California is entering the third, critical year of a severe drought. Communities north and south are bracing for potential water shortages, and the state’s economy is at risk just at a time when it is recovering from recession.
After members of our board of directors and I visited some of the state water system’s key facilities in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta – the heart of the state’s ongoing water crisis – we came away with a much better understanding of the need for long-term solutions.
What’s scary is that we’re experiencing water shortages more often, and with less rain and snow they are likely to become much more severe.
It’s obvious the water system is broken and long overdue for an upgrade. And that’s what a key element of Gov. Jerry Brown’s overall water strategy – the Bay Delta Conservation Plan – is all about.
The last time we went into the third year of drought was in the summer of 2009. Hundreds of thousands of acres of productive farmlands had to be shut down. Millions of dollars in crops were lost because there wasn’t enough water to sustain them. Jobs were lost. Many cities had to ration water supplies. And food banks had to be set up in the Central Valley towns that used to supply fresh fruits and vegetables to the world.
This year could be even worse. Many of our reservoirs are already drawn down. Groundwater supplies in many areas have been depleted. In some parts of the San Joaquin Valley, the U.S. Geological Survey warns that the land is giving way and sinking. That kind of subsidence could threaten highways, pipelines and communications facilities that are vital for California to function.
Water shortages affect every kind of business, small and large. Without water, consumers won’t be able to count on getting the fresh produce grown to California’s exacting standards. That impacts packing sheds, trucking companies, delivery services, restaurants, food processors, beverage bottlers and the hundreds of ancillary businesses that supply them with goods and services. It’s a domino effect that ripples through the overall economy.
The shortages we experienced in 2009 showed that as communities dry up, the businesses that provide families with the various necessities of life either close down or move away. Demands for medical care go up. In some areas, crime rates increased as well.
It doesn’t have to be this way. California’s natural water supply has always varied from one year to the next depending on how much rain and snow we get. We built the modern water system to smooth out these natural peaks and valleys in supply.
But over the last half century we’ve added so many new demands on the water system and imposed so many restrictions on its operation that we have lost that essential flexibility. Some major urban water agencies are concerned that the existing crazy quilt of regulations will prevent them from keeping their own reservoirs full over the long term. Worse, because we pump such a large part of our public water supplies through the Delta, the rapid deterioration of environmental conditions there is threatening the drinking water for two-thirds of the people who live in California.
To solve the crisis, the Legislature called on state and federal experts to come up with a plan that will address the environmental needs of the Delta and restore the reliability of our water system. The governor’s proposed plan is the result of seven years of intensive negotiations among the state’s major water interests, hundreds of public meetings, and the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars on state-of-the-art scientific research and analysis.
Some who are opposed to the governor’s plan say we can get by doing less or that we should be turning to the ocean as a source of water. But water conservation and desalination are already part of the state’s water planning; by themselves they cannot meet our future needs.
Dealing with California’s water needs has never been easy. Add to that the urgent need to protect the Delta and the challenge has never been greater. The Bay Delta Conservation Plan as part of the broader state water plan represents a reasonable path forward.
Betty Jo Toccoli is president of the California Small Business Association.