17 Feb 2014

Ugly Californication

I've been following water policy ever since my dissertation on conflict and cooperation in water management in Southern California, but I ran across some new ideas on my recent visit to talk to water managers about "supply augmentation" via WaterSavr (a compound that reduces reservoir evaporation).

These observations can flow in any order, as they have numerous reciprocating links:
  • Managers are deathly afraid of adding anything to water, as regulators at Fish and Game and the regional Water Resources Control Boards are very fast to condemn and punish, often cheered by environmentalists. The cliche is that they've let "the perfect become the enemy of the good," but they're now at the point where it's better to continue a disastrous tradition than try something new.[1] One water quality guy was so concerned about protecting fish from contamination that he forgot that no water means no fish to protect.[2]

  • Water managers are far LESS worried about this drought than average people I spoke to. The managers say there's enough water (they are good at their job), but those statements contradict the state of drought emergency and elephant in the room: what if the drought of 2012-14 runs for 3-4 more years? There's no reason why it shouldn't. Cycles, supercycles and climate change are more likely to reinforce drought than abundance. Texas is in drought now, but it's still suffering from the last one.

  • Population growth puts California in a vulnerable position. It's easier to reduce use by killing lawns than it is to stop use inside houses. Lower per capita use is a triumph in some ways, but it means that there's very little wiggle room if supplies fall.[3] For some, this means desalination should be used for urban water supplies, but California is decades behind Israeli-style desalination independence (that may not be a mistake). In the meantime, untracked groundwater mining depletes storage and robs neighbors of water. Those actions are surely greedy, myopic and stupid, but that doesn't mean they do not attract sympathy and waste money.

  • Some Southern California water managers have "no sympathy" for others in the state that did not spend billions on storage and reliability, but that fuck you attitude will backfire if the north stops exporting water from the Delta (I support that move). It's also a bad way to think of neighbors (the Dutch are better on this!)

  • Amidst those social failures, I have friends who are innovating in amazing ways to improve water policy, use and function, but they are having a hard time getting attention from managers who know best and have no reason to look for change.
Bottom Line: The sun is shining, cars are jamming, and people are drinking, but California is dying. Governance failure, regulatory lockup, and mutual antagonism remind me more of a developing country than the future of humanity.[4] That's why I'm reversing my parent's migration and returning to Europe in May.

  1. Environmentalists, e.g., blocked the power transmission lines that would bring solar power in deserts to people in coastal cities.
  2. This is in the context of WaterSavr, which is EPA- and Nevada Fish and Game-certified as safe for fish (and shown to be so), but it's the general principle I'm talking about here.
  3. Monterey faces this wall, as regulators have redirected its river water supply to the environment. That's why I support their desalination plant.
  4. A subsidized farmer said this in the last drought, but he wanted more water for himself. I was going to say California is like Mexico, but that may be unfair to Mexico in terms of relative trends. Argentina seems to be a relevant twin to the Golden State.
H/Ts to CF, SK, DL, DV and Morris-the-scientist


DW said...

Re: population, I’ve been reading the new state office of planning and research environmental strategy discussion document. I sets almost all of its goals on a “per capita” basis, at the same time as it predicts California’s population will grow past 50 million.

I believe that lower per capita use may be a good thing, but if we allow unchecked population growth, we’ll end up with far higher overall use, and per capita goals will just be an excuse for failure. How about writing about that? All environmental goals (lower water demand and use, lower energy demand, lower VMTs, etc) should be overall goals, not per capita goals, unless the state decides to start addressing the population growth issue.

David Zetland said...

@DW -- You're right but you're defying manifest destiny. And land developers.

They are not interested in sustainability :(

DW said...

SANDAG* got sued because it used per capita goals in its latest regional transportation plan and lost in court. The SANDAG board just ignored the lower court, appealed the judgment and started up on their next five year plan. Will be interesting to see if they do anything when they lose in appellate court.

*The SANDAG board is made up of local politicians who all get their campaign money from developers, who depend on SANDAG to keep spending tax money on building new and expanded freeways out to their new sprawl housing subdivisions.

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