Urgent Need to Re-think State’s Failing Water Policies

water-desalinationAs the debate rages over the election of the next president, it seems that another debate with significant implications for California has yet to take place.

It concerns the one commodity which our state and the planet cannot do without — water.

As California enters its sixth year of a historic drought, the solutions from Sacramento have been short in coming and predictions that there will be continuing water shortages are as solid as the belief that the sun will always come up again.

The drought-induced impacts on drinking water, food supplies, industrial needs, community services, electricity requirements, new housing development, labor demands, wetlands restoration, fish and wildlife preservation, fire prevention, recreational uses, and a host of other concerns are not going away. And this is the short list.

The litany of troubles can be expected to continue and grow if the state, regional and local governments are content with short-sighted often conflicting approaches for tackling the state’s number one problem.

At least eight state agencies headed up by the State Water Resources Control Board have some role in combatting drought — and that by itself may be one of the issues.

The governor appointed a “water Czar,” Felicia Marcus, a former public interest lawyer and EPA regional administrator with the unenviable task of needing to create some order out of the sprawling network of autonomous agencies that have a say in water policy.

While given generally high marks for imposing some discipline on an unmanageable enterprise, she is mainly a regulator whose principal job is to police the worst water abusers and make sure that violators pay the penalties.

In the absence of a comprehensive long range plan to deal with future droughts, the governor has resorted to a steady issuance of Executive Orders restating the urgency of beefing up conservation efforts since his well-publicized Drought State of Emergency proclamation on January 17, 2014.

It called for the creation of an interagency Drought Task Force responsible for overseeing the implementation of drought mitigation plans throughout California. It is better known for holding hearings, reviewing water allocations and serving as a clearinghouse for information.

Similar task forces have been assembled during past droughts with mixed results. Naming them is the first thing chief executives do in a crisis. However if their charters are not backed by strong political muscle and the funds needed to carry out the job they can become just another toothless entity in the vast machinery of government.

Regardless, nature has its own ideas and stopgap measures to bring drought relief have been a poor substitute for long term remedies that planners have ignored and for which there has generally been insufficient funding. That remains the case today.

The state’s $1 billion drought relief plan was put into effect only last May which amounts to a down payment on what will be needed. In comparison, the high-speed rail project — still a distant vision beset by legal challenges and bureaucratic delays — has a projected tab of over $70 billion.

The principal battle cry of the drought fighters is stricter conservation and improved water management practices.  Nothing wrong with that, but since these traditional palliatives require major behavioral changes which many consumers choose to ignore, the gains are usually short lived and inadequate.

Better water management makes good sense but only if users comply with the rules.

When “voluntary” measures failed, the governor invoked mandatory regulations calling at first for 25 percent water savings across the board by all communities, businesses and farms.

Initially that brought some positive results persuading the state water mavens to lower the mandate to 20 percent. The reprieve was a mistake with the citizenry soon reverting to its old ways.

Just a week ago the Water Resources Control Board announced monthly water savings has declined to 17.7 percent — down from a 27 percent savings in August 2015.

No doubt this will soon prompt another edict from the governor’s office to turn down the spigots once again, take fewer showers, stop washing sidewalks, and let lawns die. But that’s only the tip of the water bucket.

With weather forecasters predicting a warmer, drier winter for much of central and Southern California as La Nina makes another appearance, the territorial feuding over water allocation is certain to heat up as well.

This has pitted the state’s giant and powerful agribusiness interests which generate $46 billion annually for California’s economy against urban communities and small businesses with a comparable stake in hoarding the precious liquid.

According to one report, the state‘s agricultural industry is losing $9.6 billion each year as a result of the drought and water restrictions. California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) announced 17,000 agricultural jobs have been lost to date as a result of crop reduction with the number rising.

At the center of the controversy is the governor’s “twin tunnels” plan that would divert freshwater from the Delta through two 35 mile tunnels to feed water-starved southerners leaving northern farmers with less water they claim would be too salty to grow crops.

In addition to the devastating effects of droughts, 30 percent of southern California’s water supply flows through the Delta which could be disrupted by a major earthquake — another of nature’s events whose worst consequences even the most intelligent planning might not fully avert.

