California must change course to avoid water shortages


Californians have recently endured increasingly aggressive wildfires, rolling power outages, and smoke-filled air for days.  Unless the state government changes course, we can add water shortages to this list.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, California has already suffered three droughts during this century – 2001-2002, 2007-2009, and 2012-2016.  To address this reality, the state has enacted legislation to require urban water agencies, under penalty of $1,000 fines per day, to increasingly reduce average water use by residents and businesses, without requiring any significant steps to increase water capture and storage during wet years.

However, the dirty little secret is that 50 percent of California’s water supply is used for environmental purposes and is ultimately flushed out into the Pacific Ocean, 40 percent goes to agriculture, and only 10 percent goes for residential, industrial, commercial, and governmental uses.

Yet, the state proposes to limit indoor residential water use to 50 gallons per person per day by 2030.  According to American Water’s calculator, an eight-minute shower (which uses less water than a bath), four trips to the toilet, and ten minutes of running water (for brushing teeth, cooking, and drinking) can consume 43 of those 50 gallons without even factoring in dishwashers and washing machines.

We can stipulate that conservation is an important element of any water strategy.  But California would have never become an economic powerhouse had California’s current strategy of sharing scarcity been adopted during the twentieth century.

State government blames climate change for this recent state of affairs.  But even when California first became a state in 1850, it was suffering from a drought – which lasted until 1861, according to Steve Greenhut’s excellent new book, “Winning the Water Wars.”  One of California’s longest droughts lasted seven years from 1928-1934.

Yet, in the past, our foresighted forebears constructed multiple water conveyance projects to address our climate, which included dams, reservoirs, storage facilities, and hydroelectric plants, turning California into the glittering economic and agricultural powerhouse it is today. California ranks number one in agricultural sales in the U.S.

Yet, according to Greenhut, while the state’s population doubled, California last built any significant water storage infrastructure in the 1970s.

Instead, starting in 2009, California enacted a series of laws directing water districts to reduce urban water use by 20 percent by December 31, 2020.  The standard for indoor residential water use was set at 55 gallons per person daily and is reduced to 52.5 gallons per person per day in 2025 and to 50 gallons per person daily in 2030.

The legislation also requires the California Department of Water Resources to recommend new water-use standards for outdoor residential use, like swimming pools, by October 1, 2021, with those standards to be adopted by June 30, 2022, according to the State Water Resources Control Board’s website.  Urban water suppliers were also to adopt a target for a 10 percent reduction in water use for commercial, industrial, and institutional uses by 2020.

By November 1, 2025, the State Water Resources Control Board can issue conservation orders if the urban water suppliers fail to meet these new urban water use objectives.

Violations of the orders can result of fines of $1,000 per day, or $10,000 per day during a period in which the governor has issued a state of emergency based on drought conditions.

The Association of California Water Agencies assures the public that the law only imposes the fines against the water agencies.  But it does not take a genius to realize that the water agencies will need to shift the cost of those fines onto residents to inhibit water use exceeding their targets.

This approach is unsustainable if California is to remain a world-class state.  While water efficiency is critical, increasing water supply, including more water capture and storage, must be part of California’s water policy.  Failing to acknowledge this is delusion. For instance, during a February 2019 storm, 80 percent of water in urban areas simply flowed into the ocean and was lost, according to Greenhut.

California was the land of dreams because our leaders dreamed big.  Now it is the land of limitations.  It is time to dream big again because all great achievements start with dreams, not delusions.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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