This may come as a shock: When it comes to water, California’s biggest problem is not the drought. The real problem is what the drought has exposed – the fundamental weaknesses in how we manage water in the state. Without major and permanent changes now, no amount of rain this winter will fix the situation for the long term.
Instead of working together, there has been too much fingerpointing – “too many almonds,” “fish get too much protection,” etc. It is time to stop the blame game and start addressing the problem, not just the symptoms.
The drought is a wake-up call to do things differently. What keeps me up at night is not our current water shortages, but that we will look back in five or 10 years and ask: “During the worst drought in decades, did we do enough to address our water system’s fundamental weaknesses?”
I have spent my career working in water, and at no other time have I seen the kind of opportunity that we have before us now.
California has been living for too long off of the investments in water infrastructure made by previous generations, and has failed to put in place a long-term, consistent funding plan to pay what it actually costs to create and maintain a 21st-century water system.
Much of California’s water management system was developed 50 to 100 years ago. Our water needs and supplies have changed significantly since then, as our population increased to nearly 40 million. We have failed to invest enough at state and local levels to adequately fund water recycling programs, stormwater capture, groundwater recharge, improved urban conservation, increased agricultural irrigation efficiency and to ensure safe water for disadvantaged communities.
Another critical issue facing us, despite decades of regulations, is that many of California’s vital ecosystems are in serious decline, and essential habitat restoration projects have languished for decades. Because of our failure to invest, we have increased the tension between a healthy environment and our economy. The effect of degraded habitats goes beyond ecosystem impacts, creating a domino-effect impact on water supply, water quality and our economy.
Finally, the drought also is exposing the weaknesses in our ability to move water where it is needed. Unfortunately, the lack of consistent and accessible information about water rights hinders the ability of private landowners to execute water transfers, and the ability of the state to facilitate transfers while protecting the rights of other users and the environment. We simply don’t have the ability to track how and where water is used and where it may be needed. Nonetheless, California must create a real and transparent water market that enables transfers between willing sellers and buyers. This is absolutely essential to the state achieving the necessary resilience to withstand long periods of drought.
Even as we’re dealing with the worst drought on record, there is reason for optimism. Gov. Jerry Brown has put forth an ambitious California Water Action Plan and is backing it with action. Members of the Legislature are also beginning to take steps that will help us respond to the drought and prepare for an unpredictable future. To help ensure their success, our leaders will need the involvement and support of all Californians, including the business, labor and agricultural communities, as well as local governments and residents.
The drought and the fundamental problems it has exposed is a crisis for all Californians. It’s time for all of us to step up and work together to deal with it.
Lester Snow is executive director of the California Water Foundation and former secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency.