Ben Boychuk

California’s response to drought has fallen woefully short

Boat slips sit on the dry lake bed at Brown’s Marina on Folsom Lake last November. Responding to the drought, the state has tightened water restrictions, and Gov. Jerry Brown has announced an emergency relief bill Thursday.
Boat slips sit on the dry lake bed at Brown’s Marina on Folsom Lake last November. Responding to the drought, the state has tightened water restrictions, and Gov. Jerry Brown has announced an emergency relief bill Thursday. The Associated Press

This drought, this water emergency – the worst in our short recorded history – is so serious that the State Water Resources Control Board voted Tuesday to mandate that hotels give patrons the option of declining fresh linens and require homeowners to limit watering their lawns to just two days a week.

This crisis – the worst I’ve experienced in my relatively short 44 years – is so dire that Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic leaders in the Legislature unveiled a $1.1 billion emergency drought relief bill Thursday that would dole out subsidies for farmers to buy “low-polluting equipment” and money for idled farmworkers to buy food. That’s on top of last year’s $687 million emergency relief legislation.

Four years into this calamity, the snowpack looks bleak, our reservoirs are depleting, water tables are falling, once-verdant farmland is fallow and certain Central Valley communities are completely dry. So, beginning in April, the state says you’ll have to ask for a glass of water at a restaurant – which has been the norm at many places for years.

Last year, Brown urged residents, businesses and government agencies to cut water consumption by 20 percent from 2013 levels. By January, California’s city dwellers had cut their water use by just 9 percent. That’s the average, mind you. Los Angeles residents cut their consumption by 1.1 percent between January 2013 and the start of this year. San Diegans actually increased their water use by 4 percent.

In my hometown of Rialto, water consumption spiked nearly 35 percent since January 2013, according to state data. Hey, don’t look at me. I’ve got “if it’s yellow let it mellow” tattooed on my brain and I’m resigned to letting my lawn die, even as the guy down the street still waters his grass, much of the sidewalk and part of the street.

Yet the governor the other day told reporters he thinks California is doing “pretty well” conserving water voluntarily.

Something isn’t computing. Some people are already entertaining crazy notions. Call it “drought trutherism.”

A few weeks ago, a story began circulating on social media that suggested maybe, just maybe, this drought is a hoax. After all, if things are really as bad as we’re told, why haven’t authorities started rationing water yet?

The cognitive dissonance is rooted in blinkered and shortsighted public policy. Only now are policymakers beginning to think long-term again.

On Monday, the Public Policy Institute of California published a new report offering several ways to address the drought. Unfortunately, it’s the next drought.

The study recommends “better water use information, clear priority-setting, stronger demand and supply management, and forward-looking environmental drought management.” Using Australia’s response to its 17-year Millennium Drought as a model, the PPIC authors find much to like in the way they centralized water management through high-tech monitoring of flow, storage, discharges and use. But everything the PPIC study recommends would require years – more likely decades in this litigation-happy state – to pull off.

That’s also true of the projects voters approved last November in Proposition 1, the too-little-too-late $7.5 billion water bond. The measure would barely make a dent in the state’s storage requirements. Environmentalists oppose it anyway; the Sierra Club said that “all of those projects are extremely expensive” and “they would not create new water.”

No kidding. Delaying necessary work until a crisis compels it can be expensive.

What is it going to take? What will they say when California’s $30 billion agricultural-export industry founders? When property values collapse? When will this governor stop sending mixed messages?

If our situation is dire and dismal now, imagine what superlatives we’ll be using a year from now: nightmarish, cataclysmic, apocalyptic.

And tragic. Because we got ourselves into this mess – and we waited too long to get out.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Contact him at bboychuk@city-journal.org.

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