New Clear Vision


constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted


Sustainable Water Use?

June 01, 2012 By: NCVeditor Category: Ecology, Martin Zehr, Politics

Water Budgets Meet Financial Budgets in California ‘Water Wars’

by Martin Zehr, aka Mato Ska

There is an increasing body of evidence that any resolution to the peripheral canal and Delta infrastructure is meeting a financial wall around which there is no room to maneuver. What is happening in California is no different in many ways from what is happening elsewhere. Water wars are driven by allocations, financial and hydrological. Coastal urban allocations in California are disproportional in their priority because of the use of geo-political entities. As the Central Valley becomes more urbanized there is an increase in their political representation. But as long as diversions are the solution of choice in California, regional planning will never be utilized to integrate urban users with agricultural and rural users in the decision-making process.

There is a real base of support here in California among ag and rural users for regional planning. At this stage, this is primarily to get the State Legislature out of the process. Politically, there remains the Arnold attitude towards water that “We can have it all.” This is simply because of the political control of the State Legislatures by urban users.

Establishing new geographical and political parameters for diversions would change this impulse. Coastal waters have not been included in the array of supply options in California. There remain untapped potential supplies that have been modeled elsewhere. “Desalination systems account for a fifth of the freshwater used in Israel and, according to existing plans, by the end of the decade that amount will be doubled.” The freshwater fetishness has provided other options not previously on the table.

Wastewater has been tapped by Orange County as a source for municipal water supplies. Pacific Institute concluded in a 2006 study: “Is desalination the ultimate solution to our water problems? No. Is it likely to be a piece of our water management puzzle? Yes. In the end, decisions about desalination developments will revolve around complex evaluations of local circumstances and needs, economics, financing, environmental and social impacts, and available alternatives. We urge that such decisions be transparent, honest, public, and systematic.”

Point being: that the tax structure has too long defined the water debates for revenues. No discussion of a tiered water severance tax has been broached. No local revenue raising regional bodies are being proposed to provide collaborative adaptive governance for long-term regional planning. Diversions will always prove to be projects with enormous price tags attached. California’s state budget has been the source of its system of aqueducts throughout the state. But that party is over. In November 2012, the Safe, Clean, and Reliable Drinking Water Supply Act of 2012 will be on the ballot in California. If passed, it will enable the state to borrow $11.1 billion for water projects. “The state makes yearly debt payments of about $10 billion on its $89 billion debt load.”

Fundamental questions to raise are: Will the charge of the project to users impact on local ag and urban water use in the Central Valley? Will this impact the economic situation and food production of the Central Valley? Are there any options that can address the issue of supply of water equitably for the Central Valley? I think I have included several of those options that have not been developed. A public planning process would certainly increase the options explored for their feasibility.

The concerns of the Delta residents are distinct and addressing them needs to acknowledge that existing political entities have not proven capable of addressing the complexities of infrastructure needs. As things stand the water war has benefited neither the Delta nor the Central Valley. It raises the question of whether the Central Valley Aquifer provides a hydrological linkage between the two regions that could bring them together in a regional water planning process. Is it possible for such diverse stakeholders to sit down together at the same table and map out a common future in regards to water management? Can they accurately gauge supplies, evaluate demand, establish a regional or sector-based annual water budget, improve measurement and monitoring, develop infrastructure, establish sustainable goals for conservation, maintain appropriate water quality guidelines based on the character of the usage, raise revenues, and work in conjunction with Federal and state agencies?

That’s a plateful. The questions that can be raised to get a clearer picture of the context faced by water users and the environment today are: Can the State Legislature continue to use the Public Trust Doctrine to build massive projects, more often than not, for California’s coastal metropolitan uses from rural regions of the state? Can our state budget manage to come up with the funds needed to finance the projects as they have been developed in the past? Can the supplies address the demands of the wide array of beneficial water use in a sustainable manner? Can growth be balanced on the basis of renewable supplies of water? Can rural communities work in conjunction with long-term planners in developing rural conservation ordinances that don’t deplete the aquifer? Will urban users recognize their own responsibilities in adapting to local resources without depending on other regions of the state for their supplies?

These kinds of questions are centered on the issue of water governance and not simply diversions. The answers to the questions require a review of existing entities as they empower users and efficiently and effectively manage our water resource. It is becoming increasingly clear that the state of California cannot simply drop bonds out there to provide new supplies for coastal regions. The state’s regions need to develop the most holistic evaluation of their resources and establish their own priorities in regards to the maximum utilization and development of the resource.

