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.
Richard Rubin 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.