‘The real problem is our shortsightedness’ — Schwarzenegger

By Anne C. Mulkern | 04/28/2015 01:09 PM EDT

California must push for broad-based reforms on water and not treat the state’s drought as a short-term crisis, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said yesterday.

California must push for broad-based reforms on water and not treat the state’s drought as a short-term crisis, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said yesterday.

Speaking at a forum put on by the USC Schwarzenegger Institute, the Republican said, "California is known as the place where things are happening." In the state’s private sector — with entertainment, high technology and green tech — he said, "It’s huge. There’s nothing little.

"In the public sector, it’s quite the opposite," Schwarzenegger said. "People do not have big vision. They are scared of going all the way. They are worried about, they may lose when they take something to the ballot, an initiative. They’ll get a beating, and what does it mean to their poll numbers.


"We must remember that the real problem is our shortsightedness," he added. "We should not just find another Band-Aid to get through this drought. We should find a cure so this never happens again."

Schwarzenegger headlined the forum that focused on the state’s water situation as it enters its fourth parched year. The three-hour conclave discussed potential short- and long-term fixes.

Lester Snow, executive director of the nonprofit California Water Foundation, said it was important to not let the drought crisis "go to waste" and instead use it to form a diverse coalition to demand longer-term changes. Some form of water scarcity likely will repeat in the future, he said.

"There is no path to going to normal," Snow said. "We’ve got to put aside that the system can be tweaked. We’re talking about wholesale changes to the way that we manage water."

The California Water Resources Board is expected to release revisions today to proposed water conservation rules for urban areas, developed after Gov. Jerry Brown (D) mandated cutting their water use 25 percent. The agency last week released a proposed framework with nine tiers of water reductions that range from 8 to 36 percent. Those levels consider that some places already have conserved more than others, the board said. The draft was open to comments, with an amended version scheduled to come out today.

Some in cities have questioned why those cutbacks targeted only urban areas and not agricultural users. State officials say farms already have been hit by reduced water deliveries from both state and U.S. sources.

At the USC Schwarzenegger Institute forum, Water Resources Board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus was among those saying it was wrong to target agriculture as the villain. Asked about the importance of the sector, she said that "it’s essential."

"People think their food comes from the supermarket, when it fact it grows," she said. Many don’t factor in the amount of water it takes to produce foods, Marcus said.

"The water content of the food we eat is a lot more than lawns and our showers and our toilet flushing," Marcus said. "It’s massive. And where does that come from?

"Everything we eat … it takes water," she added. "It pains me that people don’t realize that and see it as an artificial distinction."

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a report on how the drought is affecting the Golden State’s agricultural sector. As of March 31, more than 97 percent of California’s $43 billion farming industry was experiencing severe, extreme or exceptional drought, with the livestock sector more directly exposed to exceptional drought than the crop sector, the U.S. Drought Monitor said.

Almonds, grapes, walnuts, alfalfa, tomatoes, rice, corn and cotton are among those suffering, USDA said.

Paying water’s true price?

State voters last year passed a $7.5 billion bond measure to fund water projects, a smaller version of a package Schwarzenegger worked on for the 2010 ballot. That one was pulled before that election because polls showed it would not have passed, given concerns about the economy at the time.

Californians approved it in 2014 because of the drought, Schwarzenegger said.

"Is it enough? I can guarantee you that it is only the beginning," he said. "We need much, much more. We need to build dams. We need to go and talk about desalination. We need to really seriously talk about water and storage and keeping the water."

While there is an average of 14 inches of precipitation a year, some years it rains 38 inches and others it rains 3 inches, he said. In Southern California, much of the water from those heavy downfalls is funneled to storm drains.

"Why are we letting all this water go out in the ocean? Why not capture that water or some of that water?" Schwarzenegger said. "Why are we only talking about those things when there’s a crisis, when there’s a drought?"

That was among the suggested infrastructure changes. Daniel Curtin, director of the California Conference of Carpenters and a California Water Commission board member, said no new homes should be built without two sets of pipes, with one carrying "gray" water, or the fluid from showers and other drains that could then be used for irrigation.

Several on the panels said that water is underpriced. Curtin noted that most people think little about buying a pint of water for $1 or more.

Agricultural users buy water by the acre-foot, and it’s sold for as much as $700 an acre-foot recently, Curtin said. But the bottled pint of water at the $1 retail price — multiplied out to equal the number of pints in an acre-foot — would equal a price of more than $2.6 million per acre-foot.

"There’s something wrong when people will buy this without a second thought," he said, holding the bottle, "and yet they are worried about their lawns."

Yet people are saying that desalinating water is too expensive because it’s $3,000 an acre-foot, Curtin said.

Charging more for tap water might be difficult, however.

A California appeals court earlier this month ruled that tiered water rates are unconstitutional. The 4th District Court of Appeal ruling against the city of San Juan Capistrano is only binding in Orange County but could have potential impacts on a pricing structure used across the state to encourage water conservation. Brown described it as putting a "straitjacket" on statewide efforts to combat drought (Greenwire, April 21).

Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, said yesterday that the judge’s ruling in that case didn’t ban all tiered rates but said that they must be connected to costs.

Two out of three agencies that are part of the association use some form of block tiers, Quinn said. Some want to use the highest tier to tell people to use less water, but that approach could be in trouble with the court ruling.

Juliet Christian-Smith, climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said there might need to be a "public goods" charge added to water bills to fund water projects. She conceded, however, that it was a "third rail" of politics and "something utilities have not been supportive of."

Water rights a ‘third rail’

Panelists were asked whether there’s now an opening to change the state’s convoluted water rights law, which prioritizes those who were first in line with privileges preceding 1914, when the current allocation structure was created. During the drought, that system has often meant that only the most senior rights holders have been able to get state waters, forcing others to buy supplies.

Dan Sumner, University of California Agricultural Issues Center director, said that there were people who bought land in California in 1850 or 1880 and received water rights. For their heirs "to say you don’t have that anymore, you have some problems."

There is the need to make some revisions, however. In some cases, he said, "people don’t know what they own or who owns what." And there are restrictions that tell someone they can’t send their water down to someone else growing strawberries nearby because they will lose it if they don’t use it on their own field.

"Those are the kind of arcane things we have to move as rapidly as we can to remove," Sumner said.

Snow with the California Water Foundation said he believed "we have the most complicated water rights system in the Western United States in California. … We have to fix that."

But Susan Kennedy, president at Advanced Microgrid Solutions — which installs energy storage — and former chief of staff to Schwarzenegger, said time would be better spent working on a framework for water conservation "that survives this political crisis."

It could be similar to the way the state’s climate law, A.B. 32, set the parameters for energy, she said.

"It will be a very cold day in hell when we actually address the price of water on a wholesale issue, or the water rights issue," Kennedy said. "If we address the infrastructure and the distribution system and the conservation issues, those are a lot more achievable in the near term than changing the water rights in California."