The Scalpel or the Hatchet? Applying Common-Sense Planning to Water Management

by Margaret Clune Giblin

February 06, 2009

One logical response to the constant news of the economic recession is cutting back on discretionary purchases and developing a household budget.  That is, if we know that times are tough and that we may encounter difficulties sustaining the lifestyle we’ve grown accustomed to, we take stock of our circumstances and plan for the future.  We look at our current income and expenses, project our future income as best as we are able, and adjust future expenses in the budget to match future income.


What if, instead, in the face of all the economic indicators that tough times are ahead, we stuck our heads in the sand, continued spending as always (or even increased spending) and hoped for the best?  Most would probably agree that at best, it would seem a risky path to tread. 


And yet, that’s the path we’ve chosen to take when it comes to dealing with the threat that climate change poses to many resources we depend on each and every day.  As surely as the economic evidence shows that we’re in a recession, the scientific evidence shows that climate change will affect our natural resources, with many such effects already being felt. 


Freshwater resources are an increasingly scarce commodity, particularly in the arid West.  Even without the complicating effects of climate change, demand on water from an increasing population would intensify water scarcity.  Global warming will hasten that process.  In its Fourth Assessment Report, Climate Change 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change explained that surface water availability will decline as precipitation variability and drought increase with the changing climate. 


On January 30, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on an example of exactly this type of climate-induced reduction in water supply.  After a particularly dry January, the water content of the snow (that is, the snowpack) in the Sierra Nevada mountain range is down by nearly 40 percent.  The failure of the arid days of January to replenish the “backbone of the state’s water supply,” the Chronicle explains, will “almost certainly” push California into a third year of drought.  Added to existing pressures on the state’s water system, the drought is forcing local communities to take drastic measures.  On February 2, the Sonoma County Water agency announced mandatory water rationing – reductions of 30 to 50 percent – for 750,000 residents in portions of Marin, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties.


Returning to the household budget analogy, this might be one way to handle a reduced income—when the situation presents itself, cut all expenses by 30 to 50 percent.  Without advance planning, it may be that there isn’t much of an alternative to that approach—by necessity, if income decreases by 40 percent, so must expenses, across the board.  However, if households had a crystal ball of sorts, and could know months or years in advance that income would decrease by 40 percent, it might make more sense to take a more carefully calibrated approach.  To borrow the parlance of the 2008 presidential campaign, one might choose to use a scalpel rather than a hatchet in adjusting expenditures – careful analysis of all expenses might allow for some expenses to be cut by more than 40 percent or eliminated altogether, while ensuring that other expenses could continue to be fully paid. 


When it comes to water management, legislation recently passed by the U.S. Senate would attempt to substitute careful data collection and analysis for a crystal ball.  The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, S.22, is a nearly 1,250-page bill that’s perhaps best-known for the numerous additions to the National Wilderness Preservation System it would make if passed.  Among its many other provisions (it’s called “omnibus” with good reason), is Title IX, Subtitle F, “Secure Water.”  (The text was first introduced in 2007 by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) as the “Science and Engineering to Comprehensively Understand and Responsibly Enhance (SECURE) Water Act.”)  The bill would create programs aimed at improving understanding of critical aspects of the nation’s water resources—availability and use of existing water resources and the impact of climate change on those resources—with the ultimate goal of facilitating better adaptation to climate change. 


For example, the bill would require the Bureau of Reclamation to coordinate with other federal and non-federal agencies to assess the effects of global climate change on water resources in specified watersheds, and to develop adaptation strategies to cope with shortages and conflicts that may result.  Another program would require the federal government to work with state and local water resource agencies to provide a more accurate assessment of water resources throughout the country and work on means of improving ability to forecast future availability.  Under both programs, states would maintain their current authority over water management, but would receive funding to assist in these critical analyses, either under a cost-sharing or grant arrangement.     


This is likely to be a cost-effective means of collecting information and developing adaptation strategies.  In some areas, particularly those that have been contending with water shortages for years, data regarding availability and use of existing water resources may already exist.  For example, management of California’s water supply has been the subject of fierce debate for decades.  A federal-state partnership, called the CALFED Bay Delta Program, was formed in the mid-1990s to improve the State’s water supply and the ecological health of the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.  More recently, the Delta Vision initiative was launched, to broaden the focus of CALFED.  Through a Blue Ribbon Task Force appointed by Governor Schwarzenegger, Delta Vision will recommend actions to address competing demands in a way that will achieve a sustainable delta. 


However, even in such an intensely-studied context, critical pieces of information are lacking.  CPR Member Scholar and Professor Holly Doremus (University of California, Davis and Berkeley) has served as a consultant to CALFED.  She points out that one of the most interesting revelations to come from the Delta Vision Task Force is how little is known about who holds what rights and who is using how much water.  For example, a report by the State Water Resources Control Board concludes that it has “very limited information on water use” for either of the two basic categories of surface water rights in California, and has “no information on groundwater use in the Delta watershed.”  Where such known data gaps exist, the federal-state collaborations and cost-sharing envisioned in the Secure Water provisions will mean that federal funds will be effectively leveraged to build on information already collected by the states—including what they don’t know.


It’s not hard to imagine less information having been collected by areas that so far have had the luxury of taking water supply for granted.  Collection and analysis of data regarding how much water is available, how much is used, and who has the right to use it (analogous to a household’s current budget) is a critical first step to planning for and adapting to a warmer future.  Scientific data regarding the likely impacts of climate change on the availability and use of water, and how the holders of various legal rights to water will be impacted is equally necessary.  The Executive Director of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies recently noted that “[w]ater resource managers in many parts of the country are already beginning to face water quality and quantity obstacles that may be linked to climate change, but at this point there is not enough reliable data available to help water systems make plans based on accurate long-term projections.”


If S.22 (and the SECURE Water Act) passes the House, collection and analysis of that data can commence.  Then, just as households determine where spending in their budgets can most easily be cut, water resource managers can determine what readily available opportunities for water conservation exist and implement those and other means of scaling water use to future availability.

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