– 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.