California and Its Water

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.

As Hurricane Florence bore down on the East Coast inundating vast areas of southern states with record storm tides and flooding we are once again reminded of the enormous power of water to create devastation.

These natural disasters are likely to continue with tragic consequences as the planet goes through climate changes of rising seas and catastrophic droughts that is a central focus of scientists around the world.

Mayors from across the U.S. and delegates from six continents have just convened in San Francisco in a first-ever Global Climate Action Summit held on American soil.

This was the brainchild of Gov. Jerry Brown who in what may be the closing days of his political career is giving us a foretaste of where he will focus his attentions after he leaves office—serving as a major voice on what can be done about climate change and global warming.

While it does not appear to have been given priority billing during his Administration, a clearly enunciated water policy—or lack thereof—are every bit as important as the justification for High-Speed Rail, the need for a massive transportation infra-structure rebuild, the housing crisis and sweeping tax reform.

The next governor should pay heed.

Missing from the conversation about our water woes and possible solutions are the positive things that may be accomplishable with broad-vision, sound, proactive water planning.

When nature is on a rampage, water can be our enemy; It is also indispensable for sustaining human life.

In California we do not experience hurricanes. But in those places where they have become an annual way of life there is little residents can do about them except move to higher ground, ride out nature’s fury or relocate entirely.

In this vast state it is not an excess of water which we worry about during the periodic storms that can ravage our cities, but a lack of it.

While we are preparing for the distinct likelihood that low-lying coastal regions from San Diego to the Oregon border will become more vulnerable as sea levels rise—and some of the warnings about rising waters are already dire—the bigger concern is finding enough of it and stable supplies for a steadily growing population.

We have done a reasonably good job of controlling the demand side through intelligent water reclamation, recapture and storage, habitat restoration, better water management, recycling, voluntary conservation and—as a last resort— unpopular mandatory reductions during severe droughts.

These measures work well enough when there is plenty of healthy drinking water and normal usage to go around.

But that has become trickier as rural homeowners, ranchers and the all-important agri-interests who want to protect their crops ratchet up their feuding with city officials justifiably unwilling to have communities deprived of their fair share.

The water wars are nothing new as the famous movie Chinatown involving the corrupt water grabs to feed a burgeoning populace in Los Angeles depicted nearly a century ago.

This continues today with no resolution to the ongoing controversy surrounding the diversion of water from the Sacramento water basin by constructing twin tunnels —an approach favored by Gov. Brown and central valley farmers though bitterly opposed by northern California lawmakers, public utilities, environmentalists, and water-reliant industries.

Notwithstanding these disputes, through a patch quilt of measures we have been successful—so far—in meeting most demand.

We have done much less to address the supply side and how we make allocations that satisfy all parties.

Building more or expanding dams and reservoirs is hardly a solution if there is not enough rainfall to fill them and the environmental uproars are usually enough to squelch many projects.

At the moment many are filled to capacity with the last drought that went on for five years a fading memory.

When the next water emergency arrives which weather forecasters consider inevitable, we will see the typical anguished proclamations from Sacramento and the specter once again of governmentally-imposed water rationing—never popular.

This is a strategy that relies upon a prior build-up of political good will and quick responses.

It is not a comprehensive statewide insurance policy which can ensure reliable, long term, sustainable water supplies during all conditions.

Part of the solution lies minutes away from many of the state’s most populated regions; the Pacific Ocean has an inexhaustible supply of earth’s most precious element and access to it is unlimited.

In fact, we can go back as far as Aristotle who hinted at its usefulness in his great work, Meteorologica, written centuries ago when he said, “Salt water when it turns into vapour becomes sweet and the vapour does not form salt water again when it condenses.”

He was describing distillation or the process of salt water purification known today as desalination.

Today it is widely employed in many nations, including Saudi Arabia, Israel, Greece, Australia, Singapore and Scandinavia just to name a few, with encouraging results.

Not surprisingly these are water-bordered nations just like ours. Worldwide, about 300 million people get some freshwater from more than 17,000 desal plants in 150 countries, with the Middle East dominating.

The United States however has been laggard in promoting these water technologies with some of the stiffest opposition coming from conservation-first proponents who seem unwilling to take a closer look at the supply/demand equation and tend to support elected officials less inclined to be pro-active for fear of political reprisals.

They fail to point out that desal is not a substitute for but an adjunct to better conservation.

In California, Carlsbad is the home of the largest, most technologically advanced, energy efficient seawater plant in the nation.

On a daily basis, it delivers 50 million gallons ( or 56,000 acre feet per year for water buffs) to San Diego County with a population of approximately 400,000 which is about one-third of all the water it needs.

Launched in 2015, the award-winning project took 14 years from concept to completion by way of a public-private partnership between the San Diego Water Authority and Poseidon Water, the contractor.

Up north, the tourist-heavy picturesque coastal city, Monterey, is about to receive approval of a smaller desalination plant using a similar economic model to be built by a privately regulated utility with the facility taking public ownership through a combination of private funding and low interest public financing.

The resistance to desal in many cities stems from outcries of potential dangers to sea life and safety concerns about the drinking water.

Marin County voters famously turned down construction of a desal plant 16 years ago partly for these reasons even after a demonstration plant which operated for nearly a year disproved these concerns.

According to experts, these criticisms have now been largely debunked with the Monterey plant scheduled to come on line soon the prototype for environmentally sound, cost-effective, efficiently maintained plants of the future.

Still there is little evidence after much rhetoric that the state has gotten behind a push to accelerate desal development.

Several years ago, the state’s water planners boasted of 22 desal plants on the drawing boards but few have been built even after the state’s Department of Water Resources nine years ago identified the need for at least 275,000 acre feet of desalinated water by 2025.

The three biggest obstacles by far have been up-front capital investment, consumer fees and the energy costs for running them.

Usage costs while going down are still high. A thousand gallons of desalinated water runs the average consumer $2.50 to $5.00 compared to $2.00 for water conventionally produced.

The Carlsbad plant came in at a hefty $1 billion for the plant, pipelines, and upgrades to existing facilities. That’s not a reliable baseline for future plants which are much smaller, will have the benefit of proven technologies and can follow economic models that are working.

There are multiple renewable energy options including solar, wind, wave, and geothermal among them that are gaining wider acceptance and will most likely become standard choices in years to come.

Communities can use their bonding authority to defray development costs which could be amortized over many years without unsupportable increases in municipal debt.

Since excessive operations might be required only during emergencies, energy costs should also come down over time along with consumer fees that can be expected to decrease and stabilize with proper regulation.

And there may be one added dividend.

Rising waters are a genuine threat to California’s coastline. While there is no scientific evidence yet that sea levels and tidal forces will be significantly affected by continuous desalination, if enough plants are constructed, it cannot be ruled out.

At the very least this could supply enough water to satisfy a thirsty populace and booming economy indefinitely.

And there is one other thing no doubt on the minds of the enthusiastic climateers meeting in San Francisco. Given a president who abandoned the Paris Accords and many in the administration and congress who insist on declaring global warming a “giant hoax,” Californians and like-minded nations will need to take control of their own destinies to solve these life-changing problems.

Water scarcity does not need to be one of them.

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