Whiskey Is for Drinking, Water Is for Fighting Over

While Mark Twain may or may not be the author of the “water is for fighting over” phrase, the sentiment still rings true in California.  And with the drought worsening, we can expect more fights over water in our future.  In addition to dealing with the need to conserve water and increase water supply, there are two water-related issues before us now that need attention.  The first is the use of water capacity as a way to stop new development.  And the second is the threat to keeping water in the North Bay in the North Bay.

But first, a little perspective.  The California Water Foundation’s Aquapedia (Link) describes the fight over water well.  “California will always be inextricably linked to its water resources. Water continues to shape the state’s development and no resource is as vital to California’s urban centers, farms, industry, recreation, scenic beauty and environmental preservation.”

California’s economy and culture have always been shaped by the abundance or scarcity of water. The Golden State’s economy, agricultural production, and population have grown to number one in the nation, largely in pace with the development of its water resources.  California receives 75 percent of its rain and snow in the watersheds north of Sacramento. However, 80 percent of California’s water demand comes from the southern 2/3 of the state.  And that equation is one that continues to cause controversy and strife.

The Aquapedia says, “The most basic issues affecting California’s water supply center on distributing and sharing the resource — getting the water to the right place at the right time — while also not harming the environment and aquatic species. Distribution is also coupled with conflicts between competing interests over the use of available supplies.”

“But moving water over great distances has created intense regional rivalries. Water feuds historically have divided the state, pitting north against south, east against west and three major stakeholders (agricultural, urban and environmental) against one another. Intense disagreements persist over the manner in which California’s water resources are developed and managed,” according to the Aquapedia.

Moving the water has created a heavily engineered water system.  Aquapedia says, “These geographic disparities have been remedied, in large part, by building one of the most complex and sophisticated flood management, water storage and water transport systems in the world. An integrated system of federal, state and locally owned dams, reservoirs, pumping plants and aqueducts transports large portions of the state’s surface water hundreds of miles.”

The state water system is also being impacted by the effects of climate change. Scientists predict increased temperatures, less snow, earlier snowmelt and a rise in sea level which will have major implications for water supply, flood management and ecosystem health.

Water districts should have learned from the last drought how to be better prepared for the next one.  Steps should have been taken to incentivize conservation, increase water recycling and reuse, capture more storm water, fix leaking pipes in the system, and generate more supply like from desalination.  Instead, some water districts like Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) are leaping to declare water hook-up moratoriums to stop new construction.  This is a short-sighted and ineffectual response.

Housing is a crisis in the North Bay.  We have a huge need to build more housing and because we haven’t built anywhere near the amount we should, the costs of housing have skyrocketed, pushing many of Marin’s workforce far from the county in which they work.  Now we are experiencing a worker shortage, which is growing as we shrink our workforce due to the lack of housing.  This is unsustainable and will wreak havoc on our slowing recovering economy.

Emma Talley writes in Could California’s drought crisis block Bay Area housing?(Link), “Restrictions on housing production in the form of service hookups could strain the market in Marin, making it even more unaffordable. Tom Lai, director of the Marin County Community Development Agency, said if the area cannot meet its state mandates for permitting new housing, the deficit could also perpetuate racial inequalities with respect to where housing is located, what types of housing are available, and who lives in that housing.”

Talley says, “In Lai’s opinion, an outright ban on all new service connections for an extended time would be shortsighted.  I would urge those making decisions to ban new hookups to look holistically at the problem,’ he said, including reevaluating existing and new conservation programs.”

“As housing experts point out, new construction is quite water efficient and water hook-up moratoriums won’t solve supply concerns, says Talley.”  ‘There are so many other options that we can consider, said Newsha Ajami, director of urban water policy with Stanford University’s Water in the West program. She explained it’s much better to think more strategically about how we want to be more water conscious and have a smaller water footprint.’”

While “there’s always this tension between development and water use,” Ajami advocates for connecting land-use planning and water-use planning, explaining that often the two are considered separately. She said when considering new developments, cities should focus on building structures that are “much more efficient in the way they use water.”

Southern California has invested more than $1 billion in new storage infrastructure since the early 2000s. Yet the recent storage expansion in the south is unmatched in the historically wetter north, Ajami said. “They’ve done a lot more to diversify and save water compared to some other communities across the state,” she said. “It shows that when you’re under constant stress, you respond.”

In Facing Drought, Southern California Has More Water Than Ever by Laura Bliss (Bloomberg Green Link), she says “Investments in water recycling, desalination and stormwater capture have also made a difference. The city does not expect to ask residents to ration supplies this year or the next, said Delon Kwan, assistant director of water resources at the L.A. Department of Water and Power, because Southern California has a record 3.2 million acre-feet of water in reserve, enough to quench the population’s needs this year and into the next.”

But those actions do not preclude Southern California’s lopsided population being in a different place as the drought continues and climate change intensifies.  It is alarming that MMWD is pursuing repeating the solution they found in the desperate times of the 1977 drought – running a pipeline over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to bring in water from the East Bay.  There are many reasons why that solution is not the right solution in 2021 but the biggest reason is the danger of that pipeline providing access by Southern California to our water supply in the North Bay.  Pipes flow in two directions and what is painted as our salvation today could be our doom tomorrow.

It would be far wiser to pursue other solutions such as more recycling or reuse, stormwater capture, and desalination that will provide supply that is under the local control.  “Demand management is the best and cheapest way we can approach water security,” Ajami said. “There is no supply in California that is not vulnerable.”

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