It isn’t that the water crisis is not seen as a high priority. The challenge is to get ahead of the issue as you would in treating a chronic disease before it overpowers other bodily systems.

That will not happen if droughts are looked upon as nasty yet unavoidable short term episodes such as forest fires that can have dramatic consequences but will eventually get containment.

In discussing responses to the drought Brown recently commented, “It takes a long time for people to grasp an unprecedented change in the state of California.”

This somewhat laisse fair approach does not give confidence that we are doing all that is possible and necessary to deal with the inevitable.

According to an earlier report by the authoritative University of California Agricultural Issues Center, “The state has sufficient surface and groundwater storage capacity to withstand one or two dry years. However, long droughts – projected to become increasingly common due to climate change – will have significant consequences”.

Increasing storage facilities — one of the recommendations of policy makers – has limited benefit with accelerated construction of new dams and reservoirs are already reaching near capacity during the less frequent periods of major rainfall.

If the principal argument for doing so is to collect more water, the vanishing snowpack in the Sierra Nevada which is the main source of the state’s water makes expensive projects for capturing more of it a questionable investment without contingency plans.

Given that the state’s population (a key factor in drought control) continues to grow with no signs of let-up, the supply-demand formulas are in need serious rethinking.

With rising demand for water, there is enough history already to show that the Pollyannaish notion that we can simply conserve our way out of the current dilemma notwithstanding expectation of even more severe droughts simply does not wash.

The time is past when we should be looking at alternative sources of water not merely during emergencies but also to meet the daily needs of our communities and businesses.

One very promising innovation is hardly a blip on the radar screen. It is commonly known as desalination — the conversion of salt water into safe and reliable drinking water. It is now in use in 120 countries worldwide have desalination including Algeria, Chile, Spain, Egypt, the United Kingdom, Iran, Israel, South Africa, Portugal, Greece, Italy, India, China, Japan, and Australia.

With trillions of gallons just off our long coast line, there is an infinite supply ready to tap.

 The largest plant in North America is now fully operational in Carlsbad, south of Los Angeles, and is supplying water to more than 15 percent of the San Diego County population. This will enable it to reduce its water purchases from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California by 66 percent over the next 15 years. The agency says it will reduce.

While this was the result of private financing, ($1 billion of it from the Poseidon Resources Corporation) and took 16 years from concept to completion, in the end it was not questionable technology but regulatory hurdles and misplaced environmentalist opposition that held things up.

Even some of the loudest desalination skeptics are grudgingly coming around to seeing the benefits:

“There are definite advantages to seawater desalination,” says Heather Cooley, water program director at the Oakland-based environmental think tank, Pacific Institute. “It’s a reliable supply, independent of weather conditions like drought. But it’s still among the most expensive water supply options.”

As more are plants are built at economies of scale and more cities reap the rewards the cost argument should fade away.

The biggest concerns of desal critics have been the large up — front investment outlays and the cost of energy needed to run them. Those arguments also collapse since smaller plants (the trend) need much less energy which can be renewable and are kept off line as a back-up reserve in the event of emergencies. Public-private partnerships could go far in offsetting construction costs, and water user bills should ultimately decrease with tax savings as well.

Poseidon is already in late-stage development of a second plant in Huntington Beach which will yield 50 million gallons per day. It is said to be a “100 percent carbon-neutral, cost-effective, and an environmentally sensitive solution for providing safe and reliable water.”

Less than $100 million of the $1 billion state allocation is budgeted for desalination.

The Brown administration needs to get on the bandwagon and put justified resources into solving the most urgent issue facing the state — the need for an ongoing supply of water.

 writes about political issues and is President of a Public Affairs Management Firm. He also teaches courses on the Presidential & Congressional Elections at the University of San Francisco and is Vice Chair of the California Commonwealth Club.

California Begins 6th Straight Dry Year

As reported by CBS San Francisco:

California’s 2016 water year ended Friday, marking a fifth consecutive dry year with low snowfall, officials from the Department of Water Resources said.

As state water officials measure it, the “water year” runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 each year.

