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Wishful Thinking Won’t End California’s Drought

After more than four years of drought, Californians may be tired of hearing about their water problems, but the state still faces a future where water stress is likely to be a permanent problem, writes Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute.

Written by Peter Gleick Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
This Aug. 24, 2015, file photo, shows a boat dock by the lake bed where water has dried due to the drought at Big Bear Lake, Calif.Nick Ut, AP

I know – you’re tired of the drought. Tired of hearing about it; tired of trying to squeeze a little more savings out of your garden and indoor water use; tired of processing bad news about dying fisheries, drying wells, suffering farmers and dead trees.

I’m tired, too: tired of studying and analyzing the impacts of this drought on California, after having done so for droughts between 1987 and 1992 and again between 2007–2009. Tired of trying to convince the public that we can’t let up in our fight to fix our water problems, and that the drought isn’t over because it rained and snowed a bit this winter.

Most of all, I’m tired of listening to people who argue we can continue to do things the way we’ve always done them.

That’s delusional thinking. A false hope. A con man’s promise.

The world we live in today is not the world of a half-century ago. We have twice the population in California (and globally) now, with no more water. We’ve built on all the good dam sites, and many bad ones. We are fundamentally changing the planet’s climate, with especially severe impacts on water availability, demand and quality. We now understand that the environment – which suffered enormously from our past use of water – deserves explicit protections.

The problem isn’t that we’re in a temporary drought: the problem is that we live in a world with all the characteristics of a permanent drought, punctuated – ironically – by extreme floods.

We must no longer assume that we have, or can get, enough water everywhere to do all the things we want, and as wastefully as we do them. In California, even in an average rainfall year, demand outstrips supply by several million acre-feet. There is no polite way to say it: The unsustainable use of groundwater and the excessive diversion of water from our rivers is stealing from our children and grandchildren in order to satisfy today’s wasteful demands.

In this July 2, 2015 photo, Rich Kissee, Operations Manager for the Santa Margarita Water District stands on the edge of a water runoff reservoir, in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. Despite the drought continuing into a fifth year, California water suppliers no longer have a state-imposed water conservation mandate. (Chris Carlson, AP)

There is no better evidence for this failure to acknowledge reality than that after four years of severe drought, all it took was a barely average winter for the state, cities and farmers to abandon conservation programs and pretend the drought was over.

Mandatory urban conservation targets were thrown aside. What did most of the water agencies do? They set targets of zero, despite clear evidence that our use of water is still wasteful and inefficient. Meanwhile, farmers lobbied successfully to increase irrigation water deliveries from state and federal agencies and to set aside ecological protections for endangered fish, even while several species stand at the brink of extinction.

These actions are evidence of a head-in-the-sand mentality. We’re all tired of hearing about drought. But we live in a region where our economy, our communities and future generations depend on smart water management, not wishful thinking.

The good news is that the fifth year of drought offers the chance to reinvest in effective water solutions by expanding our efforts to remove inappropriate outdoor landscaping, build water recovery and reuse facilities, improve agricultural irrigation practices, price water properly, and get rid of those old, inefficient toilets, showerheads and washing machines.

Our vulnerability to water problems is real. Our responses should be as well.

This story first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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