Despite a wet winter, California’s historic drought continues to spark fierce – even bitter – debate over how the state’s water needs should be met in the future.
The core issue is whether we should primarily rely on conservation of what may be a permanently diminished water supply, or make more energetic efforts to increase the supply with new dams and reservoirs, desalination plants, etc.
The two are not, of course, mutually exclusive, and both are certain to play some role, in the future, so it’s really about their relative emphasis.
Nor is the debate confined just to supply and demand. The availability of water is the key factor in larger issues of land use and economic development, including whether higher-density housing will succeed single-family homes, and whether agriculture, the biggest consumer of water, will expand or contract.
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A microcosm of the big debate has been playing out in the State Water Resources Control Board as it revised its drought management regulations.
The emphasis has been on conservation – reducing water use by designated percentages – but some local water agencies have complained that they were being given little or no credit for offsetting the mandated reductions with new supplies.
The San Diego Water Authority and the Orange County Water District, which have actively pursued desalination, wastewater recycling and groundwater replenishment, have been particularly vociferous in seeking credit against conservation targets. They implied that a lack of credits would discourage development of new supplies.
“California water agencies have invested billions of dollars in drought-sustainable water supplies and yet those agencies that have developed sustainable supplies are not receiving credit for their investment,” the Orange County agency told the board in a December letter.
Both suggested that the board give full offsets for their projects, while requiring a minimum 8 percent conservation “floor” for all districts.
This week, the board kept revised conservation targets in place, ranging from 8 percent to 36 percent, but agreed to give agencies up to an 8-percentage-point credit for drought-sustainable supplies – not as much as they wanted, but still something.
Water board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus called it “a little course correction” and “reasonable,” but said the state still must plan for a resumption of drought after this year.
It was not only a skirmish in the conservation vs. supply debate, but also could affect another big water issue – whether twin tunnels should be bored beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to make water deliveries to Southern California more reliable, as Gov. Jerry Brown wants.
The drought has spurred both more intensive conservation efforts and more intensive efforts to develop drought-sustainable supplies in the Southland. Slowly, but surely, the region is becoming less dependent on water from the north, and as it does, the primary rationale for the tunnels – and tapping water users to pay for them – fades.