The end of security

State and federal officials must face the fact that water is no longer plentiful

As our cover story this week suggests, California’s drought is forcing us to reconsider our water supply.

Granted, Californians have been arguing about water for decades. But there’s always been an assumption that the problem isn’t a shortage of water, it’s how to store and then get that water from where it’s plentiful, in Northern California, to where it’s needed, in the Central Valley and Southern California.

The drought, with its images of nearly empty Northern California reservoirs, is showing us that water is no longer reliably plentiful anywhere in California.

And yet some people continue to act as if water supplies are limitless. House Republicans, for example, recently approved legislation (H.R. 3964) that would suspend environmental regulations protecting fisheries and authorize construction of new dams and storage facilities to ensure that Central Valley farmers get the water they believe is theirs. Fortunately, this blatant water grab has little chance of passing the Senate.

Gov. Jerry Brown opposed H.R. 3964, but his Bay Delta Conservation Plan, with its $60 billion twin tunnels, isn’t much better. It too would clear the way for an unlimited grab of Northern California water—water that, in any event, may not be there to grab.

There are better solutions for managing California’s water, as Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, has suggested. We can reinforce Delta levees to ensure the estuary’s health and then commit to exporting a safe yield of water, one that protects fisheries and does not deplete the watershed. We also need to retire the arid and drainage-impaired corporate agribusiness lands on the San Joaquin Valley’s west side. (The cost would be far less than building the peripheral tunnels.) And, instead of spending billions on the twin tunnels, we need to invest in small, local water-conservation projects around the state that will put far more people to work than a big project like the tunnels.

We face a new reality. Nobody in California enjoys total water security. We need to proceed accordingly.