California’s drought is dire, and has focused legislative and public attention on the enormity of the state’s water problems. As noted in earlier Environmental Water Caucus (EWC) reports, California already was in a state of crisis prior to the current drought. Four years of minimal precipitation have only worsened our situation.
Our most pressing problems include: the over allocation of surface water by a factor of at least five, leading to supply unreliability for many users and what is referred to as “paper water;” degraded ecosystems and fisheries; and overexploitation of groundwater supplies. All these issues are exacerbated by ongoing climate change and population growth.
The current drought has caused significant new legislation and rules for the state’s water supplies. These are positive developments, and could lead to new approaches for water use; however, too many of these “solutions” are predicated on the false assumption that current drought conditions are temporary. Thirty percent of recent years can be classified as drought years, and multiple drought years are common.
According to DWR, 40 of the last 100 years have been drought or multiple drought years. We must consider our water in new ways. We must acknowledge that California is a drought-prone state, that water is and will be limited, and that every citizen, farmer and commercial enterprise must consume water responsibly, rationally, and in line with available supplies. Unfortunately, many of the plans and actions proposed by our public agencies are based on a fantasy of ever-increasing supply. They demonstrate a bizarre and potentially catastrophic unwillingness to align demand and water contracts with actual supplies and a total disregard for economically disadvantaged communities, fish, and wildlife.
Further, state officials are exploiting the current drought to justify a tired and bankrupt ideology that promotes more dams, tunnels, and infrastructure as a solution to water shortfalls. Most egregiously, they avoid any objective analysis of the true costs and benefits of additional surface storage or the proposed “Twin Tunnels” trans-Delta project. The Governor’s Water Action Plan and the recently authorized Water Bond continue the destructive and ultimately unsustainable momentum toward more surface storage and delivery infrastructure while not creating any new water supplies.
We must recognize that the state’s largest water user – irrigated agriculture – uses 80% of the state’s developed water supply and contributes less than 2% to the states’ economy and payroll, and adjust water practices and priorities accordingly. The continuous planting of permanent crops south of the Delta, where water supply is not reliable and water rights are junior, does not meet the “reasonable use” criteria called for in the California Constitution.
Most of the state’s plans will not reduce water demand or increase supplies. Rather, they pointedly ignore two practices that will augment supplies dramatically: water conservation and recycling. Further, following any brief respite to the drought, there is the omnipresent danger that the state will revert to the “endless supply” mindset that has characterized California water policy for decades.
Since 2009 the Environmental Water Caucus has proposed an approach to our limited water supplies that is efficient, cost-effective and equitable. It will carry us sustainably into the future, and it addresses the deficiencies described above. Unlike our state bureaucracies, we are not simply trying to squeak through the drought; we are advocating for a wholly different management regime. The EWC plan was proposed prior to the current drought, but it addresses the extant crisis and any future period characterized by water shortages. As stressful as it is for ratepayers, farmers and businesses, the current drought enables reform. More to the point, it demands it. Our public officials must recognize this opportunity, and seize it.