As an immeasurably deep drought reclaims California, the state’s record rainfall in October and December is already a distant memory, and the list of pressing water issues we face grows longer. Forecasters are predicting little or no rain and snow for the remainder of the “rainy season,” but state leaders have taken small steps to deal with the unfolding crisis.
“There are so many stakeholders who are benefiting from the status quo that it’s difficult to make changes,” Doug Obegi, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s California River Restoration Program, said in an interview. “State and federal governments do not do justice to the scale of the problems we are facing.”
Here are some suggestions on how our trembling leaders could do better.
Abandon the Delta Tunnel project once and for all. Since the 1940s, various versions of a “conveyance” have been proposed to direct the water of the Sacramento River (mostly) southward. They all conflict with one simple fact: It’s impossible to install a giant straw at one end of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and take water out of the other end without devastating the environment.
Construction of the Delta Tunnel could result in ever-greater diversions from the arid ecosystem, it could further damage the watershed’s dwindling fish and wildlife populations, and it has already diverted money and officials’ attention from more worthy water projects. The Newsom administration, which has recently made the tunnel a priority, puts its current construction cost at a whopping $15.9 billion, a number that is sure to skyrocket once the project gets the green light.
Also abandon the projected $3.9 billion Sites reservoir. That is another Newsom administration favorite that, despite its extravagant cost, will do little to alleviate the drought. Sites are so costly that most of the thirstiest irrigation districts that could theoretically benefit find it too expensive to support. Since they don’t help finance it, they won’t get any water when it’s built.
There are many reasons why the cost-benefit analysis of sites doesn’t add up. The current drought has reduced many California reservoirs to alarmingly low levels, so adding another mostly empty reservoir makes no sense. In addition, the country’s more than 1,400 reservoirs have depleted the most favorable locations. As John Holden, Science Advisor to President Obama, said in 2014“The problem in California isn’t that we don’t have enough reservoirs, it’s that we don’t have enough water in them.”
Put the billions saved by rejecting bad projects into local, far more cost-effective efforts. Region by region and water district by water district, we should recycle wastewater, capture rainwater and store it in aquifers, many of which need to be remediated. California is nowhere near the goal set in 2009 by the State Water Resources Control Board to recycle 1.5 million acre-feet of water annually by 2020 almost half of the city’s municipal water supply will be provided by 2035.
Make major cuts in water diversion from the delta. After three years of predictably fruitless negotiations to reach voluntary agreements with farm counties and cities on water cuts in the lower San Joaquin River portion of the delta’s watershed, the Newsom administration finally broke talks in October, belatedly adopting a 2018 plan for cuts of water diversions in lower San Joaquin at critical times of year for fish survival. Instead of farms and cities receiving 90% of available water, their cut could drop to 50% to 70%. Scientists consider even these values insufficient to support the delta’s economy and environment.
Immediately start thinking seriously about water conservation. It’s the easiest, cheapest and most environmentally friendly way to deal with water scarcity. But city conservation regulations announced by the State Water Resources Control Board in January were no stricter than mandating the use of nozzles when washing cars and banning hosing down sidewalks. The board intended these provisions to draw attention to the severity of the drought, but these ridiculously weak rules may have had the opposite effect, suggesting the shortage isn’t a major threat. Agriculture, which uses 80% of the state’s water, was not even mentioned.
Tightening restrictions on groundwater use. The key legislative achievement in response to the recent drought was the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014, which requires all water districts to measure and limit groundwater use. But for another, the law doesn’t fully apply 18 years. Meanwhile, some producers in the San Joaquin Valley are pumping so much groundwater that nearby residents’ faucets are dry. The implementation of the Groundwater Law should be accelerated and its protection strengthened, especially for shallow drinking water wells.
While droughts reveal weaknesses in water systems, they also create pressure to address them, but as dry days multiply, the Newsom administration has remained little. Never mind that the state’s water crisis is likely to worsen as climate change accelerates – unless leaders act quickly and decisively, this drought will be a golden opportunity.
Jacques Leslie is the author of Opinion and author of Deep Water: The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment.
https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-02-14/drought-snowpack-delta-tunnel-groundwater-recycle-conservation Op-Ed: Forget the December snowstorms. California isn’t doing enough to face its hot, dry reality