Officials said that 2016’s water year is listed in the record books as “dry” statewide, despite that parts of northern California experienced above-average precipitation.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center sees slightly better than even odds that La Nina conditions will develop this fall and winter, though that does not necessarily mean there will be substantial rainfall, however. …

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California proposes steering more water to fish, less to farms, cities

As reported by the Sacramento Bee:

In a move that foreshadows sweeping statewide reductions in the amount of river water available for human needs, California regulators on Thursday proposed a stark set of cutbacks to cities and farms that receive water from the San Joaquin River and its tributaries.

To protect endangered fish at critical parts of their life cycle, regulators proposed leaving hundreds of thousands of additional acre-feet of water in the San Joaquin River system. As little as 20 percent of the river now flows unimpeded to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and regulators said they want the so-called “natural” flow raised to at least 30 percent and perhaps as high as 50 percent.

The proposal by staff members at the State Water Resources Control Board is yet another effort to improve the ecosystem of one of California’s most overused river systems, where flows sometimes drop to a comparative trickle. Overhauling the San Joaquin system is sure to add new drama to the conflicts over California’s stretched water supply, a situation that has been complicated by the onset of drought five years ago. …

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California water districts: We can handle three more years of drought

As reported by the Sacramento Bee:

State officials will not force most California water districts to reduce water use this year, even as they caution that the five-year drought persists and note that drought-fueled wildfires continue to wreak havoc.

The State Water Resources Control Board in May asked California’s 411 urban water districts to evaluate how much water they would need in the next three years if drought continued – and whether their supplies would meet that demand. Districts that certified their supplies are adequate do not face mandatory water-use cuts. Those with inadequate supplies must set conservation goals proportional to their anticipated shortfall.

About 85 percent of the state’s water districts told the water board that they believe they have adequate supplies to handle continued drought and should not be subject to state-mandated conservation targets, according to results released Tuesday by the water board.

In the Sacramento region, no water supplier will face state-mandated conservation targets, though about half of the region’s districts have set voluntary conservation goals and a few local communities, including Sacramento and Davis, will continue to restrict lawn watering days. …

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Delta Tunnels Water Plan Builds in Wrong Spot

As reported by the San Jose Mercury News:

A half century after building the largest water-delivery system in America, California officials say they now realize they put their giant straws to capture Delta water in the wrong place.

Last week, state and federal water project operators opened the case to win permission for a fix — construction of three diversion points near Sacramento tied to twin underground tunnels to shunt Delta water for 25 million people throughout the state.

Not surprisingly, the hearing before the state water board rekindled old wounds and produced two sharply different portrayals of what the proposed $17 billion California WaterFix would do for the state’s deeply troubled plumbing system.

Critics in Northern California call the plan a water grab destined to harm the Delta environment, fish and farmers. The 700-square-mile mile region of rivers and sloughs will end up with dirtier, saltier water with more toxic algae, while very little will be done to improve overall water supplies, they say. …

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On California Farms’ Water Issues, Congress Needs Food for Thought

Row crops growing in California.

When it comes to water and agriculture, California is upside-down.

That’s what historian Carey McWilliams wrote in his 1949 book, “California: The Great Exception.” Most of the water is in the northern part, and most of the best land for farming is further south.

But this “contrariness of nature” worked to humanity’s advantage in two ways, McWilliams wrote, because it stimulated inventiveness and technological achievement, and because “the long dry season is an enormous agricultural asset.”

That assumes you agree that abundant food production is a good thing, a view that in recent years has become unfashionable in places like Venezuela, Zimbabwe and San Francisco.

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, described a stunning meeting he had with representatives of the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental activists in the summer of 2002 about the future of the San Joaquin Valley. “Their goal was to remove 1.3 million acres of farmland from production,” he said. “From Merced all the way down to Bakersfield, and on the entire west side of the Valley as well as part of the east side, productive agriculture would end, and the land would return to some ideal state of nature.”

That plan was moved forward when the Central Valley Project Improvement Act was passed by Congress in 1992. Under the law, 260 billion gallons of water on the Valley’s west side had to be diverted away from human uses and out to the environment.

