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