What has happened – or hasn’t happened – weather-wise over the past two months is a stark reminder of the erratic nature of California’s vital water supply.
After months of severe drought, the state experienced record storms in December, creating heavy snowpack in the mountains while replenishing severely depleted reservoirs. But January, historically a month of heavy rainfall, was very dry.
With climate change, California’s wet periods have become shorter, although sometimes more intense, and dry periods have become longer, making the state’s elaborate water storage and transportation systems less able to cope with precipitation patterns.
The obvious need for new approaches, however, clashes with California’s notoriously byzantine and lazy processes for crafting water policy. It is not uncommon for specific issues, such as the construction of a new reservoir or canal, new water quality standards or changes in water diversion rights, to drag on for decades without a solution.
For example, the question of whether to bypass the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta with tunnels or canals to divert water from northern California to the California Aqueduct to ship it south is unfolding. for more than six decades, encompassing nine governorates.
Something has to give and rather than being forced into short-term emergency actions, we have to accept the changing reality and act decisively and proactively. Basically, we have three choices, or more realistically, a combination of the three:
—Improve reliability by creating more storage, such as the reservoir of long-standing sites, to take advantage of periodic downpours, such as December storms;
—Increase water supply by building more desalination plants, like the one currently operating in San Diego County and its proposed twin in Orange County, and more facilities to clean and reuse wastewater ;
—Transfer more water from agriculture, which currently uses about 75% of the water allocated for human purposes, to environmental or residential uses.
Neither option is easy, given the many legal, political and procedural hurdles and the large number of competing interests at stake – which is why specific proposals languish and why politicians avoid confrontation. Instead, they emit bromides, like urgings to take shorter showers or water lawns less frequently, that give the illusion of action without material and lasting effects.
Recently, a ballot measure that would have diverted more of the state budget surplus to traditional storage and transportation projects emerged, only to be scrapped for lack of unified support. It was intended to take some of the pressure off farmers.
Despite this false start, competing water interests are preparing for the inevitable doomsday. The promoters of desalination and storage projects are increasingly heard and the distribution or redistribution of agricultural water is the subject of more attention.
Sensing an opening due to the drought, some conservationists are pursuing their long-standing goal of reducing agricultural diversions to provide more water for endangered fish species. The Planning and Conservation League has released a new report, written by a team of lawyers, to rewrite California’s water law and give more authority to the state’s Water Resources Control Board.
It aims to force farmers, even those with water rights dating back more than a century, to justify their diversions or face restrictions, by giving teeth to the order of the constitution of the State that “the waste or unreasonable utilization or unreasonable method of utilizing water shall be prevented, and that the conservation of such waters shall be exercised for the reasonable and beneficial use thereof in the interests of the people and for the public good.
Disputing water rights would be the mother of all water wars, but it could be unavoidable if the weather continues to change.