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Drought-Stricken California Considers Upgrading Water System


California is now in its third year of drought and is facing a water shortage whose impact is being felt on farms and in the cities. Water experts, consumers and farmers say California needs to make changes to cope with an uncertain future.

The fountains are dry at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, part of a statewide effort to save water.

Californians are restricted in their outdoor watering, and those who defy the rules are subject to fines.

Major worries

Los Angeles residents recently got an update from the head of the regional water agency, sponsored by the group Town Hall Los Angeles.

Cherie Shankar, who was in the audience, is worried.

“We’ve been doing things a certain way for over 100 years, but everything has changed. We have climate change. We have these unprecedented droughts,” she said.

The third consecutive year of drought has left some reservoirs at near record low levels and the springtime snow pack -- the source of much of the state’s water -- at just 20 percent of normal.

Rising prices

Prices for California farm produce are rising and farmers in the state’s usually fertile Central Valley are letting fields lie fallow.

Dan Errotabere grows pistachios, almonds, garlic, wine grapes and other crops near Fresno, California. He relies on groundwater, which he pumps himself, since his allocation from the state’s water system has been reduced to zero.

“I can’t as an operation park 30 percent, maybe have to park 50 percent next year and still be financially viable. For me, for the employees who have been with us 20-plus years, for the communities that are around this area ...,” he said.

Errotabere said the impact is devastating.

Farmers blame conservation efforts in the Sacramento River Delta for diverting water away from their farms.

Policy changes

Policy analyst Doug Parker of the California Institute for Water Resources at the University of California said the water system has failed to keep up with the state's needs. He said the California climate is becoming more variable and its water sources less stable.

“What we do know from the climate change data is that we’re going to get more droughts and we’re also going to have more flood-type years, as well. So we need to be able to build a system and have a system that adapts to that variability in water,” said Parker.

A few communities are now relying on emergency water supplies.

California voters will be asked in November to pay for improvements to the water infrastructure through a $7 billion bond measure. Critics say the proposal is too expensive and would not solve the problem.

Jeffrey Kightlinger of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California supports it, and he said his region and the rest of the state need to be smarter with water.

“In the long run, local supplies, cleaning up our groundwater, recycling water, reclaiming water. That’s the key to making southern California sustainable,” said Kightlinger.

Others say that California needs a comprehensive revamping of its water system that takes account of the growing need for water.

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