grow: California is expected to top 40 million residents by 2010 and 50 million by 2030.

As if drought conditions and the growing number of water users weren’t enough to dwindle water reserves and tax the state’s water delivery network, a series of court decisions has seriously restricted the amount of water available from the Delta, the central hub for the water that ends up in the majority of California’s homes and businesses. Protecting Delta smelt and other species of fish may be a worthy goal, but there’s no question that these rulings have significantly reduced the amount of water available for people, whose well-being concerns me more.

Perhaps because water is such a basic necessity and going without it so unfathomable, it is all the easier to take it for granted. It is virtually impossible to overstate its place in our lives. At the most fundamental level, we need it to live. It nourishes and sustains us, cleans and cools us. The crops we rely on for food and indeed our entire economy depend on a clean and reliable water supply. But, the water we use for everything from brushing our teeth in the morning to washing the dishes at night is a precious resource that must be better managed.

Widespread water shortages would make the energy crisis of 2000 and 2001 pale in comparison. We can’t afford to wait any longer.