By Doug Porter
The intensity of the Blame Game is ratcheting up as California reels from the impact of a multi-year drought and the outline of a statewide plan to deal with it emerges. Today we’ll wander through some of the news coverage from around the state, ending up with ideas under discussion that go beyond the current planning.
Draft rules by the State Water Resources Board released on Tuesday place the heaviest conservation burden on cities and towns with the highest rates of per-capita water consumption. The San Diego County Water Authority says these rules are unfair to areas that have already instituted policies aimed at reducing use and increasing supplies.
As things stand now, State water officials will announce specific conservation regulations May 5th, and with implementation set for June 1st. Local agencies supplied by the Water Authority would have to cut back 20% to 35% percent under the proposed restrictions.
OMG! California’s Heck of a Heat Wave
Bloomberg News has an eye-popping graphic nestled into a story about rising temperatures in California:
What’s happening in California right now is shattering modern temperature measurements—as well as tree-ring records that stretch back more than 1,000 years. It’s no longer just a record-hot month or a record-hot year that California faces. It’s a stack of broken records leading to the worst drought that’s ever beset the Golden State.
The chart below shows average temperatures for the 12 months through March 31, for each year going back to 1895. The orange line shows the trend rising roughly 0.2 degrees Fahrenheit per decade, just a bit faster than the warming trend seen worldwide.
The last 12 months were a full 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit (2.5 Celsius) above the 20th-century average. Doesn’t sound like much? When measuring average temperatures, day and night, over extended periods of time, it’s extraordinary. On a planetary scale, just 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit is what separates the hottest year ever recorded (2014) from the coldest (1911).
Sacramento Meeting: How Dry It Is
A meeting at the Crest Theater in the state capital on Thursday sponsored by the Association of California Water Agencies attracted hundreds of people representing water agencies, cities and counties, and agricultural and business interests.
From the Sacramento Bee:*
California needs to use “this crisis as an opportunity to accelerate what we know we are going to have to do under climate change anyway,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, which oversees the state’s complex system of water allocations, and this spring is tasked with writing new usage regulations.
Speaking at a Sacramento forum about the state’s drought efforts, Marcus issued what amounted to a policy statement, saying California must learn to “make multiple use of each drop of water … get more pop per drop,” by reusing shower water, for example, and no longer using water to grow ornamental lawns.
“We should not be playing Russian roulette with Mother Nature,” said Marcus, a former Los Angeles public works official and environmental activist who describes herself as an environmental therapist. “We are going to lose.”
(*The Bee’s data storage system is much like the City of San Diego’s, meaning it’s likely this link’s address will be changed at some point. Sorry about that.)
The Los Angles Times’ coverage of Thursday’s meeting was no less dramatic:
With a slew of statistics projected on the slideshow behind him, California’s state climatologist had a stark warning during a Thursday presentation on the severity of the drought.
“You’re looking on numbers that are right on par with what was the Dust Bowl,” said the climatologist, Michael Anderson…
…John Laird, state secretary for natural resources, said the agricultural industry has faced an economic loss of $1.5 billion while fallowing 400,000 acres and laying off 17,000 farm workers.
“We are all in this together,” Laird said.
A San Diego Exception?
Mark Weston, chairman of the San Diego Water Authority’s Board of Directors, wants the state water board to give credit to local water agencies that invested in the desalination plant. News accounts say the Water Authority will be filing a formal response to the state proposals.
“The Water Authority has met every objective in California’s Water Action Plan, which promotes regional self-reliance, and yet the proposed water- use mandates ignore the investments that this region has made to diversify our water supplies and protect our $206 billion economy,” Weston said.
He said the current approach “will stifle economic activity and undermine the long-term ability of water agencies to invest in new supplies” if ratepayers aren’t allowed to benefit from investments they made.
Local agencies that receive water from the Water Authority would have to cut back 20 percent to 35 percent under the proposed restrictions.
The agency pointed out that San Diego County uses 12 percent less water than in 1990, despite a population gain of 700,000 and an 80 percent jump in gross domestic product. Investments have also been made to acquire water from the Colorado River, expand the San Vicente Reservoir and build a large desalination plant in Carlsbad.
Lulling People into a False Sense of Security?
Not everybody is on board with the Water Authority’s pushback. From UT-San Diego:
The state water board did not respond to the authority’s comments Thursday, saying through a spokesman that it will remain silent during a public comment period slated to end Monday. The agency had announced the new conservation framework on Tuesday. It plans to finalize the mandate in early May, and those rules would kick in the month after.
Environmental groups criticized the authority’s protest strategy.
Livia Borak, an attorney with the Coast Law Group who advises the Encinitas-based Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, said rewarding agencies for broadening their water supplies would send the wrong message.
