If you’ve been following California politics and government, or really any Western government actions, you’ve probably noticed that the California Water Resources Board, which governs water use in the state, recently did something unprecedented: they made wasting water a criminal offense, punishable by a $500 fine.
This decision was prompted by two facts. First, California is in the middle of one of the worst droughts it has experienced in recorded history (this is the driest year in the 113 year history of the city of Sacramento, the state capitol). Second Californians have not responded to Governor Jerry Brown’s calls for water conservation. Despite repeated exhortations to the contrary, water use is down only 5% across the state this year (versus Brown’s 20% goal, though conservation patterns have been uneven (the Sacramento area has surpassed it’s goals; the Los Angeles area has fallen far short).
The Water Board’s fines have prompted the typical backlash from consumers, not to mention jurisdictional confusion within local authorities. While the fines are themselves unprecedented, they are more interesting when considered alongside a larger state water project currently under consideration: a pair of tunnels under the Sacramento River, each as wide as a two lane highway, running the River’s water south to the farmers of the Central Valley and the green lawns of Los Angeles, with a total cost of $15 billion.
The tunnel project is meant to alleviate some of the pressures on the fragile San Joaquin River Delta, which is nearing ecological collapse due to the growing water withdrawals currently providing for some 25 million people and 750,000 acres of farmland. While it will relax some of the extreme pressure being faced by the Delta, the tunnel project does little to alleviate the deeper issue at hand: Caliornia is a dry state, most of its water falls far from where it is used.
Los Angeles, being one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, is also one of the thirstiest. However, most of California’s water comes from either out of state (mostly via the Colorado River) or the mountainous northeast of the state. This has a resulted in the construction of one of the largest water systems in the world, designed to move all that water from the east and northeast to the growing Southland.
The tunnel project, despite its innovating design and ecological benefits, is more of the same – an infrastructure-intensive effort to shuffle water around the state, rather than address the underlying pattern of unbalanced water use across the state. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wallace Stegner once said that the history of the West was driven by aridity. For nearly a century California has addressed its inherent aridity by shuffling water around the state via high-profile, enormous infrastructure projects that win political points but do not address the underlying problem. Because water is priced so cheaply, and well below its true cost, there has never been much of an incentive to save – except in drought years. This has resulted in a state that lurches from water crisis to water crisis, with flashy, big-spending water allocation projects meant to “fix the drought” sprinkled in. However, population growth and climate change are combining to make this approach increasingly unfeasible. New thinking around water use, water rights, and water management are needed, unless the state is to resort to increasingly expensive efforts to maintain the status quo.
Image Credit: Matt Buck via Wikimedia Commons