Back in 2015, drought solutions were hidden behind unhelpful PR....
At a time when our main source of water storage – Sierra snowpack – is non-existent, urban water conservation is important but it remains a dangerous distraction from the real solutions to our water woes.
Agriculture consumes approximately 80% of the water in the state and contributes about 2% to our economy. Urban users including businesses, homes, and recreational sources, consume the other 20% of water (of which half – 10 % of the total - is estimated to be for outdoor irrigation) and make up 98% of the economy. Without a doubt, no one should waste water, and the drought is an opportunity to cherish water resources. However, dead grass will not fix what needs fixing.
Lack of snow is not surprising. For years we’ve heard predictions that we likely will get enough water molecules statewide but in the form of rain instead of snow. Yet there has been giant resistance and only glacial progress at fixing water systems like the Sacramento Bay Delta levees that have been called the most pressing pending disaster in the country by some experts. Proposals for more reservoirs or channels to transport water get instantly politicized and receive only spartan funding.
Some communities have invested in varied water supplies and managed their areas well. Other areas chose not to invest in alternate supplies and overtapped their groundwater supplies. Geographic regions of the state are rarely connected by pipelines to move water because those pipelines and pumping stations cost millions of dollars per mile. The State Water Project was one of the last feats of statewide water planning and benefitted many areas, yet even a whisper about additional improvements is met with scorn. Incidentally, only 4% of the water in that system goes to Southern California water contract holders like Santa Clarita, according to the Department of Water Resources.
The danger of the current situation is two fold. First, perspectives and expectations are being skewed. Sensational misinformation abounds. National news runs stories of California having approximately one year of water left. Yet some areas are out now, and some, like Santa Clarita, have multiple years of sustainable supply. It is complex and no one can make a good decision on bad information.
Imagine if every tree in urban areas died for lack of water, every park turned brown and every house was surrounded by dead bushes. We know the next mandate coming is “no outdoor watering.” Shortly thereafter we can expect building moratoriums and withering local economies. Wise businesses may locate out of state. Do you know that even with no outdoor watering, areas out of water now will remain out of water? Statistically, drastic measures on urban use, because it is both small and isolated, do nothing measurable to help areas with real problems. It does nothing to help us capture rainfall, does nothing to fix the levees, and it doesn’t help wildlife, agriculture, or the economy.
Another thing that does more harm than good is allowing the north vs. south water wars to begin again. Similarly, we should not devolve into urban vs agriculture debates, though volumetrically, efficiency goes farther in the ag world than it does in urban, where it is literally a drop in the big picture bucket.
What we need at this time is to avoid ratting out neighbors and sticking our heads in the soon to be very dry sand. Instead ask – what are we doing now? Because not only are dead trees very bad on a 100 F day, dead trees are not the solution. The solution is to construct fixes to our statewide water system that allow us to survive and thrive as a state.
Rather than getting livid about our neighbor washing his car, what we need is ask for leadership in expediting water projects. Right now there is ongoing controversy about deep well injection for the Chloride Removal Project done by the Sanitation District. We could, right now, take advantage of new state funds and redesign a project that uses more water locally for recharge and gets rid of many negatives of the project. Right now we could be fast tracking stormwater recharge. Right now we could be joining a coalition to help build support for reservoirs to store rainwater and flood flows from the mountains. There’s a lot of talk about desalination, which has its place, but currently is double the cost of other water sources and has building and permitting horizons around 30 years. If it’s going to take 30 years, I’d suggest it’s time to start on some master planning and regulatory streamlining, rather than focusing on grass and glasses of water at restaurants.
Emergencies are those things that take us by surprise. This emergency drought mandate is no surprise and no cure for our water woes. Without leadership to expedite long term structural fixes, California, with the sixth largest economy in the world, is really just telling us to sit on our brown lawns and hope for rain while bad planning literally wastes water for us.
Originally published in 2015 in The Signal Newspaper
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Maria Gutzeit is a chemical engineer with 30 years' experience in environmental compliance policy for industry. In her free time, she plays in the dirt.