80/20 or 50/40/10

Who’s using up California’s water?

Some conservatives say it’s the tree huggers wasting it to save obscure species such as the Delta smelt, or maybe it’s all those illegals using all that water.  And some liberals blame bottled water companies or the lawns and pools of Beverly Hills.

Of all the water used in California, approximately 80 percent is used by farmers.  This has put farm spokesmen on the defensive, and they’ve cleverly come up with a new slogan—50/40/10—as their explanation.  According to this interpretation, 50 percent of the state’s water goes to the environment, 40 percent to agriculture, and 10 percent to urban users.

The catch here is the 50.  The phrase “the environment” seems to suggest that water is being set aside for some who-cares species.  However, that is false.  The 50 actually refers to all water that is available—if, for instance, we drained every drop of water from every river, stream, and lake in the state.  All told, say the farm PR folks, we farmers use only 40 cent of this total.

Of course the problem with doing that is that if you drain a lake, for instance, that lake doesn’t exist any more and it won’t provide any future water to anyone.   If you remove all the water from a tributary, it cannot flow into the lakes and rivers that we are currently damming.  You could say that all the water in the ocean is also available, as well as every drop that’s frozen in a glacier.  Oh, and trees contain water, and so do human bodies.  Are we going to count all that as “available” water?

Whether you subscribe to the 80/20 or 50/40/10 or even some other kind of math, the bottom line is we do not have enough water in California (or the world for that matter) to give everyone what they want.  California is no stranger to drought, and shame on us for not investing in a strong water resource plan.  We can learn from the errors of our ways.  But pointing fingers won’t solve our problems.

What can we do?  For starters, we need to know just how much water we use.  That means that all of us, whether benefiting from an abundant water source or stuck at the end of the water spigot near Mexico, need to know how much water we have, where it comes from, how we pollute it and how we value it.

Next, we’ll need to revisit those hundred-year-old water rights pacts.  Who should own the water—the farmer with senior water rights, or the small town downstream that relies on it?  Should we just shut down the town?  Before you answer, think about if it was your town.

For now, we all need to use a lot less water and support the new multi-pronged approach which includes conservation, desalination, recycling, greywater, rainwater capture, and Delta tunnels. And we should think about a no-growth, or slow-growth policy, as well.

Take some time and think about water, and then take some action. But don’t think too long.

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