Much Finger Pointing, Few Concrete Answers in Water Crisis

These NASA images from 2013 and 2014 illustrate the impact of the drought.
These NASA images from 2013 and 2014 illustrate the impact of the drought.

There is a lot of finger-pointing. The Associated Press reported Friday that California cities are pushing back against the mandatory water use reductions. However, the State Water Resources Control Board is expected to release its draft emergency water conservation regulations this morning, with a goal of slashing urban water use by one-quarter.

The LA Times reports, “The regulations, which are scheduled for formal adoption in early May, are likely to anger urban water suppliers, who face fines of up to $10,000 a day for failing to meet the cuts. This week, water suppliers blasted a framework proposal, saying the cuts were too steep and unfairly affected a variety of water users.”

Officials believe these restrictions would save approximately 1.3 million acre-feet over the next nine months where a single acre-foot of water is enough to supply two households per year. Do the math.

The Times adds, “The steepest cuts would hit cities with the highest rates of per-capita water consumption during September of last year. They include small rural communities, along with affluent cities such as Newport Beach and Beverly Hills. Cities with the lowest per-capita use that month, including Santa Cruz and Seal Beach, would have to cut the least. “

At the high end, communities could see 35 percent cuts, to a low of 10 percent cuts. “Some of the communities likely to have the biggest cuts use roughly 300 gallons of water per resident per day, according to Thomas Howard, the water board’s executive director. Reducing that to about 200 gallons per day is ‘attainable,’ he said.”

Meanwhile, there is plenty of blame to go around.

Fox News reports that this is a “man-made disaster,” arguing “the Golden State’s misguided environmental policies allow much-needed freshwater to flow straight into the Pacific.”

They write, “In an average year, California gets enough snow and rain to put 200 million acres under a foot of water, but environmental opposition to dams over the last several decades has allowed the majority of the freshwater to flow into the ocean, even as the state’s population exploded to nearly 40 million people. The current drought has left farms parched and residents under strict water consumption orders, but some say it didn’t have to be that way.”

“This is a man-made disaster,” said Bonner Cohen, senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research. “Southern California is an arid part of the world where droughts — even severe droughts — are commonplace, and knowing this, you’d think the government of California would have included this mathematical certainty in its disaster preparedness planning, but the government has done nothing, not even store rain, as the population has continued to grow.”

It is a bizarre comment. First of all, water allocation is entirely a human construct, so from that standpoint, yes. On the other hand, the policies were constructed for less severe droughts – the lack of rainfall is a factor. There are realistic concerns about the impact of restricting water flows through the delta.

On the other hand, perhaps we should take more seriously the notion of a manmade disaster. Jeff Nesbit writes in US News and World Report, and argues that “climate change caused California Drought,” stating “the science behind the drought is unquestionable.”

Jeff Nesbit was the National Science Foundation’s director of legislative and public affairs in the Bush and Obama administrations, and former Vice President Dan Quayle’s communications director.

He argues, “The drought stands as the worst to hit the state in 1,200 years.” He argues, “Climate change is linked to California’s drought by two mechanisms: rising temperatures and changing atmospheric patterns conducive to diminishing rains.  The first link is firmly established, and there is a considerable and growing body of evidence supporting the second.”

He writes, “Climate change intensified the California drought by fueling record-breaking temperatures that evaporated critically important snowpack, converted snow to rain, and dried out soils. This past winter in California (December 2014 to February 2015) was officially the warmest on record by a wide margin. February 2015 was California’s singularly warmest February on record. All of this falls on the heels of the 2014 calendar year — which was the warmest in California in 119 years of record keeping, smashing the prior records by an unprecedented margin.”

He adds, “In addition to fueling hot extremes, there is now considerable evidence that climate change was at least partly responsible for the dramatic fall-off in precipitation during the drought. The unprecedented high-pressure weather pattern known as the ‘ridiculously resilient ridge’ that blocked storms from the state has been linked to climate change by researchers at Stanford University, while other researchers have also identified the fingerprint of global warming in the emergent high-pressure pattern.”

There was a small debate this week in the comments as to whether this was in fact that the worst drought in 1200 years. Mr. Nesbit argues, “A recent paleoclimate study found that, while precipitation levels throughout the drought were extremely low, it was largely the remarkable, record-high temperatures that made this drought stand out as the worst to hit the area in 1,200 years.”

2014 was the warmest year on record in California, by an unprecedented margin.

