Fighting the Wrong Water War

09/04/2007 05:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sacramento, CA -- California is getting ready to resume its twentieth century water war. On Friday, a federal judge ordered state and federal officials to maintain enough natural water flow through the San Joaquin Delta to protect the endangered delta smelt, a key indicator species for the ecosystem. Water agency officials who had argued strongly against such a ruling claimed that the decision would mean rationing for both agricultural and some urban water users and could reduce overall water diversions from the Bay Delta ecosystem by a third for the next year while a longer-range plan is developed.

The controversy made front pages last May, when a preliminary court ruling signalled that major changes might be in the works. On one level, this latest episode is simply the latest in a long struggle over allocation of limited water supplies in California. That the smelt is in trouble is not really in dispute; only 25 showed up in a critical population count this spring. And the water managers who don't want to do anything yet are arguing, in effect, that they are mismanaging the fishery and the water system so badly in so many ways that we cannot be sure that the volume of water diversion is the critical factor. Instead, they assert, such factors as pesticide run-off, illegal or unregulated water pumping by agricultural interests, and siltation of the waterways might be the culprit. Since all of these problems are under the control of the same water agencies and regulators, it's hard to feel much sympathy.

On another level, this is the latest fruit of the past seven years of natural resource recklessness by the Bush Administration. The Bay/Delta Accords, a set of agreements on how to protect the San Francisco Bay/Delta Ecosystem developed during the Clinton Administration collapsed when the Bush Administration simply walked away from the table. Simultaneously, seasonal water exports increased by 49% in contrast with the 1990's, and the smelt (and other Delta fisheries) began a precipitous decline. So even the 35% reduction in exports from the Delta basically restores the levels of the early 1990's, when the Bay/Delta Accords were negotiated.

In any case, the state is preparing to fight the wrong water war. All of the players, even though they know better, act as if the issue were still how to allocate the historical supply of water. But with the warming of the climate, it's clear that California's future water supply won't look anything like it used to. Most Californians think their state "stores" its water behind dams and reservoirs. Water managers, however, are acutely aware that the real storage mechanism for the state is in ice and snow -- and that it is literally inconceivable, if the snow pack disappeared, that man-made dams could ever compensate.

So, while Governor Schwarzenegger is advocating new surface water storage projects, almost no public attention is being paid to the new reality. In a California where rainfall will be less predictable, probably smaller in total quantity, and where less of it will be stored as snow, the state must turn to other potential water storage mechanism; namely, in soils. California should be evaluating all of its land use decisions in terms of their impact of sub-surface recharging of aquifers from local rainfall. Los Angeles, for example, gets quite a bit of precipitation most years. But the city is engineered to treat that rainfall as a liability, and, much like a roof with gutters, to rush it to the sea as fast as possible. Instead, Los Angeles needs to begin thinking of that rainfall as a very valuable asset -- perhaps the city's most valuable asset -- and reengineering itself to behave more like a sponge -- to capture and hold the rainfall. (A major conference in Los Angeles this summer on ground-water recharge, for example, contained, as far as I can tell from the paper titles, not a single discussion of how to maximize the permeable urban surface in the LA basin.)

Why isn't this happening? Not, I think, because the state's leadership cannot think in terms of big new ideas -- Sacramento, and Los Angeles City Hall are not Washington, DC. But the reality is that all of us are going to have a hard time replacing old mental maps in our heads in which climate is a constant which we exploit, when the new reality is that it is a variable to which we must continually adjust. And California's wrong water wars are just one example.