Water is the New Oil: Planning for a Changing Climate

MendotaYesterday, the Democrats in both houses laid out their plans for we manage one of the most critical issues in the state in the era of climate change: the San Joaquin Valley/Sacramento delta water issues.  Rather than focusing on specific projects, Sen. Lois Wolk and others are looking to build a structure that can be a trusted arbiter as we look to divide what little water we have to a slew of purposes.

The legislation, which is to be fleshed out in a conference committee when lawmakers return to Sacramento later this month, does not specifically authorize any projects. Rather, it creates the Delta Stewardship Council, which would have the authority to pursue delta restoration work and a “water conveyance facility.”

Four of the council’s seven members would be appointed by the governor and two by the Legislature. The seventh would be the chair of the Delta Protection Commission.

The bills call for water conservation and delta protections. They would also set in motion a potentially explosive examination of water rights in the delta watershed.

“Neither the delta ecosystem nor the state’s water needs have been well served by decades of benign neglect,” said Silicon Valley Sen. Joe Simitian, author of one of five bills in the package and chair of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee. “The system of governance is broken and the system of conveyance is broken.”  (LA Times 8/6/09)

How critical is this issue? Well, let’s start with what we know:

• The Valley floor is sinking. Because we have taken too much water from the groundwater supply, the San Joaquin Valley has actually fallen several feet in some areas. The picture to the right is from Mendota back in 1977. It has gotten worse since. The USGS performed a study on subsidence back in 1999 showing some really bad side effects other than just the lowering valley floor.  After the floor falls, the aquifer permanently loses storage capacity, making the provisioning of water to crops even more difficult.

• Crops are dying in the fields. In some places, farmers are simply leaving their feilds fallow as there is not enough water to bring them to maturity. However, where you have longstanding crops, like fruit trees, the consequences of a couple really bad water years last much longer.

• Endangered species are being slowly killed off in the Delta. The Delta was once home to a number of species found nowhere else. However, as we have increasingly relied on pumping, we have not only killed many of them as they went through our pumps, we have also changed the salinity of the Delta, creating a slight, but important, change in the environment.

• The decreasing water flows to our creeks and rivers threatens our fisheries.

• Climate change will bring increased flooding and droughts.

• Apparently people need water to survive in cities.

These are, of course, only a few of the problems that we are facing with respect to water. And as it stands, there are a lot of parties involved, federal, state, and municipal water districts. And the chain of command is rather sketchy.  Few are looking at the region as a whole rather than just their little portion. If this package of bills gets through, at least that will change.

But one thing that should be made clear to every Californian is that water is prescious.  We should not waste a single drop. Despite the fact that consumer usage accounts for only around 20% of overall usage, we need to ensure that we aren’t using more than we absolutely need. While water is a fundamental right of living, and should be kept cheap, we should understand just how much value it truly has. One of the bills in this package, AB 49 would require 20% conservation from all users. This is a laudable goal as we move forward into a changing climate.

The package of bills isn’t a complete solution for all of our water woes, but it is a good step in the right direction, especially for the Delta.  However, we cannot sit back and just figure the Legislature is on this. Sure, they are working on the issue, but we need to keep up pressure on our leaders to enact sensible comprehensive legislation that deals with how California thrives in a changing climate in the 21st Century.

You can check out the full package at the Senate’s atrocious website. (Seriously Senate people, this is supposed to be California, the innovation state. Can’t we get a website from this century?)

10 thoughts on “Water is the New Oil: Planning for a Changing Climate”

  1. I remember when I was a student at Cal in the late 1990’s and they had that same site – pretty pathetic even then. Just another example of the lack of vision/political optics from the Senate Dem Caucus (hell that applies to Asm Dems too).

    You would think that in California, in a state that is at the forefront of the internet revolution the Senate Democratic Caucus would have created a State Senate Home Page like the NY Senate Website that is light years ahead of ours.

  2. use POTABLE WATER to rinse leftover food into the garbage disposal.

    Then – as images of African women balancing buckets of drinking water on their heads come to mind – I wonder how much electric power it took to pump the water from the Delta to my kitchen sink.

    Then I realize that it took a lot of water to produce the food that I’m throwing away: 60 gallons for a pound of potatoes, 168 for a pound of corn, 12,000 for a pound of beef (over the typical 2-year life of a steer). If I scrape one ounce of uneaten spuds into the disposal, that’s almost four gallons of water!

    I’m actually throwing more water down the drain in the form of food, than I’m drawing from the faucet. Leftovers that go bad in the fridge also represent gallons and gallons of water wasted.

    Crikey! I gotta talk to the spouse about cooking and serving smaller portions.

  3. I shudder when I read statements like this,

    while water is a fundamental right of living, and should be kept cheap, we should understand just how much value it truly has.

    Water should not be kept cheap, but instead, we should use pricing to  focus on the demand side of the equation.

    I’m impressed by what Australia’s done as they enter the second decade of drought. While we in California would easily manage most of our consumer water problems if we can get usage down to 60 gallons a day per person, Australia started a major demand reduction program and went from 60 gallons a day per person to 36 gallons a day per person.

    People respond very well to price signals and to shared expectations. Irvine Ranch Water District has done a great job of managing demand by providing every homeowner with a generous water budget, including personal use and landscaping.

    If you use less than that budget, you receive a discount. If you use more, you receive two tiers of penalty rates. Money from the penalty rates is invested in conservation programs.

    We waste over half the water we use for urban landscape irrigation, and the predominant crop we grow with that water is useless lawn, which we painstakingly fertilize, water, then harvest every week, only to throw it away and pay someone to come pick it up with a large vehicle dedicated to green waste.

    If you’re not using water for some function, like growing food, producing habitat, cooking, drinking, or sanitation, why should it be cheap when the marginal cost of new supplies is so extraordinarily high?

  4. If this bill was really about a Delta recovery plan, and arbitrating behind the different groups, it would have five members — two appointed by the Governor, and two by the state legislature, and someone from the Delta stewardship council.

    Instead it allows the Governor to appoint the majority of the board.

    All this bill is going to do is set up a board that will immediately start planning a peripheral canal, with a few sops to water conservation and environmental preservation.

  5. The entire structure is designed to make sure that those most impacted by the bill, the farmers and local businesses in the Delta have absolutely nothing to say about their own future. It will all be crammed down their throats.

    It is a repeat of the actions that the Governator took when the Reclamation Board announced that they would review every major project that was planned for building in the flood plains… especially of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys.  He fired the entire board and appointed builder / developer friendly / connected replacements.

    Take a look at the players in this just to know what has been going on out of sight.  Would anyone be surprised that the major funding for a previous PPIC report on water came ultimately from a board member of the Bechtel Corporation… who would presumably get a chance to bid on the project?

    Now, the PPIC has a new report out and they don’t disclose the funding source.  Surprised again?

    I don’t expect any real help from the Democrats other than a few like Lois Wolk.  She is the only one whose words match her action and who has earned my trust.  

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