Sustainable Water Future

by Carolyn Chase


ever was there a better time, better tools or a better opportunity to create a new paradigm for water politics in the state of California. "Getting sustainable" (i.e., starting to work within ecosystems limits) is going to require some new approaches, new thinking, and ultimately some new politic-ing. But politics as usual is threatening to thrust the old coalitions into repeating their past paradigm of pump it, pave it and pollute it, with the public picking up the inflated price tag.

The mission of the CalFed Bay-Delta Program is to develop a long-term comprehensive plan that will restore ecological health, improve water management for beneficial uses and address the fact that the San Francisco Bay-delta system is currently not able to reliably supply water for agriculture, urban areas and the environment. Given that the outcome of these negotiations will impact the water systems supplying 22 million Californians and sustaining our huge agricultural systems, the process is a critical one.

Since I last wrote about the high-stakes state/fed negotiations over the future of California's water supply system and the ecological systems that support it, ("Efficient Water Use, March 23, 1998), CalFed negotiations have crawled along. At that time, the powers-that-be had stated that "it was decided that additional public input was needed to identify" a preferred alternative.

Since that public input in April and May, CalFed has been putting together a "draft phased plan" for California water. The plan has now been broken up into two stages: Stage 1 is the first seven years, Stage 2 is everything after that. Secretary of Interior Babbitt is shepherding the draft plan (now known as the draft preferred alternative) through a series of small group talks around the state. Right now, CalFed's draft plan calls for building dams in the first stage. Decisions on whether to build the infamous and contentious peripheral canal have been put off until Stage 2.

The document to be released to the public will be the "Revised Phase II Report" -- a summary of the CalFed program plans and a description of how the program elements will be implemented. This report, due to released on December 15, will also contain the proposed list of the actions to be undertaken during Stage 1.

Key concerns about CalFed's Stage 1 plans include:

  • Lack of measurable objectives for all of CalFed's programs, and particularly for the ecosystem restoration, water conservation and efficiency, and water quality programs
  • Lack of a commitment to correct methodological flaws--inflated demand estimates for cities now and in the future, and a "no action" baseline that assumes more water exported from northern California than is exported today
  • Premature plans to begin dam construction, site selection, and permitting in Stage 1, with Shasta and Los Vaqueros Dam enlargements and Sites Reservoirs identified as possible locations

Much of this flies in the face of public testimony from around the state. The public clearly expressed a desire that conservation opportunities be quantified and taken seriously, and that baselines be made real. But the powers-that-be in the CalFed bureaucracy refuse to take the difficult steps into the next paradigm of dealing with growth and sustainability. So far, this process has been dominated by conversation, not conservation. The time has come to make the real commitments to conservation, measurement and management.

Most of our water and environmental problems have been caused by mismanagement. What makes us think that a plan from the same vested interests will be managed any better? It time for new approaches. It's time to get sustainable, folks!

Why are we looking at huge storage systems and not taking seriously many environmentally benign projects? How do we redesign our systems and thinking towards a conservative methodology for economics and the environment? It takes thinking about systems in new ways and looking for new solutions that sustain and restore natural systems, rather than just looking at them as potential plumbing projects.

There is some new thinking out there, a new blueprint. That blueprint includes water-use efficiency, conservation, restoration, desalinization and sensible land fallowing. These are the tools of the future. Lets not go back to the old ways. But the public must find their voices to support the difficult changes the politicians and water war horses will never undertake without such public pressure.

A broadly based coalition of environmental groups has put together a "blueprint" for a more sustainable and affordable approach for a reliable water future. The blueprint is a 40-page document that describes an environmentally and economically sound water supply reliability program. The Blueprint articulates an affirmative program for improving water supply reliability in California. This blueprint can be the basis of a successful CalFed Bay-Delta plan to restore the ecological health and improve management of water in California.

The Blueprint Recommends:

  • Analyze promising conservation strategies and maximize conservation and recycling potential
  • Jump-start ground water management and appropriate ground water storage
  • Facilitate appropriate water transfers
  • Ensure environmental water reliability
  • Improve the operation of existing dams and canals
  • Develop accurate estimates for current water supply and demand (Calfed analyses overstates our current water use by up to 1.2 million acre feet - by omitting conservation successes - and bases future estimates on this inaccurate baseline.
  • Price water to reflect its true economic and environmental value. Recognize that the law of supply and demand applies to water. If taxpayer subsidies were eliminated, demand for water would fall.

For a copy of the blueprint or to arrange to participate in the dialogue on the document, please send email to We should make sure that the incentives are in place to get serious about conservation and efficiency before we bankroll another round of projects as everyone's expense and without sufficient environmental and conservation assurances.