California’s Water Crisis: Promising Way More than We Can Deliver

Source: US Drought Monitor

Even if you don’t pay attention to the news, you’re probably aware that Los Angeles has been unusually dry for the past few years.  If you do follow the news, you may have heard that right now California’s snowpacks are well below their 20th century average.  And if you really pay attention to this stuff, you probably saw the news that the past 22-year period is the driest the American West has experienced in over a millennium.

Scary stuff.  And as the impacts of climate change grow more pronounced, there’s a good chance things will get even scarier.  Since it doesn’t seem likely that government officials or the public at large are going to make any real progress in cutting back on fossil fuels, the weird weather we’ve been seeing for the past couple decades is likely to get a whole lot weirder. 

So what can we do?  Well, the first thing we should do is stop lying to ourselves about how much water we have access to.  A recent study from UC Davis shows that water rights allocations to California’s water users are about five times the state’s annual runoff.  In other words, we’ve promised to deliver about five times more water than we actually have. 

How did this happen?  Well, back in the 20th century, when everyone was convinced that California was going to keep growing forever and that we had endless supplies of everything, Federal, State and regional agencies built a ridiculous number of dams and canals to deliver lots of water to everyone who wanted it.  Two decades into the 21st century, it should be clear to all of us that we can’t keep growing forever and that our resources are definitely limited.     

CalMatters recently ran an excellent piece by Carolee Krieger, Executive Director of California Water Impact Network, where Krieger clearly states the most important takeaway from the UC Davis report: We have to manage our water resources based on the amount of water that’s actually available.  Here’s the link to Krieger’s article. 

Here Is the First Step to a Sustainable Water Policy

California faces huge challenges in meeting its future water needs.  The first step is to be honest about how much water we actually have.  Let’s stop pretending.  It’s time to get real. 

FOLLOW-UP:

I want to add some additional info as a postscript to this post.  I was looking at On the Public Record, a blog I follow that deals with water issues in California.  (I recommend it highly.)  The author wrote a post on Max Gomberg’s resignation from the State Water Resources Control Board.  While the post itself is well worth reading, one of the comments raised questions about the accuracy of the UC Davis report that Carolee Krieger cites in her CalMatters post. 

There are lots of comments, but I’d ask you to scroll down to those written by Waterwonk, who questions the methodology used by Theodore Grantham and Joshua Viers, the authors of the UC Davis report.  According to Waterwonk, Grantham and Viers make the mistake of adding up the face value of water rights without looking at terms and conditions and overlapping rights.  For instance, Waterwonk says that some users have the right to divert water, store water, and then redivert the stored water.  Waterwonk asserts that Grantham and Viers added up the face value of the water in cases like this, when in fact these separate rights apply to the same water. 

Waterwonk believes that Grantham and Viers got some things right, but says their claim that California has handed out water rights amounting to five times what’s actually available is grossly overstated.  I don’t understand these issues well enough to judge who’s right, but I think Waterwonk makes effective arguments.  I wanted to include them for those readers who are interested in digging further.  Here’s the post from On the Public Record.

On Your Watch

There are lots of comments, including from Carolee Krieger.  You’ll have to scroll down a ways to find Waterwonk’s arguments. 

But whether or not Grantham and Viers’ work is accurate, there’s no question that State agencies and local governments have been over-promising for decades when it comes to water.  The status quo is not sustainable.  We have to be more realistic about how much water is actually available.

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