On the day of the Parched California program, the news was buzzing with threats of 2013 becoming California’s driest year on record.
As soon as it starts raining, people will forget about it.
While California is better prepared for extreme weather than other parts of the world, it’s not sufficient enough, according to Lester Snow, executive director of the California Water Foundation. Policy makers and experts spoke about real, statewide water risks that are exacerbated by severe weather.
“I think we're way behind the curve," Snow said. "Unless we change the way we're doing things, we're going to continue to stay behind."
When it comes to climate change, “water’s going to be the thing that translates it for people into a real experience,” according to Bob Wilkinson, an adjunct associate professor at UC Santa Barbara.
Snowpack is a very important free storage system and losing it because of warming temperatures is a significant issue. Water managers are focusing on modeling future scenarios and developing strategies to build resilience.
Many experts say we are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, but Brandon Goshi, Manager of Water Policy and Strategy at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said “it’s more of an evolving future.”
He discussed the famous drought of the 1990s that was a wake-up call to Southern California, showing the need to diversify water sources. Thanks to efficiency practices, the region has generated over a million acre-feet of recovered water, Goshi said.
“We have a long way to go to be efficient, but we are moving in that direction,” according to Heather Cooley, Water Program Co-Director at The Pacific Institute.
A lot of communities are looking at water re-use and there will be wastewater recycling in our future because “it is safe and it needs to be done,” Snow said.
Water storage capacity is an important tool in California’s water system for aiding water supply, flood protection, hydropower and recreational uses. But both surface storage and groundwater storage have. Storage by itself isn’t going to make sense, Goshi said.
The fragility of the San-Joaquin Bay Delta
is a big part of California’s water concerns. The state’s economy depends on water from the Delta, which quenches two-thirds of Californians and millions of acres of farmland.
But the Bay Delta isn’t everything and it doesn’t fix California’s long-term problems.
"The Bay Delta debate sucks all the oxygen out of the water discussion
," Snow said.
Goshi agreed that the Bay Delta is focused on more than anything else, perhaps too much. It takes away attention that Southern California has been reducing its reliance on water imports, he said.
California produces most of the country’s fruits, vegetables, nuts and dairy products, and use most of the state’s water to do so. Recent trends to grow more valuable foods like almonds and pistachios that require water every year involve greater risks, and it's “something I think we need to think about seriously in California,” Cooley said.
While we can’t eliminate agriculture to conserve water, higher levels of effiency are a must, and movements like dry farming should be encouraged, Snow said.
The speakers discussed the potential for using desalination plants for creating drinking water. Goshi said it’s going to come down to the needs of specific areas.
“You don't run it if you really don't need it – it's very expensive," Wilkinson said, noting that efficiency improvements that are much cheaper should be done first.
Some areas will eventually turn to desalination plants, but "there is a real risk to doing it too soon," Cooley said. San Diego County is currently constructing a $900 million ocean water desalination plant. The Carlsbad Desalination Project
promises to provide 50 million gallons of freshwater daily.
With fracking companies using water and threatening to contaminate it, Snow spoke about the need for groundwater regulation in California.
“There’s a whole issue of trust going on here,” Snow said, adding that we’re moving in the right direction of disclosure.
During the audience questions, the speakers discussed the possibilities of new technologies, reverse osmosis and decentralization of the water supply.
In order to think about increasing water efficiency, Cooley suggested becoming more aware of how much water you use.
“That’s probably the best thing people can do – understand their water use,” Snow agreed.
- Danielle Torrent
November 14, 2013
Photos by Ed Ritger
The Commonwealth Club of California