Turning the Delta Ruling into Opportunity

By Peter Gleick

A version of this essay was originally printed in the Sacramento Bee on September 9, 2007.

On Aug. 31, a federal judge acknowledged what many people have long known — we have run up against the limits of our water supplies. U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger ruled that state and federal water managers must change how they operate California’s water system to reduce environmental harm.

It now seems inevitable that the total amount of water taken from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will have to be scaled back. While the details and magnitude of these changes still must be worked out, we’re already hearing the predictable cries of catastrophe, economic collapse and impending doom.

This crisis has been coming for a long time, but it isn’t a surprise and need not be a disaster.

We now have the opportunity to discuss issues that have long been ignored or considered taboo: inappropriate water rights and allocations, groundwater management and use, real land-use planning, and water-use efficiency.

In the past, we’ve always assumed that we could grow as fast as we wanted, wherever we wanted, and find new water sources to meet our demands. Over the past century, we spent hundreds of billions of dollars building dams, reservoirs, aqueducts and pipelines to realize this vision of California. The complex water management system we built has permitted 37 million of us to live, work and play here.

But we are beginning to understand that our manipulation of the water system, based on 19th and 20th century ideas, hurts the natural environment. We are killing our rivers, deltas, wetlands, birds and fish. While we didn’t recognize or care about those impacts in the last century, we do now. The judge’s decision shows that the system we built must be modified to address the environmental and economic challenges of this century.

The water use of the agricultural sector should be re-evaluated. Our farms consume 80 percent of the water used by California, but produce far less than 10 percent of our jobs and revenue. We must continue to have a healthy agricultural community, while using less water. To grow more food with less water, we must improve irrigation efficiency, monitor and measure all groundwater use, choose to grow fewer water-intensive crops and develop new rules to encourage these improvements.

Current water rights regimes in California, combined with inappropriate federal subsidies for water and certain crops, have locked in a higher level of waste and inefficiency than we can afford.

Land-use planning also needs to be re-evaluated. It makes little sense to permit uncontrolled development in floodplains, only to pass flood risks from developers to homeowners or the state. It is myopic to build McMansions on prime farmland with landscaping that sucks up water faster than farms, with no assurance that a reliable water supply will be available.

Conservation needs to be redefined. It needn’t mean brown lawns, shorter showers or mandatory rationing. It is about doing what we want, but with less water.

We use far more water today than is necessary, whether for flushing our toilets, growing food or making semiconductors. Our conservation efforts have eased this inefficient use, enabling us to grow our economy and population over the past several years without increasing our water demand. But far more could be done.

Efforts to improve water-use efficiency have slacked off in the past decade. Even without the judge’s wake-up call, our water agencies and utilities should have been implementing new efficiency programs to deal with the drought. The faster we reduce inefficient uses, the longer we can delay or avoid mandatory cutbacks.

While predictions of economic disaster arising from the Delta decision may come true, they don’t have to. But it will take a re-evaluation of our ideas about water-use and political courage by the governor, Legislature and water users to have open and honest discussions about how to redesign our water system so that it is smart, efficient and sustainable. Only then can we transform this water crisis into an opportunity.

Peter Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland. He has worked toward more sustainable use of water for more than two decades.