For over 150 years, Californians have argued, litigated, yelled, and otherwise fought over water. California is a big state – we have redwood forests, desert regions, mountains, coasts, rich agricultural lands, amazing natural ecosystems. And overall, we have a pretty good amount of water but the current drought is not helping.
The problems with California’s water are that it is highly seasonal, highly variable, and poorly managed. Now, halfway through the second decade of the 21st century, we’ve hit the wall. California is in a drought – some call it the third year of a drought, but it could also be called the tenth dry year out of the last thirteen. Even if 2016 brings some relief, our water problems will remain.
The problem is that even in wet years, California has passed the point of “peak water.” We have maxed out the renewable water available in our rivers – allocating to users more than nature provides even in a wet year. We are unsustainably overdrafting our groundwater – turning a renewable resource into a non-renewable resource – and we are plunging toward an economic, social, and political catastrophe in the groundwater basins of the Central Valley. We are past the point of where our use of water now causes far more ecological harm than it provides benefit.
Everyone who works on California water issues knows these things. Everyone who works on California water knows that “business as usual” cannot continue. The arguments have always been on how to change our policies to bring our use into line with nature’s limits.
In 2014, four studies have been released by the Pacific Institute, Natural Resources Defense Council, and researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara. These studies analyze four solutions to California’s water problems that are proven to work, widely available, and cost effective. Taken together, they have the potential to expand existing supply or cut current demand by a total of between 11 and 14 million acre-feet a year – a vast amount of water. Implementing these strategies will take time and effort and money – they require incremental actions on the part of all Californians, from homeowners and residents to industry to water utilities to state and federal agencies.
Now 2 years after these reports surfaced many local governments in CA have passed progressive water use legislation and cities and communities throughout California have dramatically reduced their water use. It’s been an impressive feat but when looking at the complete picture we have just scratched the surface of systemic problem that will take many years and much effort to solve.