Human resources

A Drought Conversation with California’s Secretary of Natural Resources

Days before the federal government was hesitant to tell western states how to reduce use of the drought-stressed Colorado River, Governor Gavin Newsom unveiled a plan to accelerate projects that would help California use less of it.

To be clear: California has yet to take any big cuts to its Colorado River allocation, despite being its biggest user. But, as the pressure mounts, it could, writes Ian James of the Los Angeles Times. Newsom’s plan doesn’t directly mention the Colorado River, but it’s conceivably an effort to prepare California for that reality — or at least prove the state is doing something.

Still, some Arizona lawmakers have thrown shade at California, accusing the Golden State of taking more than its share of the river and forgoing deals with other Colorado Basin states to retain large amounts of water. Arizona stands to lose a quarter of its Colorado River allocation. The two states have been notorious rivals since the signing of the Colorado River Pact establishing the rules for dividing the river a century ago.

As human-caused climate change makes the weather more unpredictable, Newsom said California’s water supply could decline 10% by 2040. And that means the state needs to build more storage to capture heavy rainfall, start recycling a huge amount of wastewater, capture stormwater, and build factories that make seawater usable on land. San Diego has already taken some of these steps to diversify its own supply. Newsom has already explained the need for these concepts in 2020, but his August announcement was basically to say: These projects need to happen, now.

I spoke with Newsom-appointed Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot about the upcoming battleground of the Colorado River and San Diego’s involvement. His agency oversees 26 environmental departments, including the Department of Water Resources and California’s Colorado River Board, whose members represent the state in negotiations.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. What powers do you have to direct California’s action on the Colorado River?

A. It is ultimately the water rights holders who are the direct negotiators and decide whether they will keep the water in the reservoirs. We cannot direct the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District or the San Diego County Water Authority or the Imperial Irrigation District. But through our Colorado River Board and the DWR, which also participates in the negotiations, we advance their interests so that they come together in voluntary action.

Q. What direction did you give them then?

A. I think we all agree on the statement of the problem… which is that extraordinary actions are needed to avoid what could be a catastrophic situation. If the basin continues to have the hydrology it has had for the past two decades and we don’t take collective action to keep more water in (the reservoirs), there’s a good chance that we cannot export the water from it.

Q. How would you define extraordinary actions?

A. Extraordinary actions mean that water users act quickly to identify the amounts of water they will forgo using and instead keep it in the reservoir. Before the 2019 drought contingency plans, there wasn’t really an action plan to navigate the conditions we’re experiencing. This plan put in place stages of water cuts, one of which was activated last month, but climate change has moved even faster than this plan. So we have to go beyond that and say that we’re not going to take another few years to negotiate another solution. We need to do it much faster.

Q. Should San Diego do more to reduce water use during this drought?

A. I believe San Diego, as part of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, agrees that all water users should reduce use of the Colorado River and keep more water in the reservoir regardless of seniority of the rights to this water. This is a big problem because the main water rights holders have not always accepted this. San Diego deserves credit for having diversified water supplies. We ask all local regional water agencies to do this so that they are not dependent on a single source. Regardless of these investments, it makes sense to stretch the water supply because we don’t know how long this drought will last. So in San Diego, there simply can’t be an approach that says, “It’s going to be okay. Drought does not affect us here. We must continue to focus on conservation.

Q. Is there anything more the state will do to make sure this happens, like more mandatory cuts or restrictions?

A. We are encouraged by the progress made since May. In the spring, we saw much more water consumption than at the same time in 2020. Now we see things moving in the right direction. Scientists suggest that we will lose more than 10% of our water supply by 2040, the equivalent of two Lakes Shastas, our largest reservoir. The Governor’s four-point strategy that builds on some kind of master plan we already had to supplant this water loss. One such area is achieving 500,000 acre feet of water savings through improved efficiency and conservation in cities. We plan to accelerate efficiency standards for each city.

Q. How?

A. A few years ago, a law established a water budget for each urban water agency identifying the appropriate amount of indoor use per person and using remote imagery to understand the amount of water necessary to keep outdoor vegetation alive without overwatering. These budgets were not supposed to come into effect for several years. We talked about accelerating this requirement. San Diego, like many city water agencies, does not like a one-size-fits-all approach. We need to ensure that every urban community is as efficient as possible and these personalized budgets do just that, going beyond a temporary reduction in the percentage of water use and really moving towards a standard.

Q. Do you have jurisdiction over agricultural use? We talk about efficiency in urban areas, but agriculture uses 80% of the Colorado River. When do we start asking farmers to think about efficiency?

A. There are already significant reductions for farmers during this drought. In the Sacramento River Valley, they are reducing the water so that half of the production of rice, the main crop there, goes fallow. In other words, they are not planting half of their rice crop this year due to water reductions. Agriculture will have to reduce its water consumption due to the law on sustainable groundwater management. Before this law, in California, anyone could buy a piece of land and plant as many wells as they wanted. …And the Central Valley regions need to take land out of production. If this were its own state, the Central Valley would have one of the lowest per capita incomes of the 50 states, which means we have this real wealth on the coast but inequality in other areas. The lifeblood of the Central Valley is agriculture, and the lifeblood of agriculture is water. We’re trying to work with those communities to try to diversify their economies, to avoid economic disaster.

Q. You recently took a trip to visit your counterpart in Mexicali, Mexico. Northern Baja California is very dependent on the Colorado River, as noted. What did you talk about there?

A. Baja California has had a very bad time during this drought and does not have the resources like California. We’re focusing more on California water users because we really think we need to step in and make voluntary reductions before asking Mexico to do it.

Q. I know Arizona has thrown shade at California, saying the state hasn’t done its part. What’s your reaction ?

A. What I would say is that we must devote our energy to finding solutions and avoid pointing fingers. We don’t hear much about what California has already done. When our junior water rights holders were in dire straits (decades ago) of having to reduce the use of 800,000 acre feet, our state legislature stepped in and helped negotiate this great agriculture down. urban water transfer and this has helped maintain reliability on the Colorado River for urban users. I think we’re saying everyone has a role to play. I think everyone should use whatever flexibility they have in their state to use these templates.

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