Dan Walters

Opinion: What if California’s drought is permanent?

California’s prolonged drought drew a bit of official attention last week.

The state Water Resources Control Board tightened, ever so slightly, water conservation rules on local water agencies and users.

Two days later, Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders announced a $1.1 billion drought response plan, mostly old wine in new bottles with little immediate effect.

Underlying these tepid responses are assumptions that the drought is still a temporary condition and that mild steps will suffice without major economic or social disruptions.

But what if the drought continues for many years or is even permanent? Shouldn’t we be thinking about alternatives?

They’d begin with some form of permanent rationing affecting all users but probably hitting farmers the hardest. Agriculture ordinarily uses three-quarters of the state’s developed water, so farmers must be part of any doomsday scenario.

We may have to reverse the industry’s recent shift from row crops to more orchards, particularly almonds, and vineyards, both of which require water to stay alive and cannot be fallowed like row crop fields.

Such a reversal would most likely require a major overhaul of the state’s convoluted water rights structure, repricing water to reflect its true value, and tightly regulating groundwater, which is already in the works.

Would that diminish California’s largest-in-the-nation agricultural economy? Perhaps, and fair compensation for those whose water rights are reduced would be necessary. But as visible and water-intensive as it may be, farming is a relatively tiny part of the state’s overall economy.

Shifting water from farms could be an interim step as we embark on a crash program of increasing supply.

More storage – particularly off-stream and low-elevation storage – is needed to capture winter rains as the Sierra snowpack’s reliability diminishes.

Pricing water at its true value could make more intensive wastewater processing and large-scale desalination cost-effective.

Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District is already offering $700 an acre-foot (326,000 gallons) to farmers for water, and some growers are paying up to $2,000 an acre-foot to keep orchards and vineyards from dying.

Some small-scale desalination facilities are being built now, and others that were constructed during earlier droughts and mothballed are being reopened.

The process consumes enormous amounts of electric power, but energy authorities are telling us that we may have a power glut if solar, geothermal and wind-power projects now being planned come on line.

The prospect of semi-permanent drought would require courageous political leadership. We should put at least as much effort into protecting our vital water supply as we are wasting on a bullet train that we neither want nor need.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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