Every Drop Matters

Southern Californians may be tempted to indulge in a bit of smugness when they read about the water sacrifices that Northern Californians will have to make this year--cutbacks of nearly 50% to some San Francisco Bay area homes--unless there is a dramatic easing of drought conditions. But any thoughts of superiority should be fleeting, because Southern California is just one big bucket away from severe water shortages. That bucket is the Colorado River, from which the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California will draw 1.2 million acre-feet of water this year. One acre-foot is enough to supply the needs of two residential families for a year.

There are two reasons why Colorado River water will provide the buffer between just-adequate supplies and real hardship: There is a surplus in the river’s massive reservoirs because of recent wet years in the Colorado’s watershed and because the state of Arizona is not yet taking its full allocation of Colorado water. That will end in about 1992, when the Central Arizona Project’s Tucson aqueduct is completed. When Tucson taps in, Met’s share of the Colorado drops by more than half, to 550,000 acre-feet.

Even with the Colorado buffer, Southern Californians must get serious about saving water, and soon. Conservation must become a way of life in the region, says Carl Boronkay, the general manager of Metropolitan, the wholesaler of water to districts serving about 14 million people throughout the Southland. “Southern California is facing growing water needs and dwindling supplies,” Boronkay said in announcing a $2-million conservation program.

The 1987-89 drought has helped fuel a new debate over the fact that arid Southern Californiagets much of its supply from Northern California via the State Water Project--specifically, from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta near Sacramento. But the old North-South water argument is taking different twists this year as San Francisco Bay Area residents begin to understand the inadequacies of their own water systems. A recent editorial in the Palo Alto Peninsula Times-Herald said: “The area’s reservoir system is inadequate to supply the present population, much less the people expected to be here five or 10 years from now.” In the San Jose Mercury News, columnist Phil Yost wrote: “It’s time to stop being smug. For the Bay Area, the drought is emphasizing what was always true: Much of the water we use isn’t our water, either.”


In fact, San Francisco and Oakland went into the western Sierra Nevada early this century to get their water supplies just about the time Los Angeles went to the eastern Sierra to get its. It also is true that much of the Bay Area now draws on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for considerable supplies, just as Southern California does.

The drought mood of 1989 does not mean Southern California will be able to convince the North to give up more water. The Delta must be protected. The North needs to augment its own supplies. It may mean, however, that both parts of the state realize the importance of working together to develop additional reservoir storage capacity soon so that more wet-year moisture can be banked for use by all during times of shortage.

Southern California also needs to get serious about water conservation immediately. Another dry year and that Colorado buffer bucket could begin to look pretty small.