The eco-modernists, in the other column today, argue that desalinization can be the cure for water supply problems. However, as NPR reported this week, “Anybody driving the Pacific Coast Highway in California can see a potential solution to the state’s water problems. It’s right next to the world’s largest ocean. New facilities are being built in California for desalination, to make the ocean’s saltwater drinkable. But environmentalists are worrying that could do more harm than good.”

Carmel Mayor Jason Burnett told NPR that he is not a fan of “desal” in general. He argued, “It’s quite expensive. It has a large carbon footprint. And there’s real concerns about impact on marine life… So here I am, advocating a project that has a large carbon footprint and, if not done correctly, can hurt the oceans.”

However, his hands are tied, as there is “[a] cease-and-desist order to protect the Carmel River came with a deadline, forcing the surrounding towns to look for water somewhere else.”

Mayor Potter notes, “There are several environmental critiques of desal, from the fish eggs that facilities can kill when they suck water in, to what happens when they dump all the leftover salt back out to sea. Engineering workarounds to these problems are not cheap, leading some to argue desal is more trouble than it’s worth.”

However, there may be no alternatives. Scott Maloni is vice president of Poseidon Water, the company that’s building the huge desal plant in Southern California. He told NPR, “I think the larger concern is climate change and what happens 10 years and 20 years from now. Can we really count on the Colorado River or Northern California to continue to supply the vast majority of the state’s population with water?”

Environmentalist Susan Jordan, with the California Coastal Protection Network, says this is the real tension over desal. “Will it be used to hedge against the prospect of a mega-drought in coming decades or just enable more growth?”

Ms. Jordan told NPR, “If you’re going to do something like desal, you want to make sure that you’re doing everything you can in terms of conservation, water recycling, water reuse. And you don’t want to fuel unsustainable development that just perpetuates your problem.”

Besides, it would take years to build and design a desalination plant, which is why when the last major drought hit in the late 80s and early 90s, the efforts never really got underway.

So, what is the answer and will we figure it out before it is too late?

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. davisite4

    “Besides, it would take years to build and design a desalination plant, which is why when the last major drought hit in the late 80s and early 90s, the efforts never really got underway.”

    And there we have it.  We wring our hands when faced with the immediate problem, then when the immediate problem goes away, we pretend like it’s not coming back.  If we’d started back then we’d have something now.  If we start something now… [fill in the blank]

    Why not more discussion of solar-powered desalination plants?

    1. davisite4

      Exactly.  Thank you for proving my point.  (I had read about the projects but was too lazy to look it up).  So, why do we see remarks like the following, which David mentions in this post, talking about the large carbon footprint of desalinization plants:

      “Carmel Mayor Jason Burnett told NPR that he is not a fan of “desal” in general. He argued, “It’s quite expensive. It has a large carbon footprint. And there’s real concerns about impact on marine life… So here I am, advocating a project that has a large carbon footprint and, if not done correctly, can hurt the oceans.””


  2. TrueBlueDevil

    I wonder how San Diego’s “desal” plant will compare to what Israel is doing?

    MIT Technology Review: Megascale Desalination

    The world’s largest and cheapest reverse-osmosis desalination plant is up and running in Israel.
    “On  a Mediterranean beach 10 miles south of Tel Aviv, Israel, a vast new industrial facility hums around the clock. It is the world’s largest modern seawater desalination plant, providing 20 percent of the water consumed by the country’s households. Built for the Israeli government by Israel Desalination Enterprises, or IDE Technologies, at a cost of around $500 million, it uses a conventional desalination technology called reverse osmosis (RO). Thanks to a series of engineering and materials advances, however, it produces clean water from the sea cheaply and at a scale never before achieved.”

    This is something that nuclear power may also make more affordable and practical.

        1. Clem Kadiddlehopper

          Instead of what?.

          Building desalination plants from one end of California to the other. We could even to speed up the permitting process  by throwing Moonbeam and all his fellow Enviro- Nazis in the Pacific Ocean.

          1. Don Shor

            As noted in the link, the Carlsbad plant will be operational this fall. There are others proposed. They do, in fact, have environmental issues, because they create massive amounts of saline waste. If you try to “speed up the permitting process” it is nearly guaranteed that the projects will get tied up in lawsuits.
            Desalinization plants are appropriate in some areas. The cost is very high. They are a reasonable consideration for coastal communities that can’t get water cheaper or more efficiently elsewhere. They can augment a city’s water supply. They aren’t a panacea.
            And they literally have nothing whatsoever to do with the bullet train that the voters approved. So it is a pointless, irrelevant, conservative rhetorical hiccup.
            [moderator note]Please don’t use the term “Enviro-Nazis” again.

        2. TrueBlueDevil

          Tax dollars pay for both.

