Report On TAIPD Water Conference

Ivan Light

A huge success. 


About three hundred people braved the rain to attend an all-day water shortage conference at the Scripps College auditorium on Saturday March 1. They learned that California will get dryer in the future than it has been in the recent past, but there are solutions California can undertake to survive and even to thrive despite the diminished rainfall. Of course, it is also true, as Professor Char Miller explained, that, should we fail to implement those solutions, the ultimate remedy for our water short future will be “out-migration.” Southern California has only enough ground water to support one million persons, but sixteen million live here.

The conference’s key-note speaker, founder of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, and a prolific author on water supply, Peter Gleick pointed out that water total water use in the United States has been stable since approximately 1975 even though both population and gross domestic product (GDP) have risen. Prior to 1975, water use and GDP rose in tandem. The explanation, Gleick maintained, is improved efficiency of water use. Toilets that once required six gallons per flush now require only 1.2 gallons. Farms that flooded fields now use drip agriculture. Front-loading washing machines replaced top loaders. Reviewing all the options we now face, including massive canal construction, Gleick proposed as a general rule that improved efficiency of water use still offers the United States the most cost-effective way to respond to permanently diminished rainfall. Gleick provided a list of eight ways in which the federal government could support more efficient consumption of water resources without supplanting state and local interventions.

When it comes to water politics, the usual polarities contrast those who believe that mankind’s product of carbon dioxide, the “greenhouse effect,” has caused the climate changes we have observed in the last two decades vs. those who claim that there have always been hydrological cycles. But Professor Branwen Williams, who teaches climate and oceanography at the Claremont Colleges, pointed out that these explanations are not antagonistic. Using tree-ring data, Williams concluded that in the last two centuries California has been in an unusually wet period relative to the prior 800,000 years. The rainfall cycle may now be reverting to the older and more characteristic dryness. At the same time, Williams declared, the human impact on the climate is reinforcing the same direction of change so that the climate is getting dryer because the cycle is turning dry and also because of the greenhouse effect. The overall prognosis for California and the world is regions that were dry will become dryer in the next two hundred years, and those that were wet will become wetter.

Two speakers pointed to historical influences that still limit California’s ability efficiently to manage its water resources. A director of the Metropolitan Water District and an attorney, Henry Barbosa claimed that several distinct and competing legal traditions have shaped California water law since the Gold Rush. These are Spanish law, English common law, and Roman law. The English common law treated water rights as property rights, a point-of-view that well suited northern California where water is more plentiful. However, Spanish and Roman law treated water as a collective resource rather than a private property right. That is, the law gave people the right “to use” water, but not to own it. The collision of these legal traditions continues to complicate water policy in California, which is a pity, Barbosa suggested, because the world of diminished water supply will require sharing water access.

A professor of political science at Pomona College, Heather Williams, made a similar point, observing that California has a history of “competing and incompatible uses” of water. These she identified as the mining interest, the agricultural interest, and the cattle grazing interest. Miners wanted to divert water from existing rivers and streams, growers wanted to irrigate fields, and dairy and cattle producers to feed livestock, but the water policies these industries require never were identical. As eighty percent of California’s water goes to agriculture in one form or another, the efficient use of agricultural water is the most serious water issue the state faces. Rick Hazlett, a professor of Geology at Pomona College, highlighted the critical importance of groundwater, which has traditionally been neglected given its "out of sight-out of mind" nature. He noted, as did other speakers, that pollution prevention is the only credible strategy to save this invaluable resource.

Brinda Sarathy, a professor of Environmental Analysis at Pitzer College, gave an overview of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which she argued represented a fusion between hydraulic era dreams and shifting values towards environmental protection. Her talk engaged the policy context of the BDCP and gave audience food for thought about the ultimate economic and political feasibility of the project in the context of varying hydrologic cycles in the face of climate change."


The closing portion of the conference turned to local and regional solutions to the water shortage we are having, and the water-short future we confront. Director of the Southern California Water Committee, Richard Atwater pointed out that Californians have already responded to water shortages. Where water is in short supply, Californians use less. In northern California, where water is most abundant, per capita water use is twice as high as it is in southern California. In words that echoed locally what Gleick had explained about the United States, Atwater noted that in the last six years alone, despite population increase, southern California has reduced per capita water consumption 20 percent, and rather painlessly by dint of more efficient use of available water. He reiterated that efficient use of existing water is more cost-effective than importation of water from distant places via canals and aqueducts.

The first step toward efficient management of existing water is to stop wasting what we have. Richard Boon administers the Orange County Stormwater program. He explained how Orange County has captured storm water, preventing rainfall from running into the ocean, and instead, by simple means, encouraging infiltration of rainwater to underlying aquifers where it is available for later use. A lot of our regional groundwater was contaminated with toxic chemicals in the bad old days. Happily, some of this water can be reclaimed by means that Ken Manning discussed and described. Manning is Executive Director of the San Gabriel Basin Water Quality Authority. Unhappily, it takes a long time to cleanse toxic plumes under the ground.

The last speaker was Megan Brousseau who explained what has been done in Riverside by two generations of “women water warriors” to reclaim the Santa Ana River. The first victory was to convince the US Army Corps of Engineers that a living river should be encouraged rather than a cement channel. This was done a generation ago. The second step is to interest the people of Riverside in making use of the Santa Ana River for recreation, and thus to put legal pressure upon authorities to protect and upgrade the water quality. Brousseau is Program Director for the Inland Empire Waterkeepers, a volunteer organization.

Today’s water conference was jointly sponsored by the Environmental Analysis Program at the Claremont Colleges, Scripps College, the Robert Redford Conservancy at Pitzer College, Pomona College, and the Three Valleys Municipal Water District. The American Institute for Progressive Democracy, a Claremont “think tank,” headed by Dr. Andrew Winnick, provided the organizational support. A video record of the entire conference will shortly be uploaded onto the website of the American Institute for Progressive Democracy.