Anyone who has lived in California for more than five minutes, or visited for 10, knows the state has an enormous water problem.
They’d also know that the current political class has no answers.
Or rather what passes for “answers” are policies that won’t work.
While much of California is dry, that should not be an impediment to providing water across this big state, the third largest in the country. There are 190,000 miles of liquid petroleum pipelines in the U.S. The Cochin pipeline is, at 1,900 miles, the longest in the nation, connecting Kankakee, Illinois, to Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta.
Water is neither oil nor gasoline. But like those products, it can be, and often is, moved from where it’s sourced (or stored) to where it’s needed.
But with rare exception, California policymakers tend to gravitate toward restrictions (they call it “conservation”) and away from increasing supplies of a commodity that is essential to all life. It’s a recurring theme that began decades ago.
Two bills in 2018, SB 606 and AB 1668, were supposed to move California water policy toward a better future. Together, they established, says the Legislative Analyst’s Office, “a long‑term urban water use efficiency framework to ‘Make Conservation a California Way of Life.’” Within this framework, “each supplier’s actual water use for the previous year will be evaluated against a ‘water use objective’ (WUO), which represents the amount of water its customers would have needed that year if water were being used efficiently.”
The LAO’s report, issued in early January, describes “this framework” as “one component of the state’s overall water management strategy,” creating “new requirements for about 405 urban retail water suppliers that supply water to nearly 95 percent of state residents.”
It’s a long report, more than 30 pages, and it spares no criticism. After a little throat clearing in the executive summary, the LAO says the proposed regulations will “create implementation challenges” as well as “go beyond what” the legislation requires or the Department of Water Resources recommends.
In its conclusion, the report notes “the amount of water that might be saved due to” the State Water Resources Control Board’s “proposed regulations would be modest relative to the state’s total water use – only about 1 percent.” It further found “it highly questionable whether these possible benefits would merit the amount of work and cost associated with implementing the requirements as they currently are proposed.”
In between, government analysts say the rules the State Water Resources Control Board has in mind would:
Add unneeded complexity. “The performance measures suppliers must implement for commercial customers are unnecessarily complex, lack clarity in places, and will be administratively burdensome to implement.”
Significantly increase costs. “The new framework is estimated to result in cumulative costs in the low tens of billions of dollars from 2025 through 2040.”
The LAO also said the rules, which it finds will be “difficult to achieve,” could “disproportionately affect lower-income customers.”
Rather than “abandon the water conservation efforts it initiated through SB 606 and AB 1668,” the LAO suggests lawmakers use “this period before SWRCB adopts the final regulations” to make changes. They should “simplify compliance, ease implementation burdens, and lower associated costs – and thereby help maximize the potential benefits of pursuing water efficiency improvements.”
Unraveling policy complexities and lifting the government burden are always welcome efforts. But here’s another suggestion for lawmakers: Consider policies that will increase supply rather than policies centered on conservation. And read PRI senior fellow Steven Greenhut’s “Winning the Water Wars,” which clearly presents an all-of-the-above approach that focuses “on creating water abundance.” The alternative, says Greenhut, is continually “having political fights over a declining water supply.”
That’s been the pattern in California and while it’s late, it’s still not too late for it to be broken.
Kerry Jackson is the William Clement Fellow in California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.