To Deal with Our Next Drought, Action is Needed Now
By: William Bourdeau, Farmer and California Water Alliance board member
With California’s reservoirs and the Sierra snowpack above their capacities this time of year, after nearly six years of drought, many Californians were happy to finally see a winter with precipitation far above the historical average.
Time will tell whether 2018’s winter’s rain and snow season will end with above normal precipitation, at average or another devastating disappointment. Until recently in Northern California, this winter was matching 1997’s precipitation record. That was the third wettest winter in California’s history.
Recently, it has fallen behind the curve and now sits below average for this date.
What is certain, though, is that California’s political leaders and water managers have been unsuccessful in preparing for the state’s certain upcoming droughts as the present water year runs its course.
Remember, long droughts are common in California. We have experienced longer droughts than the 2012-2016 extreme droughts twice now. There were nine drought years during 1929–1937 and eight years during 1943–1951, and one drought of equal length from 1987–1992.
What is different, though, is our state’s population and demands for a share of California’s water has increased.
When our last major state water storage reservoir — New Melones — was completed in 1979, the state’s population stood at just 23 million, and our water engineers had built total storage capacity in all of our major reservoirs of 42 million acre-feet, or 13.7 trillion gallons. As it stands, that’s still the water supply we have today, although in 2016 California’s population has topped 39.25 million residents.
Another telling difference: Due to federal and state rules imposed since 1990, about half of our developed water now goes not to people, but to environmental users — water for fish, birds, wildlife refuges, habitat, water quality and river temperature management, and recreational boating. One could make the argument that these are all well-intended uses. The challenge is how do we measure success and include some level of accountability. All water users — including the environment — should be held to the same standards of highest and best use, avoiding waste of our precious water.
Between more people and more users, there’s simply no more slack left in the system to serve everyone’s needs in times of drought or even in average years following a drought. If we continue to allow vast amount of water to flow out to the ocean, both environmental and human needs will be sacrificed.
Instead of planning, permitting or building more storage to provide Californians with a larger, more reliable water supply along with all the benefits that ensue. Rather their focus is on asking residents to use less water, pay higher prices for it permanently, and take away any water that remains from some users to give to other users. In other words, they’re picking winners and losers.
That’s no role for government bureaucrats. Over the years, we’ve conserved ourselves dry. Those with water have no more to give. They’ve even robbed some areas of the environment of water in order to use the water for other “environmental” purposes.
We’ve stretched our resources beyond our limits of patience and endurance. We’re paying higher water bills to receive less water and to flush less often. We’ve watched taps and wells run dry, lawns and forests die and wildfires rage.
City landscapes and lawns stand dry with dead trees, shrubs and turf. Our farms and food producers have fallowed hundreds of thousands of acres, sold land to developers and drilled deep into the ground in an effort to bridge the gap left by short or non-existent surface water deliveries.
We’ve decimated precious and endangered waterfowl, fish and wildlife for lack of enough water to keep them flourishing. Wildlife refuges, have dried up and blown away, causing massive air pollution and a public health disaster.
All these sacrifices have had seemingly little or no affect on our state’s planners, or on the minority that oppose new surface storage for their own, selfish reasons.
Obstruction must end. It must stop now, before our state faces its next drought.
Nature has given us a gift, a pass, a get-out-of-jail free card with the 2016-2017’s winters’ above-average rains and snows.
Will we allow our elected officials and central planners to squander the reprieve that Mother Nature has given us yet again, as we did in the 1970s, the 1980s and early 1990s? We have the technical expertise and ingenuity to proactively overcome our challenges; however, do we also have the common sense and determination to do what is right and best serves our great Nation?