In summary

Without a strategy to create water through desalination and recycling, California is doomed to fight over dwindling supplies.

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By Jim Wunderman, Special to CalMatters

Jim Wunderman is president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, a nonprofit public policy organization.

Wouldn’t you know it? Just like washing your car, almost the moment I finished writing this article, the skies opened up. 

I’d write one every day if it meant ending our water woes. But it tells you everything you need to know about California’s dire water situation – that the atmospheric river that recently pummeled Northern California and other parts of the state doesn’t even begin to make a dent in our drought.

And it highlights the urgency for California to create more water. Much more.

California currently manufactures far less drought-resilient freshwater than other similarly arid regions. Australia desalinates 10 times as much water as California despite having roughly half the population. Half of Israel’s water comes from desalinated ocean water compared with less than 1% in California. Israel also recycles 90% of its wastewater; California recycles just 10%.

Instead, California is almost entirely dependent on old-fashioned rain and snow. This strategy served us well for most of the 20th century but is today collapsing under California’s warming temperatures. 

Last winter California received a decent amount of snow, but record high spring temperatures vaporized most of it. Today, 88% of California is experiencing severe drought or worse, up from just 3% this time last year. Never before has California lost so much water so quickly. 

Without a strategy to create new water, California is doomed to run in place fighting over our existing, dwindling supplies. In fact, it’s already happening. 

The State Water Resources Control Board is currently pursuing regulations that would, if fully implemented, force farms and cities in the Bay Area and Southern California to surrender roughly 2 million acre feet of water – enough to serve 2.6 million households – to the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers to help stabilize threatened ecosystems. 

Rivers need more water, but had these regulations been in place at the start of the current drought, millions of Bay Area residents would today be facing extraordinary 40-50% rationing. New construction – from housing to hospitals – would come to a screeching halt. 

Conservation can help, but it cannot save us. Thanks to huge strides in water efficiency, California’s urban water use has fallen to 1993 levels despite adding 9 million residents and doubling our economy. Most of the easy fat has already been cut.   

The only way to avoid disaster is to begin transitioning California cities toward greater reliance on recycling and desalination, which would also bolster upstream supplies for river ecosystems and other public benefits, and provide greater reliability for farmers.

That’s why the state and federal governments should commit to creating 1.75 million acre feet – about 25% of California’s current urban water use – of new water from desalination and wastewater recycling by the end of this decade. If built today, this drought-proof buffer would cost about $18 billion and require about $3.4 billion in annual operational subsidies to regional water agencies, according to several cost estimates analyzed by the Bay Area Council.

Drought-proofing California’s economy for less than 1% of GDP is a bargain relative to running out of water and will create tens of thousands of new, good paying jobs along the way. 

Sooner or later, nature will fail to replenish California’s reservoirs for one year too many, and the state will face a catastrophic water shortage with devastating humanitarian, economic and environmental consequences. If we wait until then to act, we will have waited too long. 


Jim Wunderman has also written about a cure for California’s growing fiscal disaster.

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