Saturday, June 25, 2011

Population and Water Uses

Agricultural and urban water uses exist side-by-side in any pie graph of water uses for any region. As users address issues of the water resource supplies and demands, the debates focus on one user’s efficiency over the others. When taken out of the regional context, the debate quickly degenerates into accusations where everyone can point at the others for various behaviors that disproportionately impact on efficiency or consumptive uses. When taken within the context of regional uses, it enables everyone to ask: What is important to us all and how do we prioritize our use of limited regional resources?

Often farmers are blamed for raising alfalfa or other high water use crops. Other times they are told by academics or urban advocates how the size (or the business model) of their farms are responsible for corporate domination. Or the type of irrigation used and whether their land has been laser-leveled lies at the root of depleted water supplies. Everyone knows how to farm, just like everyone knows how to teach. When met across a regional planning table, farmers can address the many factors required to maintain a stable business that are beyond the control of them as individuals. It is worth saying here that our agricultural produce supplies have never been tested to the point of famines, as has been seen in nations around the world.

The factor of population is often used to address the issue of water efficiency. Developers and land attorneys actively engaged in the water planning process focus on the efficiency of urban uses without referencing their own financial interests in so doing. Agribusinesses can do so as well. As Greens, sustainability is our own critical factor, but it is NOT an excuse to invite disaster upon the world’s peoples. In regional planning, the discussions incorporate quantity and quality, and necessarily include effective AND efficient water use by our communities and our neighbors. The recent release of the PPIC Report MANAGING CALIFORNIA’S WATER: FROM CONFLICT TO RECONCILIATION has recently been juxtaposed with the release of the report MUNICIPAL DELIVERIES OF COLORADO RIVER BASIN WATER by the Pacific Institute. Both include the impacts of population on urban water use.

Increase in population is inherent in reviewing water management issues and if it is disregarded it is done so at the risk of our well-being. “This population growth has serious implications for food and energy production and urban expansion, all of which will place increasing pressure on available fresh water supplies.” (QUENCHING URBAN THIRST: GROWING CITIES AND THEIR IMPACTS ON FRESHWATER ECOSYSTEMS, by Thomas W. Fitzhugh and Brian D. Richter, Bioscience, August 2004, Vol. 54, No. 8; page 741). It is worth saying for the uninitiated water advocates that river returns are more often credited to users even when they come from the depletion of underground aquifers, as a result of interstate river compacts. The result of this is that a microchip manufacturer can project an image as highly “efficient” water users in Albuquerque, even while they daily withdraw millions of gallons of water from local users. Rarely, do farmers have water appropriations adjusted when they are returned to surface supplies or when recharged to aquifers by percolation. Municipalities along the Colorado River studied by the Pacific Institute are credited for such return flows. This gives cities a much greener projection than their reality may in fact prove to be and benefits them in the paper water world of accounting.

The use of diversions in California has impacted not only regional supplies, but also impacted on urban water uses. When the water supplies sent to Los Angeles from the Owens River and the Mono basin were reduced, they were “replaced by water from MWD sources, and the city also began to emphasize water conservation”. (QUENCHING URBAN THIRST, p. 744) As Greens, we project a political agenda that planning addresses preservation of the planet’s ecosystems, as well as, the supplies needed in the face of population growth. We can certainly agree with the writers of QUENCHING URBAN WATER SUPPLIES when they emphasize: “Thus, it is important that water planners move swiftly to implement ecosystem water allocations before water supplies become overtaxed.” (QUENCHING URBAN THIRST, page 751)

Population growth has often been understated as a contributing factor to diminishing water supplies and reducing Delta water exports. (page 264, PPIC Report) The PPIC report focuses on urban conservation as a critical strategy in reducing urban water use. (see page 265, PPIC Report) Conservation is one technique to lower demand of water for urban regions. It does not address saltwater intrusion. The Pacific Institute Report states: “The total volume of water withdrawn nationwide in 2005 was lower than it was in 1975, despite substantial economic and population growth. This is a significant achievement, demonstrating that water demand can be successfully delinked from growth.” MUNICIPAL DELIVERIES OF COLORADO RIVER BASIN WATER, page 2-3 at . Per capita use is one measure of water accounting. It does not measure: impacts on ecosystems, impacts on existing economies of scale, groundwater depletions, carrying capacity of existing water infrastructure, impacts on public services, healthcare and education systems or other consequences of urban sprawl and development. It is unfortunate that the Pacific Institute proposes to encourage public officials to “promote conservation and efficiency” (MUNICIPAL DELIVERIES, page iv.) when, absent an open and transparent regional planning process, the result could very well lead to exacerbation of tensions in regards to water supplies predicted by the Department of the Interior in WATER 2025.

Water politics on a statewide level is a continual battle over freshwater supplies between one region and another. Urban users rarely bat an eyelash as water continues to flow from our spigots. But farmers are in crisis every time there is a drought. This political paradigm is manifested in the State Legislature by the partisan divides between Democrats and Republicans. Sustainability will never be brought in to balance the decisions until there is a countervailing force brought into the State Legislature through the elections of Greens. Sustainability is in the interests of all water users, as well as the environment. Regional planning needs to limit diversions and establish concrete objectives in defining sustainable water use by balancing growth with renewable supplies. As a state we will not get there traveling the road that we have chosen to-date. There are better alternatives. We can work together. We can plan together.

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