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Water: Blood in the Veins

Columnist: Tim Carl
September, 2015 Issue

Tim Carl
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The point is that water is, and has always been, a scarce resource in the West.

Water has always been a valuable and limited resource in the Western United States. That’s why the Bureau of Reclamation was created in 1902 by President Theodore Roosevelt to manage water in what was referred to, at the time, as the “arid West.”
Although there seems never to have been enough water in California, many believe it will become increasingly scarce over the coming years, pointing to growing populations, climate change, recent record-low snow packs and the current drought that’s now in its fourth year.
Consequently, federal, state and local municipalities have enacted new guidelines, rules and laws to address these growing concerns.
Under orders from the White House, the Bureau of Reclamation has begun broad studies on the impact of climate change on 22 Western water basins and is drawing up multidecade plans to begin rebuilding its Western water management systems.
In April 2015, Governor Jerry Brown ordered a 25 percent reduction in urban water use. Communities with the highest per-capita use are being forced to cut daily consumption by as much as 36 percent.
A year earlier, in 2014, Brown signed into law the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA),which requires local entities to create groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) that will assess conditions in their local water basins and develop locally based management plans to manage groundwater in high- or medium-priority basins. Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Petaluma Valley and the Santa Rosa Plain are medium-priority basins. And although the implementation of these SGMA rules won’t be enforceable for many years, local agencies have only until June 30, 2017, to form the GSAs that will develop these plans. Under the current law, only public agencies, such as city, water district, irrigation district and so forth get a seat at the table, while other interested parties will remain observers of a process that will likely impact their water use.
One of the key issues, at the moment, is understanding who’s actually using water—and how much they’re using.
In a hotly contested numbers game, a widely quoted 80 percent of water used for “agriculture” in California has come into question. It seems the original percentage was calculated without including water used for environmental causes, such as diversion to protect endangered fish species. Many are now reporting that California agriculture actually uses half that amount (40 percent) of the state’s water, whereas residential water use accounts for roughly 12 percent of total use in the state.
The numbers a person personally favors likely represent his or her political view of the world or vested interest, but, in the end, the exact number probably doesn’t make much difference for most people. The point is that water is, and has always been, a scarce resource in the West. The population continues to grow, and it takes water to grow crops and run cities, so everyone must find ways to become more efficient. Many already have, but others haven’t.
For example, according to a report from the California Water Resource Control Board, from April 2013 to April 2015, the city of Santa Rosa has seen a 32 percent reduction in residential water use, while the city of Escondido (near San Diego) has seen an increase of 20 percent in its residential water use during that same period.
In general, Northern California cities and towns have seen a decrease in residential water use by about 20 percent. Yet across the state, there’s been only a reduction in residential water use by 13.5 percent, suggesting many cities aren’t following suit.
Agriculture is making changes, too. Farmers are using more drip irrigation than ever, and old methods of flooding crops are rapidly being phased out. People are using more recycled water, collecting rain in storage tanks and even filtering seawater. I know one guy who’s using underground watering systems on his farm to reduce evaporation, and a few vineyard owners are dry farming their grapes where deep soils with good water-holding capacity are present.
What’s the answer to our water problems? A combination of approaches and ideas needs to be explored. That means the days of “my way or the highway” should be replaced with collaboration and open experimentation. However, we’re talking about water here. And water in our fine state of California is a resource that flows like blood through the very veins of this place we call home. Given our history and the high stakes, we might just be at the start of something that has the potential to become a whole lot messier—and bloodier—before it gets much better.



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