Competing Water Futures for California


California is at a crossroads.  One path offers green cities, sustainable farms, flowing rivers, and thriving fish and wildlife.  The other promises desiccated rivers, waterless taps, bird-free skies, and the parched remnants of fields abandoned after the wells run dry.  The better path is clear.  Whether policymakers choose to follow it is anything but. 

Door Number One:  An Emerald Path for the Golden State

California has abundant examples of promising new technologies and policies to help respond to the current drought and embark on a path to a sustainable water future.  A broad coalition of conservation, environmental justice, and fishing groups today released a comprehensive set of actions that can be implemented to realize that future.  While the actions include more than 50 separate recommendations, they fall into a few clear categories:

Green Cities – By re-envisioning our cities as places of green roofs, abundant parks and swales, and less paved-over gray space, we can capture rain when it falls from the sky and put it to good use, instead of treating it as sewage and dumping it in the oceans. We can also vastly improve the way we measure, use, and re-use water in our cities to cut our per capita water use in half or more, just as many coastal cities in Australia and elsewhere have done.

  • Sustainable Agriculture – Farmers can better plan and thrive when they have a clear sense of how much water is available in any year, have the tools and support to use water efficiently, have incentives to improve healthy soils that retain moisture, and work collectively to manage shared water resources sustainably. This future is possible with reformed water delivery contracts, widespread adoption of proven efficiency and soil management measures, and improved regional planning in the agricultural sector. 
  • Flowing Rivers – The new State Water Plan Update recently released by DWR estimates that we can generate more water from investments in agricultural and urban water use efficiency and water recycling than the natural flow of the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Merced and Upper San Joaquin Rivers combined. NRDC and the Pacific Institute estimate the potential for demand reductions and new supply from these tools to be even higher.  While estimates vary, there is no debate among water experts that we can have healthy, flowing rivers and enough water to supply a growing population and economy. Healthy flowing rivers replenish depleted groundwater aquifers, reduce water treatment costs, help protect us from floods, sustain fish and wildlife, and support low-cost recreational opportunities for cities and towns across the state. But to realize these benefits, we need to re-commit to recover dried-up and cemented-over river systems, like the San Joaquin and Los Angeles Rivers.    

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  • Thriving Fish and Wildlife – California is renowned for its fishing industry, which supports families and communities up and down the coast, as well as its hunting industry, with duck clubs and wetlands of international significance dotting the Central Valley. These industries depend on healthy rivers, wetlands, and refuges – as do all of us, since these functioning aquatic ecosystems keep our water supplies clean, useable, and available. We can keep these systems healthy by updating flow standards to reflect current scientific knowledge and realities, implementing long-standing requirements to double salmon populations, and restoring floodplains and wetlands. 

Door Number Two:  A Cynical Path to a Dystopian Future

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Or we can have the future defined for us by Congress. For the last several months, secret discussions have been occurring in Congress between a small group of legislators in an attempt to craft a bill that is being pitched as a response to California’s drought. Despite repeated requests, the language being negotiated between these publicly-elected representatives (of you and me) has not been shared with the conservation, environmental justice, or fishing community.  It’s now clear why. 

Media reports and other sources indicate that this secret legislation is a clear commitment to door number two – the path of destruction. The legislation appears to undermine our bedrock environmental protections, despite the fact that those protections have not contributed significantly to reduced water supplies during the drought and weakening them will not make it rain. In fact, those laws are critical to maintaining water quality so that the water we drink and put on our fields is not too salty or polluted for that purpose. They are also critical to ensuring that we restore and sustain salmon and other native fish populations so that we can maintain our quarter-billion-dollar-plus salmon fishing industry after the drought. And those laws are a cornerstone of our democracy, by providing all of us a voice in how our precious water resources are managed, and what sort of future we want for our children and our children’s children. 

But certain members of Congress – in a short-sighted play to squeeze the last drops out of our rivers, streams and wetlands for the benefit of a few wealthy interests – would weaken environmental protections across the board for salmon and other fish, decrease water for refuges, and reduce Californians’ ability to have any say in the management of their water by limiting environmental review. 

What will this accomplish?  Trashing our environment today so that protections need to be even more stringent in the future to restore and recover the ecosystems that serve us. 

What won’t their proposal do?  Apparently, absolutely nothing to improve water supplies for low-income communities whose taps have gone dry…, or to support measures to help farmers weather droughts by getting more crop per drop…, or to invest in the types of urban water supply solutions that progressive city leaders and water managers want.     

Governor Brown’s condemnation last February of the House of Representative’s response to California’s drought applies just as strongly to the drought bill proposals floating around Congress today:

“H.R. 3964 is an unwelcome and divisive intrusion into California’s efforts to manage this severe crisis. It would override state laws and protections, and mandate that certain water interest come out ahead of others. It falsely suggests the promise of water relief when that is simply not possible given the scarcity of water supplies. H.R. 3964 would interfere with our ability to respond effectively and flexibly to the current emergency, and would re-open old water wounds undermining years of progress toward reaching a collaborative long-term solution to our water needs.”

Californians choose their own destiny, and have the ability to forge a path to a sustainable water future. In fact, Governor Brown has already made a strong commitment to door number one with the principles laid out in his California Water Action Plan. The coalition recommendations made today build off that commitment and implement many of those principles. And we won’t let a misguided Congress stand in our way.