Oddly, doing the "green" thing by complying with mandated water conservation will likely have negative environmental impacts that will need mitigating. Allow us to explain why.
All across California, cities are facing new water-conservation restrictions. In response, cities such as Los Angeles have adopted water conservation plans. They have either adopted or are about to adopt water policing and/or increased water-rate ordinances to bring about greater water conservation. But there is a fatal flaw in such water conservation plans they are environmentally unsustainable.
If residents seriously cut back on irrigation of their yards, there will be a profound negative effect on groundwater replenishment. Simply put, not enough water will seep down from landscaping, and well-intentioned efforts to "conserve" will splash back.
The drought affecting the Colorado River may be measured in terms of decades. Should droughts on other sources of imported water, such as the Sacramento Delta, be concurrent, the cutback in water supplies could exceed the 30 percent most cities are currently considering as a worst-case scenario. Lifestyle amenities such as home swimming pools and lush green landscaping would have to change nearly overnight. Cheap local underground water would likely have to be replaced eventually with imported water at five to 10 times the price and would only worsen California's drought.
Lack of review
We are troubled about the lack of environmental review of the impacts of the proposed conservation programs on the amount of water going into underground water basins. Many cities depend on underground water for 10 percent to 90 percent of their local water. A large portion of the allowed pumping from most groundwater basins comes mainly from the return to the water basin of water used for landscaping.
All of the cities of which we are aware have made a decision that their water conservation plans are exempt from filing an environmental impact report. It's unclear whether such cities have found a legitimate loophole in the state's environmental law, the California Environmental Quality Act. But if California's cities want to be considered "green cities," it would be hypocritical to ignore such a serious environmental impact.
It is indeed curious why no environmental organization has filed a lawsuit under CEQA to compel cities to undertake full environmental studies of the impacts of water conservation plans, increased water rates, and water policing on groundwater basins.
Overpumping groundwater now and acquiring a replacement water source later may represent a rational choice to exploit local water resources in the short term. But no city is disclosing that this may be the de facto decision that is being made at this time by moving to mandated water conservation.
Many times things are done in an "emergency" that may be beneficial in the short run but have long-term deleterious effects. Mandated water cutbacks are not an emergency that justifies possible irreversible overdraft of precious underground water basins.
Many cities plan to divert revenues from their proposed increased base water rate into their general fund without a vote of the electorate. We say rate increases should all go to building new groundwater recharge basins and cisterns to offset the loss of conserved water no longer recycled back into underground water basins.
Wayne Lusvardi, who blogs at Pasadena Sub Rosa, and David O. Powell, a retired water engineer, are members of Citizens for Responsible Government in Pasadena.
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