The Monitor's View

California's big scare over water 'scarcity'

California plans to impose $500 fines – daily – for anyone violating water bans, such as overwatering lawns. Such threats run against new thinking about water as abundantly renewable.

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    The fountain at the Capitol Park Rose Garden in Sacramento, Calif., sits empty of water.
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California, the source of nearly half of US-grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables, has joined many other drought-hit areas with its first water-emergency measure. On Tuesday, state regulators approved daily fines of as much as $500 for anyone who violates local bans on such activities as washing cars and watering lawns.

This new enforced ethic of conservation may serve a temporary goal of avoiding water “blackouts” in many cities. But it sends a message that water is a scarce resource – when it isn’t.

Like many places, California has not done enough with the water it already has. More of its used water – “gray water” – must be recycled. Storm runoff is not well collected for nondrinking uses. More underground storage is needed to reduce evaporation. Aquifers can be replenished. Water prices must rise to encourage efficient uses and provide investments in new sources.

Even the condensate of air conditioners can be reused.

Such steps would be made easier if communities saw water as abundantly reusable rather than in limited supply. This requires an attitude shift, not alarmist rhetoric or punitive fines. Yes, new ways of dealing with water may be politically difficult or expensive. But the same amount of water exists on the planet today as billions of years ago. And humans have a long history of adjusting their uses to the available water, from the Roman aqueducts to the vast canals of Angkor Wat.

The idea of water as renewable rather than scarce was made clear in one of the many recent books about water, “The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water,” by journalist Charles Fishman, who traveled the world to master this topic. 

He writes:

“It’s easy to be optimistic about water because almost all water problems are solvable. When you meet the people, town by town and country by country, who are tackling water problems, you cannot help but be impressed by their energy, their creativity, their curiosity, their determination. The water community has a real sense that water has been overlooked for so long that just grabbing hold of the problems in an honest way, and explaining them to the public, is a big start on solving them.”

Many places are far ahead in reimagining their uses and sources of water. Las Vegas, one of America’s driest cities, has dropped its water usage by about a third and recycles much of its water. Australia has dealt with severe drought through widespread conservation measures.

But not enough is being done in places where water is “scarce.” A 2012 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council found only six of 36 states facing water supply challenges have comprehensive plans to adapt.

Being water conscious first entails seeing water as resilient, a resource to be borrowed, returned, and borrowed again. “If we’re going to be ready for a new era of water, we need to reclaim water from our superficial sense of it,” Fishman states.

He points out that there has not been a war fought over water for centuries. Humans have learned to work out their differences over water by better management and creative solutions.

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