Two Water Supply Visions for Southern California

Posted on 15 January 2013

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By Terry O'Day

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 Angeles 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, nor 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.

Terry O'Day is Mayor Pro Tempore for the city of Santa Monica, California, and a longtime community organizer, environmental leader, and socially responsible business executive.

"The politics of Resource Exhaustion .... brought to you by the leaders of Easter Island, the managers of the Cedar Forests of Lebanon, and the State of California's legislature..."

The "conveyance without conservation or controls" policy evolved in the municipally divided Southern California region in the absence of an effective and impartial regional growth management board empowered to establish green belts between communities or determine a population capacity that protects the state's natural beauty while taking into account quality of life issues largely ignored since the day the water first began to flow. Conveyance without controls, the great fear of Northern Californians opposed to Proposition 1 fifty years ago, the same voters who overwhelmingly opposed the Aqueduct's bond measure, the Burns-Porter Act, in 1960, were proven right by history as that fear was realized.

Proponents assured skeptical Northerners that although SWP would be the costliest municipal project in the world at that time - larger even than Nasser's damning of the Nile, the aqueduct's water conveyance would be "The permanent solution to the state's water problems."

Despite that assurance, without regional planning and population growth management to accompany the sudden abundance of water, the resource that once limited issuance of single family home building permits in communities like Manhattan and Laguna and other beach towns was exploited to exhaustion in just five decades. California's permanent solution, like most political promises, was quickly forgotten, and has now become what new canal proponents call today's water "crisis."

Excellent article. It is notable that Mr. O'Day makes a strong case against the tunnels without even mentioning the harm they will cause to people in the Delta, and the way the proposal divides the state.

Now is a good to break up CA into North and South, and not spend the $14 billion. Let the new Southern CA. get its own water!

Righteous. But what of a more simple solution? Wolk's "Regional Water Sustainability Plan." That would be more likely.

I wonder why it is that California is the only west coast state not to have a Department of Growth Management. Water is a finite resource, yet not a single legislator has ever proposed a population figure that they believe to be California's "Maximum Capacity."

We're a government without a plan, without a vision and without a clue. We govern by reaction to dire population forecasts.

Did you know, as was cited in an earlier CPR article, that the DWR has posted a population forecast that shows any additional water conveyed south will be exhausted a decade before the bond is paid off? And that we still owe some $220 million on the aqueduct?


Congrats to Terry for exposing what a sham the tunnels project is to Southern California! The project would jack up peoples water bills so corporate ag and oil companies can get more control of the peoples water....chinatown all over again! Shame on the Governor and southern california water districts for signing on to this terrible deal, and bravo to Terry o'day for telling the truth!

I suspect Terry O'Day is a leader in rallying many more Southern Californians to see how the big water contractors are looking out for themselves first and hoping to pass on some big costs to the rate payers. I've attended many Bay & Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) meetings around the Delta the past several years where they've spent about $150 million just on these meetings for their dog and pony show to check off the legal requirements. The farmers in the DELta, who were asked for their important input, basically are being ignored and some will have their land taken by eminent domain if this twin canal future disaster is allowed to be constructed.

How many of you have heard about the theory that the big hidden reason for hooking up these twin canals is to supply millions of gallons of water to oil companies in Kern County for their oil and natural gas fracking needs? You can read more on this subject by going to:

When Governor Jerry Brown announced in July that he was going "to get shit done" by building the twin underground water canals, our local Stockton Record business reporter, Alex Breitler, caught that fly ball and ended his next day's news article saying, "Wanting to get shit done, in the governor's words, is a problem if you wind up with shit as the outcome."

Those who promote the tunnels, including the governor, advocate the plan as a way to "ensure a reliable supply of drinking water," and "conservation of the Delta," both utterly disengenuous political lies.

Has Southern California ever run out of drinking water? No. Has anyone in Southern California ever experienced nothing after turning on the tap? No. This water isn't for them, despite the Governor's claims. This water is for the next 28 million of them. But the special interests, these water profiteers, couldn't get californians to spend $15 billion dollars on tunnels so they could profit from developing more subdivisions in san bernardino county. So they are promoting this as a "do you want water or don't you," requisite action. It's not.

And any voter who supports a water bond will not be ensuring their drinking water, they will be ensuring more traffic, more pollution, more congestion and a diminsished quality of life.

Remember when Disneyland was surrounded by orange groves in orange county? i do. Do you think voters would have passed Prop 1 in 1960 if they knew it meant the traffic and congestion and high density SoCal of today? I don't.