Ours is a world of water. The view from space is of a big blue marble, the planet dominated by the vast stretches of open sea. That visual comprises the alpha and omega of not only the world, but of virtually every living thing upon it. Where there is water, life thrives; where there is not, evidence of life is scarce. And yet that picture is steadily, inevitably changing — as the climate changes, as the chemistry of water is increasingly compromised by an ever-mounting toxic burden, as a growing population places an ever-thirstier demand on resources, and as the stewardship of regional and global watershed brokers either salvation or doom.
That stewardship was born in an age of plenty, for better or worse; and despite the depredations of exploding populations advanced through agricultural and industrial ages, it took scores of generations for humankind’s footprint to be evinced in the natural world. Yet even as that footprint has become undeniable, and as the specter becomes clearer of a ticking clock counting down to some unimaginably malignant environmental critical mass, humans remain tethered to the same developer/consumer paradigm — fiddling, as it were, while Rome burns.
The scenario is no less urgent in California, where “day after tomorrow” water scenarios offer potential threats on multiple fronts that require our attention sooner than later.

Dry Bones

Despite the relative abundance of the Gold Coast, we’re a part of the arid Southwest, and most accounts of climate change agree that there will be no relief in advancing drought conditions; in fact, experts advise the public to be prepared for an ever-drier future. A widely reported article in 2007 in the journal Science warns that, “Climate change will permanently alter the landscape of the Southwest, so severely that conditions reminiscent of the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s could become the norm within a few decades.” The first indicators have already come: wildfires of increasing number and severity, earlier winter snowmelt, the destruction of heat-weakened trees by beetles, and more.

Richard Seager, a research scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University and the lead author of the study, said the changes would force an adjustment to the social and economic order from Colorado to California. “There are going to be some tough decisions on how to allocate water,” he said. “Is it going to be the cities, or is it going to be agriculture?” Such decisions could hit hard on this agriculture-rich region, where up to 80 percent of the local water resource supports crops that bring billions of dollars to the economy and provide tens of thousands of jobs to the workforce.

Overall, Southern California water derives from a variety of sources. Groundwater sources can provide between 30 percent and 40 percent of supply, while the remainder is imported from such disparate sources as the Colorado River and the State Water Project, which delivers Northern Californian water to a thirsty Southland. While changing climate offers dire implications for all local water resources, their availability can also be imperiled by political will, as a majority of water flows through the good graces of other populations, who might not consider insular imperatives in parity with their own. For example, while 70 percent of Sierra snowpack runoff occurs north of Sacramento, three-quarters of the State’s urban and agricultural demands are to the south. By the same token, seven counties in Southern California receive water from the Colorado River, after it has flowed through thirsty population centers in Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada.

While the Colorado River Water Compact has, for nearly a century, brokered the constructive and collaborative use of the river’s water across seven states, the inescapable fact remains that such water can’t be used in California until the rest of those states have had a drink.

Water everywhere, and not a drop to drink

On the other hand, perhaps water allocation for area agriculture won’t be among the most pressing problems, as another scenario shows that crops might not be dried up at all — they’ll be under water. Current conventional wisdom predicts that, as temperatures increase, melting polar ice will account for a rise in sea levels of 5 feet or more.

While projections offer varying degrees of catastrophe from rising tides, those studies show that the effect will be amplified by erosion. “If you raise sea level by a foot, you push a cliff back 100 feet,” said Jeff Severinghaus, professor of geosciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. For the rugged coastline of California and its real estate, for seaside communities from one end of the state to the other, even for the Pacific Coast Highway, the scenario offers a margin of error that is simply unaffordable.

f2The pause that refreshes
Another burden on water supply now, that is sure to worsen, comes from mankind’s mad proclivity for soiling its own nest. In the headlong rush for development and “progress,” many watersheds have been left in sad shape, contaminating water with the toxic chemical byproduct of that development, frequently with little regard for the public health implications that go hand in hand with bad water.

While the United States does not keep records on the number of people sickened each year from bad water, estimates range from 500,000 to 7 million people each year. According to Paul Schwartz, national policy coordinator for Clean Water Action, a national citizens’ organization working for clean, safe and affordable water, “… Upwards of 40 percent of what people generally take for stomach flu is actually a reaction to drinking water contamination.” From industrial chemicals to pesticides, rocket fuel to pharmaceutical drugs and more, much of what is flushed into the water system stays there.

William Marks, author, “The Holy Order of Water,” notes: “When the liver takes these chemicals out of our bodies, what happens is they get flushed down the toilet, and then they go into the aquifer, and then they go into our rivers and streams, and we take the water from our rivers and streams, and we put it into our public water supply systems, and we drink it over and over again.”

