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Debunking California’s Water Myths
Myths have been surfacing in recent months about California's water crisis

Debunking California’s Water Myths

Myths have been surfacing in recent months about California's water crisis

Myths have been surfacing in recent months about California’s water crisis, becoming so serious that the state’s Public Policy Institute (PPIC) was forced to address the issue in a new report, “California Water Myths,” where the agency tackles eight of the most common misperceptions.

Though not as titillating as a Bigfoot sighting, the PPIC report seeks to “rebuild public policy discussions on myth-free foundations” while improving the collection, analysis, synthesis and use of accurate information about the state’s water system. The Public Policy Institute of California is an independent, nonpartisan organization, and the central message of its report is the state must improve the flow of existing information among the key stakeholders.

Topping the myth list is “California is running out of water.” In fact, the PPIC report explains, the Golden State no longer can expect abundantly cheap sources of water and will need to adapt to greater scarcity in the decades ahead.

The report’s other myths (followed by the “realities”) include:

1. [Insert villain here] is responsible for California’s water problems.

There is no true villain in California water policy, but opportunities exist for all sectors to better use and manage water.

2. We can build our way out of California’s water problems.

New infrastructure can contribute to California’s water supply solutions, but it is not a cure-all.

3. We can conserve our way out of California’s water problems.

Water conservation is important, but its effectiveness is often overstated.

4. Healthy aquatic ecosystems conflict with a healthy economy.

Healthy ecosystems provide significant value to the California economy, and many opportunities exist for mutually beneficial water management.

5. More water will lead to healthy fish populations.

Fish need more than water to thrive.

6. California’s water rights laws impede reform and sustainable management.

The legal tools for reform are already present in California’s water rights laws; we just need to start using them.

7. We can find a consensus that will keep all parties happy.

Tough tradeoffs mean that consensus is not achievable on all water issues; higher levels of government will need to assert leadership.

Although the report would appear to point fingers at the California Legislature’s lack of leadership, Ellen Hanak, director of research at PPIC, is quick to credit the state’s governing body for passing its historic legislation. The California Legislature last month passed The Safe, Clean, and Reliable Drinking Water Supply Act of 2010, which included an $11.14 billion general obligation bond proposal that would provide funding for California’s aging water infrastructure and for projects and programs to address the state’s ecosystem and water supply issues. “It’s a good first start in addressing a wide range of water management problems in California.”

She noted than an early draft of the water legislation included more stringent measures for monitoring groundwater storage levels. “In a modern water system,” Hanak said, “if we’re not able to accurately measure and monitor water use, it puts us in such a difficult position to make the kind of sophisticated judgments and decisions on how we want to manage that use. We’ve got to do better.”

She and her seven co-writers suggested looking at surface storage, underground storage, conservation and recycling as a “combined system” rather than as separate entities.

Assembly member Jared Huffman, chair of the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, and a key figure in the passage of the Delta water legislation, found the PPIC report useful and provocative. But he challenged its criticism of California’s conservation efforts, saying the authors made it appear the effectiveness and potential for conservation was overstated. “I completely disagree with that.”

Huffman points to the multiple benefits of water conservation – reduced energy usage, reduction in waste water discharges and cost savings – as a key tool in the overall water management tool belt. “I think the PPIC was so determined to knock down all the perspectives a few notches they went too far on this one.”

State Sen. Lois Wolk, who represents four of the five counties in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, was harsher in her assessment. “They left out the biggest myth – that the Delta can be fixed without the participation and support of the people who live, work and recreate there. I am hopeful that the federal government will get involved and make certain that the Delta counties will be at the table, and be guaranteed enough water and funding to protect the largest estuary in the Western Hemisphere.” Wolk, who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Delta Stewardship and Sustainability, opposed the series of water bills passed last month.

Hanak said the PPIC report is the first installment in a team project looking at sustainable water management in the 21st century, and sets the stage for what they’re planning down the road.

Two key areas deserve more study, she noted: Ecosystem management and managing flow for fish, and integrating more efficient water management actions.

“It’s good if the broader public policy discourse can move beyond the myth, to a more nuanced discussion of things,” she said.

Added Huffman: “They’ve certainly been trying to push us – the Legislature and the State as a whole – to take on some of these bigger challenges and move beyond our parochial trenches. We do need to take a broader and bigger look at water in California and we need to do it quickly.”

The California Water Myth report was supported with funding from S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, along with several other groups.

Which suggests that if foundations with vast resources wish to debunk a myth, it’s certainly within the realm of possibility.

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