California “Crushes” the Governor’s Water Conservation Goal. So What?

Friday, August 28, 2015

Do Californians measure the success at containing a wildfire by how many firefighters battle the blaze and how much water they pour on it? Probably not. They tend to talk about the size of the fire.

So why all the self-congratulatory back slapping over the state exceeding Governor Jerry Brown's arbitrary conservation goal and cutting back on water usage by 31.3% in July? Topping the state’s goal of 25% is better than falling short, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we are winning or even gaining ground against the threat of extended drought.

Right now, the state has no way to accurately measure total water needs, water use and available supply. It hopes to get a handle on groundwater measurement by 2020. Agricultural interests have fallowed about 20% of their fields, but still account for around 80% of water use in California with no active attempt by the state to control what water-sucking crops are grown.

Bad news about the drought abounds. It has been a daily staple of California life for four years. Last week, it was widely reported that land in the Central Valley, where much of the nation’s food is grown, is sinking at an accelerated rate of 2 inches per month because of groundwater depletion.

Lawns are turning brown, trees are falling over on people, salmon are being trucked around in big tanks to keep the species alive and cars are going unwashed (unless you’re a Los Angeles County supervisor who gets their car washed two or three times a week.)

It’s not all bad news, however. The Pacific Institute reported that, despite fewer acres in production, California’s $33-billion crop revenue in 2014 was the state’s second highest in history. The record was set the year before. BigAg did it by growing more expensive crops, like almonds, which require more water, and drained aquifers at dangerously unsustainable rates.   

Numerous news outlets reported on how California “crushed” the governor’s 25% target in an unprecedented show of conservation. More than 74 billion gallons of water was saved in July compared to 2013. Some water districts reduced usage by 45%. Nearly 4 out of 5 reported 25% savings or more.

But none of the stories quantify the goal of how much water can be used while still maintaining sustainability, or begin to define what “sustainability” in California means. What does it take to prevent whole towns and cities from running out of water, agricultural production being cut in half and environmental habitats obliterated?

Instead, we have a 25% goal of reduced water usage. 

In the immortal words of actor Charlie Sheen, who rewrote the meaning of “winning” when he flamed out in 2011, “I have cleansed myself. I closed my eyes and in a nanosecond, I cured myself. . . .  The only thing I'm addicted to is winning.”

It’s a sweet feeling, indeed.

–Ken Broder 


To Learn More:

Californians Cut Water Use 31.3% in July, Crushing Governor’s Target (by Kurtis Alexander, San Francisco Chronicle)

California Residents Cut Water Use 31 Percent in July (by Phillip Reese and Ryan Sabalow, Sacramento Bee)

Californians Cut Water Without State Imposing Fines (by Scott Smith, Associated Press)

Central Valley Locales Sinking 2 Inches a Month as Groundwater Is Drained (by Lisa M. Krieger, San Jose Mercury News)

Impacts of California’s Ongoing Drought: Agriculture (by Heather Cooley, Kristina Donnelly, Rapichan Phurisamban and Madhyama Subramanian, Pacific Institute) (pdf)

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