As a forbiddingly deep drought reclaims its hold on California, the state’s record precipitation in October and December is already a distant memory, and the list of urgent water issues we face keeps getting longer. Forecasters predict little or no rain and snow for the rest of the “wet season,” but the state’s leaders have taken only baby steps to deal with the sprawling crisis.
“There are so many vested interests who benefit from the status quo that it’s hard to make change,” Doug Obegi, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s California river restoration program, said in an interview. “State and federal administrations aren’t rising to the magnitude of the problems we face.”
Here are some suggestions for ways our tremulous leaders could do better.
Give up, once and for all, on the Delta tunnel project. Various versions of a “conveyance” to divert Sacramento River water to (mostly) points south have been proposed since the 1940s. They all run afoul of a simple fact: It’s impossible to install a giant straw at one end of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and take water at the other end without devastating the environment.
Constructing the Delta tunnel could lead to ever larger diversions from the water-starved ecosystem, it could further harm the watershed’s shrinking fish and wildlife populations, and it has already siphoned money and officials’ attention from more worthy water projects. The Newsom administration, the latest to consider the tunnel a priority, pegs its current construction cost at a gaudy $15.9 billion, a number certain to leap upward if the project is greenlighted.
Give up, too, on the proposed $3.9-billion Sites Reservoir. This is another Newsom administration favorite that despite its extravagant expense will do little to alleviate drought. Sites is so costly, most of the thirstiest irrigation districts that could theoretically benefit from it consider it too expensive to support. Since they won’t help pay for it, they won’t get any water from it if it is built.
There are plenty of reasons Sites’ cost-benefit analysis doesn’t add up. The current drought has lowered many California reservoirs to alarmingly low levels, so adding one more mostly empty reservoir makes no sense. Besides, the state’s existing 1,400-plus reservoirs have used up the most favorable sites. As John Holden, President Obama’s science advisor, said in 2014, “The problem in California is not that we do not have enough reservoirs, it is that we do not have enough water in them.”
Put the billions saved by rejecting bad projects into local, vastly more cost-efficient efforts. Region by region and water district by water district, we should be recycling wastewater, capturing rainwater and providing storage in aquifers, many of which require restoration. California still has not come close to reaching a target set by the State Water Resources Control Board in 2009 to annually recycle 1.5 million acre-feet of water by 2020. A wastewater recycling project now under construction called Pure Water San Diego shows the way: It is designed to reduce San Diego’s reliance on water from the Delta and Colorado River by providing nearly half the city’s municipal water supply by 2035.
Make major cuts in water diversions from the Delta. After three years of predictably futile negotiations to achieve voluntary agreements with farm districts and cities on water cutbacks in the lower San Joaquin River portion of the Delta watershed, the Newsom administration finally scuttled the talks in October and belatedly embraced a 2018 plan to cut water diversions in the lower San Joaquin at critical times of the year for fish survival. Instead of farms and cities getting 90% of available water, their cut could drop to between 50% and 70%. Scientists deem even those levels insufficient to support the Delta’s economy and environment.
Get serious immediately about water conservation. It’s the easiest, cheapest, most environmentally benign way to deal with water shortages. But the urban conservation regulations announced in January by the State Water Resources Control Board were no more stringent than requiring the use of nozzles when washing cars and prohibiting the hosing down of sidewalks. The board intended these provisions to draw attention to the gravity of the drought, but these laughably weak rules may have had the opposite effect, suggesting that the shortfall isn’t a major threat. Agriculture, which consumes 80% of the state’s water, wasn’t even addressed.
Tighten restrictions on groundwater use. The major legislative achievement in response to the last drought was the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which requires all water districts to measure and limit groundwater use. But the law doesn’t fully go into effect for another 18years. In the meantime, some San Joaquin Valley growers are pumping so much groundwater that nearby residents’ home taps have gone dry. The implementation of the groundwater law should be speeded up, and its protections strengthened, especially for shallow drinking water wells.
Though droughts expose water systems’ weaknesses, they also generate pressure to address them, but as the dry days multiply, the Newsom administration has barely stirred. Never mind that the state’s water crisis is likely to intensify as climate change accelerates — unless the state’s leaders act promptly and decisively, this drought will be a golden opportunity lost.
Jacques Leslie is a contributing writer to Opinion and the author of “Deep Water: The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment.”