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Is growth over?

California's continuing water crisis may mean the end of the state as we have known it.

July 20, 2008|Cary Lowe | Cary Lowe is a land-use lawyer and urban planning consultant.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's recent executive order certifying that California is in a drought and directing state agencies to start thinking about what to do about it is only the latest sign that a way of life built on cheap and readily available water is coming to a close. For much of the state, June was the driest month on record, according to the National Climatic Data Center. The continuing water crisis raises the question of whether we are approaching the limits of growth in California.

For the last century, it seemed there was no limit. More than any other state, California's economy and population exploded, a growth spurt fueled in large part by abundant water supplies. Now we may be at a turning point, especially in Southern California.

The most obvious indicators certainly point in that direction. Snowmelt in the Sierras, which historically has filled the state's major reservoirs and aqueducts, has been shrinking steadily. California's rights to Colorado River water have been gradually scaled back by regional agreements and mounting claims by other states. Court orders in response to environmental lawsuits aimed at protecting endangered fish species have slashed water deliveries from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta. And reduced rainfall throughout the region has made it increasingly difficult to replenish groundwater basins.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, July 27, 2008 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 3 Editorial pages Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Water: A July 20 Opinion article on how the shortage of water may imperil California's future growth asserted that the Metropolitan Water District annually imports 2.1 million gallons of water to Southern California. It should have been 2.1 million acre feet a year.

Initially, the public agencies responsible for ensuring water supplies were cautious in their response to the signs of a growing water crisis, perhaps fearing a political backlash from Californians who expect to be able to open a tap and let it flow, without limits, any time, anywhere, for any purpose. Adding a reservoir, drilling a few more wells or cutting deals with farmers to transfer some of their water to nearby cities helped soften, if not avoid, the effects of the state's growing water shortage. Now, however, the situation is becoming sufficiently dire that the water agencies are beginning to give the public a taste of what lies ahead.

Earlier this year, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the largest water agency in the region and the principal supplier to the cities of Los Angeles, San Diego and numerous others in between, announced a 30% reduction in deliveries to agricultural customers, which means that farmers will have less water for their crops and to give to cities. And things could get worse. The agency also adopted a contingency plan that could result in similar cutbacks to urban consumers and rate hikes of up to 20%. Local water agencies, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, followed suit, beginning with voluntary conservation programs but warning of mandatory ones to come.

Such steps alone will probably not make enough of a difference to avert a water-supply crisis. There is a finite amount of water available in Southern California, and it has not increased since 1990. The MWD annually imports 2.1 million gallons of water to the region. Without a plan of action by state and local governments, coupled with across-the-board changes in how we consume, major sectors of the state's economy such as agriculture and real estate development will soon face previously unimagined restrictions.

Meanwhile, environmental groups such as the California Water Impact Network are contending that many of our water-use practices violate the state's constitutional mandate that water be put to beneficial use to the maximum possible extent and that waste or unreasonable use be prevented. They particularly object to pumping water from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta to irrigate thirsty crops like cotton and alfalfa, as well as lawns. These environmentalists plan to petition the state Department of Water Resources to permanently reduce Delta pumping. If state officials or the courts agree, it would affect virtually every aspect of water use.

Real estate development already is feeling the pinch. State laws that took effect six years ago require water agencies to document sufficient long-term water supplies to support large developments. If they can't, they must block the developments, and these agencies are increasingly doing just that. The Eastern Municipal Water District, the largest water agency in Riverside County, recently delayed approval of a huge industrial development because it couldn't guarantee water supplies to the facility. The agency also indicated that it may withhold certifications of water availability for other projects if conditions do not improve.

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