California Forum

Another View: California can solve water problems in a way Australia can’t

Signs like this one dot the landscape around farms near Huron in Fresno County.
Signs like this one dot the landscape around farms near Huron in Fresno County.

When it’s dry in California, pundits start to look toward Australia for comparisons of how to react to drought (“Australia displays key water reforms”; Viewpoints, July 19). But there’s less there than meets the eye, and there’s no reason to believe that tactics employed in that distant land would work in California.

For one thing, California simply does not share Australia’s hydrology. California has water resources Australia lacks, including great rivers and, in some years at least, an abundant high-mountain snowpack. If forecasts of climate change prove correct, California will not likely become drier overall – in other words, more like Australia – so much as that dry periods may be longer and wet periods “flashier” and more intense.

Policy prescriptions that flow from such projected changes in hydrology make a discussion about adopting “the Australian model” a complete non sequitur. Instead, in our wet years we must capture more water to make it through our dry years: precisely what California voters overwhelmingly endorsed with the passage of the Proposition 1 water bond last year.

Understanding California’s water crunch as a problem of current scarcity recognizes that reorganizing water rights – on the basis of the Australian model or any other – will not create one additional drop of water for California. That’s because a water rights system is nothing more than a way to allocate an unreliable and sometimes scarce resource. Changing the system without adding more storage only creates a different set of problems, without creating additional supply.

To be sure, some ideas being discussed could improve California’s water system, at the margins. There’s a place for short-term water markets, where willing sellers can address scarcity in a way that protects third parties and areas where the water originates. Better real-time measurement of rainfall and river levels can help water users gauge actual availability against their water rights. But there is nothing to suggest that wide-open markets are all we need to accommodate California’s growing population, its food needs and the environment.

California is not Australia. Our water problem can be addressed in a way that Australia’s can’t: by adding storage. We have the opportunity to respond to our chronic water unreliability and increasing scarcity in this forward-looking manner, without cannibalizing each other’s water supplies by changing well-established rules.

Chris Scheuring is an environmental attorney for the California Farm Bureau Federation in Sacramento.