By Carl Pope
Special to Calbuzz
A month after I arrived in California in 1973, I landed at Ontario airport for a Sierra Club meeting. Driving along the freeway past a median stocked with oleanders, the sprinkler system went on. A Club leader sitting next to me from Oakland hissed, “that’s what they do with our water down here.”
Thirty six years later, too little has changed in our politics – and too much has changed about our climate, economy and water supply. The state has committed to deliver huge quantities – eight times as much as it has — of water over long distances through often uncertain canals after storage, leakage and evaporation in outmoded dams, all at enormous expense to a bankrupt state treasury.
Tens of billions have been spent on engineered storage, dams and reservoirs, yet two thirds of the state’s water is stored the old fashioned way – in snow and ice. Most of the rain that falls in urban areas like Los Angeles is hastily rushed into concrete channels and dumped uselessly into the Pacific Ocean. One third of the water LA needs in an average year falls as rainfall – almost none is put to wise use.
And most of the water that is delivered at the cost of billions of dollars, after being stored in snow and ice, is put to purposes like growing alfalfa wastefully in the desert, or to drip out of leaky urban plumbing systems. Much is recklessly contaminated with various pesticides and toxic wastes, inadequately treated at still billions in further expenses, and delivered to households who are understandably anxious about its quality – leading them to purchase bottled water, the manufacture of a quart of which takes more than a gallon of wasted H2O.
Meanwhile, once vibrant fisheries have been devastated, at the costs of tens of thousands of jobs, farming communities have been left dangling uncertainly while businesses wonder when the next drought or earthquake will turn off the tap for good.
This is a ridiculous way to take a shower.
Add the fact that the very climate which provides this water is changing rapidly. The snow and ice will be gone, the annual rainfall will vary widely — we may even get less, a lot less. The San Francisco delta is dying as an ecosystem, eroding as a levee network, and utterly unreliable as a water conveyance structure.
The Colorado River, upon which much of the Southern part of the state relies, is gradually drying up. The Salton Sea is on the verge of becoming the world’s second largest toxic waste dump (after the mess the Russians made of the Aral.)
And the response from the Governor and Sacramento? Essentially, more of the same.
Instead of recognizing the we need to use every drop of water that falls near us first, and rely on long distance transport and surface storage as last resort, the measures being considered this week continue excessive reliance on outmoded engineering water storage solutions, lower the emphasis on protection provided by existing law for the health of California’s waterways, do almost nothing to enhance local self reliance on water supplies, and fail to guarantee common sense reforms of water policy.
The taxpayers are still being asked to pay for damages to common water resources done by private interests, and our children are being asked through bonds to bail out those who created the problem.
We are still going to try to force a huge portion of the state’s water supply through the unstable and fragile bottleneck of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where a single engineering flaw, natural disaster or malicious attack could bring the entire state to its knees for years.
The Klamath, which was once the second premier fishery in the nation, may finally begin to recover once its four dams are taken down, but only decades after the mismanagement of the river caused the collapse of the once magnificent salmon runs, and only after several years in which there was no California salmon season at all. Groundwater recharging incentives under consideration are half-hearted, and there is no meaningful movement towards protection for the quality of increasingly vital groundwater resources
It is a signal of our folly that it was only twenty years after I became a serial felon, for using gray water in my East Bay garden during the last major drought, that California has finally legalized the practice of using household water sensibly. But almost none of the commercial and public buildings I frequent have simple water conservation technologies installed. There is no serious talk about re-engineering urban areas as sponges.
Instead we continue to guarantee water shortages by treating them like a roof and gutter, designed to get rid of, instead of soaking up, precious rainfall. Farmers are still paid to dump toxic chemicals in the state’s most precious resource, but cities have no money to develop water recycling, storm water capture, groundwater storage. New reservoirs are glibly laid out on maps, but there is no conversation about the fact that hotter summers mean that there may be no water to fill those – or even today’s dams.
Indeed, it is fair to say that Sacramento is in deep denial of this fundamental reality: California’s landscapes, forests, farmlands and cities must now be primarily managed to meet the biggest challenge of the 21st century: adequate, secure, clean and safe supplies of water for urgent human and environmental needs. Water is precious. We need to stop wasting it.
Carl Pope is executive director of the Sierra Club.