VENTURA — In the "good old days" of California growth, water was always an issue but never really a problem. If water seemed like a constraint on urban growth, there was always another river to dam, another reservoir to build -- or another legal loophole to exploit.
All that's over now. A few more reservoirs may be built. But no more rivers will be dammed. And the legal loopholes are pushing water out of California nowadays rather than pulling it in.
Most recently, the federal government has finally gotten serious about pulling the plug on more than 600,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water that California typically uses but does not have the legal rights to.
Is this a crisis? Not exactly. It's just another few steps in the gradual evolution of water as one of the pillars of growth and prosperity in California. In the end, we'll have less water. But we'll use it differently -- more efficiently, at least in economic terms -- and the way we use it will help shape California's future landscape.
The state has a great deal of "developed" water, water captured by man-made systems and made available for humans. The questions are about allocation and use. Where? At what price?
These questions were brought into sharper focus by the Imperial Irrigation District's recent decision not to transfer water to San Diego. The proposed transfer amounted to only 6% of the district's allotment of Colorado River water but would have supplied up to 400,000 urban households by 2021. As the proposed deal suggests, the vast majority of developed water in the state is consumed by agriculture. Almost certainly, the state's economic forces -- and its regulatory apparatus -- will push more water out of the agricultural sector in order to fuel California's continuing urban prosperity. (The state continues to add about half a million residents a year, as it has been doing since 1940.)
In part, this is because the big urban water districts, especially in Southern California, are scouring the agricultural fields for water. Even as the Imperial-San Diego deal was falling apart, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California was making arrangements to buy water on a year-to-year basis from farmers in the Central Valley. The MWD's deals in such longtime holdout areas as Butte and Glenn counties suggest that farmers are not as resistant as they used to be to selling the precious liquid to big, bad L.A. Why? Farmers sometimes can make more money simply by selling their water rights than they can by growing crops.
Recent regulatory changes in urban planning will probably accelerate this shift. Two laws enacted in 2001 move in this direction. One, SB 610, requires water suppliers to prepare "supply assessments" as part of their urban water-management plans. The other, SB 221, demands that local governments get proof of an assured water supply from a developer seeking to build any project with at least 500 housing units.
These laws piggyback on an existing statute that requires an assessment of water supply in the environmental review process, a requirement that has already delayed the gigantic Newhall Ranch subdivision. These laws are likely to hasten the transfer of water from the farms to the cities.
This trend is sometimes threatening to the agricultural sector. Although farmers can come out ahead financially, farm towns dependent on agriculture may suffer. But a century and a half of growth in California has consistently proved that the juggernaut of urbanization is so powerful that it is almost impossible to buck the economic forces unleashed in the process. What this means is simple: Instead of pitting cities against farmers, we must find a way to ensure that agriculture in California is sustainable with less water.
At some point we have to ask why we are growing fruits and vegetables in the desert, and why we are growing water-intensive crops such as rice, cotton and alfalfa in the Central Valley. Choosing where we irrigate, planting crops that can survive on less water and improving our irrigation methods could free untold amounts of water for urban growth -- and still keep the agricultural industry healthy.
Many of these questions are already being asked in other forums, including CalFed, the state-federal process designed to reorganize water use in the San Joaquin and Sacramento River valleys to improve the ecological health of the Bay-Delta system. (The Bush administration has recently pulled back on its commitment to CalFed.) But in the absence of vast new water resources, the flow of water from farms to cities is inevitable. Better to plan for it -- in a way that can sustain both farming and farm towns -- than try to buck it.