Moving Forward on Water

By Juliet Christian-Smith and Heather Cooley

This essay was originally printed in the Sacramento Bee on September 12, 2010.

Now that California lawmakers have pulled an $11 billion water bond measure off the November ballot, California is facing new questions about how to fix our longstanding water problems, including the long-term health of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the future reliability of our water supply. A number of commentators have praised or pilloried the delay of the bond, but one thing we can all agree on is that California’s water challenges have not gone away. The recent State Water Resources Control Board report that finds we must halve our water withdrawals from the rivers and streams that sustain the Delta is simply one more indication that we have over-tapped California’s precious water resources and that we must find innovative ways to do more with less.

The Legislature has two years to fix some of the key flaws with the current water bond, including its size, unclear definitions, and unbalanced approaches. A recent Pacific Institute analysis, The 2010 California Water Bond: What Does it Say and Do?, offers principles for amending the current water bond to make it more effective. But it would be a serious mistake to do nothing until 2012. The good news is that there is a lot that can be done now.

There is no “silver bullet” solution to our water problems, as all rational observers acknowledge. Instead, we need a diverse portfolio of solutions. But the need to do many things does not mean we must, or can afford, to do everything. We must do the most effective things first.

Over $3 billion of approved bond funding from previous voter initiatives has not yet been spent, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office. These existing funds should be made available for top priorities such as repairing the Delta levees and restoring threatened ecosystems. In addition, there is a clear need for better enforcement of water rights and critical water quality laws. Legislation that would have done all of these things, sponsored by Senators Wolk, Pavley, and Steinberg and Assemblymember Huffman, did not pass in this legislative session. We cannot allow our lawmakers to turn away from our growing water challenges.

In addition, water conservation and efficiency must be a central component of a portfolio of solutions for California’s water problems. Numerous reports and studies have shown that water conservation and efficiency are the cheapest, fastest, and least destructive sources of water. A new Pacific Institute report, California’s Next Million Acre-Feet: Saving Water, Energy, and Money, details how California can save one million acre-feet of water at a fraction of the cost of other new water supply options. Water savings can come from replacing old, inefficient devices with high-efficiency models in our homes and businesses, as well as replacing some lawn area with low-water-use plants. In the agricultural sector, best water management practices include weather-based irrigation scheduling, regulated deficit irrigation, and switching from flood irrigation to sprinkler or drip irrigation systems. There are already many examples of how cities and farms throughout California are cutting their water use, and reusing water that was formerly considered waste (see California Farm Water Success Stories and Sustainable Uses of Water: California Success Stories); yet more must be done.

The efficiency improvements identified in California’s Next Million Acre-Feet require an upfront investment of less than $1.9 billion, a small fraction of the proposed water bond. These costs can be borne by a combination of water and wastewater agencies, irrigation districts, energy utilities, state and federal agencies, and the individual customer. These efficiency improvements are far cheaper than most proposed new surface storage projects. Sites Reservoir, for example, is estimated to require a capital investment of $3 billion while providing only 184,000 acre-feet of water per year. And unlike proposed new water storage projects, efficiency improvements often pay for themselves as a result of the many co-benefits that water conservation and efficiency provides, including lower water, wastewater, and energy bills and improvements in crop quality and yield. Reducing water demand also delays or eliminates the need to develop expensive water and wastewater treatment plants and the energy infrastructure to power those plants, thereby producing additional long-term financial savings.

The conclusion is clear: there is still enormous untapped potential for better use of existing financial and water resources. While the water bond may be on hold, California’s water problems are not – and citizens and lawmakers must continue to make meaningful reform a high priority.

Read California’s Next Million Acre- Feet: Saving Water, Energy, and Money (PDF).