Water, Water Everywhere … or Nowhere

Pam Linn

Five years ago, my column “Is water the new oil?” appeared in these pages, explaining a few things about how different states deal with water rights. And that was before California’s current four-year drought.

My memories of persistent dry spells in Southern California precede that by decades. As early as the 1970s, wells were producing water that was essentially rocks, followed by El Niño years of uncontrolled flooding. It was hard to know what to plan for.

I remember a gas company billboard showing an open-mouthed guy taking a shower; below were the words, “Sing shorter songs.” Terrific! Whether that ad was about conserving gas or water, the results were impressive.

But California is a big state and its north and south are subject to very different climates. SoCal is basically a desert, while rainfall totals north of the Central Valley resemble those of Oregon and Washington.

This time, with record high temperatures and record low rainfall, we need all the help we can get from both citizens and government. Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators have proposed laws mandating water conservation and spending money left over from a 2006 voter-approved bond measure. Also, a $7.5 billion bond approved in November would be used to accelerate building of flood control projects.

Lawmakers explained that sudden floods occur even in dry years and such projects would also protect drinking water for the heavily populated southland. It’s ironic that decades ago, former California Gov. Pat Brown, the current governor’s father, left as his legacy the state water project, which shifted water from the well-soaked north to the parched south and central valleys.

Unlike Florida, where legislators have been advised by their governor not to utter the words “climate change” or “global warming,” California lawmakers openly blame the intensity of the drought and intermittent flooding on a climate that is changing more quickly and more drastically than some are willing to admit.

Last week, broiling heat broke records that have stood for more than 60 years all across the southland with temperatures 20 degrees above normal, sparking fires on the hillsides.

Combined with the brutally cold winters suffered on the East Coast, one would think climate change might be involved. Boston broke all-time snowfall records with over nine feet and the Dallas/Fort Worth area of Texas has suffered traffic jams from rarely seen black ice.

In the 1970s, I moved to a house near Calabasas that essentially had been vacant for the better part of a year. It was located on one landscaped acre with way too much lawn. Our city water supplier thought to promote water conservation to combat drought with a surcharge based on previous usage.

I spent many hours at the water company office arguing that the house had been unused and that I had 10 horses drinking on average 15-plus gallons of water per day each. Never mind the lawns, which I deeply watered once a week, in the evening, with soakers, not sprinklers. Ultimately, I won that fight.

Where I now live in Bozeman, Mont., our state legislators are trying to pass a law (SB 262) protecting a water agreement called the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribal (CSKT) Compact. In the compact, the tribes reached an agreement with the State and Federal governments to accept less water than they believe is their right. If the bill doesn’t pass, the CSKT water rights may be litigated in court, and, if that happens, Montana water rights may remain unresolved for decades. Our state legislature meets for only a few months every two years, but is often bitterly divided along party lines. We can only hope they follow California’s lead and come to agreement on this bill.

Meanwhile, I’m taking every opportunity to advise my friends and relatives to learn how to conserve water. Montana is a state where clean, fast-flowing rivers are treasured and fed by annual snow pack. Although this has been an unusually mild winter, snow has persisted in the surrounding mountains where ski areas plan to remain open until Easter.

Regardless of wild fluctuations in weather around the country, we should acknowledge that all the water on this planet is already here and must be conserved and protected. If that means restaurant water must be requested and lawn sprinklers eschewed, then so be it.