Regions in California already have the resources, both natural and financial, to develop new long-term plans to be implemented in a fair and consistent manner. It should be said that coastal regions and others have begun to demonstrate innovations in ground water management. “The regions are increasingly developing their own means of addressing water management that have produced new models of stakeholder engagement, Among other things, we see agencies using measurable objectives for limiting groundwater drawdown; analyzing suites of management options with transparent decision criteria and simulations; collaborating with neighboring agencies; involving a broad range of agricultural, municipal, environmental, State, and federal stakeholders in their planning decisions; undertaking groundwater metering as well as monitoring; actively controlling pumping to limit groundwater drawdown; and protecting hydrologically connected surface waters and groundwater-dependent ecosystems.”

Bad actors in water use should not be extended the continued graciousness of getting supplies from others as a reward. On the other hand, the potential for improving the employment situation in areas such as Los Angeles has been demonstrated to be the most effective in the development of water resources. In a recent study by the Economic Roundtable it is presented that: “Los Angeles is the most populous region of California, with average daily water use of 135 gallons per person – 49,275 gallons per person annually. Population growth and demands from other regions for an increasing share of the water that has traditionally come to Los Angeles is making it increasingly difficult and expensive for Los Angeles to import enough water to meet local demand…Periodic droughts and the high costs of importing water from the Sacramento Delta and Colorado River Basin make the need to achieve greater water use efficiency even more urgent.” “Findings from the Economic Roundtable’s study indicate that there are much greater local benefits from investing in local water use efficiency projects than from equivalent investments in massive statewide projects.”

The plentifulness of our resources and the resourcefulness of our people can effectively and efficiently be utilized at the regional levels. Whether in the Delta, the Central Valley or the metropolitan coastal regions, there lies the foundation for new and adaptive water governance that does not simply jump from crisis to crisis. Now, more than ever, we have to find new avenues for construction and development of our resource infrastructure. Those being impacted by decisions need to have political entities that are open, transparent and representative of stakeholders, managers, specialists, and the environment.

Martin Zehr is a Green Party member who lives in San Francisco and has been active in water planning in the Middle Rio Grande region of New Mexico. He writes political articles on the need for third parties, the contemporary failures of public education, the Kurdish national movement, and water management and urban planning. He was given the name Mato Ska in a traditional ceremony, and is a Peace and Dignity runner.

3 Comments to “Sustainable Water Use?”


  1. Recent reports by the BBC, and the African Union, revealed that there were communities in Eastern Africa that had learnt to survive on five litres of water a day.
    We have to ask ourselves as to why the peoples in Los Angeles and London [ that is, in the USA and Europe] have to use more than 134 gallons a day?
    Can we not learn how to survive on 25 gallons a day? or even 5 gallons?
    In the future, such communities are going to have to cope with less water, by choice or by force.
    At the same time, a report today indicated that we will have to learn to survive with greater carbon dioxide, more than 400 parts per million, and the associated changes in climate and vegetation growth.

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  2. Kuhio Kane says:

    One good step is to understand that Ag is using the majority of water in Calif. and of that great amount, most of that is going to crop production that is water-intensive (and petroleum-intensive). Namely, cotton. The other significant issue is that population drives everything. Add the increasing climate changes and it spells disaster for water supplies.

    I am a city and regional planner who has been a part of desalinization siting. During one drought season, Santa Barbara, a coastal project, built a desalinization plant as a “backup” in the event of droughts cutting off water supplies to Ag as well as the suburban areas from sources like Lake Cachuma.

    The plant was sited, built, and operated just long enough to say that it could be done and then left to rust away, the scrap steel being sold off.

    World studies suggest that the impact of population usage in the San Joaquin Valley and Los Angeles Basin areas have reached, or will soon reach carrying capacities beyond attainment. That drives industry, Agriculture, to more suitable geographies. That is, outsourcing crop development outside of the US.

    The Salinas Valley has benefited from additional water from the Nacimiento reservoir, but increased Ag use and the population that comes with that growth, in a coastal setting, will drive a decrease of delivery that will be disastrous to the un-ending growth model, and to the continuation of wrongful distribution of water intensive crop cultures continued cotton growing and increasing development of viticulture.

    Time for California to identify the end of the “frontier hangover” that pervades local and regional planning: there are no new resources of significance that will sustain current growth patterns, and there are no new valleys to the west to populate and farm. The increasing acidity of ocean water will drive costs of desalination out of reach for most users and aquaculture will need to become self contained from open ocean waters and thereby limit production. We are facing an end of the endless supply. As the Sierra snowpack melts earlier in the year and with decreasing volume, people and Ag will need to re-proportionalize. Or move, like the Anasazi before them. This is the desertification of the West and Southwest.

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  3. The people need to be educated that water is a finite resource. There is enough supply now and probably the reason why less people care. Only until it becomes scarce will they realize their actions.

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