Fix California’s water system!!!

My main take-away from this meeting on a California Constitutional Convention? I didn’t expect to hear so much about water. The first speaker, from the Bay Area Council, listed water as the second most important crisis the state has to solve, after resolving budget procedures. The next speaker, Walters from the SacBee, mentioned it alternately first or second every time, water and the budget. It came up a couple more times, always as an important function of government that California was failing at.

Huh. I pay a lot of attention to water, but I don’t personally consider it a scarier problem than climate change, converting our energy sources and distribution to renewables, densifying cities, matching up our population to a quality of life. I’m pretty scared of the way we imprison people, actually. That strikes me as a real nasty feedback loop. I mean, yeah. Our water system poses some hard problems, but I wouldn’t have picked it as one of the two top problems in the state1. I wonder how much that public perception has to do with being in the third year of a drought.

Anyway, all that talk of the government failing at water made me wonder what the state could actually do for water systems, in a beautiful world of very good governance. These people who want the state to fix the water problems, what can they expect?

I know what they want. They want to keep using water they way they do now, not pay much more for it, and have so much faith that it will always be there when they open the taps that they never think about it again. That’s the standard they’re used to. Heh. A perfectly functioning state government couldn’t provide that. We will have less water overall, spread over more people, and the best Constitution in the world will not make it rain.2 Water will be scarcer and more expensive.

What, then, could the laws of our state actually enable? Three things: reliability, certainty and allocation. This is not the same as more water. Our old strategy was to have so much that even with sloppy management sloshing water all over, reliability, certainty and allocation were largely met. (Unless you were a salmon or smelt.) Now, though, we’re going to have to focus on what people really want.

The way to support reliability is through the budget process. Paying for O&M on our existing plumbing, putting in cross-ties and canals so that regions are served by multiple systems, instead of one that can fail and leave them stranded, reconstructing and getting rid of existing bottlenecks. Our current projects could be optimized and better controlled. Better reliability could be bought by a state government that could budget for it.

Certainty and allocation come from distribution rules, and this is where overhauling the state codes or Constitution can actually have some effect. I have opinions about what that should look like, but it is more important that people realize that this is the field of play. “Fixing water in California” does not mean “perpetuating what we’re used to”. It means making rules for who gets how much of what little water arrives and why. It means deciding who gets the shaft when flood or drought arrives, and whether there will be compensation. It means that Silicon Valley execs can know that they’ll get all of what they need nearly all the time for a lot of money. It means that growers who commit to accepting flood waters know they’ll get paid back from a community fund, so they can exist as farms the year after. It means that cities can plan for expected populations and know they’ll have a smaller but reliable amount of water for all the households they serve.

That’s what new rules could do. That’s the best a new Constitution could do. It won’t “fix the water system” in the sense of making more water exist so we can live like we have. “Fixing the water system” means meeting the underlying needs (reliability, certainty, allocation) so that people can adapt and choose.


1If your metric is human misery, I don’t think that a failed water system has the highest costs. If failure is slow, you’ll lose fish species (I don’t mean to underplay that). You’ll get the collapse in agriculture I described below, a lot of farmworkers hurting and then dispersing, people being forced out of the ag sector. Besides that, though, city people will take out their lawns, eat less meat, and live much like normal. Perhaps less industry will move here, slowing economic growth. If failure is fast, like an earthquake that breaks the Delta, that would be pretty miserable. Southern California would have a year or so to get a Peripheral Canal up and running before everyone would have to leave. That’d suck for them.

Still, for real concentrated misery, I think the prison system imposes much higher costs on California than failing water systems. Epidemics, like childhood asthma, hurt more people for longer than less-water-than-we’re-used-to will. Our collective quality of life probably suffers more from sitting in traffic than it would from never developing another drop of water. I’m glad that my field is so appreciated these days, but I don’t think I’d rank our problems the same.

2But! You say! If we have a functioning government, we could BUILD MORE DAMS!!! That would give us more water.

Nope. If less water is falling from the sky, more dams will give us MORE EMPTY DAMS. We are already catching most of what we can expect to catch. There may be some wiggle room, and local benefits for some new dams, but so long as the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act holds, there is no large untapped supply that could be caught by dams.


Filed under Drought

5 responses to “Fix California’s water system!!!

  1. Tim

    I certainly think you’ve hit the high points of the state’s water woes. My biggest fear is the earthquake scenario because the chances become more likely every day. In the worst case scenario, millions will have NO water for a significant amount of time. I’m not sure it would be too unrealistic to call that a doomsday scenario leading to civil unrest and worse. Maybe it won’t be that bad. Neverthe less, I’m filling a jug or two now, just in case.

  2. onthepublicrecord

    Before the drought, there was two years of supply stored south of the Delta, so that if an earthquake knocked it out, the major cities could limp through on tight rations for a couple years. Then the race is whether you can build the Peripheral Canal before you empty the reservoirs south of the Delta. That’s a pretty steep challenge.

    I don’t know what the buffer is now.

  3. Ray Walker

    What could California actually do ?

    Why not investigate a totally new non-tributary fresh water Source that could be legally & economically developed to supply a million acre feet a year FOR CALIFORNIA & to keep Lake Mead reasonably FULL and generating 2000 megawatts of renewable energy without damage to the environment or the water rights of others ?

    Lake Mead currently has in storage 15 million acre feet. When FULL, Lake Mead holds 28.5 million acre feet.

    Over time, Lake Mead could have in reserve in excess of 10 million acre feet to meet the emergencies of the region.

    Vultures don’t always circle the dead and dying…sometimes they just enjoy the hot air circulating to new heights … WaterSource

    Ray Walker (Retired Water Rights Analyst)

    “The laughter of fools has always been the reward of any man who comes up with a new thought.” Stephen Lister

  4. onthepublicrecord

    Couple thoughts:

    1. A maf/y isn’t very much water, in the scheme of things. Nicer to have it than to not-have it, but we use 30-40 maf/y. Getting another maf/y would buffer the regions fed by the Colorado, but not transform CA water or anything.

    2. What would this source cost per af? A maf/y is very achievable by water conservation, at fairly low prices. Is your new source comparable?

    3. I don’t understand what the source you are alluding to is. (Also, if it is on the Colorado, I’m not going to have any good understanding of it. I don’t know that system well.) Are you suggesting keeping lake levels higher? With what water, exactly?

  5. Ray Walker


    A million acre feet of non-tributary fresh water for California may be available.

    Non-tributary water means water that under no circumstances is part of any tributary or groundwater that would drain into or possibly be connected to or eventually ever reach any of California’s stream sources or their tributaries OR the Colorado River or it’s tributaries in any state.

    In order to put a PLAN together to determine costs and distribution of a million acre feet of fresh water EACH YEAR, it is essential that those who want the water request the quantity, location and beneficial use(s) they would like to have in a dry year.

    Requests for water for environmental concerns can be made as well.

    If more than a million acre feet are requested, the water may be made available based on the date of the request. If specific requests for a million acre feet of fresh water a year are received, the appropriate governmental agencies will be contacted for coordination and cooperation.

    The exact Source and all of its aspects/options will be fully disclosed at the appropriate time. There is absolutely no obligation of any kind in simply requesting a share of the available non-tributary fresh water.

    Together, we can try to solve our water shortage dilemmas,

    Ray Walker (Retired Water Rights Analyst)