There continues to be lots of blame thrown around around the issue of water supply in California, but one thing seems clear: our state uses lots of water. Whether for keeping 30 million people bathed and hydrated or for keeping hundreds of millions of people around the country and the world fed.
Thanks for the water that keeps our state going goes to the generations of people who spent billions of hours and billions of dollars developing the infrastructure to store the water and move it around the state: from reservoirs in the mountains and interstate aqueducts built by local, state and federal agencies to wells and pipes and plumbing built by individuals. We are all — all, everyone in the state — benefiting from a water system that we largely take for granted every day. And which we have done little to improve or expand in decades.
Abandoning agriculture to allow the rest of the state’s economy to grow is not really an option. No matter what some public figures might say and believe, most of California’s policymakers understand that farming plays an important role in our economy. And the products our state grows are critical to not just our own food supply, but that of the rest of the nation and the world.
A recent article in the New York Times about how Israel solved its drought issues and produced an actual surplus of water through the use of desalination and water recycling, combined with higher rates for the water. Everyone has plenty of water, even farmers.
Providing new water supplies and hedging against climate change is going to require a capital investment, similar to the one that was made to ship water from the Colorado and Sacramento Rivers to Southern California. California has not made this type of statewide investment in decades, but in that time our population has exploded. Meanwhile, we have passed several statewide water bonds to pay for improvements, and little of the money has been spent.
The majority of people in our state live much closer to the ocean than they do to the mountains that currently provide most of their fresh water. The coastal regions are generally more affluent than the rural areas closer to the water. All other things being equal, why shouldn’t population centers there look close to home for water to replace what we are losing to drought and climate change, instead of to distant farms?
Part of the key to making desalinization work in Israel is selling the water twice: first to households and businesses, then recycling it via high tech reverse osmosis filtration and selling it a second time to farmers and other “industrial users” for a lower price.
Currently, we do very little recycling of waste water in the U.S. Some of it goes to irrigation of municipal landscapes and golf courses, and a tiny bit to agriculture. But most of it goes back into lakes, rivers, and oceans, used only once.
Article in the Sacramento Bee documents how cities along the coast are grappling with the costs and challenges of ensuring a supply of fresh water. A few are choosing desalination while others are focusing on water recycling and other methods. Both should be key components of California’s plan for water sustainability.
Meanwhile, out here in the valley, farmers continue to invest in costly water conservation. The next step is for irrigation districts, whose infrastructure mostly dates back to the 1960s and 70s, to make improve the efficiency of their systems through upgrades and new technology. Better water recycling in rural areas will be part of the solution as well, using new technologies like solar water purification.
California has an opportunity to remain both a thriving urban state and an agricultural powerhouse. But it’s going to take lots of time and money, and a whole lot less blame. We’ve done it before, we can do it again.