While it’s a problem that could be solved, the question becomes, where to begin, and at what cost. The product of cutting-edge water treatment facilities like Thousand Oaks’ Hill Canyon Treatment Plant — a flagship facility that has gained national recognition for efficiency and efficacy — could theoretically produce an absolutely pristine glass of water, but such would come with an inevitable price tag. There is no broad-based testing protocol that runs across the board to cover the range of potential contaminants in this toxic age, and public agencies remain answerable to the realities of public budgets. Thus, when it comes to filtering water, notes Hill Canyon’s superintendent Chuck Rogers, “you can be answerable to any standard that you can afford.”

The standard at Hill Canyon is already very high indeed. Processing more than a million gallons of Thousand Oaks water daily, the award-winning facility has proved an example — and hosted fact-finding tours — for some of the largest utilities in the nation. Displaying an ingenuity necessary to meet the challenges of the next age, the facility sports a solar array that allows it to operate “off the grid” for a large portion of the day, and recycles Thousand Oaks wastewater into clean water, sending it downstream to the Camrosa Water District.

The tap or the bottle
That said, California taps remain by far the best alternative for cheap, clean water, despite the strong popularity of bottled water, which tends to be subject to far less scrutiny than public water and that, despite glacial images on the packages, most often derives from all-too-common sources. Erik D. Olson, former senior attorney for the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) states, “There is less than one person in the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the entire multibillion-dollar U.S. bottled water industry,” noting that such oversight is only one among the single busy staffer’s numerous other job descriptions.

The council recently tested more than 1,000 bottles of water from more than 100 U.S. brands, finding arsenic, organic chemicals, bacteria and other contamination in more than a third of the samples. “When we looked at these brands,” Olson continues, “so-called ‘mountain spring water’ was found to be municipal tap water, and ‘glacier water’ came from ground water in Florida. In one case in Massachusetts, a company had sunk a well in an industrial park not far from a Superfund cleanup site, bottling and selling the product under multiple brand names.”

Not only is the product itself suspect, but the bottled water industry’s shadow looms even larger environmentally, driving a growing chorus of calls to ban plastic bottles altogether, and citing such dire specters as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — a veritable continent of floating plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean that is thought to span an area at least twice the size of Texas, and that is doubling every decade — as a clarion call for change.

Not only are the ubiquitous bottles a refuse nightmare, but a recent study has shown they may pose a health hazard as well, as a German team led by Goethe University’s Martin Wagner found the bottles may harbor hormone-disrupting chemicals that leach into the water. “What we found was really surprising to us,” Wagner states. “If you drink water from plastic bottles, you have a high probability of drinking estrogenic compounds.”

Bottled water is but one facet in a trend toward a lucrative future of water that is leading many to call it “the next oil” or “blue gold,” as speculators seek to control water rights, privatize public water systems, and otherwise commoditize what has traditionally been viewed as a public resource. Corporate raider T. Boone Pickens has caused a stir in Texas recently by gobbling up rural water rights and planning a pipeline to carry it hundreds of miles to Dallas, Amarillo or whom he presumes will be the highest bidder, and leveraging the land for the venture under what some call jury-rigged eminent domain imperatives. “Some people say that water’s a lot like air,” Pickens notes. “‘Do you charge for air, they ask? Of course not, so you shouldn’t charge for water.’ Well,” he concludes, “You just watch what happens.”

Pickens is just one of a large cast of entrepreneurs and multinational corporations moving to capitalize on the future of water, often at the expense of the public interest. Public utilities operate with local staffers, within closely scrutinized budgets and operations protocols, subject to operational oversight from watchdogs at the regional, state and federal levels. Conversely, a private company can operate in the same market without much of the same oversight, and remain answerable primarily to shareholders’ expectations of a return on investment. Dr. Don Kendall, general manager of the Calleguas Municipal Water District in Thousand Oaks, notes, “The European model has shown that privatization turned out to be a disaster — when you are in a for-profit business, you wind up paying dividends to shareholders instead of into supporting the standards of the utility.” Thus, in the quest to pay that dividend, private companies also frequently must limit or outsource customer service and, in the end, too often deliver a more expensive and lower-quality resource at the other end of the tap.

The fact is unequivocal — abundant, clean water must be accessible for continued survival. With an uncertain future, that goal will only be reached through the commitment and contributions of both the public and public agencies and insistence upon a changing ethic in the way watersheds are regarded, supported and used. “Water is a regional commodity,” Watkins concludes. “We’re truly all in it together.”

His wisdom is undeniable — whether we’re thirsty or sated, whether our drink is clean or toxic, the future is one we all will share, for better or worse.