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Water Shortages: Thank Politics or Mother Nature?

Posted: March 4, 2014 5:07 p.m.
Updated: March 4, 2014 5:07 p.m.
 

The record dry year we are in has been in the news. Primarily the editorials and citizen feedback have been calls for more conservation.

Water issues in our state are far more complex than that. How do we even recognize the right solutions?

Agricultural and environmental/recreational uses of water are four or five times higher, respectively, than urban use, in terms of volume per year. It makes sense to focus on big users of water when looking for water savings.

Urban areas have already made great strides, and Southern California has some of the lowest per capita water consumption in the state.

In Newhall County Water District, our residents have achieved 13 percent conservation already as we seek to reach the previously established state mandate of 20 percent conservation by 2020.

We are certain we can attain the remaining 7 percent, but this does lead to a question. How much more should urban areas cut back given their past willingness to help and their relatively low contribution to total statewide water use?

Water drives the economy. Santa Clarita runs on approximately 50 percent groundwater and 50 percent imported water from the State Water Project, for which our residents have paid significant sums of money.

Some areas of the state have poor groundwater and are dependant on the State Water Project, while other areas don’t have access to the that source of water and therefore must rely only on groundwater.

Even with extreme conservation and wastewater reuse, Santa Clarita as we know it today cannot exist without State Water Project water.

Statewide, communities will struggle to differing degrees during times of drought based on how they have invested or not invested in water resources.

People mention desalination. This is energy-intensive and the most expensive source of water in our state. This option is really only viable for coastal communities, as pumping costs are too high to transport water inland.

Water recycling is also costly and requires a separate piping system to be installed alongside potable water lines.

Costs may vary but desalination can be 25 times more expensive than groundwater, and water recycling 15 times higher in cost.

Another option, recharge of groundwater using treated wastewater, requires either off-stream spreading areas or a high level of treatment that comes, again, with high power consumption and high cost.

Power-consuming water projects are perversely at odds with rules aimed at reducing carbon emissions.

The saying goes: “The worst time to fix your roof is when it’s raining.” Will our temporary emergence from drought make us neglect water issues yet again?

When I started with Newhall County Water District 10 years ago, the battle over improvements to the State Water Project had already been ongoing for 30 years. It continues, unresolved, today, in a record drought.

Every single water project, especially infrastructure, has its detractors. Even the most well-thought-out project can be delayed decades, if not forever, driving up costs, harming the economy and eliminating good jobs.

Conversely, plentiful money can be thrown after pet projects like water museums, riverside rest stops, and other noble causes that nevertheless do not really quantifiably add to water availability.

The Public Policy Institute of California has developed an excellent report called “Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation” (http://www.ppic.org/main/publication.asp?i=944), in which the institute proposes we must do better to avert a crisis.

In my opinion, we are unfortunately nowhere near the reconciliation phase. One specific reason it cites is the glaring lack of science in this all-important debate.

The authors write: “The recent increase in political manipulation of science, which is highly effective from political and legal standpoints, is a sign of weak, ineffective governmental science programs. It inevitably leads to a loss of transparency and further loss of trust in the science needed to support effective decision making.”

Most people here want to believe in the Golden State. We have brilliant minds, a dynamic economy and great aspirations. We can solve our water woes, and indeed many other challenges, if we move beyond politics to credible, logical policy.

We need to hope for not only plentiful rain but also a change in the political landscape of California.

Maria Gutzeit is vice president of Newhall County Water District and an engineer working in the field of environmental compliance.

 

 

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