Droughts and Not Enough Water: California’s Silent Crisis

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.

California is known as earthquake country but nature poses more insidious threats which can go undetected until too late. Among them are the recurrent droughts and chronic lack of water. 

As I wrote in California and Its Water, Time to Re-think State’s Failing Water Policies, and Drought and Denial,

“……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.”

If this remains the principal focus of our efforts, little will have changed.

Not to pour cold water on these worthwhile initiatives, but if we are searching for long-term solutions to the persistent shortages as well as emergencies during periods of severe drought, these are not all-purpose panaceas.

The simple fact is that when there is insufficient rain our ability to perform the numerous activities dependent on an uninterrupted supply of nature’s most essential ingredient diminishes greatly while demand increases.

The last drought—which was historic— and declared officially over April 2017—is by now a fading memory as most reservoirs are filled to capacity thanks to abnormal snowfall and generous amounts of rain the past winter.

But as the atmosphere heats up this could just a harbinger of longer waiting times between heavy rain cycles and the ensuing droughts.

We cannot predict when the next dry spell is coming but come it will, and mandatory rationing could once again be the only line of defense.

Conservation which calls for ongoing, long-term sustainable water supplies and better water management is imperative, but it may not be sufficient when Mother Nature gets other ideas.

The State Water Policy Plan unveiled in 2014, mid-way through Gov. Jerry Brown’s third term in response to the most recent drought emergency that lasted five years was a laudable but in retrospect anemic response.

It included a call for 20% reductions in water usage which when ignored resulted in the imposition of a 25% reduction— viewed as punitive to the majority of law-abiding water users.

Soon after, the state unveiled a $1 billion “drought relief plan” with a mere $100 million earmarked for long-term supply needs.

Prompting the emergency declaration in April 2015, snowfall was at an eye-popping 5% of normal well below the total for the same month in 1991 generally accepted as the state’s lowest yield ever averaging 18%.

Lawns turned brown, gardens withered; cars went unwashed and numerous slow-flush toilets were acquired. City water spigots were turned off drying up fountains mainly to the dismay of thirsty pigeons; citizens took shorter showers and businesses cut back on tap water.

These were minor inconveniences compared to what thousands of farmers in the Central Valley and Southern California experienced who were forced to make drastic crop reductions.

According to one report the state’s agribusiness industry stood to lose $9.6 billion annually as a result of the drought and water restrictions. 17,000 jobs were reported lost in 2015 alone.

Many of these farmers and ranchers have yet to recover and it put a big dent in California’s economy which relies heavily on the $46 billion generated annually by agribusiness.

This could be just a prelude to what comes next in the face of inadequate water and rising demand.

No other element has such universal applications: food supplies, industrial needs, municipal services, electricity requirements, housing development, labor demands, wetlands restoration, fish and wildlife preservation, fire prevention and recreational uses, to name just some.

 Emergency declarations and hasty improvisations are routine when other measures fail.

As droughts become more frequent and perhaps longer lasting (along with wildfires and floods) because of climate change—California water planners will need more than  research studies with little innovative content.

Governor Newsom appears to be paying attention.

As one of his first decisions it was announced that he had relieved Felicia Marcus, the so-called “water Czar” as Chair of the powerful State Water Resources Control Board after serving less than three years.

The board sits atop of at least eight state agencies involved in water planning which by itself is an invitation to meaningless turf wars.

Governor Brown created the Interagency Drought Task Force which had a limited focus.  Some saw his action as a means of avoiding the more challenging and increasingly bitter controversy involving the diversion of water from the Sacramento water basin to farmers and water-starved communities in the South.

The debate over the pros and cons of a single Delta tunnel vs. a twin tunnel approach which Brown favored and Newsom has now nixed continues.

Resolving it will not be easy but it is essential if the state is going to enunciate a sensible water allocation policy that can satisfy farmers, businesses, city dwellers, housing developers and poorer communities that lack safe, affordable drinking water.

The task force was mainly a stop-gap measure, intended more to quell public anxiety than to tackle the myriad water policy issues that bedevil a state with a continually growing population..

Innovational thinking was not a priority, but this may be changing.

In April, Newsom issued an Executive Order demanding state agencies review and come up with plans to address the state’s chronic water shortages, contaminated drinking water, unaffordable water rates and the declining health of rivers and lakes.

With overwhelming consensus in the scientific community declaring climate change an existential threat which could wreak havoc throughout the world in the decades to come, the consequences of inaction cannot be ignored.

The fierce weather-related, wind-driven firestorms that devastated so many California communities less than two years ago, was a stark reminder that nature will always have the upper hand.

In this slowly unfolding climate-driven drama, the need to guarantee a sustainable water supply is overdue.

Last year in California and Its Water I wrote, “While we are preparing for the distinct likelihood that low-coastal regions from San Diego to the Oregon border will become more vulnerable as sea levels rise…..the bigger concern is finding enough of it and stable supplies for a steadily growing population.”

We are doing a reasonably good job on the demand side through water reclamation, recapture and storage, habitat restoration, better water management, recycling, and voluntary conservation.

However, we are not paying enough attention to the supply side by invoking newer technologies surmised as long ago as Aristotle and the ancient Greeks.

One of the most promising is desalination, a water treatment method which uses water filtered by reverse osmosis, a process that removes contaminants to create safe drinking water while also providing sufficient supplies essential for construction of new housing and for spurring business development.

At present, desalination is being successfully employed in over 120 countries to serve daily needs.   

With 3,427 miles of tidal shoreline and 74 percent of the California population living  in coastal counties, and along numerous brackish water rivers and lakes, California is a perfect candidate for desalination.

A giant desalination facility in Carlsbad just south of Los Angeles built by the Poseidon Resources Corporation to the tune of a whopping $1 billion went on line in 2016. Tapping into the Pacific, it remains the largest and most technologically advanced energy-efficient seawater plant in the nation.

On a daily basis it delivers 50 million gallons (56,000 acre feet of water per year)—enough to give 400,000 San Diego County residents, about 10%, all the potable water it needs! That is more than half the population of San Francisco.

Another similarly sized Poseidon Plant is in late stage development in Huntington Beach which will serve Orange County. Plans for both it and the Carlsbad facility were launched in 1998 but held up for decades by questionable permitting issues and regulatory delays.

As of now there are 10 desal plants at different stages of development in the state and 11 more on the drawing boards with the goal of having all of them fully activated by 2025.

This may be overly-ambitious since even much smaller scale projects can take 7 to

10 years from concept to completion and would require a huge injection of state funds we have seemed unwilling so far to spend.

Disappointingly we learn there is only a total of $14 Million Awarded in Grant Funding for Water Desalination Projects out of the state’s 144 billion budget for 2019-2020! 

In January California water officials approved $34.4 million in grants to eight desalination projects across the state, including one in the East Bay city of Antioch. 

This however is not new money. It comes from Proposition 1, the state water bond passed by the voters in 2014 during the height of the drought crisis.

The biggest stumbling blocks are up-front capital investment which can run into many millions, consumer fees, the high usage costs, and regulatory barriers.

Most concerning are the high energy costs which the state and water agencies could take big steps toward mitigating by increasing investments in solar, wind, wave and geothermal renewables.

In addition to the critical task of averting the ravages of future wild fires and coastal flooding, attending to the state’s water needs is the highest priority.

Bureaucratic reshuffling is not the answer. Fresh ideas creative financing and partnering with the private sector are required.

Governor Newsom has an opportunity to become the true champion over climate change and as the guarantor of a secure water future. It should not be wasted.

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