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California Water Facts for Legislators

Everyone in California agrees that water policies need to adapt to changing times. There is even growing agreement that enforcing draconian reductions to farm water allocations (which will eliminate all but the most powerful corporate agribusinesses) and outlawing household outdoor watering will not only fail to solve the problem, but is a tough and undesirable solution. And so the debate over more rationing versus more water supply projects goes on.

Missing from the debate over water policy in California, however, especially among the state legislators who need to do something about it, are some basic overall metrics regarding how much water we need, what various types of water projects cost, how much potential capacity each type of project delivers, and how much energy is involved. Here’s a summary.

When quantifying macro variables of this nature, first it is important to note that for any project category, costs are not uniform. A wastewater recycling plant, for example, will cost more to construct and more to operate depending on the type of wastewater it has to process. The cost to build and operate a conveyance to deliver water from a recycling plant or desalination plant direct to the consumer or to a storage facility will vary depending on the length of the conveyance and any necessary elevation changes. So these are rough numbers. They are nonetheless vital to begin a more informed discussion of water policy options in California.

The primary measurement used to describe large amounts of water are units of […] Read More

The Abundance Choice (part 8) – The Union Factor

The moment we met Robbie Hunter, then president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council, we knew we were in the presence of a man who does not lose. Assemblyman Mathis had urged me to contact the construction unions before we finished our research to write the initiative and began an actual campaign, and through one of his mutual contacts, the meeting was arranged.

Three of us arrived at the SBCTC’s offices in downtown Sacramento back in August 2021, all of us dressed in our Sunday best; suits, ties, dress shoes. Hunter met us in their lobby, dressed like a man who does real work, wearing a t-shirt with a union logo on the front. As someone without experience meeting a union president, much less negotiating with one, Hunter, a burly man with a trace of an Irish accent, fit the stereotype I’d imagined. And that first meeting was encouraging.

We quickly learned that Hunter and his colleagues were very much in favor of more water infrastructure. They were interested in learning about our proposal and willing to assist with the language. Over the next several weeks we carefully included language that would protect the interests of this union, which has 450,000 members in California.

While nobody on our steering committee had any objection to us reaching out to work with a powerful private sector labor union, we had friends in the conservative community who were going to want an explanation. It wasn’t hard to provide one. All […] Read More

The Abundance Choice (part 5) – The Fractured Farmers

“We cannot support your initiative if you include the Delta Tunnel as an eligible project. And to be clear, we also cannot support your initiative if you do not include the Delta Tunnel as an eligible project.”

This statement, which I heard with my own ears sometime in early September 2021, was made by someone painfully aware of the paradox it expressed. It epitomizes how California’s farmers confront the existential threat of not enough water to irrigate their crops. They are bitterly divided over what solutions to support. If your farm is located north of the California Delta, you don’t want Southern Californians to build a giant straw that will suck the Northern Central Valley dry. And if your farm is south of the Delta, escalating restrictions on pumping water into southbound aqueducts from fragile Delta ecosystems makes a tunnel an elegant solution.

Disagreement over how to transport water through, around, or under the Delta is just one of many causes of gridlock in California over water policy, but the scale of the project and the effect it would have make it central to discussions over state water priorities. Taking an unequivocal stand on the Delta Tunnel—for or against—will immediately either alienate or attract about half of California’s farming community, along with every water agency, urban or rural, northern or southern, that is affected by it.

Not only are farmers in the Sacramento Valley to the north generally set against constructing the tunnel, while farmers in the San Joaquin Valley […] Read More

The Abundance Choice (part 2) – The Problems With Indoor Water Rationing

Perhaps the biggest example of misguided water policy in California are the escalating restrictions on indoor water consumption. As will be seen, the savings these restrictions amount to are trivial in the context of California’s total water consumption, yet are imposed at tremendous cost both in quality of life and in the required economic sacrifice. Despite alternatives that are objectively more cost-effective, California’s water policy continues to go down the path of rationing indoor water use.

In 2018 the California Legislature enacted laws to restrict residential water consumption, in the form of Senate Bill 606 and Assembly Bill 1668. For urban water districts, the laws “establish a standard of 55 gallons per person per day until January 2025, and then to 50 gallons per person per day in 2030.”

It is fair to point out that some of the more alarmist reactions to these mandates are unfounded. For example, the laws will only measure aggregate use within a water district, which means that how individual users are treated if they exceed the per person indoor water limits is left up to the local utilities. That’s hardly reassuring, but at least it leaves some wiggle room. On the other hand, it creates a powerful disincentive for water agencies to invest in developing an increased, more resilient water supply, because with aggregate maximums limiting how much water the agencies can sell, they’ll think twice before adding capacity. One of the dangerous consequences of this, yet again, is a system […] Read More