Water is the great enabler of life on planet earth. Here in California, though, there is not nearly enough of it to meet everyone’s demand.
Agriculture in our state consumes 80% of the available water, with the remainder serving communities statewide. Population growth and land development have combined with climate change to exacerbate the “water wars” rivalry (urban centers versus rural communities, small farmers versus industrial agriculture, Southern versus Northern California) to control this scarce resource.
Flossie Ford-Hedrington lives in Fairmead, California and picks grapes and cotton for a living. Her well, providing water for her personal use, went dry. Many families nearby lost their well water too. (Sasha Abramsky)
At a rally in Bakersfield, California, Dolores Huerta advocates for safe and affordable drinking water. In 1965 she helped organize the 1965 Delano grape strike, about 30 miles from Bakersfield.
“It never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.” — John Steinbeck, East of Eden. Steinbeck grew up in Salinas, California.
Fran Pavley, Democrat and climate champion, served two terms in the California State Senate and three terms in the California State Assembly. She authored many pieces of environmental legislation, including the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014.
California Attorney General Rob Bonta: “California relies on our waterways to sustain our communities, our economy, and our biodiversity. The fact is: We’re living in a precarious time, as severe weather events such as droughts grow increasingly common. We need robust protections in place to ensure our waterways don’t bear the brunt of these changes.”
In addition to his activism on behalf of environmental causes, Bonta is a well-known advocate for criminal justice reform, in keeping with the values of the previous California attorney general, Kamala Harris.
What is to be done? We need to collaborate nationally and globally to reduce global warming and move in the direction of an environmentally sustainable world that manages water resources judiciously and humanely.
At the same time, we in California have to address urgent problems of water scarcity and quality that are local to our own state.
The California Constitution holds that the state’s water is a public resource, to be used for “reasonable and beneficial use … in the interest of the people and for the public welfare.” This principle is elaborated in the California Water Code (106.3): “It is hereby declared to be the established policy of the state that every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.”
However, In a time of drought and severe freshwater shortage, this universal human right is being trampled on. Underserved households and communities that are already suffering environmental injustices face especially severe conditions of water scarcity and pollution.
Better public management of California’s water resources is urgently called for:
- Support a Green New Deal statewide to improve the efficiency, fairness, and safety of California’s water supply and distribution infrastructure. The state’s allocation of water rights to corporate interests should be re-evaluated.
- Replenish groundwater (aquifers) through better regulation of agricultural and household use. The state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, (SGMA) enacted in 2014 is a step in the right direction. However it delays required compliance until 2040 and fails to address current and near-future drought circumstances. Trillions of gallons of water are taken each year by corporate agriculture, creating dire water shortages in communities whose domestic wells go dry.
- Remove monetary influence over water policy formation in California. The current situation: “Water flows upward toward money.”
- Reduce waste. Daily household use of water in California averages about 85 gallons per person. It takes over 1000 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef.
- Encourage — and mandate if necessary — water saving and reuse. At every level, from households to industrial agriculture, a more thoughtful use of water will help to conserve California’s finite supply.
- Support desalination research and development. Currently existing desalination technology (which removes salt from sea water) is expensive and environmentally problematic. But improvement will be forthcoming. Desalination plants should be publicly owned.
- Support our partnership with nature. Halt unlimited growth and protect animal and plant species.
Water in Western states has been a subject of controversy since the beginning of the 20th century. Recommended sources of information:
Mark Reisner, Cadillac Desert (1986)
Mark Arax, The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water And Dust Across California (2019)
Food & Water Watch, Big Ag, Big Oil and California’s Big Water Problem (2021)