Then a series of lawsuits under the Endangered Species Act secured protected status for smelt in 2008 and salmon in 2009, and that was enough to force the virtual shutdown of two major pumping stations that moved water to the Central Valley. Another lawsuit resulted in the San Joaquin River Settlement, later enacted by Congress at a cost of more than $1 billion to taxpayers, which diverted more water away from the Central Valley in an attempt to create salmon runs.

Farmers struggled to get by with groundwater, but in 2014, new California regulations limited that, too.

In 1949, McWilliams observed that if the Central Valley were a state, it would rank fifth in the nation for agricultural production. Today it has poverty and unemployment rates that would be right at home in the Great Depression.

And that’s why members of Congress from the region have repeatedly introduced legislation to adjust federal law in ways that would allow water to be restored to the Central Valley. The legislation passed the House several times only to die in the Senate.

Last year, Rep. David Valadao, R-Bakersfield, introduced it again, calling it the Western Water and American Food Security Act of 2015. President Obama immediately threatened a veto, but in May, Valadao attached the bill as an amendment to an energy bill already passed by the Senate, and the House passed it. …

Click here to read the full story from the Daily News.

We’ve got plenty of water, says Sacramento region

As reported by the Sacramento Bee:

The Sacramento region’s largest water districts have given a resounding answer to the question of whether they could handle three more years of drought: We have plenty of water.

The State Water Resources Control Board last month asked California’s urban water districts to evaluate how much water they would need in the next three years if drought persisted – and whether their supplies would meet that demand. Districts that certify their supplies are adequate will not face mandatory water-use cuts. Those with inadequate supplies must set conservation goals proportional to their anticipated shortfall.

The new localized approach to water conservation in California is a sharp reversal from last year, when a “we’re all in this together” ethos led the state to demand mandatory water-use cuts of more than 28 percent throughout most of the Sacramento region compared with 2013.

Each of the 10 largest districts in the Sacramento region told the state last week that their water supplies are healthy and there is no need to impose mandatory percentage-based cuts again this year. Some districts reported large surpluses, contending they could withstand multiple years of drought without running out of water. Others reported a surplus but said that they would ask for voluntary conservation from customers. …

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California drought bummer: Sierra water runoff coming up short

As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle:

The El Niño-fueled storms that coated the Sierra with nearly normal snow this winter brought blasts of hope to drought-weary California.

But after the flurries stopped and the seasons changed, the melt-off from the high country has been swift and disappointingly scant, according to new water supply estimates from the state.

The Department of Water Resources now projects that the mountains will produce about three quarters of normal runoff during the months of heaviest snowmelt, shorting the rivers and reservoirs that typically provide a third of California’s water — and cementing a fifth year of historic drought for the Golden State.

The projections arrive alongside forecasts for potentially dry La Niña weather next winter. And they come as cities and towns face a crucial deadline for deciding how much water to ask consumers to save in the coming year as part of the state’s broader conservation effort. …

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California water bill has three possible paths for passage

As reported by The News Tribune:

House Republicans this week are adding a controversial California water bill to an unrelated Senate energy package, opening a new front in a fight that’s already put Democrats on the defensive.

The unexpected energy bill maneuver gives San Joaquin Valley lawmakers a third vehicle they might propel all the way to the White House. At the least, it builds up steam for the GOP drive to boost California water storage and divert more irrigation deliveries to Valley farms.

“Farmers, families and entire communities are suffering, and unnecessarily so,” Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, Calif., said Monday.

On Tuesday, the leadership-controlled House Rules Committee is scheduled to pack the California water bill and about three dozen other bills onto the Senate energy legislation. The full House will then take up the massive package, spanning more than 1,000 pages, later this week. …

California drought rules eased significantly

As reported by the San Jose Mercury News:

This summer’s drought rules in California are going to be a whole lot looser than last summer’s.

In a major shift, the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday announced plans to drop all statewide mandatory water conservation targets it had imposed on urban areas last June.

The new rules, which are expected to be approved May 18 by the State Water Resources Control Board, would instead allow more than 400 cities, water districts and private companies to each set their own water conservation targets, as long as they report them to state officials.

Water agencies, particularly in Southern California and around Sacramento, had complained bitterly about the statewide rules, saying that …

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