California’s severe drought has proven to be an opportunity to rethink the state’s complex water policies and improve its resilience. Unfortunately, it also is proving to be an opportunity to make political points.
In the past few days, several Republican candidates for president have weighed in, essentially blaming the drought on Democrats, “radical environmental policies” and “global warming alarmists.”
As California swelters and burns through the fourth year of the worst drought in 1,200 years, nonpartisan and bipartisan efforts have been increasingly effective. A multibillion-dollar bond measure passed by voters last year is providing funds for drought relief and new supply and conservation programs. Water utilities are expanding investments in water recycling and reuse. Farmers are growing more food with less water. In short, Californians are stepping up in a crisis to do things differently.
Before their first debate, Gov. Jerry Brown urged Republican presidential candidates to address climate change. Last week, he challenged them again, linking climate change to the extreme drought that contributes to water shortages and increased fire danger: “California’s burning. What the hell are you going to do about it?”
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Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas responded by repeating his dismissal of climate change. The only Californian in the race, Carly Fiorina, argued that the drought was not unusual and California had not built enough reservoirs. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin also blamed the drought on the failure to build more dams.
Calling for new dams reveals a basic lack of understanding of California water issues. The slowdown in dam construction is not due to radical environmental policies. New dams make no economic, environmental or political sense. At most, they could provide a few hundred thousand acre-feet of additional water each year, a tiny fraction of water used by cities and farms.
The state’s urban conservation and efficiency efforts saved more than 180,000 acre-feet in June alone, despite it being the hottest June ever recorded in California. Total savings for the year will exceed 1million acre-feet – far more water at far less cost than any new dams could have generated.
Indeed, water-use efficiency has long proven its potential. California’s toilet efficiency standards are already saving more than 640,000 acre-feet a year compared to 1980, despite a huge increase in population. Another 290,000 acre-feet could still be saved if all toilets met the current standards. In total, new urban and agricultural efficiency improvements and alternative supply options such as water recycling and reuse can save millions of acre-feet more. Alas, it’s easier for some politicians to lament the lack of new dams than to point to smarter modern water strategies.
Water issues are unlikely to play a major role in the 2016 election, and the Republican candidates for president are unlikely to spend much time learning about issues affecting a state they will not win.
But California’s water problems and vulnerability to climate change are not unique here. These are challenges for the entire nation. The call to fall back on old, outmoded and ineffective water strategies reflects a lack of leadership and a broader difficulty acknowledging a rapidly changing world and the need for new thinking. There are smart and effective solutions to climate change, drought and water shortages. Grandstanding political candidates notwithstanding, Californians are already proving they know what needs to be done and are doing it.
Peter H. Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland and a scientist specializing in climate and water issues.