We Californians are well aware of the impact of the four-year drought. We have read about town wells drying up like in East Porterville; we have seen the incredibly scary low water marks in lakes and reservoirs; we have heard about negative impacts to the agricultural industry and devastation to the farm workers ability to find work; and we have heard about impacts to fish and the important Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta. While Californians work to reduce water usage, there are too many folks that have no running water in their homes. In the Central Valley for example, families with dry wells face potential health hazards due to no running water.
But the water issue goes beyond the serious drought; we must also worry about the management of surface and groundwater in California. How much surface water is being diverted and by whom? How much groundwater is being pumped and is that amount of water sustainable? Is subsidence a concern for the area? Do all Californian’s have access to clean water?
Governor Brown and the State Water Board have been working on changing the management of water for the state. They have set mandatory water reduction targets for cities, counties and water agencies. The Water Board first set targets without giving credit to entities that had already reduced usage, which of course, created challenges to the rule. The Water Board corrected this issue and then went on to curtail water use by owners of older water rights. No surprise that the owners of those rights have filed challenges to preserve their water rights.
The State Board is also becoming the largest homeowners association by directing that in new construction, only 25% of available yard can be grass. (Most California yards are not that big, so the kids and dog don’t have a lot of grass in the first place.) Many people were over-watering their lawns and hopefully have learned that their lawns aren’t really that thirsty. Others have decided not to water at all and are praised for having dead lawns.
Increasing rates to penalize certain water users has also been controversial. A few water agencies have been involved with lawsuits due to their tiered water rates at set levels of usage and charging additional fees for exceeding the amount. Opponents of the tiered rates point to Proposition 218’s language stating that water agencies can only charge what it costs them to provide the water and therefore, tiered rates must be in line with costs to provide the water. In April 2015, the 4th Appellate District court agreed with the opponents in Capistrano Taxpayers Association v City of San Juan Capistrano. In July, the California Supreme Court denied the California Attorney General’s request to depublish the opinion.
The water shortage has also brought challenges to other projects. Some Californians and members of the State legislature are calling for a stop to the California High Speed Rail project to utilize those funds for water management projects. If you travel on State Route 99 in central California, you will see signs calling for spending money on water storage projects instead of the train.
Water storage is a major concern. The lack of proper water management has resulted in Californians mining groundwater, wells running dry and subsidence issues. Said another way, we are taking out more water than is being replenished and the land is dropping. The State has acknowledged the issue and last fall, Governor Brown signed the Sustainable Ground Water Management Act directing the state to better manage and monitor groundwater.
Challenges to the right to groundwater are also growing. For example, in 2013, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians filed a lawsuit against two local water agencies. The Tribe is asserting rights to groundwater and seeking to stop alleged pollution of the groundwater from other water sources. Should the Tribe prevail on their federal rights claim, they will have much more authority over the management of the groundwater.
The State is not alone in working to pass legislation on the water crisis. Congress is working on legislation to respond to “California’s drought” as it has been called. But it doesn’t take a water scientist to realize that this is not just California’s drought. This drought will have national impacts, especially with the availability and price for agricultural products.
Shortage does bring creativity. People are showering with a bucket at their feet to collect water to use on landscaping. A few project proponents are pushing for the use of gray water for dust control instead of using potable water. The use of gray water would help lessen the impacts to water resources, a focus in project reviews under the California Environmental Quality Act. In fact, some new construction projects are including gray water systems for use on landscaping which can be used as mitigation for environmental impacts. Finally, San Diego County is looking to reduce reliance on surface and groundwater and later this year is opening a desalination plant in Carlsbad.
The drought’s biggest benefit may be a much needed forced dialogue on the best way to manage surface and groundwater. The dialogue must assess the usage, diversions, pumping, storage, evaporation, and allocations of water throughout the state and look for ways to conserve and protect our water supply. The State Water Board is holding many hearings and stakeholders are getting opportunities to speak and now the groups need to get together and work on sustainable long term solutions. All Californians should have access to clean water and systems need to be upgraded. I continue to attend State Water Board meetings to hear the issues and discuss options with other attendees. The flood of water issues caused by the drought will need to be properly managed in order for us to not drown in a sea of stalled regulation and development projects.