Lawmakers and leaders need to take California’s drought seriously

Jeff vonKaenel

What should California do about water? I am not a water expert. I do not have a Ph.D. in water management. I am not a lawyer specializing in water issues. But I did well in third-grade math. And, frankly, California’s water problems, despite much debate, come down to a problem that could be understood by a third grader.

Here is the situation. In California, we have two main sources of water: short-term storage of water in the snowpack and rivers, and long-term storage of water in the ground. Most years, we tap into our long-term reserves of groundwater. Farmers in the Central Valley reduce groundwater levels, on average, by about 1.5 million acre feet each year. This already has caused large areas in central California to sink. If these groundwater levels continue to drop, we risk losing our groundwater storage forever. This will be disastrous for our future.

In addition, there are plans to take Northern California water and ship it down to the more populous Southern California. This plan would allow salt water to infiltrate the Delta, destroying the delicate ecosystems of this region.

In a nutshell, we are using too much water.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency and asked Californians to reduce their water use by 20 percent. We cut back 5 percent. As I learned in third grade, 5 percent is not 20 percent.

The state recently mailed out 10,000 mandatory curtailment notices to California’s water-rights holders. But only 31 percent responded. These steps aren’t working. The State Water Resources Control Board will have to take more serious measures to deal with the drought we are facing.

Two things need to happen. First, we should raise the cost of water. This will encourage innovation, conservation, reuse and reduce waste, just like when gas prices went up. Some will say this is unfair, and that it will impact some more than others. That is probably true. But it is much more effective than simply begging water users to reduce water use. The increased water fees can be used to support water conservation and reuse efforts and to help those with limited incomes.

Secondly, we need to consolidate California’s fragmented water-management system and create a sustainable water-management plan for the state: A plan that starts banking groundwater, that maintains the Delta while providing adequate water for agricultural and urban uses. Current water rights may need to be set aside to accomplish our state’s more important goals.

We must stop using more water than we have. We must create a sustainable water-management plan. It’s really not that complicated. When I was in third grade, I learned that I couldn’t take more money out of my piggy bank than I’d put in. California’s water problems stem from the same problem.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.