Guest Commentary: California Cannot Conserve or Over-Regulate Way out of Drought

By Aubrey Bettencourt.

This week Governor Jerry Brown proclaimed that “a historic drought calls for unprecedented action,” when handing down the latest executive order instating mandatory statewide water restrictions aimed at conserving 1.5 million acre feet of water over the next nine months.

This ambitious “first-time-in-state-history” action and goal is admirable, one I wish can be achieved. But do more laws or in this case, a set of 31-point executive directives, create or even free up more water?

A suggested goal of 20 percent reduction of water use last year was never achieved, despite gallant efforts made by communities statewide.

So now, well into the fourth year of drought, the governor now ups the ante with a 25 percent statewide conservation mandate. In doing so, he has opened the door for a myriad of programs, restrictions and regulations to be administered by the bureaucratic, increasingly powerful and gubernatorial-appointed State Water Resource Control Board (SWRCB).

Heat index charts and pictures of empty reservoirs and barren Sierras emphasize the need for all of us to conserve; respecting the resource and what it does in our lives remains essential.

But the ongoing preoccupation on the rules, rule breakers and potential punishment is nothing more than a distraction. While treating the symptoms of drought are important, what must really occur is a concerted effort to cure the disease – in California this means dilapidated infrastructure, undersized reserves, ineffective water policy and dysfunctional, non-scientific environmental regulations.

What is certain is that Governor Brown’s latest executive order clearly expands the authority of the SWRCB over all surface and ground water use, health, data, movement, pricing, program enforcement and punishment. Regional and community water authorities are now left scrambling to develop as yet unknown compliant water management criteria to avoid unknown penalties. But the most powerful tool for the SWRCB lies in its authority to determine beneficial use. This means the board gets to decide what water can be used where, when and how on a case by case basis.

The order imposes requirements on farm water users; ratcheting up farm water use reporting mandates, the failure of which is punishable by the state.

Suspending reality, environmental activists issued statements slamming the order for exempting agriculture from 25 percent conservation requirements. They ignore the fact that farmers have been hit hard repeatedly over the past four years and have met their conservation requirements.

Receiving zero percent of their water right last year, on farm conservation practices implemented during this historic drought included:

  • Fallowing approximately 800,000 acres of fields
  • Downsizing 17,100 employees
  • Increasing consumer prices on domestic produce by estimated 10-25 percent, and taking a 4% loss in production value.

Asking a farmer to conserve 25 percent of zero, while you can’t figure out what day to turn your sprinklers on, , is an insult to your intelligence, not theirs.

Zero from zero is zero.

All these orders and actions are like the proverbial image of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. You can’t put a bandage on a gashed jugular and expect to survive. Our crisis won’t be avoided by conserving, we must tackle the problem head-on if California is to provide equitable and reliable water supplies to families, farms and fish.

The real question is “what kind of future does California want to have?” One that continues the tradition of the last century, fostering innovation and growth or one that says the Golden State’s glory days are past, so simply maintain status quo. Establishing water supply reliability provides opportunity for prosperity and growth for all.

True power doesn’t come from regulation, but from solutions and commonsense.

To provide an equitable and reliable clean water supply to all water users – farm, urban and environmental – the state and federal officials must address:

1)    California’s grossly dilapidated and inadequate water infrastructure statewide – including storage, recycling, and access,

2)    Revamp our 50-year-old water and environmental protection policies to accurately identify and address our 21st century concerns. We need to employ 21st Century science, technology and modeling tools to achieve attainable and sustainable results for the health of all California.

Conservation and regulation sound good at a press event. But the reality is those approaches are woefully inadequate at solving California’s root problems.

Originally posted at Fox & Hounds Daily.

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