'Water: More or Less' author talks California's ever-changing water policy

Rita Sudman is longtime observer of the California water, and even led the Water Education Foundation. In 2016, she co-authored "Water: More or Less," a book that follows California's ever-changing water policy through art, history and stories.

In an interview with ABC10, Sudman talked about her book and the future of California's water policy.

ABC10: First, let’s talk about your book. How did you come up with the idea?
Rita Sudman: I have to say that my coauthor, Stephanie Taylor, came up with the idea and pushed me to work with her on a book that would contain the history of the major watersheds, the stories of past and present real people involved with water issues, policy discussions by myself and brief essays by key diverse interest leaders and last – but certainly not least – her great art work depicting the water landscape. I had recently retired from being the long-time executive director of the Water Education Foundation. The state was deep in an historic drought and I believed that I could contribute some factual and interesting information to Californians. So Stephanie and I spent a year putting together this book and we had an amazing journey.

Of all of the stories in your book, which one stood out to you the most, and why?
Groundwater has become the most important issue to me. As we were developing the book, the drought was raging and groundwater was being pumped at a higher rate than ever. At the height of the drought, it was estimated growers were pumping about one billion gallons a day. Central Valley growers were not able to get the water from the state and federal projects due to the drought and the endangered fish issues, so they turned to groundwater and they pumped in a big way. Lots of almonds were planted in recent years and the export market for the almonds was hot and prices were high, so growers pumped as much as they needed or could get.

It’s been a year since your book came out. What’s the reception been like?
It’s been great. Timing has helped. When we finished the book in 2016, California was in one of the worst droughts in our history. A year later, while the book was still new, California began to experience what was eventually to be the wettest year in modern recorded history. These factors certainly kept the issue of California water in the public’s mind. We’ve received a lot of recognition from the diverse interests in the water world – environmental, urban and agricultural interests – and that’s been gratifying to Stephanie and me as journalists. Additionally, the book has been recognized by the California State Library. Additionally we updated the book and came out with a second edition early this year so it is current with the latest wet year conditions and statistics.

Let's talk more about water. How has California’s water policy changed over the years? 
When I began covering water in 1979, the environmental movement was in its infancy. It was just flexing its muscle against the urban and agricultural water interests. Now the three interests have fairly equal power to influence policy. Also, more citizens have begun to take an interest in these policy issues. Formerly, the mostly male civil engineering, agricultural, real estate and business interest were the key players. Now more women also are interested in serving on their local water boards and participating in the debates on these issues.

Who, or even what, has the changing policy affected the most?
The environment has been most affected. There has been a tremendous emphasis on saving the endangered fish. Most people don’t realize that the Pacific Coast salmon industry is on the verge of collapse. This is due to many factors: water diversions through dams that block fish, ineffective fish ladders and screens, natural drought years and low stream flows, and water taken for agriculture and cities that leave too little water in the rivers for fish. Of course, the cities and agriculture have built their systems depending on getting that water.  They often get less and conflict continues. There really is not enough water to supply every need in California to the amount that the interests want. 

What does the future of water policy look like?
As water becomes more expensive due to requests by the public for cleaner and purer water, the public will use less water. The public has responded well to requests by water agencies to conserve water. Well over half the water we use is put on our outdoor landscape. We use much less water inside our homes. So reducing the water we use on our yards is a major way we can reduce water demand. And, frankly, the drought tolerant landscape can be beautiful and it fits our Mediterranean climate. In the future, we will also see more recycling of water and use of grey water. Technology has improved the ability of agencies to clean this water. We know that all water is part of the hydrologic cycle and is reused in nature. So we are just trying to mimic that cycle. In the future, the grey water from your bath and shower might be recycled in your basement and sent out to your garden to water your plants. Of course, none of this technology will be cheap. The days of abundant cheap water are over. 

What makes water such a hot topic in California more so than other states?
It’s like the great Western writer Wallace Stegner said when asked to describe California in four words. He said, “It’s about the water.” California and the six other states sharing the Colorado River are arid states and the scarcity in those states sets up the conflict. California does not experience rain in the summer. Everything growing depends on some irrigation. The increasing population and increasing high production agriculture puts more pressure on water resources, especially in the summer when irrigation and higher urban water demand is occurring. Eastern states get rain in the summer. So the east and west have different problems. The country is united by water quality that affects all states, but the scarcity issue is a problem mainly in the arid.

What is one thing that might surprise people about water?
Many people believe we have water scarcity problems because of our huge population. Actually, agriculture uses about 80 percent of the water we have put behind dams, although growers have made great strides in water efficiency in the last 25 years. We do grow about 50 percent of the fruits and vegetables for the nation. Also, people often don’t understand much about the groundwater resource. This is the hidden California water. We depend on groundwater for about one-third of our annual supply in normal years. In drought years, groundwater supplies over two-thirds of the state’s water. Many cities depend on groundwater, especially in the Central Valley. Generally, we have used so much groundwater for crops in the west side of the  San Joaquin valley that the land is actually sinking about a foot a year. This is a critical condition called overdraft and this has been happening for the last 60 years and it is causing roads, canals and bridges to crack.  California now has a groundwater law that is requiring locals to form groups and regulate this groundwater use. All the groundwater basins that are now overdrafted are to be in balance by 2040. Frankly, experts don’t know if this goal can be achieved or if what is being required is too little and too late.   

How do people and policymakers feelings change about water in years of drought and years of epic rain/snow?
Polls show that in drought years, the public become very aware of the crisis and cooperates with requests to use water wisely. The memory of droughts tends to stick with the public. Whereas, floods come and go quickly and often are as quickly forgotten. Policy makers in the legislature are often proposing state water bonds to finance projects and programs in years when the public is aware of problems. In recent years, we have seen a major flood bond pass right after the Katrina disaster and this helped California improve levees.  Bonds also have passed to improve water programs and improve infrastructure because of the memory of the drought years.  Of course, the next generation will be paying for much of these bonds. Many water experts prefer that we institute more fees on water so that we have more of  a “pay as we go” system. 

Do most people understand the pattern of California’s up and down water years?
Climate change is something the public finally is accepting. We have to realize that there will be more extremes in our weather patterns. We have always had cycles of drought and wet years in California but now we will see more. Also the system was built from the '30s through the '70s based on late spring and summer snowmelt in the Sierras, our largest natural reservoir. Today we are seeing more pineapple express storms that bring warm rains in the winter and can swamp the systems too early in the year. We have to store more water in our groundwater basins and build systems for earlier capture of these warm rains. This does not necessarily mean building more large dams but some smaller projects that can help us have more flexibility to move more water around the state.        

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