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One year of water left in California – Will you ration now?

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Op-Ed from the LA Times   Read here…

Dear Sierra Club California Members and Friends,

Crossing dry Sandy Wool Lake near Milpitas. Credit: Don DeBold

Recent news about the dreary status of California’s drought, and the mixed response to it, has me wondering why more of us aren’t running down the street looking like the distraught character in painter Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

Water scientist Jay Famiglietti warned last week in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that NASA satellite data, combined with what we know about rapidly declining groundwater stores, shows that California has just about a year’s worth of water left. This is as we come to the close of the fourth dry winter in a row, with no end to the drought in sight.

Right now, Sierra snowpack water content is as low as ever recorded by the Department of Water Resources for this time of year. In some places, it is six percent—and less—of the average.

This grim news shouldn’t come as a surprise. Famiglietti warned that we’re rapidly approaching a waterless reality in a July op-ed, too.

What does come as a surprise is that the level of action to respond to the drought hasn’t been as focused or intense as the issue warrants.

On a positive note of action, the State Water Resources Control Board this week is expected to tell water agencies that they need to actively limit to two the number of days homeowners and commercial businesses can water their landscapes. This may seem like something that should have happened at least a year ago, but that it is happening at all is a good move.

On the other hand, the governor just spent some of his precious time working the system in Washington, DC to try to clear the way for his San Francisco Bay Delta tunnel project. And there is likely to be additional efforts by Congress to accelerate the tunnels or weaken other laws protecting the Delta.

Absolutely nothing about the tunnels project will help California’s drought. At best it would just dangerously delay the inevitable necessity to dramatically change the way we deal with water. It’s a distraction.

Our focus now needs to be on regional solutions to increase conservation and careful reuse and recycling. Huge infrastructure projects better suited to the Eisenhower era—the governor’s tunnels, some proposed dams—provide certain big engineering firms with fat public contracts. But they don’t solve or even rationally respond to the essential problem: We are in the fourth year of a drought driven by climate disruption. Drought is going to be a more frequent and more intense part of our existence, and so we need to permanently change the way we handle water in California permanently.

And that brings me back to the water scientist, Jay Famiglietti. The guy deserves a medal for speaking out clearly about the problem and offering solutions. In last week’s op-ed, he recommended four things that need to happen to address the drought: mandatory water rationing across sectors, accelerated implementation of the groundwater act passed last year, a task force of thought leaders to brainstorm better long-term water management in the state, and public ownership of the drought and water management issues.

Californians use about twice as much water per capita for residential use as Australians. The Australians weren’t always so thrifty. They had to entirely redo their approach to water as they trudged through a ten-year drought.

Many of the things the Australians did are consistent with Famiglietti’s four-point proposal. But we now know that we don’t have ten years to spare. Indeed, some communities in the state already don’t have drinking water.

If you are looking for ways to personally cut your water use, there are some great resources online. One of the best is produced by a consortium of Arizona communities. It lists nearly 200 things you can do to save water. California also has a water saver website with similar recommendations.

Personal responsibility is important. But, as Famiglietti’s list suggests, there are key policy shifts needed, too. So on your behalf, we’ll keep pressing here in Sacramento for those shifts.

We will continue to oppose the Bay Delta tunnels and any proposed dams.  We hired a new staff person who focuses on groundwater law implementation and other water issues.  And we’ll continue to educate and promote ways for everyone to conserve.


Kathryn Phillips

Kathryn Phillips

Sierra Club California is the Sacramento-based legislative and regulatory advocacy arm of the 13 California chapters of the Sierra Club.

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