They used to call California ocean desalination a disaster. But water crisis brings new look
The water crisis in California is far from over. But it’s time to begin to rethink solutions
“The desalination plant in California is not the end of the story … The water crisis in California is a story of four centuries of mismanagement that is far more complicated than we’d like to think.”—Steve LeVine, an expert on water and energy
This article was first published in the January 2014 edition of the Oregonian.
By Steve LeVine
With their hands full of water that’s been taken from the Colorado River on its way to markets around the world, those California residents who are concerned about the future of their tap water know one thing for sure: The situation is far from over.
It’s not over for the state or the cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco or Sacramento, where the water crisis has now become the central issue in city elections and a major issue in state and federal elections.
The water crisis in California is a complex story that began with a disastrous water policy by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and continued through to the recent election of his successor, Jerry Brown. Its roots are the same as those of the water crises that plague all 50 states.
The problem is that California has been relying on a system that is fundamentally flawed. That in turn has led to its water wars and expensive water bills. The result is that the state is on the verge of being forced to spend millions of dollars, and thousands of dollars’ worth of water, to solve a problem that does not exist.
The problem is that California has been relying on a system that is fundamentally flawed.
That system, originally designed and approved by water managers during the 1970s and 1980s, is built on a fundamental misunderstanding that water is a finite resource whose demand cannot be increased by new water supplies.
Instead, the state began in the late 1990s by assuming that it could expand the supply of water without adding to the demand by buying water from Colorado River water users. (In doing so, California would have essentially become a water landlord, as it has done with other water users in the past.) That has backfired, because a large and growing number of users have now found that a larger supply means increased use that the state cannot afford.