Water on the Brain: Some Ideas for Our Thirsty State

How will we stop climate change? We won’t do it by
turning off sprinklers. The world will not become a whole lot more righteous if we just
take shorter showers. We won’t end the current crippling drought by using
low-flow toilets.

But these individual actions do add up to something. When combined with more systemic alterations in the way that
California—and the American West as a whole—manages, distributes, and utilizes its water
resources, these changes may make it possible for the Golden
State to weather drier times ahead. Trying to figure out the nature of these strategies will be the focus of a free, public conference to be held in
Garrison Theater on March 1, entitled “Water Scarcity and Solutions: Global to Local.”

Despite the forecast of rain for this weekend, its subject could not be more timely. Paper-thin snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, coupled with record-low rainfall, has led to empty reservoirs, diminishing lakes, and baked-hard
soil across the state. Not surprisingly, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has just announced that most
Central Valley farmers will not receive any water from the Central Valley
Project it manages, leaving upwards of half a million acres of arable land to idle.

Despite receiving negligible
rainfall over the past 12 months, Southern California is buffered from some
of these immediate drought-induced pressures. Its water managers, more savvy
about the impact of climate change on levels of precipitation than most of
their professional peers across the state, have been banking surplus water as a
safeguard. At this point, Angelenos are only being encouraged to conserve
water. Yet should the drought deepen
over time, as anticipated, the now-flush Southland will be compelled to enact
tougher regulations to ratchet down use, increase water recycling, and
institute tighter groundwater management, among other initiatives.

Nothing about this dire future is
unique. Keck Science Department environmental science professor Branwen
Williams, together with Pomona College colleagues Heather Williams and Rick Hazlett, will
kick off the March 1 conference by locating our experience within the global context,
probing the climatological drivers associated with water scarcity, the
accelerating worldwide demand for this precious resource, and the related
questions of equity and access. Will there be, in Heather Williams’ words,
“enough for all?”

That penetrating question may be
resolved through more robust national water policies. Peter Gleick, who is head of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, Calif., and will be giving a keynote address at the conference, has been pressing for an overhaul
of the federal government’s water policy and Big Agriculture’s prodigious waste of water. In California, agriculture accounts for 80 percent of total consumption, a figure
consistent with those of other Western states. 

“Droughts—especially severe droughts—are terribly
damaging events,” Gleick wrote in a recent blog post. “The human and ecosystem costs can
be enormous, as we may relearn during the current California drought. But they
are also opportunities—a chance to put in place new, innovative water policies
that are not discussed or implemented during wet or normal years.”

Testing this proposition will be Pitzer College environmental analysis professor Brinda Sarathy,
who will explore the immensely complicated Bay Delta Conservation Plan. That plan’s success
is in doubt partly because it depends on a complex weave of contending interest
groups, water conservation efforts, and big-ticket technological fixes. Heather Williams will suggest that the achievement of substantive
water reform in California has been, and may well remain, an “elusive quest.” Attorney Henry Barbosa, in turn, will draw connections to the tensions in state and
federal water law, outlining what is legally possible and actionable.

None of these potential constraints is arresting local
initiative. Of particular note is Southern California’s increased attention to what it once so blithely ignored: the water beneath its feet. The 1914 completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which each
day diverts millions of gallons away from the Owens River Valley, transformed
the San Fernando Valley into an agricultural arcadia and the City of Angels
into a green-lawn paradise. Why protect, regenerate, and conservatively manage
local aquifers when it seemed cheaper to import water from the eastern Sierra,
and later from the Colorado River and Mono Lake, and later still from Northern

This self-serving calculation is
no longer sustainable, a result of dynamic re-evaluations of the associated economic,
environmental, and political costs. During the conference’s final session, I will join Richard Atwater, Richard Boon, Ken Manning,
and Megan Brousseau in discussing the historical implications and contemporary
potentials associated with the ambition to remediate Southland groundwaters,
reclaim its storm water, and restore its riparian corridors.

Behind each of these actions lies a
larger argument about the inescapable need to rebuild our communities around
this place and its watersheds—a need that John Wesley Powell, then head of the
U.S. Geological Survey, gave voice to in 1876 when he declared that social organizations and
political structures should be bounded by and conform to local hydraulic
basins. In these natural commonwealths, the people have “common interests,
common rights, and common duties, and must necessarily work together for common

To realize Powell’s idealized
vision, we will have to act across city limits, county lines, and state
borders. We’ll also have to change our behaviors, institutionally and
individually. No amount of rain that falls this weekend will change these
obligations or the urgency that should drive us to fulfill them.

Char Miller is the W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College. He is the author of On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest. This year, his blog Golden Green received the inaugural Public Outreach Project Award from the American Society for Environmental History.

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