This week, most of Southern California awoke to news that it was time to conserve water -- with a heed from Gov. Jerry Brown that this drought was "real" -- and a call for citizens to voluntarily "avoid flushing toilets unnecessarily and to turn off the tap while shaving."
For farmers in the Central Valley, the nation's top agricultural producer at $44.7 billion, a similar dire warning was issued to begin planning and revising production. Lost revenue in 2014 from farming other related businesses, such as trucking and processing, are expected to be at least $5 billion.
This is Gov. Brown's second major water crisis. The 1976-77 drought was the worst in California history, with Brown creating a blue-ribbon commission that in 1978 recommended necessary changes to the state's water laws. It's overall conclusion? Immediate change on groundwater use and the need to create more storage opportunities. Its dire warning? "Now that the two dry years are past, we must not allow the abundant water supplies of 1978 to lull us into a false sense of security."
Lulled we were. The warning bells of yesterday's water crisis tolled, but few heard. Officials say 2013 was the state's driest calendar year on record. Unlike the last drought, we will likely not be saved by April showers to avoid the inevitable hard infrastructure choices put off for too long. This crisis forces us to make choices of usable water resources, now and for California's future.
California doesn't have a water resource problem -- it has a water plumbing and storage problem. Compounded with questionable public policy choices, the situation has become an unfortunate game of water roulette. The solution is pretty simple: more storage and the plumbing to access it.
As a past policymaker in Sacramento, I got to see three consecutive governors push hard for annual budget reserves to balance out the lean years and provide fiscal stability caused by an erratic economy. A similar concept of saving water for dry years by providing enough underground storage facilities to capture our ample rain years with sufficient and strategic storage facilities throughout our state has been absent as a similar government mantra. We lack enough water storage facilities, yet we have seen an explosive growth in prison expansion, high-speed rail and other state construction projects over the past 40 years. Now is the time to take some corrective action and set California on a path toward a long-term water solution. To accomplish this, I offer four suggestions:
* Fix the regulations, and keep it simple. Kern and Tulare counties can store 4 to 5 million acre feet more of water in the ground. That is a body of water about the size of Lake Shasta Northern California, but underground. Unfortunately, Delta environmental restrictions are throttling water supplies that could go south in normal, or even some wet, years.
* Make the Delta tunnel bigger to accommodate everybody. The proposed tunnel through the Delta is so small and expensive that the costs and benefits will only be affordable for the cities, but more importantly, will not allow excess water on wet years to make it to underground facilities in the south. Make it bigger and couple it to water-storage facilities based on banking deals, which move water more efficiently.
* Create storage and conveyance in strategic locations. Banking on water in groundwater aquifers has increased storage in recent years, but not nearly as much as was called for in 1978. There is a strong need to build more surface storage north and south of the Delta and conveyance systems to maximize the ability to move the water from its place of origin to its destination.This would allow better utilization of underground banks throughout the year.
* All water users pay. Whether water is being used or diverted by farmers, cities or by environmental advocates, all should pay for its use. Dollars collected should be tied to final allocation or diversions with cash moved to defray the cost of tunnels moving water more efficiently and in greater quantities.
Today, with the worst drought in 136 years before us, we can dust off a Gov. Brown's blue-ribbon commission report that has provided us a promise unfulfilled. That commission gave us mostly written answers, but untried, bold proposals that lacked courageous action by the Legislature. Today, that same governor simply needs to reach into that old playbook and implement, with the help of the Legislature, the changes necessary to help Californians avert an economic disaster.
Dean Florez , a Shafter native, is a former California State Senate majority leader. He is the current president and CEO of the 20 Million Minds Foundation (@20MillionMinds).