There are no politics like water politics. For Westerners, and Californians in particular, no issue excites passions, fuels regionalism or hits the economic bottom line like water.
Facing a dry year and the prospect of quite a few more in the future thanks to climate change, the demands for massive new water development once again are rising to fever pitch, especially from Gov. Jerry Brown and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, both longtime proponents of water development. "The message is clear. California needs a lot more water storage and we need it now," Feinstein wrote in a recent column in The Bee.
Actually, the message isn't at all clear. Nor is it the right message. Of course, Southern Californians want more of the North's water, and they have always been willing to flex their political and financial power to muscle state and federal officials. What isn't clear is that those demanding more water, especially irrigators, are prepared to pay for the additional benefits they are demanding, or to make significant operational changes to justify costly new investments.
The solution to drought is not simply more water project construction certainly not without the water policy reforms that the water hierarchy in Sacramento and Washington has spent decades, and tens of millions of dollars, battling in the courts and Congress. Asserting that the answer is expensive new supplies to satiate ravenous irrigators makes about as much sense as drilling oil and gas in the national parks to subsidize Hummer owners.
Sen. Feinstein misstates the challenge when she writes, "If we don't take significant and rapid action, I fear California is at risk of becoming a desert state."
Most of California is a desert state, and we would do well to manage both water development and water demand with that in mind. Instead, we pretend we can continue to splash the stuff around like it was boundless and cheap.
Water managers in regions like the Middle East long ago invested aggressively in efficient irrigation, revised cropping patterns, wastewater reuse, groundwater management, innovative water banking programs, recharge basins, short-term water transfers and desalination. Those who failed to implement sound water management, such as the ancient Mesopotamians, saw their fertile fields and their economies revert to desert.
Although Sen. Feinstein points to Senate passage of bills to "permit additional water transfers, authorize and expedite groundwater banking plans, require drought management plans and set a deadline to complete the Bay Delta Conservation Plan," many of those bills have not become law or have been underfunded when they do. We need implementation of serious policy and operational reforms in law and contract before we go off on a new multibillion-dollar spending spree to build dams, tunnels and canals. The features of those reforms include:
Cut significantly federal subsidies for water contractors by requiring regular pricing reviews and modifications.
Require that water users agree to repay the total cost of new storage, systems, supply recycling and drainage facilities.
Expand federal investment in authorized water recycling so that water is reused multiple times instead of being dumped into the ocean.
Establish tough and rigorously enforced groundwater management and conjunctive surface and ground water programs so that we can expand underground storage and rejuvenate depleted areas without fear that users will pump aquifers dry.
Mandate and enforce rigorous farm efficiency standards as a pre-condition for eligibility for federal water and subsidies.
Conduct a thorough review of lands under irrigation in the Central Valley to ascertain whether they merit irrigation given current cropping patterns, farm subsidies and international agricultural markets.
Stop delivering public water to irrigate lands that lack the means to minimize runoff.
Outside the archaic world of U.S. water policy, few would contemplate the massive expenditures on storage and delivery demanded by California's big agencies without adherence to rigorous standards for water use and reuse.
Without significant movement toward sensible and overdue reforms, taxpayers would be foolish to pour more money into the same kinds of wasteful policies that have failed in the past. And even if California legislators and voters were to delude themselves into doing so, taxpayers in the other 49 states should justifiably refuse to reward such irresponsible and outdated behavior.
John A. Lawrence was staff director of the House Committee on Natural Resources in the 1990s and worked in Congress for 38 years. He lives in Washington, D.C.