State Needs Innovative, Aggressive Water Solutions

By Peter Gleick

A version of this essay was originally printed in the Sacramento Bee on June 1, 2008.

For more than a decade, California has had relatively adequate winter rains and mostly full reservoirs. No longer. We had the opportunity to fix many of our water problems while the state had more abundant water, but that chance has been squandered. And though we’ve never been very good at making rational water decisions in a crisis, the time to change that is clearly and urgently here.

The fisheries of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are collapsing, farmers and cities are facing reduced water deliveries and higher prices are being imposed on heavy water users. Last year many parts of the state were critically dry and with this spring one of the driest on record, water agencies are imposing the first serious drought restrictions in recent memory. These will help, temporarily, but more permanent changes are needed.

We must put in place some of the proven, cost-effective solutions we have available to us and push forward with new approaches for a comprehensive solution to our perennial water problems. But our leaders remain deadlocked in the old, entrenched thinking that got us into our water problems in the first place.

In the interest of changing the tone of the conversation, here is a water package based on improving efficiency and developing local supplies that could transform California’s water landscape to a sustainable future with a vibrant economy, robust agricultural sector and healthy environment.

First, we must monitor and measure all water uses in California, including both surface and groundwater. Many get a free ride to use water with no oversight, review or right. If we don’t know who is using how much water to do what, we will have no chance to make rational decisions about reasonable water management and use.

Second, let’s set a goal of improving the efficiency of both urban and agricultural water uses by 20 percent by 2020. Californians already use less water today than we did 20 years ago because of improvements in efficiency produced by old water conservation programs. Research from the Pacific Institute shows that we could further reduce urban water use by an additional 30 percent with existing, cost-effective technologies, while maintaining a healthy economy. We can also grow more food and fiber with less water – a key priority as pressures on global food stocks grow.

One way to meet this goal is to replace old appliances and fixtures in existing homes by requiring that they be retrofit with water-efficient devices when the home is sold. This is an inexpensive and effective option. Let’s offer developers faster permits or reduced permit fees if they build new homes to higher water-efficiency standards than already required. We could even require that all new developments be water-neutral, with any new water demands offset by efficiency improvements in existing developments.

Water managers must stop confusing changes in behavior with improvements in water-use efficiency. Before asking people to take shorter showers or to flush their toilets once a day during a drought, ask them to replace their water-wasting showerheads and toilets. Better yet, give them efficient ones free. Let’s use concerns about the drought to install fixtures and appliances that will continue to reduce water waste when the drought is over. Improvements in efficiency let us have showers, gardens and clean toilets while using less water.

Third, we must expand the thinking of what constitutes new supply. In the 20th century, new supply meant building another dam. In the 21st century, it must mean integrated management of surface and groundwater, storm water treatment and use, and the development of drought-proof water sources, such as reuse of highly treated wastewater and desalination.

New, local supplies could offset diversions from the Delta or other unsustainable sources. The state could encourage this shift by offering economic incentives for the development of new water sources that satisfy all required environmental reviews and reduce withdrawals from the Delta on a one-for-one basis. Reducing water taken from the Delta could save it from ecological collapse; but continuing current policies is sure to lead to disaster.

Some new sources, like desalination, require far more energy than other water sources, thereby increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Why not offer incentives for these new energy-intensive sources if the energy demand is instead met by new, renewable energy sources and if the water produced replaces water presently taken from unsustainable sources? Australia just built a new seawater desalination plant powered by wind turbines and is planning more. So could we.

If we are innovative and aggressive about solving our water problems now, we’ll reduce the risk that more stringent, mandatory reductions will be imposed upon us during the coming droughts.

Peter Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland. Frank Rijsberman, former director general of the International Water Management Institute; Henry Vaux of the University of California, Berkeley; and Heather Cooley of the Pacific Institute, contributed to this report.