Double-Talk on Drought Severity from Water Agencies Group

The state’s largest lobbying group for water agencies is giving mixed messages about drought severity and what should be done about it, saysTracy Quinn at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Written by Tracy Quinn Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Water flows down a diversion canal operated by the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District, near Byron, Calif., that is drawn out of a channel leading to to the William O. Banks pumping plant.Rich Pedroncelli, AP

Is California still in a drought? It’s a question a lot of people are asking these days, especially after the state abandoned mandatory conservation earlier this summer. The situation is made even more confusing by some stakeholders who are talking out of both sides of their mouth about California’s water supply availability in an effort to try to shift all of the burdens of the drought on to the environment, fisheries and other stakeholders. Two recent letters from the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) are a perfect example of the double-speak on the drought.

In the first letter, submitted to the State Water Resources Control Board in April 2016, ACWA contends that mandatory water conservation targets are no longer necessary because of “significantly improved supply conditions statewide.” ACWA argued that due to increased snow and rain, improved storage, increased water supply allocations for the state and federal water projects, statewide water supply “conditions no longer warrant extraordinary emergency conservation mandates.” As a result of pressure from ACWA and other individual water suppliers, the Water Board rescinded mandatory water conservation requirements and replaced those targets with a self-certification framework. The self-certification “stress test” framework was seriously flawed and to the surprise of no one, more than 80 percent of urban water suppliers determined that they had plenty of water, and that continued mandatory conservation was not necessary.

Yet in the second letter, ACWA wrote to California’s congressional members that “California remains in the grip of an historic drought,” and that the water supply situation in California is so dire that it warrants Congress passing drought legislation to, in ACWA’s words, change “federal decisions that unreasonably favor species protection over water supply.”

But state and federal agencies have already waived and weakened numerous species protection laws during the drought, leading to catastrophic declines in several salmon runs and other imperiled native fish and wildlife. In spite of these actions and impacts, ACWA supports parts of the two major drought bills before Congress this year, H.R. 2898 (Valadao) and S. 2533 (Feinstein), both of which would further gut environmental protections for some of our most important rivers and ecosystems.

Even the same facts take on radically different meanings in ACWA’s two letters. In the first letter, ACWA cites the 2016 State Water Project Allocation of 45 percent and the Central Valley Project Initial Allocation of 55 percent for urban water contractors south-of-Delta as signs of water abundance in California. In the second, these same allocations are described as “severely restricted.”

Why would ACWA, a group that represents more than 430 public water agencies, which are responsible for the delivery of more than 90 percent of the water used for residential, commercial and agricultural purposes in California, make such vastly different claims? And why would they be willing to abandon conservation measures that bolster water supplies and instead urge lawmakers to let them take it from California’s most valuable natural resources – its rivers and wildlife?

The most logical conclusion is that both claims allow water suppliers to sell more water and to shift the burden of the drought from water users to the environment – and the thousands of jobs that depend on a healthy Bay-Delta estuary – but at what cost?

Since the Water Board eliminated the mandatory water conservation order, we have seen significant and worrying backsliding in conservation throughout the state. In some cases, communities are using more water now than they were in 2013, before the emergency drought was declared. Despite the uncertainty of what this winter will bring – including the possibility of a sixth year of unprecedented drought, despite irreversible damage to our groundwater aquifers from overpumping, despite reservoirs running dry and despite the fact that Gov. Jerry Brown has issued an executive order asking state agencies to ensure Californians make water conservation a way of life – water suppliers continue to send the wrong message to customers that it’s OK to water their lawns or roll back the conservation efforts they’d implemented over the past few years.

Scientists and policymakers have been clear that the environment and our native fisheries have borne some of the worst effects of the drought. California waived mandatory environmental protections during the drought in order to increase water supplies for agribusinesses and cities, with devastating impacts on native fish and wildlife species and the potential extinction of species. But it’s not just fish and wildlife that are at risk: These actions also threaten thousands of fishing jobs, have resulted in increased harmful algal blooms that threaten human health, and are likely to limit water supply in the future in order to restore the health of the estuary.

In 2009, California enacted the Delta Reform Act, which demands that we sustain and restore the health of the Bay-Delta estuary and its fisheries, and improve water supply reliability by investing in conservation, water recycling and other local and sustainable water supplies. We still believe that this is the path forward. Instead of rolling back environmental protections and water conservation mandates in order to sell more water, local agencies need to improve their water rate structures – including adopting drought rate structures in advance of drought conditions – to ensure that water agencies can be economically sustainable, even as ecological sustainability demands that they take less water from the Bay Delta.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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