The Road to Reliable Water

Senator Mimi Walters
California State Senator, 37th Senate District

Driving from the foothills of El Dorado County through the majestic heights of the Grapevine, to the Restored Mission in San Juan Capistrano, today is a much different experience than it was just a few years ago. Where once there were abundant orchards and farms plush with economic opportunity now lies a dry, fallow moonscape.  This reality is having a devastating impact on California’s families and its economy.

Water has always been and continues to be a precious resource and the source of great division in California. It is an integral part of our economy and cannot be underestimated or undervalued.

Agriculture has historically been the bedrock foundation for California’s wealth and the “food basket of the world.” California leads the nation in the production of fruits, vegetables, wines and nuts. The state’s most valuable crops are nuts, grapes, cotton, flowers, and oranges. In addition, California produces the majority of U.S. domestic wine. Our dairy products contribute the single largest share of farm income to our economy. Our farm lands are highly productive as a result of good soil, ideal climate and growing systems, the use of improved and modern agricultural methodologies and a world-class irrigation system.

However in recent years, drought conditions coupled with increasingly restrictive environmental regulations have changed the face of agriculture within the state. Farmers have been proactive in finding ways to conserve water. In 2005 farmers used 23% less water on their fields than in 1980. Even with these changes, however, agriculture needs roughly 40 percent to 75 percent of California’s water supply.

Unfortunately, 2013 was the driest year on record in the past 119 years, following two previous years of drought. This is important because California’s water system is dependent upon the Sierra Nevada snow packs, which act as a natural winter water storage system. During dry years, those snow packs are greatly diminished, and our failure to create and maintain additional permanent storage has resulted in significantly less available water for use later this year.

Consecutive dry years in California have compounded the current water deficit for many communities. The water tables in some areas of California have been rapidly decreasing, which has greatly affected those residents who rely heavily upon our groundwater basins. During times of drought, those communities are often among the hardest hit.

Furthermore, planning by federal and state officials has proven to be faulty when consecutive dry years have presented themselves. Last year, the state released more water from northern reservoirs to the south during the spring and summer than state officials had originally agreed to. This left the Shasta, Oroville, and Folsom reservoirs at dangerously low levels. Mismanagement of California’s water is unacceptable during any year, but this year the consequences have been disastrous.

If California were to adopt a greater capacity for water storage, this would alleviate the state’s over-dependence on the annual snowpack. Creating more reliable and plentiful water sources would increasingly support California’s economy and the potential for growth.

According to the PPIC report “Water and the California Economy,” growing economies will continue to require more water despite any water conservation efforts. If we are to have any hope  in regaining our economic prominence, restoring economic opportunity for hardworking Californians, and resurrecting the hope that the Golden State once embodied, California must develop a water infrastructure that protects this vital resource.

While the road to reliable water may be challenging, it is attainable. California possesses the innovation and talent to implement workable solutions to ensure our water security if California’s elected officials have the will. We must take this opportunity to restore California to its previous splendor, or face the consequences that failure will bring to our dinner tables and our state’s economy.

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