Viewpoint: A silver lining on the California drought

By Jennifer Riley-Chetwynd

As a Coloradan, I might be accused of a bit of schadenfreude when I say I am happy that California is experiencing a well-reported drought. People in our state have been known to bemoan the influx of Californians—every year it seems there are more Golden State license plates on our streets as more Angelenos and San Franciscans alike flock to our relatively cost-effective and crowd-free lifestyle. In the interest of full disclosure: While I’m a Denver native, my mobile phone still has a 310 area code, a legacy of having spent many years in Los Angeles.

It does not make me happy to see pictures of California reservoirs with bathtub rings hundreds of feet above the current water levels. And, as any skier would be, I was sad to see grass and rocks where there should have been snow behind California Gov. Jerry Brown announcing mandatory rationing last week from the slopes of a northern California ski area.

It’s as if Hollywood enlisted its best set designers and special-effects people to create a backdrop for the next post-apocalyptic film: “Mad Max” meets “Waterworld.” Alas, it’s less tent-pole summer movie and more soberingly true documentary. But here’s the silver lining: This documentary may be able to capture the country’s attention like none before.

Sure, Al Gore had our attention for a little while with “An Inconvenient Truth.” But the 2006 documentary’s imminent doom was non-specifically “global” (read: “not my problem”). What’s playing out in California now, however, seems much more real to us in Colorado. We see hints of it in our own state (our snowpack is about 65 percent of “normal”, and southeastern ranchers and farmers are struggling with a prolonged drought). Maybe we feel the knock-on effect of paying more for produce grown in California, or notice our Colorado River connection to California. This time, most of us agree we are witnessing a crisis.

The Hydro-Illogical Cycle, from the National Drought Information Center

There’s nothing like a crisis to get people’s attention. But the challenge is keeping their attention. The National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska coined the term hydro-illogical cycle. We all learned about the hydrological cycle in elementary school, with a diagram showing ice melting into water, evaporating into a cloud, and then reappearing as rain. The hydro-illogical cycle’s diagram shows the evolution (devolution?) of a population from apathy to concern to panic. The concern and even the panic phases result in action: This is when measures are enacted to combat the drought. BUT THEN IT RAINS, and we see the final stage of the cycle: the resurgence of apathy.

It’s not yet time to panic. But it is time—and has been for a while—to be concerned about how we sustainably manage our water resources, not just in California but across the United States. With population growth and climate change, the frequency of droughts and water shortages will only increase. But when it rains in L.A.—and it will—we all must avoid becoming apathetic (again). Managing water resources is not a time-of-crisis need. It is a constant one.

Now that California has our attention, here are issues that we should focus on:

Infrastructure: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that we need to spend at least $650 billion in infrastructure improvements by 2030 to keep our municipal water and wastewater systems safe and reliable. Infrastructure isn’t a laughing matter (unless you hear about it from John Oliver); it is an overlooked one…especially water infrastructure. Our country’s municipal water pipe system is 30 times longer than our highway system, yet it is relatively under-funded (water infrastructure receives 33 percent less funding each year than highway funding, according to the Congressional Budget Office).

Pricing: In the United States, we pay less for water than pretty much any other first-world country pays. Our per-capita use, though, eclipses that of most every country. While water rates are increasing in the U.S., water remains a cheap commodity. Basic principles of supply and demand tell us that we should be paying more.

Behavior change: This time of heightened drought awareness is the ideal time to change behaviors…the way we value water, the way we use water, the way we talk about water. For water utilities, retailers and manufacturers across the country, now is the time to offer rebates on water-efficient products. And for homeowners, now is the time to invest in that low-flush toilet or drip irrigation. The EPA WaterSense program, the less-publicized sister program to Energy Star, has a comprehensive state-by-state listing of rebates. We can also take this opportunity to let our lawmakers know that we care about water and support legislation that funds infrastructure, water-efficient product codes, etc. The Alliance for Water Efficiency, for example, has a legislation tracker.

So Coloradans, don’t remain or become apathetic. Be vigilant in your defense of water, whether in support of Californians or just because it’s the hydro-LOGICAL thing to do.

Find another opinion on ways Colorado can heed California’s water woes in this Denver Post editorial and share your thoughts by commenting below.

IMG_1347Jennifer Riley-Chetwynd teaches “Reporting on Water Policy” at Metro State University in Denver. She is the director of marketing and public relations for Denver Botanic Gardens.

Opinions expressed on this blog and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not reflect the views of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. 

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