California is in the midst of the third year of drought, and by many indicators 2013 was one of the driest years on record. In Los Angeles for example, 2013 proved to be the driest year in the 136 years that the City has weather records. However, judging by some recent comments from major municipal water providers in Southern California, there seems to be little concern about providing water to our citizens regardless of drought conditions. In this piece, I would like to address these comments and lay out the reasons why I am concerned that our Southern California water districts do not seem concerned in a time of drought to do more to protect long-term water supplies.
I got the idea to write this piece when I read an article in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune entitled Invisible crisis: Few feel effects of L.A.’s driest year on record. You can read the full article here. In the article, the author writes about how Los Angeles and Southern California are facing the third straight year of drought and how 2013 was on track (and eventually did confirm) as the driest year on record in Los Angeles. Considering these statistics, you would think that the article would focus on the need to conserve water in a time of drought. However, the quotes that the author selected from leaders in the water industry in Southern California painted a much rosier picture. The article highlighted Metropolitan Water District’s Assistant General Manager Debra Mann, stating,
“Indeed, the nation’s largest water wholesaler, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, predicts even with more dry years, it will not deny any of its 28 member agencies a drop of water in 2014 or in the years to come. MWD serves cities from the Tehachapi Mountains to the Mexican border. ‘We plan to meet all demands that our member agencies will have for 2014. We don’t need to have a shortage reduction or a shortage call for the next few years,’ said Debra Man, MWD assistant general manager and chief operating officer.”
I am concerned that districts like MWD are underestimating the potential consequences for long-term drought. We have seen this scenario play out before in California, and periods of drought are the most important times to get people thinking about water conservation measures. Consider, for example, the actions that the Santa Clara Valley Water District (SCVWD) took in 2009 to try to curb a severe drought. The SCVWD serves the entire Silicon Valley, including the cities in which tech titans Apple, Google, Cisco and many others call home. In an effort to make its citizens conserve water after three years of severe drought, the water district tried to enact a “mandatory” 15% water usage reduction for every citizen. The water district quickly found out how little power it had to force citizens to conserve. The district had no legal authority to raise rates on water without the consent of the people, and it could not force the retailers to which it sold water to follow the rationing “mandate”. In an attempt to coax the citizens into considering water rationing, the district spent $1 million of taxpayer dollars in a public affairs outreach program on the importance of rationing water in times of drought.
The region survived the water crisis, but the district had a short memory in remembering the importance of conserving water regardless of the supply. In 2010 the drought finally broke when California experienced an above-average snowfall. The SCVWD staff recommended keeping the water rationing measures in place, but the elected Board of Directors decided to lift the restrictions in a 5-2 vote. According to a June 16th, 2010 San Jose Mercury News article, the Board worried that the population would “go back to its old ways” of using unlimited amounts of water, but they could not force rationing on the population in times of plenty. One of the water retailers in the region explained had an intriguing explanation as to why the Board rejected the mandatory water rationing. “Our reservoirs are as full as we can let them get,” said Charles Hardy, a spokesman for the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which serves 1.3 million people. “Our board basically said if there’s no reason for restrictions, why are you going to ask people to conserve? Because when you really need them to conserve you want them to conserve.”
I believe that the above example shows just how short-sighted these policies are. In many parts of California, our population relies on incredible amounts of imported water that is both unreliable and costly to transport. A few weeks ago, I discussed in a posting (you can view here) that the California Department of Water Resources initially plans to deliver only 5% of entitlements to the users of the State Water Project. To put how much of an impact this determination could have on water supplies, consider the case of Metropolitan Water District. MWD’s full entitlement of the State Water Project is 1,911,500 acre feet. If the 5% delivery projection holds, MWD will receive just 95,575 acre feet, a reduction of 1,815,925 acre feet. You can see all of the proposed delivery amounts for the 29 State Water Contractors here.
These potential delivery figures are sobering. While I am not advocating panic, I am advocating more prudent planning and conservation. It is laudable that MWD and many agencies have put in place water storage systems, but we cannot act flippant towards the real risk of prolonged drought. With such a potential massive reduction in water deliveries and no idea when the drought will end, how can Metropolitan Water District and other State Water Contractors be certain that it will not deny any of its members “a drop of water” in the years ahead? Metropolitan Water District certainly has storage facilities to protect against drought, but these resources are not infinite. And the storage facilities require some rainfall and deliveries from the State Water Project (SWP) to replenish them long-term. But we can’t control the weather, and we know that a host of increased environmental regulations limits the supply that the SWP can deliver. That is why I believe MWD should look at a combination of increased storage, new supply and citizens’ water conservation to get us through the prolonged drought. Without a comprehensive approach, I don’t believe that water suppliers like MWD can be so completely sure about their long-term ability to deliver 100% of its member agencies’ desired demands.