June 30th, 2015


Senior Fellow and Center Director, Public Policy Institute of California

Chair, State Water Resources Control Board

President, California Farm Bureau Federation

Director, Ward 3, East Bay Municipal Utility District Board


“Droughts come and go,” began Greg Dalton at a recent Climate One discussion on California’s water wars. “Is this one different, or do we ride it out and then go on with our lives?”

“This is the biggest wake-up call in modern times,” Felicia Marcus of California State Water Resources Control Board responded. She went on to list the reasons for the severity: a serious reduction in snowpack, millions more humans turning on the tap, increased agricultural demand and endangered species and habitats are creating what amounts to a real-life, slow-motion disaster movie, “on just about every front you can think of.”

But, according to Ellen Hanak of the state’s Public Policy Institute, Californians are finally paying attention. In a recent survey, nearly 40 percent say that the drought is a top concern. That, Hanak says, means an opportunity to turn the tide. “This is a real chance for people to kind of heed the wake-up call and really make some changes that we need to make for the long-term.”

But who will make those changes, and how much they’re willing to sacrifice, is still a hot-button debate. When it comes to water use, it seems there’s plenty of finger-pointing: farmers take more than their share. City dwellers flush their toilets too often. Our neighbor’s lawns are too green, their cars too clean. Aqueducts are sucking our rivers dry and starving our salmon of their habitats.

The biggest bone of contention, and the subject of much breathless media debate, has been between agricultural and urban interests.

Paul Wenger, whose family farm produces almonds and walnuts, was on hand to give the farmer’s perspective. His trees are getting by this year on a water allowance of 16 inches – down from 24 inches during the last drought over a dozen years ago. “We're drilling our second well today,” he reported. “Because if I didn't have the wells, my crop will dry up.”

Wenger was blunt about the economic costs the agricultural sector faces. “I don't know anybody that's had to cut back watering their lawn that had to refinance their home. I know a lot of farmers that are refinancing their farms,” he contends. “If next year is a dry year, they will be insolvent.”

But if agriculture represents 80% of California’s human water use, as the PPIC reports – doesn’t that seem unfair? Marcus says those statistics are misleading, largely because agricultural use ultimately benefits the urban household. “A person in L.A. has more of a connection on a day-to-day basis with the Central Valley farmer that grows the fruits and vegetables and nuts they eat than the jerk down the block who is overwatering their lawn,” she asserts, “but they just don't know it.”   

Because many people live hundreds of miles from their water source, Marcus says, they take it for granted that it will always come out of the tap. “So…it’s easy for people to pick on almonds or something else. They also don't know where their food comes from. Again, it's a miracle of modern civilization that people can take for granted that there's going to be food at the supermarket. But the fact is a farmer grew it somewhere.”

The good news, says Marcus, is that Californians from all sectors are starting to come together to find solutions. Recent drought regulations have kick started statewide conservation measures, resulting in a 29% decrease in urban water use. “There are urban areas, in particular, all over the state that have phenomenal plans to integrate flood control, water supply, water quality, use their groundwater basins, recycle their water so that they're more self-reliant,” she reports.

“And then there are these partnerships between urban and ag, and between fish and farmers and groups that are actually popping up all over. And we need to figure out how to encourage that.”

“The dialogue of division doesn’t really help us,” Hanak agrees. With food security as important a global issue as climate change and population growth, California’s contribution to the world’s tables can’t be discounted.

“We should have folks in urban California really valuing what we have in California,” says Hanak. “This incredible bounty that we can produce for ourselves, and for the world. It's a great resource and instead it gets dismissed. ..It's how we come together as Californians, which is something we can do.  

“We won't conserve our way out of it, we won't store our way out of it - we've got to do all of it.”


This program is made possible by the generous support of the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.


Related Links:

PPIC: Water use in California

PPIC: Water and Drought seen as biggest California issue

California Drought Report -- ca.gov

How water is used in California - ca.gov

National Geographic: The New Food Revolution


- Anny Celsi
June 30, 2015
The Commonwealth Club of California
Photos by Alyssa Kjar