Emerging water wars

Director of the Land Use and Natural Resources Program for UC Davis Extension

Energy, recession, housing, terrorism, war. Last year’s crises poured down on us like a driving rainstorm. Unfortunately, the rains did not. Another crisis looms in California, as it has for some years. Our seemingly endless demand for water is outstripping our reliable supplies, and the future is cloudy indeed.

How have we gotten here? We built the state backward: The majority of the population and the irrigated agricultural needs are in the south, especially south of the Delta; and the natural rainfall and runoff is in the north. Historically, our solutions have been to create more reservoirs, canals, pumps and pipelines. However, environmental damage and subsequent regulations, soaring costs for facilities and energy, fewer sites and changes in philosophies have created a new era in water management. Now, we work tirelessly and creatively to stretch available supplies and manage each aspect of the water cycle to deliver a reliable supply. This is generally good.

However, we may be losing the battle. Much of our existing water infrastructure is aged. People are dealing with groundwater contamination all over the state because it’s rendering existing sources unavailable. Groundwater overdraft problems persist, particularly along the coast and in the San Joaquin Valley. As we conserve and recycle, we reduce our flexibility in the next inevitable drought. Global warming may reduce the snowpack and limit our ability to store water in reservoirs.

Despite the gloomy prospects, there are many bright spots on the horizon. Collaborative efforts such as the Sacramento region’s Water Forum and the CALFED program are working toward lasting solutions that balance environmental needs and water needs. Statewide efforts in water conservation, recycling, desalination and groundwater recharge and reclamation are all being pursued. Many communities are using groundwater and surface water in a coordinated fashion to stretch supplies without building costly surface reservoirs.

This year looms as another critical time for our future. In November, voters will decide the fate of Proposition 50, a $3.5 billion water bond (the third such bond since 1996). In addition, with water supplies stressed in the southern part of the state and large-scale development proposals trying to take advantage of the state’s housing woes, there likely will be many battles that involve local interests as well as statewide water interests.

We have to tackle these issues with our eyes open, all interests at the table, and our most creative thinkers engaged. We can accept no less.