The news that 100 percent of our state is in drought has created another flurry of stories that unfortunately focus on the old California water bugaboos: it's all about north vs. south, and it's all about farmers vs. fish. But these old battle lines are a divisive construct.
Water players go to their respective corners, yelling at each other across the ring, and leaving the rest of us worried and frustrated -- can't someone get something done for once?
For a state as blessed as California with innovation, technology and riches of all kinds, there are climate-smart solutions to address our shared water challenges.
These solutions fall roughly into two categories: the ones we can do now, and the ones that require us to answer tough questions, demand political action and to make far-sighted investments.
Let's start by building on the actions we can take now. We all know about conservation and water recycling. Our Southern California neighbors have reasons to be smug in this regard. Because of their well-established conservation and recycling programs, the southland's urban population per-capita use is less than Northern California's.
Along with expanded conservation and recycling, there are other innovative solutions. San Diego, for example, has a pilot project to treat used water -- yes, even the water that goes through your toilet -- to water we can drink.
To bring this new technology on line, San Diego has to jump through many regulatory hoops. The governor could direct the state agencies to fast track that process so that other cities could adopt the same technology.
State Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is urging adoption of a July 1 deadline for state agencies to approve water recycling and stormwater reuse projects. The governor could make sure that deadline becomes a reality.
It is very likely that we will see droughts like this year's for many decades to come. That's where the tough questions come in. Just three examples:
Do we want to grow "water hog" crops? Do we continue to grow cotton in California, one of the thirstiest of all crops and one of the most heavily federally subsidized (nationally to the tune of $3 billion annually)? Do we continue to grow alfalfa, the largest single user of agricultural water in California, some of which is now being shipped for sale to Asia? To convert these "water hog" crops to ones that use less water and have a higher market value, farmers should receive assistance, and the people who work in the fields should get job training.
What are the low-tech water saving investments we can make now? Many California water agencies are already doing a good job of providing incentives for low-cost showerheads and toilets. In urban areas, "greywater" can also be a great savings.
That means bringing shower and washing machine water to your toilet or to outdoor landscaping. Municipalities like San Antonio, Texas, are already doing this, but in California, state-level incentives are needed to take these programs to scale. And, like solar panels on your roof, these low-tech tools have the added benefit of supporting local economies and local jobs.
Where do we want to invest to help ensure long-term water security? Investing billions in concrete infrastructure such as the proposed "twin tunnels," or new reservoirs, will take a least a decade or more to complete, and will not create a single new drop of water. National forests are the water source for 65 percent of California's population. We could invest millions, instead of billions, of dollars, to restore and "fire-proof" our national forests, thus protecting our natural reservoirs and supporting rural economies.
We'll make it through this year's drought. The governor, state agencies, many farmers, you and most of your neighbors, are all doing what they can. It looks like the poor rural communities that are running out of water are getting help, and with any luck some of the endangered fish populations will somehow make it through. That still leaves us all with some tough choices for our future.
Making those choices requires political will and a long-term vision -- which, in turn, requires engaged Californians. So let's get engaged. Let's tell our elected officials that we have great faith in our state, that we know that California, as it has done so many times before, can make smart choices and be a model for the rest of the West.
Kimery Wiltshire is executive director of Carpe Diem West, a network of western water leaders and scientists who are finding solutions to the challenge climate change is bringing to our water and rivers.