First the stock market, now water

March 12, 2009

Jonas Minton— 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.)


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At least Jonas is no longer deputy director of the California Department of Water Resources.

Jonas seems to know very little about western water rights or western water law.

Jonas should not have come to bat, but since he did:

STRIKE 1 The Ogallala aquifer is a designated ground water basin that is DESIGNED to be mined and depleted because it cannot be recharged with surface water. For the most part, it is designated by law to be depleted in 100 years. Withdrawals are based on the number of acres overlying the aquifer with a 1% withdrawal rate per year.

STRIKE 2 The seven signatory states to the Colorado River Compact are quite aware of their entitlements and expectations based on supply. Administration is based on a 10 year moving average. The Bureau of Reclamation properly administers the Colorado River without any unreasonable expectations !

STRIKE 3 California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and Colorado may eventually verify and investigate a truely new non-tributary fresh water Source that can yield a million acre feet a year and BE ACCUMULATED IN STORAGE to keep Lake Mead reasonably FULL and generating 2000 megawatts of renewable energy with its 28.5 million acre feet of which is already built, bought and paid for !

Jonas struck out ! Water recycling does not take into consideration PRIONS ( look it up … ever heard of Mad Cow Disease ?, etc. )

Conservation is always appropriate, but it too will stall because those who are expected to drastically cut their usage will not do so for long if the savings are simply translated into more growth. The market place, like the credit & housing markets, will solve the water shortage dilemmas if the free enterprise system is allowed to breathe !

Ray Walker (Retired Water Rights Analyst )

Posted by Ray Walker | Report as abusive

One does not “Design” an aquifer and giving the reason that an aquifer cannot be recharged is not a legitimate excuse for depleting it, regardless of its so-called designation. I also tend to agree that the Colorado River states, NE, CA, and AZ in particular, have unreasonable expectations about their water supply. The population explosion that these areas have experienced, in relation to the overall water supply, is obviously unsustainable. Period. As far as the free market approach to water management, recent history has shown that the free market will sell off the remaining water to the highest bidder until it is gone and ask then ask for a bailout.

Posted by bbateman | Report as abusive

Ray, have you been closely monitoring the free market the past 6 months. Even the most respected investors say they are seeing consumer behavior and commodity relationships never before experienced. I would try another analogy.

Perhaps you should also loose your free market religion and rely upon reason. We are experiencing rapid glacial retreat around the planet. Geologic history tells us if the current trend of glacial melt continues we potentially could enter another life extinction of considerable proportions. Now for clarity’s sake, are you suggesting the free market is capable of mitigating mass extinctions?

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive