January 10th, 2014
It was a sunny, dry day in the middle of winter when two state senators and a newspaper reporter debated the future of water in California.
Following 2013, the state’s driest year on record, California’s drought is a pressing issue in this election year.
The shortage will be felt most in the San Joaquin Valley, the state's top agricultural producing region, which is sometimes called "the nation's salad bowl" for the diversity of fruits and vegetables grown in its fertile soil.
“For us, a drought means human misery, economic devastation to some natural assets and certainly an unproductive living standard for the majority of our people,” said state senator Jean Fuller (R), who represents the Central Valley.
Matt Weiser, a senior writer for the Sacramento Bee, said people in the water community fear the current drought will be comparable to that of 1976 and 1977, which is known as the worst drought in modern times.
“The striking thing about that is that they’re saying that in the middle of winter, when water demand is at its lowest,” Weiser said. “So the concern is, what happens when we get into summer? Is it going to be worse than ‘77? How are we going to manage that?”
The drought does give California the opportunity to manage existing water supplies in a better way, and could help get the water bond passed by the state’s voters.
Agriculture uses a large amount of water and has become more efficient in recent years, but “this is for all of us, it’s not just one area,” according to state senator Lois Wolk (D) of Davis.
“The thing about California water and managing our water wisely is that every sector has to be using every drop, recognizing that it is a limited resource,” Wolk said.
Many fields have been converted to water-efficient drip irrigation, but “there's still a large percentage of crops in California that are irrigated by flood irrigation,” Weiser said.
Cost is a big factor stopping farmers from changing their fields to drip irrigation, he said.
The panelists discussed the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which Wolk described as a giant elephant in the room.
“Let's get real,” Wolk said. “Let's do something that we can all agree on that we need, which is to fund those kinds of important management tools that we know can be used at the local level and that make a difference in every region of this state.”
She spoke about how Los Angeles has instituted conservation measures by pricing water higher than Northern California.
Since the 1992 drought, water demand in the San Diego and LA metro areas has been reduced about 30 percent, according to Fuller. At the same time, they’ve added about 5 million people. By investing $3 billion in local storage projects, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California can survive droughts even if its imported water supplies dry up, Weiser said.
“Amazingly, they [Southern California] are not anticipating any water rationing this year, no water conservation measures related to drought,” Weiser said. “That’s because of the water they have in storage already. In the Sacramento area, it’s a much different picture.”
In electricity, there’s a move toward dynamic pricing based on different factors, such as the time of day. Wolk said water pricing should also move in that direction.
"If you tie the amount of water to the price, you create an immediate incentive for conservation," Wolk said. “We all talk about how to conserve energy, how to make our houses more energy-efficient – I’m not sure we’ve had the same kind of focus and thrust with respect to water.”
But Fuller emphasized the fact that water can’t be produced like electricity.
“Why I’m here today – because it’s kind of scary to come up here – is to let Northern California know that Northern California is in trouble if climate change changes our needs for water creation.”
They discussed the fish vs. food debate and whether the Endangered Species Act should be relaxed in order to divert more water from the Bay Delta.
The Bay Delta includes the state’s salmon run, and “eggs are dying in the American river because we’re saving water behind Folsom Dam for those suburban communities,” Weiser said.
Part of the problem with water in California is that many people don’t know how much water they use.
“How serious can we possibly be about water use in the state of California if 30 to 40 percent of our water is not metered?” Wolk said. “There’s a lot that we have to do before we start suspending our laws.”
Fuller said she agreed with metering, but noted that it doesn’t matter whether it's measured or not if the reservoirs are not being replenished.
"The government’s job is to respond to crises as they present themselves,” Fuller said. “We are having a crisis.”
- Danielle Torrent
January 10, 2014
Photos by Rikki Ward
The Commonwealth Club of California