Drought crisis requires more long-term plans

There’s little debate about the dire drought conditions that are enveloping the entire West, including California. The latest federal data shows that 100 percent of our state is unusually dry, with 94 percent of it facing severe drought conditions. Last year at this time, only 58 percent was unusually dry and 21 percent was facing severe levels of drought.

As usual, however, California’s policy makers are in a reactive mode – i.e., planning for the resulting shortages after the reservoirs have dried up. “It’s time for Californians to pull together once again to save water,” California Natural Resources Agency Secretary Wade Crowfoot said after Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency in 41 counties.

Stricter individual water-use standards are not the solution to ongoing water problems. Californians have in fact met the state’s conservation targets. “Individual Californians and our leaders rose to the challenge,” Crowfoot wrote in a March report looking at the 2012-2016 drought. “Across the state, communities reduced their water usage by an average of 25 percent.”

Simple math highlights the depth of the problem. Residential customers use only 5.7 percent of the state’s available water. Californians can cut back dramatically on lawn watering, showering and car washing and that will only nibble around the edges. The state needs to get serious about investing in water-infrastructure projects. It should have been preparing after the last drought.

A new report from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office reviews the lessons learned from the most recently concluded drought. The state spent $3.3 billion to deal with water shortages – but directed only $2.2 billion toward boosting supplies. That’s a rounding error in the context of California’s latest $268-billion spending plan. If water were truly a priority, the state could address the problems with a more concerted effort.

As the report noted, the state also embraced some regulatory changes – namely, exempting some water-storage projects from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). That 1970s-era law has slowed the construction of all types of projects by imposing a daunting review process – and making it easy for opponents to file lawsuits. California also passed a groundwater-management law to reduce over-pumping.

But the state did not complete or even design significant new water storage facilities, or jump-start the construction of reservoir projects that have been on the drawing boards for decades. The California Coastal Commission continued to delay the construction of a desalination facility proposed in Huntington Beach – even though a similar plant in Carlsbad has the capacity to meet 9 percent of San Diego County’s water needs.

The governor announced a $5.1-billion spending proposal to address the current drought. That proposal, however, deals mainly with short-term mitigation measures. Newsom said the package includes “bold investments,” but it mostly includes long overdue funds for improving drinking water and wastewater facilities in disadvantaged communities, habitat restoration and land “re-purposing.” These projects are fine, but they will not free us from our crisis-to-crisis approach.

“While the severity and length of the emerging drought still is unknown, taking actions now can prepare the state for a more effective and expedient response if conditions escalate,” as the LAO explained. In other words, California needs to prepare for the future, rather than react to the latest drought. It’s never too late to get serious about water infrastructure.

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