Panic Makes for Poor Policy

Published: July 22, 2007
Author: Peter Gleick

Ignoring a problem tends to make it worse. A worsening problem tends to lead to panic. Panic tends to make for bad public policy. Welcome to 21st century California water policy.

We are experiencing our driest year in more than a decade, and our policymakers are panicking. They are proposing that you and I cough up billions of dollars in new bonds to subsidize new dams and other large infrastructure that, at best, won’t contribute to meeting our needs for decades to come and, at worst, will siphon off precious funds needed for faster and more effective water solutions.

We may need some kind of peripheral canal, an idea that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to reintroduce, but we also need to stop fantasizing that one more $1 billion dam or pipeline will, at long last, solve our water problems. Pushing through these expensive proposals during a crisis doesn’t show “vision.”

Basically, we all need to take a deep breath and come up with a plan. It has been an extremely dry year, but our taps aren’t going dry and our farms aren’t blowing away. We need short-term solutions in case the drought continues next year, long-term thinking for the future and a willingness to tackle the water taboos long neglected in Sacramento: groundwater, water waste, agriculture and prices.

We can meet our needs this year by making smart, careful efforts to ratchet down our wasteful and unnecessary water uses. Taking shorter showers will help, but replacing old toilets, showerheads and washing machines with efficient models can substantially cut our largest indoor water uses permanently. Ironically, our green governor vetoed a water efficiency bill last October that would have freed up enough water to serve 1.5 million new Californians at far lower cost than the new dams he now wants us to buy.

We must also begin implementing longer-term, more permanent responses. We have to stop pretending that groundwater is free, and start monitoring and managing this precious resource. We can acknowledge the progress our cities have made in improving water efficiency, but let’s also admit that much more remains to be done, such as replacing wasteful lawns with low-water using gardens. Water districts must reinvigorate programs to fix leaks and expand the use of recycled and reclaimed water where appropriate. Where the environmental and economic implications are well understood and resolved, desalination plants may have a role to play for high valued uses.

It is also time to stop letting agriculture off the hook.

To date, the agricultural sector has largely failed to take responsibility for its share of our water problems and to participate in implementing real solutions. California growers are responsible for 80 percent of the state’s water consumption, yet they generate only 2 percent of the gross state product. Although some innovative growers have implemented smart water programs, vast quantities of water are still used inefficiently to grow low-value crops in hot climates just because we can, not because we should. Agricultural lobbyists successfully fight to maintain the status quo, hiding behind long-term subsidized federal contracts for low-priced water, or historical water rights assigned when the state’s population was 1 million, not 36 million. These outdated practices are destroying the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, family farms, fisheries and the state’s few remaining healthy rivers.

We should temporarily take some cropland out of rotation, if we have to, and consider permanently retiring poor quality lands, replace flood irrigation with sprinklers and drip systems, eliminate perverse incentives for growing cotton and other high-water crops, and encourage farms to switch to vegetables and other more water efficient or drought-tolerant crops.

California can have a water future. We can take a shower and flush the toilet while simultaneously using less water. We can have a healthy agricultural sector and continue to be the nation’s most important producer of food, while greatly reducing agricultural water use. We can restore needed water to dying fisheries and deltas. But these things will only happen if we demand that our leaders stop offering us 20th century solutions that didn’t work then and won’t work now, and start offering us a sustainable water future.

Peter Gleick, Ph.D, is president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security, a nonpartisan Oakland-based think tank. He is a MacArthur Fellow and member of the National Academy of Sciences.