Water Efficiency

by Carolyn Chase


ed by the rivers and streams of the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada range of northern California, the Bay-Delta is a web of natural and manmade waterways created at the junction of the San Francisco Bay, the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. It is the heart of California's natural water system, supporting more than 750 species of fish and wildlife and 200 types of crops and supporting production of 45% of the nation's fruits and vegetables. It is also the hub for the complex plumbing system of canals and pumps built to quench the thirst of 22 million California residents, including all tap water users in San Diego county.

The "CalFed Bay Delta Program," developed by state and federal resource agencies over the past three years, aims to address the over-use of water from the Bay-Delta. According to CalFed documents, "the Bay-delta system is currently not able to reliably supply water for agriculture, urban areas and the environment." The mission of the CalFed Bay-Delta Program is to develop a long-term comprehensive plan that will restore ecological health and improve water management for beneficial uses system.

But the recently released Environmental Impact Report for California's water future presents three alternatives that rely more on concrete than conservation and innovation.

Reading between the lines of CalFed's 12-volume document reveals an outdated engineering desire for the same type of water projects that caused many of the problems in the first place. The proposed CalFed solutions will only put new burdens on taxpayers and the environment.

CalFed fails to fully explore conservation as a valid fourth alternative.

They do not offer alternatives analysis of:

  • The water quality and environmental benefits of restoring freshwater flows to the Central Valley rivers, streams and into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta;
  • The benefits of natural cleansing processes that bring healthier water with restored wetlands, forests, and meadows;
  • The potential of non-chlorinated treatment of drinking water to protect public health for less money than building new expensive projects.

Instead, CalFed insists on looking towards more canals and dams, even though these projects do not make ecological or fiscal sense. We don't need to capture more water, we need to capture more water savings.

Water conservation is the cheapest method to increase the reliability of California's water supplies, and it does so without harming the environment. Conservation programs can be brought on line faster than any new storage, so they improve the reliability of water supplies faster. A strong water conservation program will avoid building costly and damaging reservoirs and dams.

Are we using California's precious water as efficiently as possible?

The truth is that we could be doing a much better job. In California, we take more than half of the water out of our rivers (even more in very dry years). Much of this water use is inefficient--something we can no long afford for our environment or our pocketbooks.

How do we use our water now? Agriculture uses the most, about 85% of California's developed water supplies. Another major deficiency in the draft report is a goal to conserve less than one percent of the water currently used by California agriculture. CalFed's water conservation goals appear out of touch with the proven
potential for conservation.

Innovative farmers and water districts are implementing practices that show significant water savings. Innovative irrigation technologies, which frequently allow farmers to use up to 50% less water to grow the same crops, are used on only 15% of the irrigated acreage in the state.

Cities are the other major users of water in California. Urban and suburban dwellers still mostly use inefficient household fixtures. Industrial processes and lawn watering are often done with drinking water; we could use recycled water that is currently dumped in the ocean.

How can we "get smart" about how we use California's water?

  • Invest in water-saving irrigation technologies and on-farm practices. Water savings: up to 50% .
  • Retrofit homes for efficient fixtures. Just by installing efficient toilets and showerheads we could find water savings of 40% of the water used in homes today.
  • Pay for what you use. Right now, most farmers (and some urban dwellers too) pay a flat rate for water. Basing the water bill on how much water people actually use makes economic sense and by itself encourages conservation. Water savings: up to 40%.
  • Shift from low-value, water-intensive crops to higher value crops that use less water. On only about 5% of California's agricultural land the water savings could be about 2 million acre-feet of water (MAF).
  • Stop irrigating lands that are polluting our water. Smart policies could give farmers financial incentives to stop irrigating this land. Water savings = 1.4 Million Acre Feet.
  • Recycle water. We have the technology right now to use reclaimed water from treatment plants for industrial and municipal uses, and even agricultural irrigation. Water savings = .5 MAF in Bay Area, 1 MAF in Southern California.

But CalFed seems intent on ignoring the lessons of history. Its released a document stuck in reverse, a wishful throwback to the era of big dams, sterile
channels and lifeless canals. The program is missing a tremendous opportunity to move California water management into the next millennium.

California needs a more reliable supply of water, not more water.
California needs to repair and restore its watershed which are badly polluted and showing increasing signs of stress.

CalFed has stated that the EIR does not identify a "preferred alternative" since "it was decided that additional public input was needed to identify" one. The public is now left to demand one. It's insulting that they would even decline to seriously evaluate a comprehensive conservation alternative.

With the staggeringly inefficient use of water in many parts of California, there is no evidence that we need major new water projects which will harm our environment.

Rational water pricing, regulated water markets, efficiency standards, the reuse of wastewater, and the setting of minimum flows for ecosystem health are among the actions that are needed.

CalFed has estimated that the entire program could cost 8-10 billion dollars -- approximately $300 for every Californian or about $1,000 for a family of three. We need to make sure we take the time to spend this money in the right way, because making the wrong choices or failing to act will be more
costly in the long run.

A public hearing will be held on May 12 at 7pm at Encinitas City Hall 505 S. Vulcan Ave. Comments are due by June 1 to Mr. Breitenbach, CalFed, 1416 9th St., Ste. 1155, Sacramento CA 95814.