Soapbox

Another View: Don’t ease up on water conservation

A worker tends a reverse osmosis assembly at the Carlsbad desalination plant. A number of California’s coastal cities are studying desalinization to ease water shortages.
A worker tends a reverse osmosis assembly at the Carlsbad desalination plant. A number of California’s coastal cities are studying desalinization to ease water shortages. New York Times file

State and federal agencies seem to disagree about California’s drought. The Department of Water Resources and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s 2016 Drought Contingency Plan, released Friday, painted a grim picture, but that same day, the State Water Resources Control Board staff proposed to relax emergency drought regulations.

Some farmers in California’s Central Valley are bracing for a third year without federal irrigation water. So how can we rationalize backing off conservation, recognized as the least expensive, fastest and most environmentally sound way to meet water needs?

It’s clear that the water board is responding to pressure from certain water suppliers and groups such as the Association for California Water Agencies (“Agencies deserve credit for water supply investments,” Viewpoints, Jan. 12).

In the midst of California’s worst drought in more than 1,200 years, they argue that meeting emergency conservation requirements discourages development of local supplies. These arguments are unsubstantiated. The agencies are essentially saying that regions that spent their money on expensive new local supplies such as desalination should be allowed to waste more water from both local and non-local sources than other parts of the state.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Water suppliers haven’t provided any evidence that meeting conservation goals would hinder their ability to fully operate new desalination facilities. There are numerous incentives – financial and otherwise – to expand water supplies, including Proposition 1, which authorizes $7 billion for water supply infrastructure projects.

The real reason is that suppliers want to increase water sales – including water imported from the Delta – to pay for their investments in expensive desalination facilities.

Despite recent rains we are still in a drought and don’t know what the future holds. The water board’s proposed adjustments will promote the development of new supplies as a drought response strategy.

But experience shows that big projects often result in unused infrastructure after the drought ends, leaving ratepayers footing the bill. Just ask Australians about the billions spent on now decommissioned desalination facilities.

Our best strategy is to pursue more cost-effective conservation opportunities before considering expensive new local projects such as desalination.

Tracy Quinn is a senior water policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council office in Santa Monica. She can be contacted at tquinn@nrdc.org.

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