In October, San Francisco Tomorrow and the Potrero Hill Democratic Club presented an informational panel on the drought and its Bay Area ramifications. The discussion was moderated by PHDC’s Loretta Lynch, former CPUC president, and panelists included Jennifer Clary, Water Program Manager of Clean Water Action; Barry Nelson, BCDC Commissioner and Principal of Western Water Strategies; and Food and Water Watch California Director Adam Scow. You can watch video of the discussion at the bottom of this article.
The bad news is that with climate change accelerating, our drought issues can only get worse. We are not in a four-year drought, as is often said; we are in the 15th year of an extended dry spell, and the worldwide tendency is overwhelmingly toward drier conditions. Experts also agree that in the future, California’s normal alternation between wetter years and drier years will become exaggerated, with more of the precipitation coming as quick-to-run-off floods and downpours, and less remaining as snow and groundwater.
Water rights are vastly oversubscribed in California. There has been no control at all over the use of groundwater, which is considered private property. The beast in the room is agriculture, which uses 80% of the state’s water – every year they pump as much out of the ground as is used by the rest of the state in total. The overuse of surface water by agriculture is the primary factor driving many fish and wildfowl towards extinction.
The good news is that our water issues can be solved, and fairly easily; as environmentalist Dorothy Green wrote, California has a water management problem, not a water supply problem. It’s only the politics that present difficulty, particularly since so many of our officeholders are controlled by deep-pocketed agricultural interests. If there is a positive side to a drought, though, it’s that it tends to induce people to act right away on things that have been stalled for a long time; thus in 2014 a water bond was passed, and for the first time ever, the state began the process of regulating groundwater. The most important thing going forward is for citizens to make water a serious political issue; for instance, by pressing candidates on it during interviews and public appearances.
In San Francisco, the good news is that we use only about a quarter of the state average. The bad news is that cheap water from the Tuolumne has left little incentive for recycling or other measures, which will become essential as shortages mount. The city is just beginning to recycle water for Golden Gate Park, and additional projects are at least on the drawing board.
Video from the panel is here: