SACRAMENTO, Calif. — An unusually severe winter storm inundated California last month, bringing more water in a few weeks than the state sometimes receives in a year. The biggest water problem in my region was, quite obviously, too much of it, as the state’s last undammed river, the Cosumnes, overflowed the aging levees and led to floods and destruction. At first blush, it looks like Mother Nature has bailed out our drought-ravaged state once again.
The state’s reservoirs are not at their highest levels, but they’ve filled up quite a bit, and the Sierra snowpack — essentially the state’s largest “reservoir” — is higher than it has been in nearly four decades. Yet policymakers here are insisting on continuing with water-rationing measures. Water officials are not about to loosen the severe water-use restrictions put in place during recent dry years. Why aren’t any of us surprised?
“Reservoirs and storage within the state are still recovering, and impacts of Colorado River use reductions have yet to be resolved,” a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power spokeswoman told the Los Angeles Times. “For now, L.A. is maintaining course with the current outdoor irrigation restrictions.” The head of the nation’s largest water agency, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, likewise said that the rains “shouldn’t take the momentum away” from the usual policies of conservation and building water resiliency.
Those officials are not entirely wrong, of course. As I detailed in my 2020 book, Winning the Water Wars, the state needs to embrace a variety of policies that bolster water supplies and shouldn’t let the occasional wet years reduce momentum for addressing the state’s recurring water shortages. The problem, however, is that state officials seem to embrace water restrictions and conservation as ends in themselves — and seem less interested in boosting water storage and policies that promote abundance.
For perspective, consider that 50 percent of the state’s available water supplies go toward environmental purposes — i.e., flowing unimpeded to the Pacific Ocean. Around 40 percent of the water is used by the state’s agricultural industry. Some of that water can be used more efficiently, but California farmers grow the food that we eat and, not incidentally, bolster a massive Central Valley economy. Only 10 percent of the water goes toward urban users.
Yet California leaders seem most interested in protecting the environmental uses and less enthralled by ensuring that farms and residences have what they need. Another Times article pointed to the frustration from California GOP officials, many of whom represent farm-intensive districts: “When Mother Nature blesses with rain, we need to save the water, instead of dumping it in the ocean,” said Assemblyman Vince Fong of Bakersfield in a letter to the governor.
State and federal environmental regulations continue to prioritize fish populations over human water users, even though the current policy of flushing water to the ocean (while refusing to deal with invasive species that eat those endangered fish, anyway) hasn’t noticeably improved salmon populations. I’ve documented the time, two droughts ago, when regulators depleted a reservoir to protect a handful of hatchery-raised fish even as farms were drying up.
In a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom and President Joe Biden, five California members of Congress (David Valadao, Ken Calvert, John Duarte, Doug LaMalfa, Tom McClintock, and Jay Obernolte) called for them “to maximize pumping of stormwater and unregulated flows in the Delta” and to “prioritize and expedite water storage projects that would help us better prepare for future events like the ones we are experiencing.” With so much rain, any additional downpours “will manifest almost entirely as runoff.”
Although water policy and the state’s water systems are complicated, the general concept is simple. We need to store more water during wet years so we have it during dry ones. That means expanding our reservoir systems, building new off-stream storage, increasing groundwater recharge, permitting privately funded desalination projects, building stormwater capture systems, and moving quickly with recycling (don’t call it “toilet to tap”) projects.
Conservation is fine, but the state is stuck in a command-and-control mindset that sees conservation and rationing as ends in themselves. Most of the excess water from the latest storms just flowed out to sea because, well, California hasn’t invested sufficiently in water infrastructure. But we can only capture more of that water if lawmakers are committed to doing so. Some of the water experts the Times interviewed provided insight into current priorities.
“It’s always the fish that get shorted, and we destroyed the ecosystem as a result,” said Felicia Marcus, a fellow at Stanford University’s Water in the West Program. “Right now we’ve got a bonanza of snow, and it’s looking pretty good at this particular time of year, so the idea of shorting these poor fish and the ecosystem in a time of somewhat plenty isn’t very compelling.”
Newsom did announce a water-resiliency plan last year that admirably called for more water storage and additional desalination projects, but it remains to be seen if there’s any serious follow-through. The California Coastal Commission, including the governor’s appointees, unanimously rejected (based on environmental concerns) a proposed desalination facility in Huntington Beach that could have met 10 percent of Orange County’s water needs. I’ve yet to see much official energy toward building new facilities.
In their frustration, California voters approved a $7.5 billion bond measure (Proposition 1) in 2014 that promised to bolster state water-supply projects. A large portion of that funding was earmarked for habitat restoration and environmental projects, but it did at least attempt to move forward some projects that had been on the drawing boards for decades. As Times columnist George Skelton reported, Republicans this year have blasted Democrats for not having built anything with that money yet.
While Skelton called it a “bum rap,” given that many smaller projects have advanced, he agreed that, “many projects are progressing too slowly, even by government standards.” So even when voters agree to a major spending measure and lawmakers support the projects, the wheels of state bureaucracy move slowly. It’s nearly impossible to build anything here in a timely manner. So despite the rains and excess water, Californians better get used to water rationing.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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