Before the water trucks roll in.

Head of the Drought Task Force said that a dozen or so small towns face running out of water in the next 60 days. The prospect of trucking water, or bringing in mobile desal plants, looms. Some of these towns may be very poor, and haven’t had the wealth to make their water supply resilient (second tank, line to a different source, pump lower in their reservoir to reach more volume). Some of them may simply not have other sources. Some of them, though, may have been living in denial about the risk of bad events. They may have had the wealth but been unwilling to pay higher rates.

Were it mine to do, I’d say that we, the people of the State, will help you once. Before a water truck arrives, you show us your new property tax assessment for water infrastructure that can withstand three dry years. The water trucks will arrive the day after you pass a rate structure that adequately funds your water reliability. We will not take your lack of water more seriously than you do. We will not truck water to you all summer without proof that you will not let this happen again. We don’t want to leave you with no aid at all if you don’t do this; we can post a few National Guard corps here to protect your empty homes against looters.

Communities that simply do not have the wealth to be resilient against climate variability pose a choice to the State. This drought is an example of the more variable climate future we expect. How long do we support people’s choices to live where they want if they don’t have the resources to provide for their water reliability? There are policy arguments for all sides, but it isn’t the kind of question that is pleasant to debate explicitly.


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15 responses to “Before the water trucks roll in.

  1. I definitely support this. There are plenty of communities (and farmers) who have been living, unsustainably, on the largesse of others.

  2. onthepublicrecord

    It doesn’t have to be that communities are living off the largesse of others. They might be living off past local investments and deferred maintenance. That may have been enough for the old climate, but the new climate forces unpleasant questions on us.

  3. Dave Simmons

    Climate variability is nothing new. We need more water storage. Our water system is from the 1950’s! And we don’t need a high speed train. Simple as that.

  4. jrfleck

    The number here – a dozen – raises a significant question that, here in New Mexico, went largely unexamined during last year’s drought when we grappled with similar problems. If that’s all the communities that are at risk, many orders of magnitude more communities, serving the majority of the at-risk population, must have done the sort of things you mention – second tank, lowering the pump, etc. Does this mean that, amid the small-scale chaos that will draw the media vultures like me, most communities have been getting this right?

  5. onthepublicrecord

    Oh no. There are about 4000 water districts in CA (if you count thirty-dwelling mutual water companies in the middle of nowhere). I’d bet a good third of them will be in a bad way this year. We’re just hearing from the earliest and direst ones.

    I don’t mean to brag or anything, but my own father was the president of just such a mutual water company. He ended his tenure disgusted and will install his own water tank instead of trying to get people to spend money in advance of the problem.

  6. I agree that some communities have been “surprised” by the drought, CC or infrastructure deterioration, but many have begun to rely on grants, etc. that I consider “largesse”. The entire redistribution of water in the State — given the zero valuation of the water as a resource — can also be considered largesse. The solutions, which you’ve also mentioned in recent posts, is for communities to self-fund/insure their systems. Those that cannot should be condemned as “dangerous” and their residents moved to places that are sustainable from a financial and resource perspective. (They should also be socially sustainable, as in voting to tax themselves).

  7. jrfleck

    OtPR – Does California maintain a central data source for at-risk water systems along the line of Texas’s – – that makes it easier to track this stuff in real time?

  8. onthepublicrecord

    Not that I know of. That would be a useful thing for ACWA to do.

  9. But the legislature (and David Zetland) say that these communities have a “human right to water.”

  10. onthepublicrecord

    I know. This piece of the human right to water policy always troubled me. My thinking is that all Californians do have a human right to clean water. But maybe they don’t have a human right to clean water wherever they are. This right can’t create a state obligation to provide water service to every far flung hermit that chooses to live off a fractured rock well.

  11. I think the problem is more complicated than yo’all have been indicating. Both scale and history have an impact. I have not seen the list of these small communities that are most threatened but I suspect that they don’t have the size to embark on major projects on their own, and some of them may have been limited by the deteriorating quality of groundwater, which on their own they can do nothing about. State help is not unreasonable if this is the case. But history has also led to some whacky bigger water districts like Zone 7 of Alameda County, which gets 90 percent of its supply from the SWP. From an engineering point of view it would make sense to consolidate Zone 7 and the Contra Costa Water Agency for starters, and perhaps EBMUD as well, but I am sure the individual boards of directors would fight that. In lieu of major consolidation, all water districts are not going to be equally equipped to deal with droughts of the kind that we see in the relatively short historic record, let alone a 200-year or a 500-year drought, which can occur at any time.

    • jrfleck

      Robert – The question of consolidation and small system vulnerability has been a major feature of the political and public policy discussion here in New Mexico as we have grappled with smaller-scale but similar problems over the past year. I think we’re probably talking about consolidation on different scales, but the issue is the same. If, as you suggest, individual systems fight consolidation in order to try to maintain their autonomy, and as a result leave themselves more vulnerable, what sort of responsibility do they bear for the resulting problems?

  12. John – Yes, if the smaller districts resist consolidation they are at least partly at fault, but according to State Senator Lois Wolk, who I heard speak yesterday, some of the smaller, largely minority communities and water districts in the Central Valley have been created because wealthier towns have refused to annex them and those wealthier districts also control the county governments. I don’t know the detail of this, but just from having driven through the Central Valley in between the main highways, 5 and 99, I can believe that it is true. A detailed analysis of this issue would be helpful.
    I know that there have been some articles about it but I don’t know that I have seen a formal study. Maybe otPR can help on that?

  13. Francis

    some of the smaller, largely minority communities and water districts in the Central Valley have been created because wealthier towns have refused to annex them and those wealthier districts also control the county governments.

    Enter into the perilous world of LAFCOs (Local Agency Formation Commissions). Changing public agency jurisdictional boundaries is really really hard.

  14. onthepublicrecord

    Truly, I don’t know much about it, but I do want to think and write about this a little more.