Solving California’s Water Crisis Requires a Look Beyond This Year

It’s not every day that your local paper has a section of its website dedicated to news about days without rain and reservoir levels, but the San Francisco Chronicle’s drought page is one marker of the water crisis in the West. On January 17, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, directing Californians to voluntarily conserve water and state officials to assist communities facing water shortages, reduce water use, hire more firefighters to combat the elevated fire danger, and expand public awareness.

California state health officials announced in mid-January that 17 communities – all rural – could run out of water within 100 days, with other communities not far behind. Then on January 31, authorities announced that for the first time in its 54-year history, the California State Water Project, which moves water throughout the state and serves roughly two-thirds of the its population, would allocate zero water supplies to urban and agricultural users. The contractors who usually get water from the project will instead have to rely more heavily on other sources, like groundwater.

On February 14, President Obama spoke in central California, linking the drought to climate change and emphasizing that the country must find a better way to manage diverse water needs and concerns. Yet instead of spurring local innovation and opportunity, action thus far has focused on restricting activities and competing for water use.

Beyond concerns about having adequate supplies of water for drinking, industry, and agriculture, priorities to protect ecosystems and water quality are being put to the test. Officials are relaxing requirements for water releases from reservoirs, which lowers water quality in key areas such as the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in order to increase available water supply. California Republicans proposed a bill arguing for a stricter cap on the water allocations for environmental restoration and additional water allocations to the Central Valley and Southern California, which would hamper efforts to protect endangered fish. The bill’s proponents argue that addressing water shortages should take precedence. This shows how decisions made to manage the drought this year will not only affect future water supplies, but also the health of ecosystems, protected species, and agricultural sectors.

Even though California, along with much of the West, has managed with droughts in the past, this is a new scale. Just take the snowpack. Even in the driest year to date, 2013, the Sierra snowpack in mid-January was at normal or just above normal levels in mid-January. As of mid-January this year, however, the snowpack is at only 8-22 percent of normal levels across the Sierras. This snowpack is California’s largest and most reliable water supply, but if the driest year on record followed a normal snowpack in January 2013, the low measurements of January 2014 spell nothing but trouble. To ensure that the state can push through this drought, and ensure resilience in dry years to come, it is critical that communities and decision-makers act boldly with an eye for long-term consequences and lasting change.

Unfortunately, the current policy approach is more reactive than pro-active, with only a few cities, like San Francisco, having made investments to ease water shortages after prior droughts. Voluntary cuts have a limited impact, in part because mandatory cuts are sometimes just around the corner. Those who follow the voluntary cuts are hit even harder if or when mandatory cuts set in, forcing them to reduce water use even further, especially if mandatory measures are percentage cuts, rather than restrictions on activities like watering lawns or washing cars. While cuts and restrictions may help the state make it through this drought, they are not a long-term solution. Given that California’s population continues to grow and that water resources are dwindling, the approach must instead focus on finding opportunities, linkages, and incentives that strive to prepare the state for a resilient future.

The drought is a wake-up call that it is time to do away with outdated infrastructure and environmental policies, come together as communities to reassess our values and priorities, and broaden the discussion of climate change beyond energy. For young people in the West who know that they will be living through more dry years to come, this is a chance to innovate and find ways to reduce the need for water. In California, this means a renewed focus on innovation in agricultural water use and management systems. Agriculture accounts for about three-quarters of California’s water use, and it plays a critical role in California’s economy and food supply. However, rural communities often lack the resources to invest in new water infrastructure or manage water uncertainty from year to year.

Though urban areas use less water, they must address this question as well, particularly as populations grow. This must include some lifestyle changes, such as re-envisioning home and park landscaping to be drought resistant instead of green and grassy. It also requires searching for waste and opportunities to link systems, such as using grass and weed cuttings from medians and other areas as feed for livestock instead of using water to grow separate pastures. Looking forward, we can change what we use and what we waste to better reflect the realities we see in our communities. Instead of relying heavily on massive state-wide water plans and waiting for officials to announce mandatory cuts to water use, we can aim for creative locally-based actions that will prepare our communities to better manage our water in the long-term.