Late last year, I joined about 70 other environmental leaders at a Green LA meeting, where many members practically begged Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to declare a drought. The logic being that L.A.’s DWP couldn’t implement a progressive water policy unless the mayor made a big, public declaration.
Fast forward to late spring, when the mayor and DWP general manager & CEO H. David Nahai surprised us all with a bold water plan that moves the city away from imported water and towards self sufficiency. Their message was simple: the drought is over. Gone are boom-and-bust perspectives of water use. Central and Southern California live in a new paradigm of permanent water scarcity due to climate change, shrinking Sierra snow pack, and reduced water allocations from the Colorado River, Eastern Sierras and the Sacramento River.
Evidently news travels slow from Los Angeles to Sacramento. A few weeks ago, under increasing pressure from the Central Valley and numerous large water districts, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a drought in the hopes that it would pressure the state legislature to move forward on his proposal to replumb the Sacramento River delta using dams and a new peripheral canal.
A few weeks earlier, the governor did not declare a drought when he made his bold announcement to meet a 20% water conservation goal for urban areas. (A goal that should be applied to agriculture as well since they use about 80% of the water in the state.) What changed in a month? Did UC scientists release a new study on California’s depleting water supply? Did the Department of Water Resources discover that Sierra snowpack was at an all time low? No, the drought declaration was purely political, not scientifically based. The urgency to move forward controversial dam and canal projects was deemed “drought worthy,” while a call for conservation just didn’t make the cut.
The sooner that the state realizes that water scarcity is the new reality, the sooner government agencies will move forward on mandatory water conservation in urban and agricultural areas, native plant and xeriscape landscaping requirements and mandatory water recycling for irrigation. Only then will they demand industry and indirect potable use, stormwater recharge projects and low impact development requirements, mandatory water metering for all users including agriculture, and aggressive measures to clean up contaminated aquifers.
This approach provides greater local water supply self-sufficiency, helps protect degrading ecosystems like the San Francisco Bay-Sacramento River Delta, and could dramatically reduce the energy required (and carbon emissions) to pump water supplies long distances over mountain ranges.
Until California develops a sustainable water plan and backs it up with funding, regulations and enforcement, we’ll continue to have a collapsing Bay-Delta ecosystem, drought declarations, refusals to recycle water based on “toilet to tap” fear mongering, and pushes for an engineering approach to water supply that hasn’t changed since the days of Mulholland.