Same Old Water Policy Won’t Get the Job Done for California

Snowpack estimates have experts predicting an average or higher amount of runoff water from the spring snowmelt in California this year. Shasta Lake, the state’s largest reservoir, is standing at an average fill level for this time of year, though several years of drought have taken their toll. Lake Oroville, the state’s second largest reservoir and a major drinking water source for about 25 million Californians, is only 40 percent full, just over half the normal storage at this time of year. The drought has also taken its toll on the politics of water in California, which have become increasingly contentious.

Last month when things were looking especially bleak, Sen. Dianne Feinstein proposed to bypass requirements of the Endangered Species Act in order to increase water withdrawals for farmers in the Central Valley, a move that outraged environmentalists and many within Feinstein’s own party. Feinstein scrapped this plan – for now, at least –when allocations estimates suggested that many agricultural water users this year will receive 100 percent of their contracted water. South of Delta agricultural “junior” water rights holders may receive 30-40 percent of their contractual federal water allocation, still at least three times more than last year. Still, the last several years have prompted state officials to push for massive expenditures to overhaul water infrastructure.

It should be obvious by now that California’s water supply, largely fed by rainfall, is prone to significant variability. There will be dry years, just as there will be wet years. California’s water distribution and use, on the other hand, seems designed for a situation where supply remains completely adequate over the long term, and the only issue is storing water in years of excess to use during dry years. Large water storage and conveyance projects are the state’s favorite approach.

The California Water Bond, the state’s plan to increase water infrastructure, is really just a shiny newer version of the same old costly, complicated centralized systems that address neither supply nor demand. As competition for water intensifies – increasing population in the driest parts of the state, increasing concerns over environmentally vulnerable areas, increasing demands on agriculture to support a growing population – it’s unlikely that last century’s solutions will prove sufficient.

At the more local level, restrictions on residential water use are well-intentioned, but often create disincentives for true conservation. Earlier this month, the city of Orange ordered a local couple to appear in court for violating the city’s landscaping laws after, in an effort to curtail their own water consumption, the couple replaced their lawn with wood chips and some drought-tolerant plants. This is not the first time this has happened.

In 2008 a Sacramento couple faced hefty fines for landscaping violations after they ceased watering their lawn in order to conserve (the city later decided not to fine the couple, admitting their code enforcement efforts were probably not so drought-friendly). Los Angeles City Councilman Greig Smith admitted last year that in an effort to save water, he openly violates the city’s rules on timing of lawn watering.

Any investment in the state’s water supply system needs to be coupled with policies that update antiquated mechanisms of water allocations, and provide true incentives for conservation through appropriate pricing in both residential and agricultural sectors. Policies should not only allow but encourage innovation in limiting water use. An approach that is essentially “If we build it, water will come” isn’t going to be sufficient for California in 2010 and beyond.

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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