          The bullet train is an interesting idea with a disastrous implementation by Democratic politicians which – if ever completely built – will cost us hundreds of billions and will be a financial flop. This chiefly driven by the choice to go up Highway 99 through farm towns, rather than a straight line up Highway 5 where we already own right of ways and there are few businesses. This will benefit few citizens and cost us all dearly.

          Desalination plants would benefit virtually all state residents – and our whole nation due to our ag industry – at a fraction of the cost. It would provide us with fresh water, which directly affects agriculture prices and availability, which also benefits our health. Plants also turn CO2 into oxygen.

          1. Don Shor

            The voters approved the bonds for the bullet train. The voters approved the bonds for the water projects, but that isn’t relevant to the desalination plants. The one doesn’t compete with the other.
            I opposed the bullet train. I supported the water bonds.
            It’s a pointless rhetorical comment.
            Desalination would not really benefit “virtually all state residents.” I don’t support massive public financing of desalinization plants. Do you? Desal plants are being developed privately, which should make conservatives happy. The public partnership involves guarantees of water purchases.
            Desalinization water won’t be used for agriculture. It would be far too expensive.
            Most of your points are as irrelevant as Frankly’s.
            One note: plants are only a CO2 sink for as long as they are alive; then they release CO2 as they decompose. So ultimately, plants only sequester CO2 overall if they are planted where there were no plants before.

        3. Doby Fleeman

          Frankly’s not off topic. The linkage of the bullet train to non-sustainable groundwater in the lower  Central Valley is direct and increasingly obvious.  This huge bond funding is merely “seed” funding for a new transportation system destined to make the Central Valley a viable new location for “commuter based workforce housing”.   Think about it, if the Valley dries up, what else are the wealthy landowners going to do with that property?    Why not swap out to a relatively “low demand” urban model?
          Regarding our local, Yolo County based almond migration, and if rumors are to be believed, it may interest some to ponder who are reportedly the latest converts to this new, carbon sequestering movement  – none other than Cal Worthington Jr. (son of famed TV car sales personality) and Oprah Winfrey.   Will 1,500 foot wells soon be in everybody’s future?
          I’m still asking the basic question, given the strength of today’s dollar, how can China “afford” to be purchasing 70% of the almonds grown in California?   Don’t get me wrong, almonds are a miracle food in terms of their balance of essential protein and high calorie vegetable fat – plus they are tasty.  But if we really start to follow the dollars,  it sure seems like something is out of whack with basic market incentives?  Just saying, when incentives and markets appear out of whack, it usually means that some part of that equation is not sustainable.       

          1. Don Shor

            Actually, it’s 70% of the total crop exported, not 70% to China. As it happens, last year Spain surpassed the China/Hong Kong market in almond imports, at least in dollar value.

        4. Frankly

          It is not off topic.  We elect politicians to lead and promote projects that we need in priority over what we want.  We don’t need a bullet train.  The drive for the bullet train has been ego (see my special bullet train legacy!) and irrational environmentalism (if only we could get more people out of their cars and in public transportation we would save the planet).  All that political capital, effort and money should have been directed at an innovative water works project meant to help California bring in and store more water in the state.

          It is really quite stupid if you think about it.  The challenge of water is transportation and storage, not supply.  There is plenty of water up north.  We allow at least 50% of rain water to return to the sea with no real environmental benefit.  Most of this is in Southern California where it should be diverted and stored.

          But instead we get a bullet train.  Yippee!

          1. Don Shor

            We elect politicians to lead and promote projects that we need in priority over what we want.

            Proposition 1, the 2014 water bond initiative, was placed on the ballot by the legislature at the urging of the governor. He co-wrote the ballot arguments in favor.
            The leading donor to the campaign, by far, was a PAC put together by the governor, which raised $17 million and spent nearly all of it. Brown for Governor 2014 was the biggest donor at over $5 million. He campaigned actively for it.
            It passed with more than 67% of the vote.
            The measure authorizes billions of dollars for water storage, water cleanup and groundwater projects.

        5. Doby Fleeman


          Who financed the Governor’s PAC, how will the resulting investment dollars be allocated (i.e. to serve which market segments?), and how will the new water rates be adjusted, by user group, to recoup the direct and indirect costs of these new infrastructure investments?

          As the like to say in Davis, “Show me the new rates!” for the beneficiaries of these new collection, diversion, storage and distribution investments.

          Follow the money…….for a clearer picture of the Governor’s largesse.

