An academic team recently released a report that the State Water Resources Control Board has promised five times the water that is actually available. This was alarming news to share with a population that is slowly but surely coming to grips with the severity of the drought.
The quote attributed to Mark Twain, “Whiskey’s for drinking. Water’s for fighting over,” is certainly truer today than ever in the halls of the Capitol, in the hearing rooms of the State Water Board and in courtrooms at every level of the judiciary. Some communities are invoking drastic measures, such as fining water users huge sums for exceeding meager water allocations; others are allowing scofflaws to attend water school (like traffic school) to avoid paying levied fines.
As always, engineered solutions to water shortages abound: twin tunnels through the Delta, new dams, water purification plants to return sewage to drinking water quality, and desalination plants. Also proposed are miles of new water pipelines, some colored purple to deliver recycled water for many non-potable uses like crop and landscape irrigation, cooling towers and even toilet flushing. These all cost money, which someone has to pay for. Also, none of these solutions can instantly produce water to quench our thirst today or even in the near term.
For decades, social scientists and environmental groups have been at odds with engineers over proposed “brick and mortar” solutions, arguing instead for more efficiency and reduction of diversion from rivers to safeguard or restore fisheries and wetlands. As droughts and re-allocations have reduced available water supplies, engineer-dominated water agencies have slowly begun to relinquish their supply-side supremacy and now hope to reduce demand as fast as they can during this ongoing shortage of water.
Economists argue for a free-market to set the price on water, ignoring the fact that water is sine qua non. California recently passed legislation proclaiming the human right to water. Pricing structures have to assure everyone has reasonable access to a safe and adequate water supply at a reasonable price. In Gilroy, senior citizens are allocated 5,000 gallons per month at no cost.
However, economists did not anticipate that people would spend great sums of money in their homes and businesses to install rain water capture systems, grey water systems or replace lawns with native, drought-tolerant plants. The fact is people have already been doing this to gain water independence. Early adopters of these water saving techniques led the way to water agencies offering cash incentives.
The California legislature is finally in the process of closing a huge gap in its water management policies by requiring all extracted ground water to be measured. This must be done to avoid overdraft, which causes infrastructure-damaging subsidence and eliminates reserves for future water shortages. Our county would be in a much more tenuous position had we had not addressed this issue eighty years ago by building dams to capture runoff in local watersheds and recharging that water into our groundwater basins.
But today, our residents are leading their politicians toward social changes that will forever change how we view water. San Jose's City Council is considering a plea from four council members to recruit more citizen involvement in reducing wasted water. This includes partnering with the Santa Clara Valley Water District to use our advanced treated water for recharging our groundwater basin. Despite the recent celebration of our leaders over building an 8 million gallon per day plant in Alviso, which produces near distilled-quality water, it’s about 10 percent of the amount Orange County is returning to its local basin and saving local water users nearly a billion dollars per year in avoided costs for imported water.
Pat Ferraro served as an elected member of the Santa Clara Valley Water District from 1972-1995 and later served as executive director of the Silicon Valley Pollution Prevention Center. He is currently an adjunct professor at San Jose State University and Santa Clara University, lecturing on water law and policy and water resources management.