California Forum

California’s water problem? Demand keeps rising and supply stays the same

The two largest north-south water delivery systems in California – the Edmund G. Brown California Aqueduct, which is part of the State Water Project, and the Delta-Mendota Canal, part of the federal Central Valley Project.
The two largest north-south water delivery systems in California – the Edmund G. Brown California Aqueduct, which is part of the State Water Project, and the Delta-Mendota Canal, part of the federal Central Valley Project. Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

Last week I attended a town hall meeting in Fresno where the topic was new dams and, more importantly, water in general. The five-member panel included two California assemblymen and one state senator, all from the San Joaquin Valley. The politicians were all on their game with answers and non-answers depending upon the questions.

What struck me, most of all, was the disconnect between politics, political reality and science. One politician stated that California’s water supply has increased 1 percent since 1950, yet the population has tripled. He then mentioned how California needs more water; his fellow politicians reiterated this comment and expanded upon it referencing the need for more water for growth.

Yes, we can move water around the state, slow its flow down, park it for use later, store it underground, but all of these “fixes” are just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

As a water scientist I know that water is a finite resource, renewable annually but variable through time and space. More critically, we as a society have pushed our use of water to the limit.

On all non-flood years, California uses all available surface water, and to meet excess water demand, we mine groundwater. This unsustainability is not a new phenomenon: In the San Joaquin Valley we have been unsustainably overdrafting groundwater since 1947. The valley is not alone. San Francisco has been unsustainable since Hetch Hetchy was accessed; Los Angeles has been unsustainable since the Owens Valley aqueduct.

California’s water problem, at the most basic level, is one of water demand exceeding water supply. Nature supplies us with the water and nature has not increased our supply while population and water demand have multiplied immensely.

The only way our water travails will be “fixed” is to lower our collective demand for water to match the natural supply of water. Yes, we can move water around the state, slow its flow down, park it for use later, store it underground, but all of these “fixes” are just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Lowering water demand to match water supply is needed to achieve sustainability. Why do we need sustainability? We don’t; we can be greedy and use up all available surface and groundwater for our current lifestyles and economies for the short term, but there will be dire consequences.

Biologists have a term: carrying capacity. For a given ecosystem there is a given amount of life the ecosystem will support. If the amount of life exceeds the carrying capacity the ecosystem collapses, and life dies off until it is below the carrying capacity.

To be sustainable, and that means over long periods of time, you can not exceed the system’s carrying capacity. So why be sustainable? It is not for us. It is for our children and grandchildren, for future generations, so that they have water for their lives. We trade our greed now for their future well-being.

This is a hard sell to both the populace and the politicians they elect. For politicians to be re-elected it is far better to tell their constituents that they need more “new” water than to tell them they are going to have to use less water and that it will cost them more for that water.

It takes political courage and leadership to sell this message but it needs to be done. California is currently unsustainable with respect to water. Until sustainability is achieved we will always have water problems and need evermore water fixes.

David Cehrs, a Sanger citrus farmer, has a doctorate in hydrology and is board president of the Kings River Conservation District. Reach him at dcehrs@verizon.net.

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