“There is an argument to be made that by investing in the desalination project and buying water from the Imperial Valley, we are lulling people into a false sense of security when the truth is that we should all be conserving more than we are,” she said.
Politics Trumps Mechanics
The reality here is that real long term solutions to the drought in California involve major systemic changes, both in the way water is allocated and in the expectations of how the economy should perform.
California’s water systems and differing agreements concerning rights amount to a system only Rube Goldberg could love. There are treaties, contracts and entrenched political fiefdoms that need to be swept away.
Fixing this requires challenging both long-term established financial interests (along with the politicians who depend on them) and cultural norms. The currently fashionable Blame Game fails to address the central economic drivers of climate change and related effects of it.
Here’s just one piece of the puzzle, from an article in the Sacramento Bee:
The drought, now stretching into a fourth year, has strained California’s patchwork system of water rights, with competing interests vying for an increasingly dwindling resource.
“The state’s passed out water rights like Goldman Sachs passes out securities,” said Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.
With the expectation that water would continue to flow forever, Jennings said, landowners “mortgaged their futures, their lives, their dreams … without reading the small print that this was an interruptible source, that it might not always be available.”
Here’s another piece from SFWeekly:
Solutions for California’s drought are starting to sound like folk remedies for a hangover. From swearing off almonds to building cross-country pipelines meant to strip mine the rivers of Alaska’s hinterlands to the commodification and sale of “virtual water,” everyone’s got an idea and they’re going to push it hard, no matter how many eyebrows arch out of skepticism.
Some people are getting pretty shameless about promoting their own interests at the same time. Ratter caught the chairman of the California Pool and Spa Association encouraging people to conserve by tearing out their lawns and installing a nice ornamental swimming pool instead.
However, there is one particularly egregious abuse of California’s labyrinthine system of water rights and access that can easily be corrected: corporations earning billions by bottling the state’s supply.
Writing in Salon, David Dayen noted that Nestlé is milking the pre-1914 “senior water rights” by partnering with the Morongo Band of Cahuila Mission Indians. An estimated 200-250 million gallons every year may go to the food conglomerate’s Arrowhead or Pure Life brands, and while this represents approximately 0.05 percent of the 500 billion gallons that Gov. Jerry Brown is looking to save, this is but one of at least a dozen facilities Nestlé maintains in the state. They’re earning $4 billion while the rest of us are asked not to hose dog poop off the sidewalk, and they’re able to get away with it only by exploiting a legal loophole meant to keep a tribe on its arid ancestral homeland.
I could go on, but I’m hoping you get the point: we’ve got to think BIG. This involves ‘afflicting the comfortable’ so it will take lots of political capital (and many lawyers). I highly recommend Jim Miller’s article (California’s Drought of Ideas: Why Jerry Brown’s Executive Order Misses the Mark) looking at the politics rather than the mechanics of California’s drought problem.
Looking to the The Land of Oz
At Civil Eats, Roots of Change president Michael R. Dimock offers up a look at how Australia has responded to a catastrophic drought.
…The Water Act of 2007 and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan limits water use “at environmentally sustainable levels by determining long-term average sustainable diversion limits for both surface and ground water.”
This means Australian farmers are given a yearly allocation of water determined by scientists and a per unit price. They can do one of three things: use the water to produce food or fiber, sell it or bank it for future use. This approach allows freedom of choice and economic incentives for saving water. Most Australian agriculture has less water today than it did before the drought, but it has more than it did during the peak of the crisis and water markets have led to new economic activity and softened the blow, often giving farmers cash flow to move out of one crop and into another.
Agriculture was not the only sector impacted by this revolution. Australia’s Water Act promotes urban conservation and provides incentives for new infrastructure and retrofits. Communities have expanded water treatment for reuse and built expensive desalination plants. People installed grey water systems and now capture their own rainwater. Water agencies helped finance water-efficient appliances. Australian cities, industry, and agriculture have all become extremely water efficient. Nature forced change and humans adapted.
Moving to what he calls a “21st Century water management regime” requires doing things that are currently deemed politically impossible. If we allow ourselves to be distracted by wistful dreams of an almond boycott or just one particular piece of the puzzle and don’t push for systemic solutions, the dystopia we all fear stands a much better chance of becoming reality.
Bonus: Check out your own water footprint (and notice all the different connections) with this interactive doodle from National Geographic.
On This Day: 1919 – In Mexico, revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata was killed by government troops.1925 – F. Scott Fitzgerald published “The Great Gatsby.” 2006 – Tens of thousands of immigrants demonstrate in 100 U.S. cities in a national day of action billed as a campaign for immigrants’ dignity. Some 200,000 gathered in Washington, D.C.
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