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Water Today, Gone Tomorrow

by Susannah Kopecky, published

California has had a rollercoaster of a water cycle this year.

Nine months ago, the state officially entered a drought period. On February 27, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger officially declared a state of emergency, and instructed the government to assist citizens in the water situation at hand.

In a statement, the governor, recognizing that despite an abundance of rain in recent days, "California faces its third consecutive year of drought and we must prepare for the worst -- a fourth, fifth or even sixth year of drought.... Last year we experienced the driest spring and summer on record and storage in the state's reservoir system is near historic lows. This drought is having a devastating impact on our people, our communities, our economy and our environment -- making today's action absolutely necessary. This is a crisis, just as severe as an earthquake or raging wildfire, and we must treat it with the same urgency by upgrading California's water infrastructure to ensure a clean and reliable water supply for our growing state."

Using the power to declare a state of emergency, the state's chief executive officer ordered every state government agency to "utilize and employ state personnel, equipment and facilities for the performance of any and all activities consistent with the direction of the California Emergency Management Agency (CalEMA) and the State Emergency Plan."

To map out the plan, 21 different courses of action were outlined by the governor in his emergency proclamation. Most of the directives encouraged various forms of water conservation programs and water awareness. Some of the directives included:

  • "All urban water users immediately increase their water conservation activities in an effort to reduce their individual water use by 20 percent"
  • The statewide launch of a water conservation campaign, led by the California Department of Water Resources, which was also directed to "implement the relevant mitigation measures identified in the Environmental Water Account Environmental Impact Report" and to develop further "mitigation measures related to air quality impacts."
  • The State Water Resources Control Board was ordered to "expedite" water-related transfers, while also adhering to strict environmental regulations.
  • "To the extent allowed by applicable law," the governor directed state agencies to work to "prioritize and streamline" the processes of water conservation, desalination and "recycling projects that provide drought relief."
  • A new moratorium will be set on "all new landscaping projects at state facilities and on state highways and roads except those that use water efficient irrigation, drought tolerant plants or non-irrigation erosion control." [These same water-saving sprinkler systems are widely available for private and commercial use already.]Water suppliers within the state must have back-up pans in case they run short on water, in accordance with California Water Code's section 10632.
  • The Department of Water Resources has also been directed to offer all kinds of assistance to water suppliers/districts and those working in agriculture, to help implement water-saving strategies to "get the greatest benefit from available water supplies."
  • Joint action will be taken with state agencies and the Federal Drought Action Team to provide for drought preparedness and "response activities."
  • Emergency exemptions, including the suspension of Water Code section 13247, will be analyzed by the Secretary for the California EPA and the Secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency.
  • By the end of March, if the situation has not changed for the better, the governor will "consider issuing additional orders, which may include... institution of mandatory water rationing and mandatory reductions in water use; reoperation of major reservoirs in the state to minimize the impacts of the drought; additional regulatory relief or permit streamlining as allowed under the Emergency Services Act and other actions necessary to prevent, remedy or mitigate the effects of the extreme drought conditions."

What does this mean for the average citizen?

On first glance, it may appear, not much.

However, in less than one month's time, if there has been no visible change in the current and precarious water situation in California, the typical consumer may be hit directly. If drastic measures are deemed necessary, private citizens may have to face higher water prices, and less readily available water. That translates to paying more, and using less, of a most vital resource.

Southern California's Metropolitan Water District keeps a running update on its current water reserves, which at this point, are at less than half, or less than 2.25 million acre feet of water.

Last month, the California Department of Water Resources released its own statement on the water crisis: "California is facing the most significant water crisis in its history. After experiencing two years of drought and the driest spring in recorded history, water reserves are extremely low.... Many communities in the state are now reaching the limits of their supply. Aggressive water conservation can help stretch available supplies to meet demands. DWR is actively moving forward with water conservation programs to enhance these programs and provide state funding."

The Water Bank program is another government program that was set up to purchase and stock water from outlets willing and able to sustain such water sales, as a response to a judge's order barring unrestrained Southern California water purchasing from the San Joaquin Valley and Sacramento areas. And in a recent study, the National Weather Service found that from February through the spring month, throughout the majority of California, droughts are expected to "persist or intensify." How to best combat this rising tide? Water conservation.

However, the overarching message of the governor's proclamation is that water conservation is the key. The directive ordered, numerous times, for various state, federal and local agencies to jump into water conservation, and educate others about the need for water conservation as well. Interestingly, some of the abovementioned strategies, including the use of water-efficient irrigation (or weather-based irrigation controllers, as they are sometimes referred to) and the use of drought-tolerant plants, are strategies already widely touted by many water districts across California.

Many of the same water districts, including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (one of the largest water providers in the state), offer many rebates to consumers who purchase water-saving devices such as "smart" sprinkler controllers, efficient toilets and efficient washing machines, some of which can cover half or more of the item's price.

Facing a budget deficit of over $40 billion, to be "fixed" by raising billions of dollars in taxes, the last thing Californians need is the prospect of even more price hikes, and on water, no less.

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