A number of experts have come forward lately to prepare us for water shortages. We're in a long-term drought, they say, and "We can't afford our wasteful ways any longer" when it comes to water.

However, our present water situation is not a drought caused by household waste or even population growth. Thanks to conservation and agricultural efficiencies, we use roughly the same amount of water that we did 10 years ago.

Drought is a misnomer. Drought is the natural condition of Southern California. Enough water flows to the sea in a typical rainy winter week in Southern California to supply the population for a year. So what we experience as drought is the lack of water capture and storage. What we conventionally call a drought in California is the unpredictable skipping of a peak rainfall year, which provides enough water to fill reservoirs to last for a few years.

The crisis water policy paradigm that so many seem to embrace is that water waste at the homeowner level (e.g., swimming pools, azalea gardens, lawns, etc.) is the cause of our impending water shortage. Now they want Californians to cut dependence on imported water usage cold turkey and almost overnight or they will jack up water rates.

They fail to mention that farmers north of the Sacramento Delta have surplus water they want to sell to thirsty Southern California this year but cannot do so due to an environmental lawsuit over the decline of the delta smelt fish population, resulting in a court-ordered 85 percent reduction of imported water shipments.

The crisis approach to water policy busts California's historical water social contract. Instead of depending solely on local groundwater supplies, Californians historically agreed to pay for huge water and hydroelectric infrastructure projects in return for being able to create gardens and homes in semi-arid coastal areas.

Water social contract

These large water infrastructure projects were built during the Great Depression and the recession of the 1970s as the stimulus projects of their eras. What got taxpayers to buy into paying for such public works and jobs projects was the reciprocating benefits to their home values. This formed California's water social contract.

What large regional water projects did was shift water resources from one ecology to create another ecology elsewhere. So the delta smelt may have nearly disappeared in the Sacramento Delta (possibly due to environmental water quality improvements), while recreational fishing reservoirs, Koi ponds and fish aquariums thrive in Southern California. Thus, the calculus of environmental impacts and mitigations is a social fiction. Given the current court-ordered shutoff of 85 percent of Northern California water, which environmental impact should be mitigated? The small upstream impact to the delta smelt? Or the larger downstream impact to recreational fishing lakes, Koi ponds, gardens and aquariums?

Californians have paid megabillions of dollars for water projects and related environmental mitigations for what is essentially a shift of ecologies. Now to dissolve the social contract to all those water ratepayers who have paid for our gigantic water infrastructure system and all the accompanying environmental mitigations would be tantamount to judicial double capture, or a taking, by environmentalists.

By continuing to propagate the social fictions that our drought is a crisis caused by wasteful homeowners or farmers or by permanent climate change diverts attention away from the busting of the water social contract. But as the White House chief of staff recently said with respect to our national financial meltdown, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."

Wayne Lusvardi writes about water policy and formerly worked for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. He lives in Pasadena.

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