By Kerry Jackson, Pacific Research Institute
Gov. Gavin Newsom has unwrapped a long-overdue plan to quench California’s perpetual thirst. While a bit late and slightly off the mark, his $8 billion Water Supply Strategy is a welcomed development in a state that really needs one.
The governor called it “an aggressive plan to rebuild the way we source, store and deliver water.” We’d call it painfully overdue. The state has long been parched, and things have gotten worse in recent years: 2021 was the driest year since 1924, while the first four months of 2022 were the driest on record.
Conditions have not improved since. As of last week, more than 16% of California was in the “exceptional” – the most severe – drought category, nearly 47% in either “exceptional” or “extreme” drought, and almost the rest of the entire state in the “severe” range. Reservoirs are being depleted, crop fields have gone fallow, ranchers have had to sell their cattle, and jobs have been lost.
The state Department of Water Resources calls drought “a recurring feature of our climate,” which is true, but not the entire story. They are in part man-made. For years U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Roseville) has argued that though droughts are “nature’s fault,” water shortages “are our fault,” the product of public policy choices, shaped by politically influential green groups, to not build adequate storage.
Newsom’s plan is broadly an all-of-the-above approach, primarily focusing on abundance and not fixating on scarcity, on which much of the state’s water policy is based. He proposes increased water storage, desalination, and recycling, among other projects.
He also recommends streamlining the regulatory process, which is an easy task in California only when a project has political backing. Think of Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, among several others.
California has not built a major reservoir in more than 40 years during Jerry Brown’s first hitch as governor, though some smaller ones have since been completed, the most recent being Los Vaqueros Reservoir in Contra Costa County in the late 1990s. Newsom proposes increasing storage capacity by 4 million acre-feet, which is almost the capacity of Shasta Reservoir, the state’s largest, which holds 4.5 million acre-feet. If Shasta were raised 18.5 feet, it could store an additional 634,000 acre-feet of water, enough to support more than 6 million Californians a year. However, it is not part of Newsom’s plan.
The plan would also further develop new water sources, in part by recycling wastewater that is typically discharged into the ocean. In some systems, 30 percent of demand is met by wastewater that has been thoroughly treated to be safe for outdoor watering and also for cleaning, cooking, and drinking. Critics call it “toilet to tap” water. Even so, don’t get nauseated at the thought. The finished product exceeds all state and federal drinking water standards. Truth be known, we’re already consuming recycled water. Every drop we use is recycled naturally. Just think of Earth as one big recycling facility.
Where the governor’s plan sputters is funding for future public-sector desalination plants. He supported the private-sector desalination plant in Huntington Beach that had been in a state of uncertainty for more than two decades and appears to have finally succumbed to activism and bureaucratic rejection, and should put his weight behind similar initiatives. According to the state, there are a number of private-sector seawater desalination projects in the planning stage that he could get behind.
One other beef with the plan is its constant implication that California’s water troubles are the product of human greenhouse gas emissions. “Climate change” is mentioned more than a dozen times in the governor’s proposal. Counterarguments about humans’ role in a changing climate are not allowed because the narrative is backed by “science.”
It’s not that easy, though.
The historical record shows that severe droughts were no less common in the arid West before the Industrial Revolution kicked up man’s greenhouse gas emissions, and that California’s wettest year on record was in the not-too-distant past – 2016. It makes no logical sense to attribute both drought and out-of-the-ordinary precipitation on anthropogenic global warming. Doing so doesn’t add a single drop of water to California’s reservoirs.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.