          1. Don Shor

            If you’re genuinely interested in who donated to the water bond proposition, the information is all on file at the Secretary of State’s website. Look for “BROWN; YES ON PROPS 1 AND 2 A.” I’m actually not interested enough to do the homework for you. A significant chunk of it was simply transferred, as far as I can tell, from the governor’s own PAC.
            There won’t be “new water rates” for water developed, stored, and augmented (groundwater) by the projects financed by these bonds. Once again, I honestly have no idea what you’re asking or implying here. Do you support more water resources being developed? Did you vote on this bond measure? Did you do your homework when you did, and inform yourself? Because it’s already passed and the projects are, presumably, moving forward.

        6. Doby Fleeman

          Your reply strikes me as something akin to saying there won’t be any increase in water rates for the new infrastructure being constructed to serve the Davis community.

          Sorry, I don’t get that.  It costs somebody something to build all this new infrastructure.  The state gets the money from “somewhere” to repay the bonds.  Do you know, or do you care where the state gets the money to repay the bondholders?

          When market forces, including the cost of water, are allowed to enter the equation (have you noticed more people converting to xeriscaping here in Davis lately?)  there are observable behavioral changes.  When a limited resource, like water, is unmonitored and nearly free – there are also consequences.

          Does it really seem so unreasonable or unusual that I would be curious about water rates by categories of users?

          Perhaps you already know the answer to these questions, or perhaps you feel they are of no consequence in this conversation.




          1. Don Shor

            There is no simple answer, and there would likely be unintended consequences of higher pricing for agricultural water. See and especially this portion: 3.3. Water Prices and Repayment Policies in the American West
            If you increase the cost of surface water, you incentivize farmers to go to groundwater. In many water districts, the surface water is managed conjunctively to recharge or stabilize the groundwater supplies (Yolo County, for example). So with groundwater presently unregulated, you could cause degradation of groundwater supplies simply by changing the pricing policy.
            Water projects are usually financed by a complex of taxes, bonds, and the promise of repayment over a very long period by the end users. With myriad projects, and hundreds of districts tapping into them — each with a different rate structure and mix of users — it would be nearly impossible to develop a pricing structure that is “fair” or that directly reflects the costs of developing the supplies.

        7. Doby Fleeman

          Thanks for the citation.  Even moreso, I seems you would concur with my comments that new infrastructure investments be carefully tied to strategies and policies as they relate to cost recovery.  From your report:
          “Both the United States Congress and state governments seem inclined to require full supply-cost recovery for any future irrigation projects and to improve the rate of cost recovery, as much as possible, from existing projects.”

          Per your report, is there any simple answer as to why water coming out of the Don Pedro Reservoir is priced at 20% of the water coming from Pine Flat Reservoir?

          As this drought continues, it sure seems like somebody is going to need to think about positioning to be able to better explain this stuff.

  3. Biddlin

    The current water restrictions in Sacramento  are symbolic and punitive. I can’t save a drop of water, more than I can store in rain barrels, anyhow. Any that my neighbours and I don’t cook with, drink, bathe or irrigate with,  rushes through the delta to the ocean.  Increasing storage capacity would be nice, but then, the authorities decide that we have too much stored, so in anticipation of a subsequent wet year, they release 1/2 of our reserves from our reservoirs, leaving us dry for the next year.


    1. hpierce

      Biddlin makes a good point… some of the concerns/remedies are false, or silly.  Does anyone believe an almond sold in China is an true export of a gallon of water? False and silly.   The water a tree transpires either goes into the mass of the tree, available for the next almond season, or goes off into the atmosphere where it will generally return as precipitation.  Probably not in the same watershed though.

    2. hpierce

      More BS…  seems like the Davis reductions are to be ~ 8 % higher than previously (instead of lowered, due to past conservation).  [Today’s Bee, Section 1,page 15]  Yet agencies that rely on groundwater (like Davis does, as present) have had their reduction requirements lowered.  Makes me want to take a long shower, in protest.

    1. hpierce

      If you have a complaint, take it to the State regulatory boards.  This one is a fact the city is reacting to.  Some State Boards are demanding that our sanitary sewage discharge be as/more pure than rainwater.  We comply via additional costs, or don’t, via fines.  Pick the correct target.

  4. Napoleon Pig IV

    The politicians have no credibility on this issue (like many others), and it’s impossible for the average barnyard critter to tell real truth from the “truth” bought and paid for by those animals more equal than others.

    The communications dude for Dan Quayle? Give me a break:  “The drought stands as the worst to hit the state in 1,200 years.” 

    Am I really expected to believe that? And. so what if I do? Does taking a shower every other day versus every day add a real drop to the bucket? I think not – not when some animals are more equal than others. Oink!

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