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When Water Becomes Scarce
By: Christine Whitmarsh and John Krikorian

"And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way." -Author John Steinbeck, writing of the SalinasValley in the early 20th century in his novel "East of Eden".

Imbalances between period’s of drought, supply and demand due to major growth in population, development are becoming increasingly common.  Addressing the problem of water scarcity is emerging as one of the most crucial challenges of the 21st century. 

The year-long water shortage in Southern California has reached critical mass. The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce recently announced: “Southern California is entering its driest year on record, receiving only three inches of rainfall since July 2006 – just a quarter of the average rainfall in a normal year. Our region is poised to experience a water crisis on the scale of the 1987-92 drought, which resulted in mandatory rationing for all Southern California residents and businesses”.

The drought has prompted Governor Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency in both Kings and RiversideCounties.  How did this situation evolve so rapidly to the crisis state we now face and what are officials doing to resolve it?  What can business owners do to lead the conservation efforts in our community?

Water flows into California via three 242-mile aqueducts originating in the OwensValley below the Sierra NevadaMountains along with the Colorado River.  Those aqueducts are: the Colorado River Aqueduct operated by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and the California Aqueduct operated by the California Department of Water Resources. 

The other major water source is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which supplies water to 25 million people throughout the entire state of California.  Both the delta and the aqueducts are vital to bringing an adequate supply of water into Southern California.  Local water alone can support only 3 million of the region’s 18 million residents.

Metropolitan Water District General Manager Jeff Kightlinger recently commented on the failing ecological state of the delta, saying, “California must initiate near-term actions that prioritize resources to stabilize the Delta until an ultimate solution is selected and implemented.”

While touring the Long Beach Aquifer, the Governor expressed concern for the stability of the state’s water system.

"Right now our water system is extremely vulnerable.  For one thing, we haven't built a major state reservoir in more than 30 years and in that time our population has grown from 20 million to 37 million. We must solve California's water problems not only for today, but for 40 years from now,” the Governor said.

The governor also took the opportunity to point out what he saw as a missed opportunity to collect additional water stores last year.

"If we had storage capacity during the wet winter a year ago like the two reservoirs I have proposed, we could have captured and stored enough water to supply millions of households for a year," the Governor stated.  "Instead, that water just disappeared into the ocean."

A reliable supply of fresh water is clearly a vital foundation for life in Southern California.  It is also an integral piece of the states $1.2 trillion economy, $800 billion of which is generated by Southern California annually. 

The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce recently implored the business community to get involved.

“It is imperative that all sized businesses start conserving water now to help us avoid a crisis, which would disrupt our daily business operations, overall economy and quality of life in years to come,” the chamber states.

The chamber recently publicized some ways for businesses to conserve.

“There are two ways businesses can help conserve water. The first is through “audits” of water consumption to identify and fix leaks.  Businesses can call their local utilities to undergo an audit. The second way is to incorporate new technologies that use water more efficiently in daily business operations,” the chamber recently publicized to the business community.

One of the major reasons that businesses are being encouraged so strongly to lead the conservation efforts is because of the severe impact of a drought on the local economy and the local business community.  For instance, during California’s last drought (1987-1992) left farmers with a $800 million economic loss.  Also during that 5 year period, California residents shelled out $500 million more in energy costs.  This was the result of utility companies that were forced to substitute hydroelectric power with more costly forms of energy.  Landscape and gardening, an industry with a lifeline of water, lost $460 million and cut 5,600 jobs during the drought.  The list of economic, industry and consumer hardships during that time is surely endless and the message to California business is crystal clear: Now is the time to take action. 

“With water agencies up and down the state counting on everyone to do their fair share to save water, now is the time for residents and businesses to act. The water we save now may be the water we need next year,” said Kightlinger.

With the population in Los AngelesCounty expected to increase by 3 million people by 2050, the current drought may be a dry run for a more significant crisis in the future.  How are officials taking action to resolve the current shortage while working to prevent future more serious situations?

The Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California has joined forces with the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and its 26 member public agencies to present their “Let’s Save”  advertising campaign.  The region-wide campaign teaches consumers how to save water while stretching existing supplies.  It is augmented by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and that of the many municipalities such as Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena, Monrovia along with Water Districts that are in Business Life’s area (see Page )

“We will be casting a large net to generate support among individuals and organizations, including member and retail water agencies, elected officials, government agencies, municipalities, power utilities, sanitation districts, businesses and non-profits to spread the watersaving word. We cannot afford to leave anyone out,” Kightlinger added. “This outreach effort also must help better educate Southern Californians about the fragility of the Delta and our water supply system.”

Living, working and operating a business in California comes with a unique set of risks and challenges.  The current water shortage is not completely unexpected based on the region’s naturally dry conditions.  MWD Board chairman Timothy f. Brick summarizes the situation and prognosis. 

Southern Californians can take comfort in the investments the region has made to diversify supplies and solidify water reliability, but there is no doubt that the time is right for a strong call for voluntary conservation,” Brick added. “Supply conditions have drawn consumers’ attention to the fact that we live in a semi-arid climate, requiring that we make further gains in water awareness and conservation practices.”