By Joel Pollak
“Republic of Thirst” is a three-part series made possible by a generous fellowship from the Robert Novak Foundation. Part 1 of this series explored current debates about the allocation of California’s scarce water resources. Part 2 explored whether the water supply could be expanded by building new reservoirs. Part 3 explores whether California might alleviate its chronic water shortages — which could become even worse in the future — by “creating” new water resources, using desalination and recycling. (Further acknowledgments appear below.)
The cold, wet, snowy winter of 2018-2019 turned out to be an inauspicious time to write about California’s chronic water shortages.
Relentless storms across the state in January 2019 brought the Sierra Nevada snowpack to 119 percent of the April 1 average, and the rain and snow only continued: some areas reported their snowiest February ever.
Still, scarcity is never more than one dry winter away in California, even if it is out of the public mind for the moment.
While the winter rains drenched Northern California, and snows fell heavily on ski resorts in the Sierra Nevada, water authorities, both urban and rural, sued the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) over its Bay-Delta plan (described in Part 1 of this series).
The SWRCB’s order under the plan would force users of water from the San Joaquin River valley to reduce their consumption so that the river and its tributaries could achieve 40% of “unimpeded flow” during the spring months, ostensibly to save fish populations.
Rather than adopt a voluntary approach, favored by local water authorities as well as incoming Governor Gavin Newsom, SWRCB chair Felicia Marcus — a former attorney for the National Resources Defense Council, a leading environmentalist group — imposed the plan, along with a majority of the board. (Newsom replaced her last month with “moderate” Joaquin Estevel, who also voted with Marcus and the majority.)
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