Drought and Denial

Richard Rubin
Attorney Richard Rubin has taught at the University of San Francisco, Berkeley and Golden Gate University, is a regular columnist for the Marin Independent Journal and was Chair of the California Commonwealth Club Board of Governors, 2017-2019.

“The water policies of the past century won’t work in a future where we will face continued population growth and the effects of climate change.”

Those are the words of long time East Bay Democrat, Representative, George Miller, who is retiring after 40 years and Chaired the powerful Education and Labor Committee.

His colleague across the aisle, GOP Representative, Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield and now the House majority leader, says, “The current drought is devastating.”

On that much these two leaders with very different governing philosophies agree. Politics should stop at drought’s door.

But reactions to Governor Jerry Brown’s Executive Order instituting mandatory water rationing—an unprecedented decision in California—may only have ignited new battles as the state grapples with an historic 4-year water deficit.

Central Valley farmers, mainstay of the nation’s largest agricultural production, are battling over plans to divert Delta waters to irrigate decaying crops with environmentalists who see degradation of the salmon fisheries and wildlife if this occurs.

Less water translates into loss of thousands of farm jobs on top of those already eliminated or for workers who have seen their hours cut in half because of the recession.

Businesses vital to the state’s economy need water to expand and grow while home dwellers want to preserve their neatly landscaped lawns and gardens.

So far the proposals coming out of Sacramento and emulated by water districts across the state call for stricter conservation, including expanding water storage facilities, more effective groundwater management, digging wells, greater recycling and more efficient irrigation systems.

While laudable they are basically a rehash of old ideas depending on voluntary compliance which come up short during water emergencies. The Governor’s call for 25% reductions in water usage follows a plea for 20% reductions which failed.

The simple fact is without sufficient rain and snow fall, there is far less to conserve.

With snowfall at 5% of normal as of April (the total for the same month in 1991 which is generally accepted as the worst year ever averaged 18%) and with the largest reservoirs at less than 40% capacity and winter over, the snow deficit record has been shattered.

Thus we have entered a rain or pain era with only draconian choices between waiting for the heavens to open or accepting mandatory rationing which is just a more felicitous term for punitive conservation.

In addition to the regional skirmishes likely to pit thirsty Southlanders against those in the North with more bountiful supplies, neighbors willing to let their lawns turn brown and their cars go unwashed will not be looking very kindly on the water violators next door willing to pay the fines.

Conservation by itself—whether mandated or not—solves neither the supply nor the demand problem if current weather patterns continue indefinitely as is predicted.

Unless the state, cities and the municipal water districts are prepared to look at innovative policies not merely to capture, and hoard scarce water supplies but to harness new sources of water, the steps now being taken amount only to holding actions until the next drought.

The single largest natural storage reservoir which holds the promise of an unlimited water supply lies along California’s extensive coastline.

The process for taping into it is known as desalination, its more primitive form having been invented a couple of centuries ago and is very familiar to navy sailors, commercial ships and all who are on the high seas.

Over the years, the technology it uses known as reverse osmosis has been refined a number of times and has been scientifically adjudged entirely safe for drinking and bathing while posing minimal harm to fish and wildlife. Desalination pioneers Saudi Arabia, Israel and Australia, among others, can attest to that.

The State Water Policy Plan calls for development of at last one dozen desalination plants but, curiously, allocates only a small portion of the miniscule $272 million to desalination from the $7.5 billion bond measure approved last November by the voters.

To date, only one plant in Carlsbad has been the beneficiary of any funding. Projected to go on line in 2016, it will convert 56 million gallons of seawater daily for San Diego residents. It will be the largest such facility in the Americas carrying a $1 billion price tag and took 15 years (some say longer) from concept to construction thanks to the state’s heavy regulations.

It was constructed and financed through a combined public-private-partnership—an innovative vehicle employed in other states with which California still has relatively limited experience.

This state and this governor have always embraced and promoted futuristic ideas. Desalination should already have become part of the future. With this water crisis that future is now.

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