Planning for Drought: New Ideas About an Old Problem

By Char Miller

An introduction to the papers at the TAIPD conference on water

The divine has a keen sense of irony. On Saturday, March 1, 2014, the same day that the American Institute for Progressive Democracy, a Claremont-based think tank, presented a conference at Scripps College on water scarcity, the skies opened up.

As the Southland was hit with the largest "storm event" in close to three years, speaker after speaker walked to the Garrison Theater podium to talk about aridity, laying out its global dimensions, regional implications, and local ramifications.

The timing, however ironic, was also fortuitous: The dark clouds, hard rain, and thunder claps drove home the difference between weather (short-term analysis) and climate (long term). They exposed our feel-good penchant for the former over the latter, our default emphasis on small steps to insure water conservation that too-often ignores the necessary and systematic alterations to how California and the American west manages, distributes, and utilizes their water resources.

Trying to figure out what some of these bottom-up, lateral, and top-down strategies will be -- and how to integrate them -- was the central focus of the all-day conference, "Water Scarcity and Solutions: Global to Local," attended by upwards of 200 umbrella-toting folks.

Their committed presence was a reminder that no matter how many inches of snow fell on nearby Mount Baldy, or how much runoff sluiced down the college town's streets, these storms did little to counteract the devastating three-year drought that has drained many of California's reservoirs, diminished its lakes, and baked its soils. Taking its belated cue from this harrowing evidence, the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the Central Valley Project so critical to Big Ag irrigation operations in that part of the state, announced in February that most farmers will not receive any acre feet from its pipes and channels; its decision may idle upwards of half a million acres of cropland.

Nothing about this dire future is unusual. So confirmed professors Branwen Williams, Heather Williams, and Richard Hazlett, who kicked off the conference by situating the California experience within its global context; they explored the climatological drivers associated with water scarcity, the accelerating worldwide demand for this precious resource, and questions of equity and access. Will there be, in Heather Williams' words, "enough for all?"

Her answer is a qualified yes, but only if we reframe our discussions around the geology and soils and watersheds into which we have built our lives. Doing so requires us to roll back the cultural priority we grant to the global so that we may develop more participatory approaches to water management consistent with our aspirations to insure equity and promote biodiversity.

But whether this local vision will reap substantial water savings will depend, Branwen Williams and Rick Hazlett pointed out, on the ineluctable link between shifting flows of precipitation and the amount of available surface and groundwater. The latest climate models indicate that wetter areas may get wetter, and drier areas drier, which in the case of Southern California surely will complicate our capacity to sustain present-day populations.

Developing more robust and enforceable national water policies may help resolve some of these dilemmas. That was the message Peter Gleick, head of Oakland's Pacific Institute, brought to the conference. He left behind a list of essential reforms that he and his colleagues believe would provide a more streamlined response to our national water woes.

Chief among them is to resolve the fragmentation within the Executive Branch; it contains more than 20 separate agencies focusing on different aspects of federal water oversight. This is one reason why there is no standard metric by which to assess how much water is actually available from state to state, why there is no integration of national water policies with those governing energy, agriculture, and climate. Another key challenge is scaling back the immense subsidies that the Bureau of Reclamation, the country's largest wholesaler of water, maintains through steep discounts. To underscore this point, Gleick argued that California farmers receiving higher-cost water from the State Water Project are more efficient and productive than those irrigating with super-cheap federal water flowing through the Central Valley Project.

Shifting the dynamic from waste to efficiency, from monopoly to equity, while ushering in what he called "soft path" solutions, would free up more water for more people. Metering water, switching to low-flow technologies, and installing drip irrigation, he declared, "is cheaper and more effective than building new dams."

The same could be said about the ambitious goal to construct two new massive tunnels beneath the Bay Delta to resolve decades-old battles over the environmental complications involved in the current north-south flow of water through the State Water Project. This infrastructure is part of the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), the subject of Professor Brinda Sarathy's talk, and in it she raised serious questions about its viability. Because the BDCP depends on a complex weave of contending interest groups, ecological restoration projects, and big-ticket technological fixes, and comes with a gargantuan price tag ($24.75 billion and counting), its chances at the polls are slim-to-none. After all, in November 1960, the State Water Project passed by a razor-thin margin, and the electorate subsequently has rejected other big-water bond packages.

Their wariness is predicated on their realization that the promises of any such initiative as the BDCP far exceed its reality, Sarathy suggested, adding cheekily: "Why build a tunnel for a trickle?"

The voters' historic skittishness and "the hidden weight of the past" make it hard to imagine how to achieve systemic change in California's water state. Locked down by "local compromises, and sealed in by regional water transfers," Heather Williams declared, the water-delivery structures and the state-level politics that envelop them mean that muddling through may be the best hope for state-level action.

Much more important work is already taking place on the ground. Although not comprehensive in scope, these initiatives are and will be significant in reach, she affirmed, an affirmation that attorney Henry Barbosa, one-time member of the Metropolitan Water District Board, seconded. Most intriguingly, he took exception to MWD's development of the Diamond Valley reservoir near Hemet. The billions spent to build it, he averred, only extended the agency's reliance on the Colorado River's flow at the expense of remediating befouled local aquifers whose storage capacity is far greater and which would make the region much-less reliant on imported water.

Barbosa's insight set up the conference's final session that identified the successes of local action and local activism. In contrast with the century-long obsession with grabbing and then channeling water from far away into Southern California -- the 1914 completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct set the stage for later systems that would funnel water south from the Eastern Sierra, Colorado River, Mono Lake, and Northern California -- each presentation revolved around the water beneath our feet.

I shared the dais with Richard Atwater (Southern California Water Committee), Richard Boon (Orange County Stormwater Program), Ken Manning (San Gabriel Basin Water Quality Authority), and Megan Brousseau (Inland Empire Waterkeepers), and together we discussed such compelling initiatives as the San Gabriel Basin's program to clean up toxic plumes compromising local groundwater, Orange County's innovative stormwater recapturing and recycling processes, and the grassroots push to restore access to the Santa Ana River so that all citizens may revel in its clean rush.

John Wesley Powell would have been thrilled by this resurgence in attention paid to watersheds. As head of the USGS, he promoted similar ideas in the Arid Lands Report (1876), asserting that in the dry west, social organizations and political structures must be bounded by and conform to local hydraulic basins. Were their residents to root their communities within these physical constraints, he predicted, they would bring to life watershed commonwealths that would encourage "common interests, common rights, and common duties," and which would lead them necessarily to "work together for common purposes."

Powell's vision, however idealized, is resurfacing in Southern California. Activists, professionals, and politicians are beginning to realize the inherent, essential value of protecting the water beneath our feet, and the cooperative arrangements required to insure its preservation. This newfound attention and nimbleness is driven in part by an urgent realization that climate change, among other forces, is ending the era of cheap and plentiful water.

We'll find out if these new perspectives and new programs that are coming from them can sustain the Southland even as it warms up and dries out, whether they will be able to establish new standards by which to inhabit this beguiling and tough place. If John Wesley Powell's past prescriptions guide us into the future, this, too, would be a divine irony.