The new water reality

The Colorado River, which frames the southeastern border of California, once fed a broad, alluvial floodplain before flowing into the Sea of Cortez, sustaining abundant fisheries and habitat for hundreds of thousands of migrating birds.

These days, notwithstanding the experimental pulse flow now underway, the mighty, 1,500-mile-long river that carved the Grand Canyon is usually reduced to a foamy, polluted trickle that disappears in the desert sand miles from the sea.

The Colorado River, experts now agree, is completely oversubscribed. Water rights held by the river’s basin states exceeded its annual flow in 2010 by almost 1 million acre feet.

The San Joaquin River, second longest stream in the state and once among the West Coast’s top Chinook salmon runs, is now virtually drained, the salmon fishery is gone and 60 miles of it often run dry. The San Joaquin, clearly, is also oversubscribed.

Much closer to home is the Russian River, the source of most of Sonoma Valley’s municipal water and currently constrained by a biological opinion limiting releases from Warm Springs Dam, built on the River’s Dry Creek tributary. Considering that most of the summertime flow in the upper Russian River comes through a controversial and litigated diversion from the Eel River into Potter Valley, without which there would not be much summer flow or adequate impoundment behind Coyote Dam into Lake Mendocino, and given that there are more than 1,500 legal riparian withdrawals and countless illegal ones, few of which are adequately regulated, it can be argued that the Russian River is, itself, oversubscribed.

Indeed, if you were to calculate the flow of all the state’s rivers, and reasonably allocate their waters to agriculture, urban and environmental demands, you would have to conclude that the entire state of California is not going to run out of water, but already has.

There would be plenty of water for people if we did not give so much to, say, cattle and almond trees. There would be plenty of water for almond trees if we did not insist on saving some water for fish and people.

Until the state can calculate a scientifically-based, non-political equation establishing the highest and best uses of a reliable annual water supply, including reduced allowances from the shrinking Sierra snowpack thanks to climate change, we should be assuming we are in a permanent state of drought.

If you accept that argument – and many won’t – then mandatory water rationing is the only logical response, something Sonoma, the Sonoma Valley and the entire county should already be doing.

But to ration wisely and fairly requires a more equitable strategy than simply slapping a flat reduction goal, like 20 percent, on all water customers, penalizing those who are already conserving well.

We’d like to see a mandatory rationing plan based on reductions in per capita use per day down to a baseline target. According to 2008 statistics, Sonoma has the highest per capita daily water use in the county, averaging 262 gallons per person per day. Rohnert Park, by contrast, had per capita consumption of 139. In Los Angeles, 2012 per capita use was 123 gallons.

For extreme contrast, go to Israel, where per capita consumption is about 64 gallons a day, or to Palestinian parts of the West Bank where it is often less than 20 gallons.

Unfortunately, Sonoma water bills aren’t clearly calibrated and don’t explain how many gallons a week or month are consumed, making it that much harder to conserve.

If we really want people to reduce water use as much as possible, they need to have access to accurate consumption statistics that they can monitor frequently. And water distributors, like the City of Sonoma, need to use consumption data to identify patterns of use and misuse and, ideally, to structure rates that don’t penalize, say, large vegetable gardens while they discourage large lawns.

The Sonoma Valley has been good at reaching voluntary conservation goals, but we think it’s time get a bit more serious. There’s a good chance drought is the new water reality.