Every year the Department of Water Resources offers to sell more water than the state actually has
The governor of California loves to talk about the state "living within its means." That, of course, means cutting education funding, closing state parks, stealing money from cities, wiping out hundreds of social programs, and never, ever, raising any taxes.
He has a different line on water.
The state's economy is in a severe downturn, but California itself is far from broke. This is still a wealthy state. Between the big businesses and the rich individuals, there's actually plenty of money in the overall economy to pay for schools and colleges and parks and health care. Defining our "means" as a level of spending that's possible without raising taxes is a purely political decision that has nothing to do with economic reality. In fact, the California economy would be a lot better off today if Gov. Schwarzenegger hadn't cut the vehicle license fee the day he took office. (Remember: public-sector jobs are just as legitimate a source of employment as private-sector jobs, and government spending is an excellent way to stimulate private growth.)
Freshwater, on the other hand, really is a finite resource. There's only a certain amount of rain that falls on the state every year, only a certain amount of snowpack that melts in the spring, only a limited amount that can be stored in reservoirs. You can't raise new water the way you can raise new revenue; even building new dams just takes water that would have gone downstream and holds it for another purpose.
The state's freshwater has to meet a lot of demands. Farmers rely on it to irrigate crops some of them crazy, unsustainable crops in what is naturally a dry Serengeti. Giant cities and suburbs in the southern part of the state rely on it to fill swimming pools and water lawns. Most of the 38 million people who live in this state rely on precipitation runoff for their drinking water.
And if too much water from Northern California gets diverted before it reaches the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, then the complex, fragile ecosystem of the delta and the bay gets badly, maybe irreparably, damaged. And that has wide-reaching consequences (including the collapse of fisheries worth $250 million a year).
And yet, as Rebecca Bowe points out in this week's cover story, the governor refuses to live within our hydrologic means.
It's insane what's been happening with the state's water. Every year the Department of Water Resources offers to sell more water than the state actually has. In the severe drought of the early 1990s, water diversions from the delta were at record levels. In the current drought, diversions remain high. And that, the numbers suggest, is directly affecting fishing stocks. At this rate, there won't be any salmon left in the delta in a few years. And that's before the full impacts of global warming (and the likely decline in freshwater) play out.
Schwarzenegger's solution: build more dams and a new canal to take more fresh water away from the delta.
The state Legislature is wrestling with a new water policy, and five bills are making the rounds. Some areas are getting desperate and trying what not long ago were considered nutty ideas Marin County, for example, now wants to build a desalination plant, an expensive and energy-intensive way to get freshwater from the bay.
What nobody seems to want to say is that California, particularly the big agricultural operations in the Central Valley, simply waste too much water. The conservatives in the state capitol don't believe in conservation.
Any serious Legislative plan has to start with a few fundamental facts. Freshwater flowing into the delta and out through the bay is not a wasted resource; the delta needs a lot more water than it's currently getting to survive as an ecosystem. If that means the big water districts have to tell their clients to cut back on water use using proven conservation methods and possibly switching to less water-intensive crops then that's a reality we're going to have to live with. And more dams, canals, and pumping projects will just shift the problems from one part of the state to another.
California can survive on the water it has if we stop the insanity.