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How not to solve our state’s water crisis

Written by a Know Your H2O volunteer

A couple weeks ago, President Obama visited Fresno to meet with state and local officials and talk about our state’s worsening drought. “Water has been seen as a zero-sum game: agriculture against urban, north against south,” he told farmers. “We’re going to have to figure out how to play a different game.” (link to original article)

The next day did in fact find the president playing a different game altogether: golf at a lush green course near Palm Springs -- a golf course in the desert, irrigated with millions of gallons of imported water.

The unintended irony of the president’s trip beautifully illustrates the ironic nature of our state’s water crisis. Our state is in the middle of yet another drought. Over a dozen communities are close to running dry; the governor has declared a state of emergency and is considering mandatory rationing. As the New York Times pointed out in January, the last century was an unusually wet one for the Colorado River basin, so water supplies will likely dwindle in the future. And yet imported water remains cheap enough we continue to farm and -- like the president -- play golf in the desert, in a place where Nature never intended grass to grow.

The bulk of California's water supply is found in the North, but most of the demand comes from the South and from agriculture, especially the Central Valley. Some 80% of state water goes to crops, many of them planted on arid land where thirsty crops like almonds wouldn’t naturally thrive. With climate change shrinking the Sierra snowpack and the ecology of the California Delta in jeopardy, the future of our water supply is in doubt. Rather than accept the realities many politicians want to transfer more and more water from North to South at a huge cost in both energy and taxpayer bills. But this is merely deferring the inevitable; California only has so much water to go around, and the North wants to keep it just as badly as the South and the Central Valley want to drink it. As the president might say, this is a zero-sum game.

To solve our water crisis we need to start by recognizing its root cause. Demand is growing while supply shrinks, and since we live in a semi-arid region supply was never abundant anyway. So we need to increase supply and curb demand. We can curb demand through conservation and efficiency measures; we can increase supply through recycling and stormwater capture.

All options come with both a financial and environmental price. Conservation and efficiency measures are cheaper than recycling, which is in turn much cheaper than desalination both in terms of money and environmental impact. That's why we favor implementing these solutions in that order: invest first in conservation and recycling, then move on to responsible desalination. Let's look at our water management holistically, and move forward with multi-benefit solutions, instead of more business as usual which is what got us in trouble in the first place.  We can’t afford to continue the current short-term thinking in the future.

For Surfrider's vision for holistic water management, check out our short film the Cycle of Insanity.

This picture from MSNBC is a good illustration of how bad the drought is now.