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World Water Day - California’s Embarrassment of Water Riches?

Barry Nelson

Posted March 22, 2010

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The media in the Golden State is filled almost daily with stories about water supply and water shortages.  Most Californians know that most of us live in a dry place.  But today is World Water Day, making this a particularly appropriate moment to put California’s water challenges in a global context.  It turns out that, in comparison with much of the world, California has an embarrassment of aquatic wealth.  The problem we face is no so much a lack of water as a lack of willingness to manage it.

Three examples from around the world provide some valuable perspective.

First, world wide, more than one billion people do not have access to safe drinking water, and more than two billion people do not have access to sanitation.  These twin problems represent the world’s leading cause of illness, according to UNICEF, leading to the deaths of 4,500 children each day.

There are communities in California that lack access to safe drinking water.  These are not, however, the water issues about which one hears the most in the media.  They’re not the communities about which one hears the most in the halls of Congress or Sacramento. Here’s a shameful problem that California should solve – residents whose tap water isn’t safe to drink.

Fortunately, California is a leader in groundwater clean-up.  In Southern California’s Chino Basin, for example, NRDC has worked for years to require the clean-up of groundwater contaminated by dairy waste.  In response, the water users in this area have built groundwater desalters – literally desalinating tainted groundwater – to produce 14 millions gallons a day of new water supply.  That same technology, and other approaches, should be applied to ensure that all Californians have access to safe drinking water.

Australia provides another case study.  Like California, most of Australia has a dry climate.  After an extended drought during the past decade, the residents of the Australian state of Queensland reduced per capita water use to 34 gallons per capita per day.  (That’s 129 liters, for the metrically inclined.)  By contrast, here’s a map of per capita water use in California, prepared two years ago by the Sacramento Bee. 

Note that the most water efficient community in California – San Francisco – uses more than 100 gallons per capita per day.   That’s three times the water use in Queensland.  The thirsty residents of Mono County, in the parched Eastern Sierra, consumed just over 470 gallons per person per day – more than a dozen times average Queensland water use.

I don’t offer this to shame Californians.  Quite the contrary.  The consumption rate in Australia has been produced by real sacrifice in the face of a dramatic drought.  And California has made significant progress in water conservation.  (For example, Los Angles has met the water needs of a quarter century of growth through conservation, rather than importing more water.)  Rather, I offer this as an indication of the extraordinary potential water supply we can gain through efficiency.

Last November, by enacting a bill co-sponsored by NRDC, California established a goal of reducing per capita water use 20 percent by 2020.  The Australian experience shows that this is a realistic, modest goal – if we get serious about tapping into efficiency as a water supply.

My final example comes from the World Commission on Dams, which has estimated that, around the world, there are 40-80 million refugees from water projects – mostly poor people displaced by dam construction.  Most of those people have been uprooted without needed compensation, leaving a legacy of injustice and hardship.  Tragically, California has its own experience with Native Americans displaced by dam construction.  The construction of Shasta Dam flooded the homeland of the Winnimem Wintu tribe, also without compensation. Here’s a story over the weekend in the New York Times about the tribe and here’s a background story from NRDC’s magazine.  Surely World Water Day is a good time to reflect on how California can be a leader in addressing this wrong.

California has the world’s most complex plumbing system.  Shasta Dam, and Hoover Dam (which serves California) are two of the world’s first large dams.  The Golden State was a world leader in water solutions in the 20th century. We should not, however, take that leadership for granted.  We can build on our experience in conservation, groundwater clean up, water recycling, and urban stormwater capture.

California has always been an innovative place.  On World Water Day, it’s appropriate to take note of the remarkable opportunity we have to develop water solutions for the 21st century.  If we lead in water innovations in the new century, we have the ability not only to meet our future needs – but also to export some of those solutions around the world.   

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Peter MooreMar 23 2010 01:03 AM

The biggest waste of water, and I'm serious here, is flushing the toliet for a simple urination. A device should be created which allows it to be sent down the drain with out such a wasteful use of water. Either that or create a urine pot that holds a few bladders worth for later flushing (especially on beer nights like tonight).

tomMar 23 2010 01:34 PM

As a resident of the Eastern Sierra, I wonder how the water use for Mono County is calculated.

There is little irrigation going on half the year, during the winter. One of the golf courses in Mammoth Lakes is now irrigated by reclaimed water and the Mammoth Lakes Water District has strict watering and conservation guidelines.

So I'd like to know how come we use so much water?

Do you count ag use? How about industrial? Did the study count snowmaking on the ski slopes?

I'm not mad, but I sense that there is an issue with the numbers. Mono has a small permanent population and a high tourist population. Perhaps this has skewed the numbers.

A busy weekend in Mammoth might see 50,000 people, where the long term permanent population is closer to 7,000. Mono County gets pegged with all sorts of extreme stats, but again I sense the calculations don't tell the whole story.

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