Drought could push California to rethink water strategy
California Gov. Jerry Brown announced a sweeping executive order Wednesday that imposes mandatory water restrictions across the state as California copes with a historic drought and water shortage. AP
California’s historic drought has thrown the state into crisis mode, but some experts hope it will force long-term improvements in how the state manages water.
Gov. Jerry Brown announced California’s first-ever mandatory water restrictions Wednesday, calling for a 25% reduction in water use and encouraging water districts to charge consumers more for excessive consumption. His executive order will also lead to new rebates for water-efficient appliances, as well as new funding for replacing lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping.
But California’s underlying problem, some experts say, is bigger than the current drought. Considering the state’s burgeoning population and the likelihood that climate change will make droughts more frequent and more severe, they say, policymakers should use the current crisis to lay the groundwork for more sustainable water management.
“We have to think about this as an opportunity to do better for the future,” said Brian Stranko, California water program director for The Nature Conservancy, an environmental advocacy group. “We can only do so many things in this crisis. Our options are limited.”
Speaking during a Thursday conference call hosted by Circle of Blue — a Michigan-based media organization that covers water issues — Stranko said the drought has had major consequences not only for people, but for fish and wildlife as well. Rivers have dried up and wetland habitats along the Pacific Flyway, a major migratory bird route that includes the Salton Sea, have been diminished, leading to death and disease among bird populations.
“Nature is suffering alongside our people, our farms, our communities,” Stranko said.
Brown’s executive order is a good first step toward addressing California’s water problems, Stranko said, but more is needed. He called for “dynamic conservation” measures that would use dams and other reservoirs to provide water to natural environments in short bursts, when it’s most needed. Those kinds of measures, Stranko said, would make it easier to balance the water needs of people and nature.
“We have to take advantage of the crisis and take action,” he said.
Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia Water Center in New York City, struck a similar note during the conference call. The combination of California’s record-breaking drought and the need to make costly upgrades to aging water infrastructure, he said, creates an opportunity to fundamentally rethink how the United States manages water.
Lall called for policymakers to reevaluate long-entrenched water rights, to consider more centralized water management and to think about water as a human right rather than a commodity. He also highlighted emerging wastewater treatment technology that could make water recycling much less energy-intensive than it is now.
One of the worst droughts on record has had far-reaching consequences throughout the state. Video provided by Newsy Newslook
“I understand that the drought has severe consequences, but these are times when it actually pays to think about your larger picture and your longer-term strategy, in addition to thinking about what you need to do now,” he said.
Like Stranko and Lall, William Patzert — a climatologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge — believes California must emerge from the drought with a fundamentally different system for managing water.
The main reason for that, Patzert said in an interview Wednesday, isn’t climate change — it’s population growth. The state’s population ballooned from less than 24 million in 1980 to nearly 39 million last year.