Imagine what might happen if a wise ruler was put in charge of dealing with California’s statewide water issues. One who was unfettered by today’s political gridlock.
First, he or she would take stock of the strengths and weaknesses of the present system. The ruler would wisely realize that much is right. California has developed a massive, creative water storage and distribution system that has served the state well. But the wise ruler would see how the changing landscape — population growth, climate change, the use of water for environmental purposes — has created a situation where there is simply not enough water for all of the competing uses.
How would the wise ruler respond? What he or she would not do is let each group with a stake in California’s water future continue to fight it out. Rather, he or she would develop a sensible, balanced approach and move forward. The ruler would be fair, making sure the interests of all parts of California’s water community were respected, but at the same time developing an overall system that works for all. He or she would know that making reasonable compromises is not a bad thing and will result in getting things done.
Proposals for improved water conveyance, increased water storage, conservation, efficiency and reuse would be implemented in a sensible way. Sensible would not mean promoting one particular agenda and rejecting everything else. Rather, a balanced mix of ideas would move forward in a way that various interest groups — grudgingly or not — would accept as reasonable approaches that respect competing interests.
Having recognized the need for a balanced, reasonable approach, the wise ruler would outline and carry out specific proposals. Water storage would be part of the solution. Knowing that rainfall capture is becoming more important because of climate change, existing reservoir operations would be modified to collect more rainfall runoff.
New or expanded lower elevation reservoirs — both off stream and underground — would be pursued. Specific projects would include reservoirs both above and below the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Sites Reservoir in the north, enlarged Los Vaqueros and San Luis in the middle, utilizing part of the historic Tulare Basin in the south, and smaller, regional stormwater capture projects wherever feasible would be built.
Improved water conveyance from the north to the south would also be part of the wise water ruler’s solution to California’s water problems. He or she would recognize the obvious: The Governor’s tunnels plan is too expensive and too divisive. There is a real need to provide reliable, good-quality water south of the Delta. But not at the expense of the north.
The wise water ruler would build a much less expensive western Delta conveyance system. Water would flow naturally through the Delta before being conveyed south and would be coupled with treatment systems and operable gates that provide an insurance policy for water reliability and a good supply of quality water for the south. Such a conveyance system would protect all of California, not just one part. The huge monetary savings in building such a project (due to a much shorter tunnel system) would fund much of the other elements of the overall solution.
The wise water ruler would make greater use of innovation to develop cutting-edge water use and groundwater banking projects. California can no longer afford to use much of its freshwater once and then toss it away. New approaches for desalination and treatment would be encouraged. Emerging technology, including use of electrodes and better membranes to separate salt from water, show great promise as a way to increase water supplies in a benign way. Projects to develop freshwater from brackish water in the Delta and for treating agricultural return flows in the San Joaquin Valley can be built as well as projects for recycling of urban wastewater.
Finally, the state’s constitutional doctrine on “reasonable use” would be used by the wise water ruler to invigorate the state’s antiquated water rights system to meet 21st-century needs. Inefficient water use would be declared unreasonable per se. The doctrine would be applied to at least hold the status quo regarding California’s seriously overdrafted groundwater basins, given the fact that the state’s new law on sustainable groundwater use will take decades to fully implement.
In sum, a wise water ruler could achieve a fairer, more balanced and reasonable solution to California’s water problems.
Can the present political system deliver at least a portion of the solution? One can only hope.
Top image: The California Aqueduct and Delta-Mendota Canal traverse hundreds of miles to distribute water across the state. A wise water ruler would find ways to ease the pressure on these two water supplies. (MavensNotebook.com)