Nothing is more central to the future of Southern California communities than water. Increasing the sustainability of our cities will require an effective transportation system, improved urban planning, clean air, green energy sources and more. But you can go a day without driving, or even without electricity. But try going a day without water.
This is a good time to reflect on how our communities will provide water for our future. There’s a great deal of focus on water policies in California at the moment. And today, in Southern California, there are two competing visions for the future. Deciding between those visions is important to our future economic health, to the state’s environment, and to our collective pocketbooks.
Across Southern California, meeting future water needs will require investing billions of our dollars. The simple truth is that we’re out of cheap water. Given the slow economic recovery, tight city and water agency budgets and growing concerns about rising water rates, water agencies, city councils, journalists, academics, as well as business and environmental leaders, should begin a conversation about the smartest, greenest, most affordable and most effective water investments.
We live in a dry place, and for most of the past century, the growing number of Southern Californians led to a growing demand for water imported from far flung rivers. Some propose increasing our reliance on these imported sources—especially the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta ecosystem. This is the first of our competing visions—increasing our dependence on imported water supplies.
In July, the Governor and Interior Secretary Salazar proposed the construction of a massive new water project in the Delta – two 35 mile long tunnels to carry water from Sacramento to the State Water Project pumps in the Southern Delta near Stockton. (The Bay Delta provides water for Southern California via the SWP, which pumps water over the Tehachapi Range.) The Metropolitan Water District, Kern County Water Agency and the Westlands Water District hope that this $14 billion dollar facility will allow water pumping from the Delta to be increased dramatically, a fraction of which would be delivered to Southern California.
This strategy raises some obvious concerns. Getting more water from a damaged Bay Delta ecosystem may not be possible. Scientists and regulatory agencies have concluded that we need to divert less water from the Delta, not more. And climate change may make California a drier place. As some of our snow pack—which serves as California’s largest reservoir—turns into winter rain, the amount of water we can capture from Sierra rivers will certainly decline. Spending $14 billion to squeeze more water from a shrinking system is a gamble. Most importantly, this strategy is enormously expensive. There are other unanswered questions about whether agriculture could afford their share of this project, or whether Southern Californians would be asked to subsidize water for Central Valley farmers.
There is another way.
In the past several decades, another vision for the future has slowly emerged. Dams and canals are big, dramatic and highly visible. Southern California’s quiet water revolution, on the other hand, has been nearly invisible to many. The City of Los Angles has grown by more than a million people over the past quarter century, but, largely as a result of water conservation, the city uses roughly the same amount of water it used in 1980. Orange County has built the largest water recycling facility in the world. In Riverside County, water agencies are cleaning up and reusing contaminated groundwater. In my city, Santa Monica, we are also treating and reusing urban runoff that formerly contaminated our beaches.
Investments in these local sources save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They create jobs in our communities. Unlike water from the Bay Delta, they aren’t subject to uncertainty as a result of the need to protect and restore endangered fish. And they’re far less vulnerable to earthquakes and climate change.
Increasingly, local water agencies realize that investing in these local sources is cost-effective and can generate an enormous amount of water. The more modern vision for our water future that has emerged is an investment in local sources that can increase our water self-sufficiency, create local jobs, reduce local pollution and improve our neighborhoods.
How far can we go with these local investments? The City of Los Angeles is planning to cut in half its purchases of MWD water in the coming 25 years. San Diego and Long Beach have similar plans. Santa Monica is planning to completely eliminate our use of imported water sources by 2020.
Of course, across our region, the right solution will be neither to stop the use of imported water tomorrow, or to stake everything on the Bay Delta. The right solution will be a mixture of strategies. And that’s where our regional conversation should focus. For example, what are the benefits of the currently proposed large tunnels? Would a smaller facility be a smarter investment? How does this compare with investing in improvements in the Delta levees that protect the vulnerable State Water Project? And how to the costs and benefits of a Delta plan compare with a dramatic investment in local water sources? Are planning efforts in the Delta taking into account the plans of many communities to reduce their reliance on imported water?
Personally, I’m skeptical that Southern California would receive enough benefit to justify a $14 billion dollar Delta facility. But a smaller, less expensive facility might make sense. And clearly, stronger Delta levees would be a good idea. But to me, the cornerstone of a more sustainable and affordable Southern California water supply should be investments in our own communities. Those investments would provide broad benefits for the Southern California residents who would be paying for them. And most importantly, they put our future in our own hands.