August 13th, 2014


Community & Rural Affairs Advisor, Office of Planning and Research, State of California

Chair, State Water Resources Control Board

Robert E. Paradise Professor of Natural Resources Law, Stanford University

When host Greg Dalton asked Felicia Marcus of the State Water Resources Control Board to put California’s current drought in context, she didn’t mince words.  “It is really, really bad,” she said.  While this is the third least amount of precipitation recorded since the beginning of the 20th century, the impact on the state is far worse. “We've grown by millions of people. You have far more agricultural production dependent upon the same amount of water. You have more endangered and threatened fish and wildlife species who don't have the resilience they once did to be able to weather a drought, and so the impact is considerable.”
If you liken the state’s underground water supply to a savings account, Stanford’s Buzz Thompson says California is spending beyond its means. “Groundwater aquifers naturally fill up during wet periods of time, and then we can use that water during dry periods of time to help us through the drought,” he explained. And we’ve been invading our savings account “not only during dry periods, but also during wet periods.  And ultimately, that's going to mean that that groundwater is not available to us when we really need it.”
The problem is compounded by not knowing our balance. “And we're not keeping track of how much money people are actually taking out.  That makes it very difficult to actually manage what is an essential resource today.”
According to recent polling, Californians welcome regulation to help conservation methods .  It doesn’t take a lot, says Debbie Davis of California’s Office of Planning and Research. “We did these mandatory, very modest, conservation rules at the state level,” she reports. “We didn't say, ‘kill your lawns,’ we said, ‘don't overwater your lawns.  Don't use a hose when a broom will do.’”  
“People want to be a part of a community,” Marcus agrees, “and they want to know kind of how they are doing compared to other people. “If they see that other people are doing better in this similar circumstance, they want to do better, and they find that very, very motivating.”
Big agriculture is doing its part too, adds Thompson. Throughout California, “you’re just as likely to see farmers farming by iPad, when they’re able to do these drip systems….you can really precision water and feed the plants. As a result, we do have more agricultural production per drop of water in the state than we had.”  
He also warns that California’s urban growth shouldn’t come at the expense of its water supply. “We definitely need to coordinate our land use and our water resources to a much greater degree than we have,” says Thompson. “In many communities, the water managers and the land use planners do not actively work together.  They need to do that so that in areas which are water short we don’t continue to grow as if water was available to whatever degree we want.”
And paving Paradise could affect our future savings. “We need that water to actually percolate down into our groundwater aquifers, so that we have that natural recharge to our natural bank accounts.”
When it comes to recharging our bank account, California has plenty of resources available.  Water pricing, smart irrigation, “Cash for Grass” and desalination were just some of the many methods brought up by the Commonwealth Club participants. How are you curbing your water spending to conserve California’s liquid assets?
– Anny Celsi
August 13, 2014
Photos by Ed Ritger
The Commonwealth Club of California
This program was generously underwritten by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.