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February 13, 2014
Viewpoints: A prescription to prepare for drought

low_flows.JPG(Feb. 13 - By Steve Fleischli, Special to The Bee)

President Barack Obama visits Fresno today to highlight federal efforts to confront California's epic drought, possibly our worst in 500 years.

Sitting in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, Fresno symbolizes the mounting stakes in this crisis - both for our state, where agriculture accounts for 80 percent of our freshwater consumption, and for the nation, which gets nearly half its fruit and vegetables from California.

Despite some much-needed rain and snow in parts of the state recently, not even the president can make it rain as much as we need.

The president can help us with this disaster, prepare for the chronic water shortages to come and protect future generations from the widening dangers of climate change.

All three will require federal help.

California has long consumed more water than nature provides. This year, with poor winter rains and snowpack, the problem has become a crisis. Ninety percent of the state is withering under severe drought.

We must protect the water we have, use it as efficiently as we can and find new ways to adapt our homes, cities and farms to a world where water becomes increasingly dear.

In our homes, we can save water through simple steps like fixing leaks, installing water-saving faucets and showerheads and covering swimming pools to slow evaporation. We can swap out washing machines, dishwashers and toilets with water-efficient appliances. And we can replace grass lawns with decorative stones and native plants.

Our cities must harvest rainwater with pocket parks that soak up the rain and replenish groundwater. Wastewater and other types of "graywater" should be treated for use on municipal golf courses, parks and lands.

By far the greatest potential for water savings comes from our farms. Many have invested significantly in water efficiency, but there's more to do.

Of the 10 million acres of California cropland, 80 percent requires irrigation. Improved efficiency has already boosted yields and revenue over the past 40 years, and further upgrades can save hundreds of billions of gallons of water each year. We need public-private partnerships focused on a single goal: more crop per drop.

We also need to provide assistance to farmworkers laid off due to drought. We need to ensure access to clean and affordable water, especially to our most vulnerable communities. And we need to help hard-pressed ranchers and farmers seed depleted pastures and croplands with fast-growing native cover plants to prevent irreplaceable topsoil from baking to dust and blowing away.

Last week, the U.S. Agriculture Department announced $20 million in emergency aid to help California farmers weather the drought. The Agricultural Act that Obama signed this past Friday should provide additional assistance. That, though, should be seen as a down payment on what is required.

What we must not do is turn back the clock on progress made toward protecting, restoring and better managing our state's key water resources in the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Just last week in the U.S. Congress, the Republican-majority House of Representatives passed a terrible bill, H.R. 3964, that would do just that.

It would undermine essential safeguards that protect water quality in the Bay-Delta region. It would disrupt decades of work by state, federal and local officials to help balance water supplies statewide. And it would repeal important water pricing structures that promote conservation.

Fortunately, White House advisers have recommended that Obama veto the legislation if it makes it to his desk. The president should make those intentions explicit when he comes to Fresno.

Obama should also make California the pilot project for the National Drought Resilience Partnership he created in November to help coordinate the work of federal agencies and drought-affected states. This is the right forum for developing a portfolio of options for funding the investments we need.

Before he declares California a drought disaster area, though, Obama should make sure any federal emergency assistance complies with key environmental protections and review. Emergency aid will do little good if it enables policies that threaten water quality and supply down the road.

And he should lay out a vision of national drought preparedness.

We'll see more droughts, wildfires, storms, floods and other extreme weather disasters if our fossil fuel addiction continues to drive global climate change. We have an obligation to protect future generations from those dangers and, working together, we can.

Steve Fleischli is the water program director and senior attorney in the Los Angeles office of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group.