Drought: Why California is not Australia

California Farm Bureau

By Chris Scheuring

There has certainly been a great deal of furious legislative and administrative activity in the halls of government in this season of drought—some of it essential and very timely, and some of it simply opportunistic. The Farm Bureau team in Sacramento has been front and center in many of those processes, calibrating its efforts constantly to serve the California farmers and ranchers who constitute our diverse membership.

But one of the frothiest debates, in response to the current extremely dry spell, has been not before either the legislative or the executive branch, but in various corners of the mainstream media. Spurred by a few law professors and other pundits who are not interested in policy change at the margins, we have heard various breathless calls for wholesale regime change in the allocation of water resources—direct attacks on our water rights system—at a time in which those legal rules are the least of our worries.

The worst of it is, incredibly, hyperventilation that asks us to believe that California is becoming the New Australia.

Australia suffered through a crippling drought that began in the 1990s, stretched for more than a dozen years and became known as the Millennium Drought or the Big Dry. In response, Australia changed its system of water rights and water allocation—in ways that some professors and pundits believe California should follow.

Let’s start with the idea that California has become Australia. The current drought may make many of us feel that we are in the Outback lately, but in the longer term, California simply does not share Australia’s hydrology—historically, or in those years to come.

California has water resources that Australia does not have, including great rivers and, in some years at least, an abundant high-mountain snowpack. Even assuming the forecasts of climate change in California are correct, it is not correct to say California’s climate is likely to become drier overall—more like Australia—so much as it is to say that our dry periods may be longer, and our wet periods may be “flashier” and more intense.

The policy prescriptions that flow from that, then, make a discussion about adopting “the Australian model” a complete non-sequitur. Rather, in our wetter years we need to capture more water to make it through our drier years, precisely what California voters overwhelmingly endorsed with the passage of Proposition 1 last fall. That bond measure, which holds considerable promise for the upgrade of our water infrastructure, dedicates $2.7 billion to new water storage projects. It seems sensible to plan for new supplies in the face of ever-intensifying demands due to explosive population growth and increased environmental regulation, which are overlaid on top of an aging water infrastructure.

That steadier view of California’s water crunch, which understands the problem as one of current scarcity, recognizes that reorganizing water rights—on the basis of an Australian model or any other—will not create one additional drop of water for California. That’s because a water rights system is nothing more than a method of allocating an unreliable and sometimes scarce resource. Changing the system, without adding more water storage, is a zero-sum game that will only create a different set of problems, without creating additional supply. Until and unless we address underlying water scarcity head-on, we will always be playing a game of musical chairs with the water that we have.

No, California is not Australia: A $17 billion flood planning effort by the Central Valley Flood Protection Board, currently underway, attests to the fact that we have a water problem that can be solved in a way that Australia’s can’t: by adding storage.

The end of Australia’s Millennium Drought was marked by the uncontrolled flooding of thousands of square miles of land, whereas California’s runoff is more controllable. Our water planners have identified promising new storage sites, many of which will be examined in new detail before the California Water Commission in the next couple of years, as bond funds are directed toward water storage projects.

The opportunity is before us to respond to scarcity in this forward-looking manner, without resorting to cannibalization of each other’s water supply by changing well-established rules.

Australians had to accept wholesale and severe institutional change in response to the Big Dry—there’s no doubt about that. But I’m betting that Australians would have loved to have some of our water “headaches” as an alternative: large if geographically displaced water supplies fed by periods of extreme abundance. California is not Australia.

(Chris Scheuring is an environmental attorney for the California Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted at [email protected].)

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