After returning from a recent trip to the rainy Pacific Northwest, I turned on the tap and instead of hearing the water rushing, I only heard the terrible coughing sound you get from empty pipes. Luckily my well hadn’t dried out, but some mechanical part of the pump had failed.
However, few things are as scary as running out of water. Our well worked in 24 hours, but it was a long day where we used bottled water and rationed the use of the toilets. It reminded me of the disaster that awaits if California fails to remedy its shortcomings before it rains again. By the way, it was creepy driving past Mount Shasta and noticing its nonexistent snow cover.
The state has always been plagued by alternating droughts and floods. “The California summers were characterized by coughing in the pipes which meant the well was dry, and the California winters by night surveillance of the rivers that were about to reach the crest,” wrote Joan Didion in her 1977 essay, “Holy Water” . Living near California’s last unbarred river, I spent long nights watching the Cosumnes pass the aged levees.
Counterintuitive as it may seem, policymakers spend too much time worrying about how much water Californians use to manage their families and too little time figuring out how to get more water into our system. The state hasn’t built any significant water infrastructure since Didion wrote that essay, when the state had 17.6 million fewer residents.
Five years ago, Jerry Brown announced the official end of a grueling six-year drought. Other than passing resolutions to “make conservation a way of life,” the former governor hasn’t done much to improve the situation. After the rains resumed, interest waned in solving our water supply problems.
These days, the Newsom administration and legislature have done little more than engage in the shame of water. They want to convince us to use less water, as the state imposes stricter standards on water use on water districts and some districts (especially in the Bay Area) embrace water rationing.
Conservation is, of course, a good idea, and the local districts that manage the depleted reservoirs may have no choice but to issue edicts on water use. But there is a better way to move forward than to encourage people to report their water wastage neighbors to the authorities.
“Since the drought emergency was declared in July 2021, Californians have reduced water consumption by 2%, far below (Newsom’s) target of 15%,” The Los Angeles Times reported this month. “You’re not saving enough water in Southern California,” she yelled in July Orange County Registry article that notes that “draconian measures could come to stop people from watering all those begonias.”
Begonias are not the problem. Californians and other residents of the arid western states actually saved water. It’s a way of life and has been for years. In the 1990s, Californians used around 200 gallons per capita per day (down from 220 in the 1980s), but now they use around 48 gallons per capita per day, below the state standard of 55.
My favorite stat is from the much drier Arizona, where Arizona uses less total water than they did in 1957, when that state had one seventh of its current population. There is no need to shame Westerners for their use of water, but there is reason to shame our officials for not doing their part to upgrade and build new water infrastructure.
Newsom was elected in 2018 and only this week revealed his plan for the Delta tunnel. “After three years with little or no public activity, the state released an environmental project for … a 45-mile tunnel that diverts water from the Sacramento River and routes it under the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta so that it can be sent to farms and cities “, The bee of the Sacrament reported.
The proposal now for a single tunnel will no longer provide water, but will ensure more reliable deliveries. The Sacramento River flows into the delta, where it gets mired in hundreds of miles of waterways before the water is pumped south. Administrators often shut down the pumps when a delta smell is detected in the fish screens.
Environmentalists are horrified by the plan. They predict an environmental catastrophe, but currently, thanks to saltwater intrusion from the Pacific Ocean and subsidence (sinking land), that beautiful region is suffering from a slow-motion environmental mess. The plan will also finance habitat restoration.
Where are the plans to strengthen our water storage capacities? Why can’t California prepare for the future? Recently, the California Coastal Commission rejected a desalination plant that would have met 12% of Orange County’s water needs. Newsom supported it, but didn’t spend much political capital to secure its approval.
California has a surplus of $ 97.5 billion. Now is the time to invest in water systems, but instead the administration is squandering money on other things and then blaming us for watering the begonias. Households only use 5.7% of the available water, so when the pipes start coughing, don’t blame yourself. Blame the leaders of the state.
This column was first published in The Orange County Register.