California Took on Energy Crisis, Now it Faces Water Crisis

By Lester Snow, SF Chronicle, Op-Ed, 9.29.08

Once a week, a truck brings drinking water to the small town of Bodega, just west of Santa Rosa. Without this delivery, the Bodega Water Company could not meet the needs of the town’s 150 residents who normally rely on well water. The company expects to step up the trucked-in deliveries to twice a week and then daily as the state’s drought worsens and groundwater supplies dwindle.

Bodega’s water shortage is just one example of how serious the state’s water problems have become. While not every community in California is suffering like Bodega, many are facing serious water shortages. East Bay residents have already been asked to cut back their residential water use by 19 percent. In fact, 18 communities across the state have implemented some form of mandatory water rationing. Many other water agencies have asked customers to comply with voluntary conservation programs, have implemented price changes to make conservation a financially appealing choice, or have placed restrictions on water deliveries.

Public water agencies are only receiving 35 percent of their annual allocation of water from the State Water Project this year – the lowest level since the severe 1991 drought. In the coming year, deliveries will likely be even less.

California is looking down the barrel of a potentially severe, long-term drought. We’ve had two extremely dry years and initial forecasts from the National Weather Service are that the drought conditions will continue into next year.

Our reservoirs are low. Our groundwater supplies are being overdrafted in some areas. And court-ordered pumping limits have restricted our ability to move water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the Bay Area, Central Valley and Southern California due to environmental concerns. A third dry year could have devastating consequences to California’s economy at a time when many businesses, industries, workers and farmers are already struggling.

In June, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought emergency and directed state agencies to take immediate action to address the drought impacts.

Armed with the governor’s direction, state water managers are addressing the problems created by the drought through a variety of programs, including the Drought Water Bank for 2009. This emergency program will allow the Department of Water Resources to purchase water from willing sellers and sell that water to at-risk water agencies, giving communities that are facing health or public safety issues top priority. We are also working hard to coordinate programs and services to ensure that the state’s efforts support conservation efforts at the local level.

Mother Nature may prove the weather predictions wrong and give us a long and wet winter. Even if she does, better-than-average rainfall and a healthy snowpack will not solve California’s long-term water problems.

In addition, climate change is altering our rainfall and snowpack – which the state relies on for water storage. This is something that we must plan for and manage. At the same time, our state water systems are aging and population growth is putting more and more pressure on our existing water supplies.

The drought reminds us all of the importance of providing a sustainable water supply system capable of meeting the needs of consumers now and in the future. The governor and Sen. Dianne Feinstein have proposed a comprehensive solution to California’s water crisis. It addresses conservation as well as new groundwater and surface storage facilities, conveyance facilities and environmental restoration.

But in the end, Californians need to fundamentally change how we use water. California needs to make water efficiency a priority at home, in our communities, on the farm and at the office. We can take immediate actions to conserve, such as adjusting how and when we water our gardens, shortening our showers and running our dishwasher only when it’s full. As we buy new appliances for our house or make long-term investments in our outdoor landscaping, our decisions directly affect future water use.

Before the state’s energy crisis, most Californians used power indiscriminately in their homes. Now many of us avoid peak energy-use times, instead running appliances during the evening hours and using other energy-saving products. This fundamental change has resulted in significant energy savings. It’s time to take the state’s water supply problems just as seriously. We can do it … we must do it.

To learn more…

Visit the state’s drought Web page:

Read the governor’s declaration of drought, at

Investigate ways to save water at home, at

Lester Snow is the director of the California Department of Water Resources.