California drought: Why state's big cities aren't in crisis mode

As cattle languish on dried-out grazing lands, kids splash in fountains in Los Angeles and San Diego. The difference? One issue is water storage. Many cities invested heavily in infrastructure after the last drought.

Robert Galbraith/Reuters/File
A sign is seen at an intersection near Cantua Creek, Calif., in this Feb. 14, 2014, photo.The worsening drought in California will, for the first time, force a complete cutoff of federally supplied irrigation water to most farm districts in the state's Central Valley this year, the US Bureau of Reclamation said Friday.

Conventional water wisdom in California boils down to this: Eighty percent of the water is allocated to farmers, 20 percent to cities. But 36 months into the state’s worst-ever drought – 12 months of the driest on record, following 24 below normal – cattle are going without food on mud-cracked rangelands yet fountains flow freely in Los Angeles water parks.

Ten rural communities have fewer than 60 days' supply of water, water deliveries to 750,000 acres of farmland and 25 million people have been halted, and homeowners are drilling thousands of wells to pump water from aquifers that are historically depleted. Forest fires are reported almost daily.

But here in L.A., tourists pose by splashing fountains – from Universal Studios, where buses empty foreigners in front of the just-outside-the-gate pool to downtown's recently christened Great Park, where kids can wade in up to their ankles. Sprinklers feed emerald lawns from Beverly Hills to Watts, and people freely wash their cars in driveways.

Why do the cities look better than the farms? In brief, they're living off stored water, while farmers live off current allocations, which have all but disappeared.

A major drought from 1987 to '92 frightened metropolitan officials into designing all kinds of water purchasing, storing, and delivery options that have set up their cities for the long run, says Ed Osan, senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). That included making use of new ways to catch and retain storm water and recycle waste water (which means removing particulates for all uses but drinking).

In addition, cities such as Los Angeles and San Diego benefit from water-sharing agreements with water districts in the Imperial Valley, which all share Colorado River water. In 2003, California signed onto a new water-sharing agreement that included "the largest transfer of water from agricultural use to urban use in US history," according to the Association of California Water Agencies.

“California cities really got their act together and began coming up with formal drought plans two decades ago,” says Timothy Quinn, ACWA executive director. “Now, they’re reaping the benefits of that planning.”

Finally, voluntary conservation programs have raised consciousness and altered behavior to the point that per capita water use is lower now than in the 1970s.

“California cities are now coping with the results of policies put into place 10 to 15 years ago,” says NRDC's Mr. Osan. Coastal cities are better off than inland ones, with those in Sonoma, Mendocino, and Fresno counties very close to doing water rationing, while San Francisco and Oakland, which learned from lessons past and developed storage facilities, are in much better shape, he adds.

But on Friday, federal officials announced that the state’s largest water delivery system, Central Valley Project (CVP), will provide no water at all to farmers in the Central Valley, which produces half the nation’s fruits, nuts, and vegetables. As a result, farmers will leave 500,000 acres of land unplanted this year, according to the California Farm Water Coalition.

At the same time, the CVP will provide only 50 percent of contracted amounts to urban areas, which are better prepared to bear the cuts.

San Francisco invested in the Los Vaqueros Reservoir in 1998 as a way of improving access to drinking water for some 660,000 residents. The city expanded the size of the reservoir from 100,000 acre-foot of water to 160,000 acre-foot of water, enough to meet the needs of 160,000 families for a year.

Los Angeles now has Diamond Valley Lake, which is currently holding enough water to get Los Angeles through two more years without much trouble. Diverted months ago from the Colorado River near the California-Arizona border or several hundred miles north from the Bay-Delta, the water is held in check by the Metropolitan Water District’s Diamond Valley Reservoir.

“While California’s political leaders argue in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., over whether the state should build new dams and reservoirs to store water in wet years for use in dry years, MWD’s reservoir is all that stands between full water supplies this year and mandatory water rationing for nearly 15 million people in the greater Los Angeles area,” says Rich Golb, former president of the Northern California Water Association, now a Vancouver-based water-policy consultant.

“It’s an example of how contemporary storage is saving L.A., while everyone else argues over whether we need more of it," he adds.

One city that is not doing well is Sacramento, the capital, which depends for its supply largely on two river systems from the north. The mountains that feed those systems are 15 to 20 percent below normal snowpacks this year, and half of Sacramento’s 500,000 residents have no meters on their water use. Instead, users pay a flat rate – and the result is higher per capita usage.

“There’s a new law passed that requires all residents to have meters by 2024, but it’s expensive and that’s a long way off,” says Ellen Hanak, senior fellow in natural resource management for the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) in San Francisco.

Still, urban users can much more easily cut back 20 percent than an agricultural user, she adds.

Noting that California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) declared a state of emergency weeks ago and called for 20 percent voluntary cutbacks, she says: “A city dweller can meet that by not watering the lawn or washing their car as much, but a farmer has to fallow fields, dismiss workers, forgo income, and struggle with maintaining stable contracts over time.”

Moreover, the idea that Los Angeles could help farmers in the San Joaquin Valley now is incorrect, says Ms. Hanak. “If water is already coming from the north, agreements can be made to divert it to farmers, but there is currently no way to get the water already in L.A. back to where those farmers can use it,” she says.

In an extended drought like this one, perceptions of how others use water becomes more important, experts say, because one underlying issue concerns belt-tightening and self-control, and can affect dialogue over what will be done. Statehouse legislators, Congress, and President Obama all have proposals on the table, as local officials scramble to cope with the competing claims of angry residents, distraught farmers, and environmentalists.

“California hasn’t come very far at all from the shenanigans chronicled in the movie ‘Chinatown,' " says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior fellow at the School of Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles. That movie chronicled what is considered the biggest water grab in the history of the American West – the backroom deals that gave rise to America's second-largest city and turned a mountain-ringed valley into a desert.

“The water wars here have been going on for decades and pit urban versus rural, north versus south, and farmers versus environmentalists," she says. "It’s got everything, and both parties are trying to be the ones to solve it.”

The state did get some good news this week. A storm is expected to hit the San Francisco Bay Area on Wednesday afternoon, bringing as many as four days of steady rain, according to the National Weather Service in Monterey. Rainfall should vary from 2 to 5 inches across much of the Bay Area and the rest of the state, they said, with two to three feet of new snow in the Sierra Nevada.

It won't be enough to reverse the ravages of the worst drought since California became a state in 1850, experts say, but it helps.

Meanwhile, a new poll signals that the drought is the top concern of California voters, and that an overwhelming majority favors strategies to stretch local water supplies, including recycling, rainwater harvesting, and efficiency measures. The poll was conducted by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates (FM3) on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

“Californians are united in their desire for concrete long-term solutions to our water needs,” said Ann Notthoff, NRDC California advocacy director. “It’s time to embrace and implement water-smart strategies that ensure we make the most of every drop.”

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