A Turning Point in California's Water Policy?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

We are living in interesting times.

Within the last two weeks, the governor introduced the strongest environmental budget proposal since he was elected in 2010.

Among the highlights are about $8 million for groundwater data collection, assessment and management; $20 million for water efficiency, including reducing energy use for water pumping; $30 million for watershed and wetland restoration; and more than $472 million in regional water management.

For years, and most recently in a white paper, Sierra Club California and our members and activists have been calling for greater focus on these areas of water policy. These are among the areas that can, if given the right attention, resolve the state’s water supply problems and make it unnecessary to move growing amounts of water out of the sensitive San Francisco Bay Delta.

Following on the budget proposal by about a week, the governor signed a drought emergency declaration. For the third year in a row, California's rainfall and snowfall were well below normal in 2013. Now, in this first month of 2014, the drought is getting downright frightening.

Snowpack is less than 20 percent of normal in the Sierra. Mount Shasta, usually topped with a strong icing of snow this time of year, looks nearly naked. Sacramento-area rivers that are usually roiling in January look more like wide streams, and streams and creeks have dried up.

Both the governor's budget proposal and the emergency declaration contain elements that will help Californians finally get a reasonable handle on how to manage water in this increasingly dry state. This could be a turning point in California's 164-year-old battle with itself about how to manage a precious resource.

Groundwater Monitoring by USFWS Convio.jpgSo, as an environmental advocate for an organization that has long pressed for better water policies, I should be encouraged. And I am.

But I'm also aware that not everyone is ready to ditch bad water policy.

The ink was barely dry on the emergency declaration before some editorialists, columnists and Republican legislators, mostly from the San Joaquin Valley, started pushing for more above-ground storage. Some above-ground storage doesn't require a new dam. Some storage, for instance, involves increasing the use of above-ground percolation systems to replenish groundwater. But most of those who jumped onto the emergency declaration to call for more storage want more dams.

We are living in an era when the earth's climate is changing because of human-caused pollution, particularly pollution from engines and factories and power plants fueled by oil, natural gas and coal. What used to be the norm for rainfall and snowfall is not likely to be the norm in the future.

That's why the old ways of doing things won't work. Putting up a dam to collect water, when there simply isn't rain or snow, won't work.  Building giant tunnels, at a total cost of more than $50 billion, to carry water that may not be there isn't a smart investment. 

We need to focus money and effort on using more carefully that water we do have. The solutions include conservation, recycling, improving efficiency, patching leaks, pricing water right, and abandoning bad ideas—such as fracking—that waste and pollute water.

This year the governor's water budget appropriately emphasizes regional solutions and regional resilience. It's almost hard to believe this is coming from the same administration that has spent the last two years touting the giant Bay-Delta tunnels. Perhaps the drought has provided a reality check.

These are, indeed, interesting times.


Kathryn Phillips

Kathryn Phillips


Sierra Club California is the Sacramento-based legislative and regulatory advocacy arm of the 13 California chapters of the Sierra Club.

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