Sunday, September 16, 2007

LA Times calls for adaptive restrictions

The record-breaking drought in Southern California adds emphasis to what everyone has always known - the story of California is the story of its water sources. This is especially so in the southern half of the state, which is naturally a desert area. In the previous article I noted that local government leaders were holding water rationing as their trump card in dealing with the drought, but the Los Angeles Times, in its editorial for September 13, takes those so-called "leaders" to task for not seeing water rationing as the intelligent adaptive action that it is.

First, the editorial acknowledges the recent court ruling that restricts the amount of water that L.A. can get from the Sacramento Delta in the northern half of the state.

Two weeks ago, a federal judge ruled that state and federal water projects must limit the pumping operations that move fresh water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and into the southern part of the state -- all to protect the delta smelt, an endangered fish considered a bellwether for that region's fragile ecosystem. That may sound arcane, but it has serious everyday consequences. The water that flows through the delta serves 25 million people, providing more than a third of Southern California's supply. Officials estimate that the judge's ruling could cut off more than 30% of delta deliveries for at least a year.
Let's emphasize that - "for at least a year." Then, in justifying immediate restrictions on water use in the L.A. region, the writer describes the risks facing the viability of its current main water sources.
...given the profound uncertainties facing the state's water system, the choice to wait on mandatory restrictions is puzzling. As Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa reminded Angelenos in June when he called for (as yet unrealized) voluntary 10% reductions in water use, low local rainfall, diminished Sierra snowpacks and prolonged drought conditions on the Colorado River have combined to make this year L.A.'s driest ever. The effects of global warming on future water supplies are still unknown. And endangered species aren't the only threat to delta pumping: A breach in the region's unstable levees could shut down operations at any moment.

A more inspiring and productive response would capitalize on the sense of urgency and call on Los Angeles to do its part to address wider water woes now. Careful consideration of proposals to re-engineer the delta should be one part of the effort; serious dedication to conservation, another. Planners across the state should think twice before they allow development of lush suburbs or vast farmlands in hydrologically-challenged regions. All Californians will have to work for a water system that works for everyone.
[[Article appendage, Sunday September 16]]

Today's LA Times carries an article that at least partially explains the issue that was at the center of the above editorial, i.e. why no water restrictions have been imposed. It seems that the drought of 1990-91 taught water managers a lesson: keep plenty of water in reserve. So, as this article by Hector Becerra describes, the L.A. area can make it through this year's drought OK. But there may be more reason to believe now that those water reserves will not be so easily replenished, so the Water District is still planning to impose restrictions as a way to help residents get used to life with less water. A good adaptive strategy.
Officials say they learned from that drought and spent the ensuing years building up water reserve capacity. Despite the record dry conditions, the Metropolitan Water District has 14 times more reservoir and groundwater storage than it did in 1991, with many local reservoirs flush with water. This is giving the region a buffer against a reduction in supplies from Northern California and the Colorado River.

Moreover, the region has learned to conserve in dramatic fashion.

In 1991, the average household used 210 gallons of water a day. Today, thanks to low-flow toilets, new shower heads and changes in behavior, that number has declined to about 180 gallons, according to water officials.

In a sign that the conservation message is sinking in, the Metropolitan Water District said it delivers the same amount of water -- 2.1 million acre feet a year -- to Southern California now as it did in 1990. That's despite having 3 million more customers.

Water officials warn that more restrictions -- and possibly higher rates -- are on the way in the coming months. But they said this was not yet a crisis.

In fact, water officials and weather experts believe that further restrictions might result in enough savings to deal with the continued dryness and a recent court ruling that could yield a 30% reduction in water deliveries from Northern California.

Moreover, they argue that mandatory water reduction is important because Southern Californians need to learn how to do more with less as the region's population grows and water supplies remain finite.

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