Commentary

Moving Beyond Myth in California Water


By Ellen Hanak, director of research and a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California and Jay Lund, Ray B. Krone Professor of Environmental Engineering and co-director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis

This commentary was published on March/April 2010, in California Counties

California is again in the throes of intense debates on how to manage one of its most important natural resources, later. Several dry years have depleted reservoirs and groundwater basins. New environmental restrictions on taking water from the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have intensified concerns in counties, cities and farming regions that rely on these water supplies. Proposals to bypass the Delta with a peripheral canal, pipeline or tunnel have many worried.

Although these may be the most visible issues of the moment, a virtual tour around the state reveals significant water management concerns in almost every watershed — from the Klamath River in the north, to the Colorado River in the south, from the Russian and Santa Clarita Rivers in the west, to the San Joaquin River and the Owens Valley Lakebed in the east.

Some summary statistics highlight why the environmental conditions of California’s water resources have become a major management concern in recent decades. A recent study finds that 22 percent of the state’s 122 remaining native fish species are already listed as threatened or endangered under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts, and another 45 percent are imperiled or qualified for listing. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency categorizes more than 90 percent of California’s lakes, rivers and streams as "impaired,” meaning that they cannot be used for one or more of their intended uses, e.g., drinking, irrigation, fishing and swimming.

The challenges and conflicts of water management are likely to intensify as population growth and climate change increase pressure on California’s resources. The state is expected to gain roughly half a million residents a year in the coming decades, and California’s scientific community projects that warming temperatures and accelerating sea level rise will make it increasingly difficult to satisfy agricultural, urban and environmental water demands and ensure adequate flood protection.

Faced with these challenges, California needs to base its water policy decisions on an accurate understanding of the state’s water problems — and potential solutions. Unfortunately, myths about California’s water abound in this area, hindering the development of effective policies to manage this important resource.

These myths persist, in part, because California’s vast and highly complex water management is decentralized, with more than a thousand local and regional water agencies responsible for water delivery, wastewater treatment and flood control. This system encourages innovation and responsiveness to local problems, but has failed to foster the collection, sharing and synthesis of information.

In our recent report, California Water Myths, co-authored by an independent team with expertise in ecology, economics, engineering, law and the physical sciences, we focus on eight prominent myths about the state’s water supply, ecosystems and the legal and political aspects of governing the system. These myths include:

  • California is running out of water. In reality, California has run out of cheap water. Water will be increasingly scarce, but Californians have shown they can adapt to scarcity. In recent years, farmers have adopted more efficient irrigation methods, urban residents have cut water use and water agencies have improved water management.
  • A villain is responsible for California’s water problems. One of the most common myths is that the system would work well if it weren’t for the wasteful Southern California homeowner. Or the farmer who gets federally subsidized water. Or the Endangered Species Acts. The reality? There are no true villains. Per capita water use among Southern Californians is among the lowest in California. Farmers south of the Delta who receive subsidized water from the Central Valley Project have improved their water efficiency considerably since the 1980s. And removing Endangered Species Act’s restrictions on water diversions would not end water scarcity for human uses. In short, the system’s problems are a shared responsibility, and all sectors can make better use of water.
  • We can build our way out of California’s water problems. In reality, no technological solution to California’s water problems — desalination plants, new surface storage, a peripheral canal — is a panacea. New infrastructure investments are best used as part of a portfolio approach that includes water markets, underground storage, reuse and conservation.
  • We can conserve our way out of California’s water problems. Conservation is important, but its potential to free up water for other users is often overstated. Moreover, some conservation measures, such as replacing lawns with plants that need less water, can be costly to implement.
  • Healthy aquatic ecosystems conflict with a healthy economy. Environmental regulations often interfere with traditional economic activities, but if well managed, need not threaten overall economic health. Healthy fisheries, water based recreation and improved water quality provide significant economic value, which may offset their costs. Better measures of water use costs and benefits can help guide watershed management policies.
  • More water will lead to healthy fish populations. Contrary to this myth, more water alone is rarely sufficient to restore a fish population. Water with the wrong temperature, nutrients or sediment can harm fish, and so can water without sufficient habitat. Supporting native fish will require strategies that account for the complexities of aquatic ecosystems.
  • California’s water rights laws impede reform and sustainable management. In this view, California cannot effectively address its water issues because of archaic and entrenched water rights. The reality is that the law already contains legal tools to ensure that water uses are reasonable and promote the public interest — we just need to start using them.
  • We can find a consensus that will keep all parties happy. The reality is that many of California’s big water policy decisions require tough tradeoffs. In such cases, state or federal leadership is needed to provide direction and broker solutions.

We recommend improving the flow of existing information, collecting more information from surface and groundwater users — an unpopular idea among many water users — and expanding the analysis and synthesis of data pertinent to important management and policy choices.

In the final months of 2009, the State Legislature successfully passed a comprehensive package of water legislation that begins to address some of these issues. In particular, monitoring of groundwater basins will now be required throughout California, and penalties against illegal diversions of surface water have been strengthened somewhat, as have staffing resources to enforce water rights. Stakeholder resistance to state oversight weakened these bills considerably in the final weeks of the negotiations. Nevertheless, these are important first steps toward a more modern information system for water management.

Of course, information alone will not dispel California’s water myths. But better information can fashion more effective responses to California’s many ongoing and future water challenges.

If the state’s leaders are serious about solving California’s water challenges, they’ll need better reporting and analysis to improve policy understanding and options, even if some stakeholders resist. In the months and years ahead, policymakers and voters will be involved in crucial decisions regarding one of California’s most precious and controversial resources. Let’s be sure those decisions are based on reality, not myth.

Related Publications

California Water Myths

California Water: Planning for a Better Future

Paying for Infrastructure: California's Choices

Related Policy Areas

Environment
Infrastructure
Water

Other Work By

Ellen Hanak
Jay Lund