This week most of Southern California woke to the news that it's time to conserve water by cutting shower time with a heed from Gov. Jerry Brown that this drought is "real" as he called citizens to voluntarily "avoid flushing toilets unnecessarily and to turn off the tap while shaving."
For farmers in the Central Valley, the nation's top agricultural producers at $44.7 billion, a similar dire warning was issued to begin planning and revising their production. Lost revenue in 2014 from farming and other related businesses such as trucking and processing are expected to be at least $5 billion.
This is Gov. Brown's second major water crisis. The 1976-77 drought was one of the worst in California history. Brown created a blue-ribbon commission that in 1978 recommended necessary changes to the state's water laws. It's overall conclusion? Immediate change on groundwater use and the need to create more storage opportunities. Its dire warning? "Now that the two dry years are past, we must not allow the abundant water supplies of 1978 to lull us into a false sense of security."
Lulled we were. The warning bells of yesterday's water crisis tolled but few heard. Officials say 2013 was the state's driest calendar year since records started being kept. Unlike the last drought, we will likely not be saved with April showers allowing us to avoid the inevitable hard infrastructure choices put off for too long.
California doesn't have a water resource problem — it has a water plumbing and storage problem. Compounded with questionable public policy choices the situation has become an unfortunate game of water roulette. The solutions are pretty simple: more storage and the plumbing to access it.
We saw three consecutive governors push hard for annual budget reserves — a rainy day fund — to balance out the lean years and provide fiscal stability in an erratic economy.
A similar concept of saving water for the lean dry years by providing enough underground storage facilities to capture our ample rain years with sufficient and strategic storage facilities has been absent as a similar government mantra.
We lack water-storage facilities, yet we have seen an explosive growth in prison expansion, high-speed rail and other state construction projects over the nearly 40 years since the last drought.
I offer four suggestions:
-- Fix the regulations and keep it simple. Kern and Tulare counties can store 4 million to 5 million acre-feet more of water in the ground. That is a body of water about the size of Lake Shasta in Northern California. Unfortunately, Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta environmental restrictions are throttling water supplies that could go south in normal and wet years.
-- Make the delta tunnel bigger to accommodate everybody. The proposed tunnel through the delta is so small and expensive that the costs and benefits will only be affordable for the cities, but more importantly will not likely allow excess water on wet years to make it to underground facilities in the south. Make it bigger and couple it to water-storage facilities based on banking deals, which move water more efficiently.
-- Create storage and conveyance in strategic locations. Water banking in groundwater aquifers has increased storage in recent years, but not nearly as much as was called for in 1978. There also is a strong need to build more surface storage north and south of the delta and conveyance systems to maximize the ability to move the water from its place of origin to the destination needed. This would allow better utilization of underground banks throughout the year.
-- All water users pay. Whether water is used or diverted by farmers, cities or by environmental advocates, all should pay for its use. Dollars collected should be tied to final allocation or diversions with cash moved to defray the cost of tunnels moving water more efficiently and in greater quantities.
Today, with the worst drought in 136 years before us, a blue-ribbon commission report sits on a shelf. That commission gave us answers written but untried and bold proposals that lacked courageous action by the Legislature.
Today Gov. Brown can simply reach into that old playbook and implement, with the help of the Legislature, the changes to help Californians avert an economic disaster. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures — no better time than the present.
Dean Florez is past state Senate majority leader and past Assembly Water Committee chairman, representing the Central Valley. He is president of the 20 Million Minds Foundation.