Coastal Post Online


October, 2002

California's New Water Wars:
Let's Act Now to Head Off Looming Water Crisis
By: Jeff Loux

If you hated last year's energy crisis, think how much worse life will be if California doesn't have enough water. Water supply is California's next "crisis." Water affects every family and industry. Farming, tourism, fisheries, and human health all depend on adequate water. While we fret over a terrorist attack on our water storage system, the greater threat probably comes from runaway growth outstripping supply. Failure to link growth and water supply has placed us on the edge of a serious water crisis. Will there be enough wet stuff for fish, farms and families as California continues to grow?

The state's water infrastructure is as aged and inadequate for today's demands as is our energy grid. Supplying water to Californians will become more difficult as the state grows to 42.7 million people by the year 2015. Reservoirs were built to supply a population about half what it will be in 15 years. A tunnel that brings millions of gallons to the Bay Area hasn't been inspected or maintained in 25 years. And the state doesn't have the money to bankroll needed improvements. If we make the same mistakes with water that we made with energy, we'll all soon shower from a bucket.

There are few things water cannot penetrate or erode, given time. But it hasn't overcome the political divisions caused by fights over water rights. Farms consumer 80 percent of the state's developed water, and cities and environmentalists are eyeing that share with deep thirst. Farmers are even fighting one another now. Prepare yourself for the next great battle in California's long water wars.

Water supplies are becoming less flexible due to drought, contamination and overdrafted groundwater supplies. Farm irrigation run-off is carrying toxic chemicals to aquifers and tributaries. Urban runoff through storm drains is doing the same to rivers and bays. Careful long-range planning is a necessity.

Rainfall is way down this year in Southern California. Rainfall in the north is high. Three-fourths of California's water use is south of Sacramento, while three-quarters of California's precipitation falls north of the capital. But shipping water from north to south is a hot button issue. Predictions are for less future Sierra snowpack, due to global warming, intensifying water shortage problems. From fights over Yosemite and the Owens Valley, to the Peripheral Canal battle, control of water has permeated past California politics. Those fights are echoed in current battles over tapping the Salton Sea to provide water for fast-growing San Diego, and diverting north state water for Central Valley farming thus harming fisheries. Competing interests are already suing one another, threatening water deliveries.

This year looms as a watershed year for our future. In November, voters will decide the fate of a $3.5 billion water bond, the third since 1996. The Legislature is considering a separate $2.9-billion water bond for the ballot. But even it passed they're just a drop in the bucket of what's needed. Congress will vote on a long-term water management plan, without which the federal government won't continue funding to the state's Bay-Delta and other water projects. California will lose 15% of its Colorado River supply by 2016, while growing by 30 percent. We must have a plan in place this year to absorb that cut, or the federal government could cut off 800,000 acre-feet of water to California. Water has already become a point of contention in this year's governor's race. Bill Simon is trying to gain the upper hand on Gray Davis, claiming the governor is not moving fast enough to anticipate and solve the state's looming water shortage.

The State took an important step last year toward improving the linkage between water availability and growth. The new law stands for the notion that we should not be planning and approving new development without reliable, sustainable and high quality water sources, and impacts how communities address water supply issues. Water agencies must now determine that a sufficient water supply is available, not only for newly proposed large housing developments, but for existing customers as well, before those new developments are approved. If the local jurisdiction finds inadequate long-term water supplies, they must propose plans for increasing supply. Without this new information in Water Plans, agencies are not eligible for funds from the Department of Water Resources until 2006. No plan, no water. It's as simple as that. It makes sense, but up until now has never been done before.

Areas with chronic water supply problems may intensify their search for new supplies, or stretch supplies through conservation, reuse and water transfers. Development interests will spend more effort investigating water supply options. Over time, the technical state of the art for water supply and demand forecasting and planning will improve.

One small step was taken last year to get control over where growth occurs, and this year we can take a few more steps toward heading off a crisis. You can't grow a flower without water. The same should hold true for a community.

Jeff Loux is the Director of Land Use and Natural Resources for U.C. Davis Extension and Legislative Director for the California Chapter of the American Planning Association. CCAPA is a nonprofit, public interest and research organization representing over 5,000 practicing planners, elected and appointed officials, and concerned citizens involved with urban and rural planning issues in California. The California Chapter's mission is to bring California together to forge a better future; provide the vision and leadership that fosters better planning for California; build public and political support for sound planning; and provide its members with the tools to advance the art and science of planning.