First the stock market, now water
— Jonas Minton is Water Policy Advisor for the Planning and Conservation League, an environmental advocacy organization. Previously he was deputy director of the California Department of Water Resources. The views expressed are his own. —
In many ways, water policy in the Western United States mirrors the economic policies which created our financial catastrophe. Here in the West we’ve seen a massive development boom fueled by unrealistic expectations of ever-increasing supply.
Water contracts have been issued for many times the amount of water that nature can reliably provide. Wildly optimistic appraisals of water availability are being used to justify long-term, otherwise infeasible projects. Long held cautionary principles are being overlooked or eliminated in the rush to fulfill promises and support dreams that are unsustainable. And the public is being actively encouraged to invest billions more in bonds to subsidize the very system that is driving us to the crisis point.
The result has been escalating conflict, unwieldy demands, environmental collapse and economic disaster. Fortunately, as with the economy, adjustments in expectations, greater efficiency, and implementation of new, smarter ways of doing business can reverse some of the damage we have done, allow the West to come to grips with water limits, and provide reliable water to meet our needs.
The West supported lush post World War II growth in California, Nevada and Arizona by depleting local rivers and creeks and overdrafting groundwater. As these resources dried up, cities reached out with ever deeper wells and with hundreds of miles of aqueducts to grab “surplus” water from areas with less political clout.
But just like Wall Street’s derivatives, underlying water assets were counted many times over. In startling testimony late last year the California State Water Resources Control Board revealed that they had issued water rights permits for over 8 times the amount of natural water available in an average year. On the Colorado River, seven states cling to unreasonable expectations that they will receive the full allocation promised to them in decades old agreements. (For background information, click here for PDF.)
Over allocation is not limited to surface water. Over pumping of groundwater water is also common in the regions overlying the huge Ogallala aquifer, a major source of water supply for South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas.
At the same time collapsing fisheries in the Sacramento – San Joaquin Delta, caused in large part by the overexploitation of rivers put the fishing industry as well as the fish, on the brink of extinction. The crisis is so bad that the salmon fisheries on the West Coast will be closed for the second year in a row. Court decisions to prevent loss of multiple California fish control some water projects.
Similar to what happened with the start of the Wall Street collapse; water insiders are encouraging the public to increase investments in business as usual. Some in California are admitting to supporting more plumbing specifically to allow increased water diversions from the Sacramento – San Joaquin Bay Delta Estuary, the largest estuary on the West Coast and the epicenter of the fisheries’ collapse.
Others are pushing for energy and greenhouse gas intensive desalination of ocean water, despite known impacts to ocean fisheries. And a few others are trying to get the public to pay billions for more dams, even though there is not enough water to regularly fill the dams that already exist.
Yet, there are emerging solutions to ease these conflicts. Cost effective, climate resilient water development such as water recycling, conservation, groundwater recovery and protection, and stormwater capture all provide opportunities to increase our water reliability while also creating quality jobs. Policy makers are beginning to see the value of these solutions.
This year State Senator Pavley from Santa Monica is authoring Senate Bill 565 that would pave the way to create at least 2 million acre-feet of new water by 2030 through safe recycled water. That would be the largest water development program in California since the 1960s.
Another example of smarter water management is AB 1408 authored by California Assembly member Krekorian. This measure establishes a mechanism to allow new housing to be water neutral. Under the bill, developments would incorporate state-of-the art conservation. The bill further encourages developers to work with water districts to offset all of the demand of the development through conservation in the existing buildings. If implemented, this measure would allow California to accommodate much or our future growth without increasing water demand.
Lastly the public is just beginning to see how the institutions that were supposed to protect them need to be reformed. Entrenched special interests dominated the decision making in the past. State and federal water officials for too long ignored their responsibilities to ensure water sustainability and stewardship rather than extraction and exploitation.
Climate change, environmental crisis in the largest estuary on the West coast, and fiscal realities are forcing us to come to grips with limits. Fortunately, we have tools that can allow California and the West to prosper in a sustainable way, but only if we are willing to change our ways.
(For additional information, click here for the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force Report, from December 2008, in PDF format.)