Dwindling water supplies: Who will protect us?

One has to wonder these days just exactly what it’s going to take to get more water storage in California — empty faucets?

This state of 38 million thirsty Californians continues to teeter on disaster as the likelihood of global warming and actual drought conditions promise to make water a more precious commodity than oil.

While Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger continue talks on a state water bond to be placed on this November’s ballot, legislative water solutions remain beyond arm’s reach as the problem mounts. Feinstein has long pushed for state money for dams, parting ways with other leading Democrats who have strongly opposed using public money to pay for surface water storage. To the senator’s credit, she has called for a “comprehensive solution” that would include money for dams and groundwater storage, as well as repairs to the deteriorating Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Meanwhile, while Feinstein and Schwarzenegger are busy crafting some kind of water bill for the fall, a proposal sponsored by the California Chamber of Commerce and other business and farm groups is gathering names to place an $11.7 billion water bond initiative on the ballot. Among the water projects is $3.5 billion set aside for dams. The group has until July 14 to collect 433,971 valid signatures from voters.

I realize that it is hard to get worked up about water shortage concerns when the ground is saturated from the several recent storms we’ve had in California, but when I speak with my association members the subject of water storage remains a hot topic that members consider a top priority. And, of course, they too are scratching their heads over the stalled negotiations. Consider the following.

•As pointed out elsewhere in this publication a few issues back, farmers on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley may be facing water rates as high as $500 per acre foot later this year for surface irrigation water deliveries. That was the bid for water on the auction block last summer after state and federal officials slowed down the Delta pumps because smelt were swimming too near the pumps. Farmers have no reason to believe the price will be lower this year.

•Late last year, the California Department of Water Resources told the water agencies that serve two-thirds of Californians that they can expect just 25 percent of their normal allocations this year, down from 60 percent in 2007.

Several cities in Southern California have declared water emergencies. Residents of Long Beach, for example, can’t run fountains, and it’s now illegal for restaurants to serve customers a glass of water unless they request it.

The high premium for water has been especially painful for those served by Los Angeles’ giant Metropolitan Water District, whose other main source of water, the Colorado River, is in its eighth year of drought.

•In Bakersfield, water shortages are expected to force some almond and pistachio growers to triage which of their nut trees should survive. And cities across California are drawing down underground water supplies meant to carry them through dry years just to avoid any new purchases.

•California farmers probably will take 82,000 acres out of cultivation this year if the state gets an average amount of rain and snow this winter, according to a recent study commissioned by Western Growers, which represents the California and Arizona produce industries. The economic loss would reach at least $69 million in farm production, according to the study.

•Adding another bleak component to the problem is global warming. Whether you believe in global warming or not, a recent study by climate researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, should get your attention. Their computer simulations of shrinking sea ice show that, outside of the Arctic itself, the most striking impact is the formation of a large, stubborn atmospheric feature off the West Coast that, like a boulder in a stream, deflects winter storms northward. While their climate simulations were interesting when events in the Arctic seemed to be keeping pace with gradually warming temperatures, what happened last summer to the sea ice has given researchers a much more profound sense of urgency.

In September, at the end of the 2007 “melt season,” the area covered by Artic sea ice had shrunk 23 percent below the previous record set in 2005 and was 43 percent less than in 1979, when satellite measurements began. Several scientists called the event “shocking.”

When they ran the computer model with sea ice conditions as they are anticipated to exist in 2050, along the West Coast, from southern British Columbia to Baja California, winter precipitation dropped as much as 30 percent, and even as far inland as the Rocky Mountains it fell by 17 percent. The study, published in the journal Science, noted: “Almost all models have a drying trend in the American Southwest, and they consistently become drier throughout the century.”

All the red flags are waving and have been for years. But the pending water crisis is upon us and presents a very real threat, but a political vacuum and internecine warfare continue to stall sensible action. Environmental activists appear to be in a philosophical quandary over the matter: on the one hand they see water supply as the key element in land use and other development issues and believe that restricting supply will somehow slow growth; on the other hand they oppose restrictions on immigration (that add to population growth) while also believing in global warming scenarios that imply the state needs more storage to capture winter rains and offset the loss of snowpack.

Let’s hope our state’s political leaders soon will come to their senses over this important issue and resolve it, whether it is by building new reservoirs, conservation and other forms of non-storage water management, replenishing underground aquifers, or a combination thereof. Our survival, and that of generations to come, depends on it.

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