By Richard Rubin.
In a column I wrote in August 2009 when we were experiencing the onset of a mini-drought, I quoted the late Supervisor Hal Brown who warned, “The price of a reliable supply of water is minimal compared to the price of a drought.”
Truer words were never spoken.
Then, we were spared the worst consequences, but not before the county’s water agencies were forced to invoke voluntary water rationing and modest rate hikes at a time when Marin Municipal Water District still had sufficient water in its seven reservoirs.
However this was before the county experienced its driest year on records dating back to 1929 and the governor needed to declare a state of emergency statewide.
The year 2013 now ranks as the driest year in California history going back to 1850.
This drought is deemed severe enough to require turning off the spigots to the state Water Project for the first time in 54 years. This system transports northern drinking water for 23 million people from Silicon Valley to the Los Angeles basin that irrigates 750,000 acres of farmland.
MMWD’s reservoirs, normally at 77 percent capacity this time of year are at 55 percent and the North Marin Water District is reporting only 2 inches of rain during this “rainy” season. The average is 27.2 inches.
The recent downpours were only a temporary reprieve.
Not surprisingly we are once again hearing the cry for more conservation. However you cannot conserve something you do not have. If water runs out completely, greater recycling, the best groundwater management, parched lawns, shorter showers, less flushing and the latest proposal — water “banking” will get you only so far.
Marin had a chance to take out an insurance policy years ago by adopting desalination, which was met with hyperventilation from critics over high start-up and energy costs, exaggerated ecological dangers and fears about rampant population growth.
What we may get if the drought intensifies is mandatory rationing, withered crops, and angry customers already practicing maximum conservation.
As Rep. Jared Huffman comments, “Desal was never meant to be a permanently producing part of the supply, only a back-up guarantee during a serious drought.”
If desal were to be adopted, Huffman advocates “starting with the smallest (5mgd or 5,000 acre feet) annual capacity. That would take care of about one-sixth of the demand when it was running — not enough to replace lake supplies but enabling them to last much longer.”
Given the strong prospect, if the drought continues, of significant flow reductions to Lagunitas Creek which could threaten salmon and steelhead populations, Huffman and other environmentalists see desal as a preferred alternative.
The MMWD flirted with the mostly proven technology going so far as to endorse installation of a scaled-down desal plant nearly a decade ago. It was shelved despite voter support. This was after extensive testing showing it capable of producing eminently drinkable water judged safe as well for marine life.
If crops are ruined in the drought, sending food prices skyward, the down payment and user charges for desal may seem paltry in comparison, not to mention the constant threat of wild fires.
Opponents seem willing to ignore a preponderant body of evidence that climate change and global warming are hardly fantasies and could have potentially devastating impacts.
Dramatic weather changes and the future of water is the most critical issue of the day. Elected officials at all levels should be devising comprehensive long-term solutions that feature equitable sharing of costs and benefits including the possibility of regional compacts to finance desal and other innovations.
Putting off tough decisions until the next emergency is not an option and the price of neglect grows each day.
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Richard Rubin of Strawberry, CA in Mill Valley writes about political issues and is president of a public affairs management firm. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. His blog is at www.thepoliticalstage.com
Originally posted in the Marin Independent Journal.