August 23, 2008

Thomas Elias: Time to Get Creative With State Water Policy

ALMOST 20 years ago, the usually verdant Marin County, just north of the Golden Gate, suffered through a drought so severe that a ban on all new construction was considered, along with strict water rationing.

Things were worst there, but the rest of the state also had serious problems, as many cities passed laws against daytime lawn watering and "drought police" made rounds to enforce those regulations along with rules against watering down walkways, sidewalks and driveways.

Several wet years ensued, and Californians became relaxed again. But drought is back, despite a couple of wetter than usual months last winter. The rains and mountain snowfall of January and February were followed by a record-dry March and April, and by early May, snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, largest source of California water supplies, was at 67 percent of normal, down from 97 percent in February.

Add to that the court-ordered cutbacks of water shipments from the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers east of San Francisco Bay, and you have a situation that could soon equal some of the worst droughts in the state's history.

Because almost everything in California depends on them, that makes water supplies the state's most pressing physical problem. It's true that voters will be asked to vote yes or no on everything from gay marriage to legislative redistricting and children's hospital expansions this fall. But ignore the need for water supplies and everything else becomes moot.

In the new drought, Marin County won't be feeling things first and worst. Improvements to that county's water system over the last 20 years allow it to catch and use more of its copious winter rainfall than before. Plus, Marin never hooked up with the state Water Project, unlike most other high-population counties, so it doesn't depend on supplies ultimately stemming from the Sierras.

This time, it is residents of the East Bay Municipal Water District feeling things first.

That district, serving residents from Berkeley to Danville and from the Carquinez Strait to Castro Valley in Alameda County, in May demanded a 20 percent cut on water use by its customers. That's the first water rationing plan imposed anywhere in California since the early 1990s, when many cities and counties began demanding installation of low-flow shower heads and toilets not just in new construction, but even in existing homes and buildings.

The East Bay district expects its reservoirs to contain just two- thirds of their normal water by October, even with rationing. With great uncertainty about next winter's snowfalls, the district can't allow profligate use of supplies on hand.

Los Angeles is another place doing something about the shortage. After years of avoiding the subject of recycling wastewater, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa now proposes that the state's largest city begin percolating treated sewage and other wastewater back into the region's underground water table, rather than sending it out to sea. The mayor also proposes financial incentives for high-tech conservation equipment in homes and businesses, things like waterless urinals, weather-sensitive sprinkler systems and porous parking lots to let more rainwater drain into aquifers.

But even if all that is accomplished, along with new restrictions on lawn watering and other water uses, it will take more to meet an expected 15 percent increase in demand by 2030.

All this means it's time for every part of the state to think seriously and creatively about water supply.

One positive suggestion came last spring from Democratic state Sen. Dean Florez of Shafter, who proposed setting up a $5 million hatchery to expand the population of delta smelt, the endangered, silvery minnow-like fish whose survival is the aim of the delta pumping reductions. Since January, farms and cities have lost more than 1 million acre feet of water because of that cutback, water that has simply flowed out to sea when it might otherwise have been put to some use.

Breed enough smelt to end their endangered status, and part of the current water problem is solved.

Democratic Lt. Gov. John Garamendi summed up the situation well in an essay the other day. "California must find new ways to operate its dams and water conveyance infrastructure to improve water supply reliability Our efforts must also be cost-effective and innovative."

Those efforts plainly will have to include some kind of new storage facilities to save winter flood waters that ordinarily are wasted. Whether that should be new dams and reservoirs or expanded use of underground storage is a question whose answer cannot be delayed much longer without serious harm to people and businesses. There also should be strong consideration of desalinization plants to make use of ocean water, expensive as that might be.

The bottom line: California does not yet have a water emergency, but if global warming forecasts have any merit, it will soon unless some serious efforts to expand supplies begin very soon.

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Thomas Elias is a syndicated columnist who covers California issues. He lives in Santa Monica.

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