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Lynne Plambeck: Rain or shine, the drought is real

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: March 4, 2009 10:04 p.m.
Updated: March 5, 2009 4:55 a.m.
With local rainfall at normal levels, it just doesn’t seem like we are really in a drought.

The problem is, local rainfall can no longer supply the huge population in Southern California. It hasn’t been able to since the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began importing water from the Owens Valley many decades ago, causing a huge spurt in growth.

Locally, about 60 percent of our own water supply comes from Northern California through the State Water Project (SWP). So when the Department of Water Resources announced Feb. 20 that California’s severe drought had prevented it from increasing its SWP delivery allocations for the first time since 2001, local water agencies knew they had a big problem. This year’s allocation is only 15 percent of SWP contractors’ requests. This is only the second time in SWP history that the February allocation has been this low.

For many years, SCOPE and others have attempted to bring such a scenario to Los Angeles County and city of Santa Clarita officials.

How will we supply our communities with water when drought arrives? We told them repeatedly that state water from Northern California may be cut back to as little as 5 percent or none at all.

The State Water Project was never meant to be a primary source of water supply for communities because of its unreliability. Dry winters mean little or no snowfall and no water in the spring.

But somehow through the years and the push for more and more housing developments, councils and county boards were persuaded by developers and others that there was no problem. Water district boards, elected with developer money, either sided with the developer or didn’t have the political fortitude to speak the truth about this illusion of “paper” water. So, like the hedge fund fiasco where we are now finding that the money didn’t really exist, we are also finding that the water isn’t really there for all these suburban communities, with their water guzzling landscaping and swimming pools — not to mention the local golf course.

With such a drastic reduction in our statewide water resources, it is little wonder that Gov. Schwarzenegger last week declared a state of emergency to combat California’s third consecutive year of drought. Along with this proclamation he ordered immediate action to manage the crisis by using his authority to direct all state government agencies to implement a state emergency plan.

“Even with the recent rainfall, 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,” the governor said in the accompanying press release.

Schwarzenegger’s order directs various state departments to engage in activity to address the drought. Among other plans, the governor:
  • Requested that all urban water users immediately increase their water conservation activities in an effort to reduce their individual water use by 20 percent;
  • Directed DWR to offer technical assistance to agricultural water suppliers and agricultural water users, including information on managing water supplies to minimize economic impacts and implementing efficient water management practices;
  • Directed DWR to join with other appropriate agencies to launch a statewide water conservation campaign calling for all Californians to immediately decrease their water use;
  • Directed state agencies to immediately implement a water use reduction plan and take immediate water conservation actions and requests that federal and local agencies also implement water use reduction plans for facilities within their control.
In particular, the order directs that by March 30, 2009, DWR shall provide an updated report on the state’s drought conditions and water availability. According to the proclamation, if the emergency conditions have not been sufficiently mitigated, the Governor will consider additional steps. These could include the institution of mandatory water rationing and mandatory reductions in water use.

That will mean some big changes for local businesses and homeowners, changes that may be difficult to make.  Wouldn’t it have been better to face the reality of our dwindling water supplies by protecting the Santa Clara River and thus making sure we did everything to provide for the sustainability of our local water supplies? Wouldn’t it have been better to require drought tolerant landscaping and to pass a landscape ordinance for all new housing and landscaped open space?

Wouldn’t we have done better planning for all this, if we had just admitted there is a water supply problem and planned for the inevitable drought that has now arrived?

Lynne Plambeck is president of Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE). “Environmentally Speaking” appears Thursdays in The Signal and rotates among local environmentally minded writers. Her column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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