Once Is Not Enough

Santa Margarita Lake-Explore #126 2/5/15” by Linda Tanner is licensed under CC BY 2.0

by David Carle, author of Introduction to Water in California, Second Edition

Water is the essence of life, the key to California’s history and its future. Today, water choices are complicated by ignorance about how water reaches faucets and farm fields and by our society’s unwillingness to step away from an historic attitude about water supply that might be characterized as: “Too much will never be enough.”

Must we choose massive twin tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta or expensive new dams that will yield only a small percentage of their constructed reservoir capacities? Does it make sense to build ultra-expensive ocean desalination plants? “Fish versus farmers?” Really? Must we go there? Why pump from groundwater basins at rates we know are unsustainable and irresponsible? Can’t we admit that returning water to the environment is not a new “water demand,” but belated recognition that far too much has been taken away?

Incredible progress is being made in this state, where cities and large water districts are weaning themselves from imported water. And much more is possible. Every Californian should know that:

  • Through conservation and highly-treated wastewater, the Water Replenishment District of Southern California (which used to import 80 percent of its supply for 4 million customers) aims for 100 percent reliance on stormwater and recycling in the near future.
  • The City of Santa Monica plans to eliminate use of imported water sources by 2020.
  • Los Angeles intends to cut its imported water purchases in half by 2025.
  • Agricultural efficiencies could save 4 to 6 million acre-feet of water a year in the state (according to several published studies; equivalent to what is diverted from the Delta each year).

Thirsts can be quenched by wiser use of water within cities and on farms. Let’s use local water again and again…and again. Once is not enough. New urban development should be designed to add nothing to the overall community “thirst.” The 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act set implementation goals in the year 2040; can’t that plodding approach be accelerated? Let’s push for irrigation and crop choices that reduce agricultural thirsts, because wiser farm production benefits the entire society.

The future we choose for California will continue to be shaped by decisions about water.

David Carle is a former park ranger and the author of California Natural History Guides about water, fire, air, and soil (UC Press), as well as other books in water history and management, including Drowning the Dream: California’s Water Choices at the Millennium and Water and the California Dream. His most recent UC Press book is Traveling the 38th Parallel: A Water Line around the World (2013).

The new, updated edition of Introduction to Water in California is available for purchase now. Order your copy here.