Is California Really Solving Its Water Crisis?

The California legislature is poised, it appears, to pass a new bond act that will finance changes in the state's water system. The combination of an outmoded system, mismanagement of basic ecosystems, climate change, and the current drought have created what The Economist  describes as "an economic and political crisis."

Now, advocates of the new package (which the Sierra Club opposes), including my old friend Phil Isenberg, say it is "a marvelous achievement."

Sadly, I must disagree. Looking at the big picture, we are still headed for disaster -- and to understand why, we need to go back almost 40 years.

In 1973, a month after I had moved to the West Coast, I flew down to Southern California for a Sierra Club meeting. While we were driving past a freeway median planted with oleanders, the sprinkler system went on. A Club leader from Oakland sitting next to me hissed, "That's what they do with our water down here."

Thirty-six years later, too little has changed in our politics -- and too much has changed about our climate, economy, and water supply. California has committed to deliver huge quantities of water -- eight times as much as it has -- over long distances, through often uncertain canals, and after storage, leakage, and evaporation in outmoded dams, all at enormous expense to a bankrupt state treasury.

Tens of billions have been spent on engineered storage, dams, and reservoirs, yet two-thirds of the state's water is stored the old-fashioned way -- in snow and ice. Most of the rain that falls in urban areas such as Los Angeles is hastily rushed into concrete channels and dumped uselessly into the Pacific Ocean. One-third of the water L.A. needs in an average year falls as rainfall -- but almost none of it is put to wise use.

And much of the water that is delivered, at a cost of billions of dollars and after being stored in snow and ice, is used to grow alfalfa in the desert or allowed to drip out of leaky urban plumbing systems. Huge quantities are recklessly contaminated with various pesticides and toxic wastes, inadequately treated at still billions in further expense, and then delivered to consumers who are understandably anxious about its quality -- leading them to purchase bottled water (the manufacture of which wastes a gallon of water for every quart produced).

Meanwhile, once-vibrant fisheries have been devastated, at the cost of tens of thousands of jobs; farming communities have been left in a state of perpetual uncertainty; and businesses must wonder when the next drought or earthquake will turn off the tap for good.

This is a ridiculous way to take a shower.

Add to that the fact that the very climate that provides this water is changing rapidly. The snow and ice will disappear, and the annual rainfall will vary widely. We may even get less -- a lot less. The San Francisco Delta is dying as an ecosystem, eroding as a levee network, and utterly unreliable as a water-conveyance structure. The Colorado River, upon which much of the southern part of the state relies, is gradually drying up. And the Salton Sea is on the verge of becoming the world's second-largest toxic waste dump (after the mess the Russians made of the Aral).

And the response from the governor and Sacramento? Essentially, more of the same. Instead of recognizing that  we first need to use every drop of water that falls near us and only then rely on long-distance transport and surface storage, the governor's proposal continues excessive reliance on outmoded water-storage solutions, lowers  the emphasis on protection provided by existing law for the health of California's waterways, does almost nothing to enhance local self-reliance on water supplies, and fails to guarantee commonsense reforms of water policy. The taxpayers are still being asked to pay for damages to common water resources done by private interests, and our children are being asked through bonds to bail out those who created the problem.

We're still going to try to force a huge portion of the state's water supply through the unstable and fragile bottleneck of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where a single engineering flaw, natural disaster, or malicious attack could bring the entire state to its knees for years.

The Klamath River, which was once the third-most productive salmon fishery in the nation, may finally begin to recover once its four dams are taken down -- but only decades after mismanagement of the river caused the collapse of the salmon runs and only after several years in which there was no California salmon season at all. Groundwater-recharging incentives in proposed legislation are half-hearted, and there is no meaningful movement towards protection for the quality of increasingly vital groundwater resources

California has finally legalized the practice of using household gray water water -- but only a good twenty years after I became a serial felon for watering my garden with it during the last major drought. Unfortunately, almost none of the commercial and public buildings I frequent have simple water-conservation technologies installed. There is no serious talk about reengineering urban areas as sponges. Instead we continue to guarantee water shortages by treating the the urban landscape like a roof and gutter, designed to get rid of (instead of soak up) precious rainfall. Farmers are still paid to dump toxic chemicals in the state's most precious resource, but cities have no money to develop water recycling, storm-water capture, or groundwater storage. New reservoirs are glibly laid out on maps, but no one talks about the fact that hotter summers means that there may be no water to fill even the dams we already have.

Indeed, it's fair to say that Sacramento is in deep denial of a fundamental reality. California's landscapes, forests, farmlands, and cities must now be managed primarily to meet the biggest challenge of the 21st century: an adequate, secure, clean, and safe  water supply for urgent human and environmental needs. Water is precious. We need to stop wasting it.