Water-free-for-all

Whether you are aware on not, California is currently anticipating yet another potential drought for 2009, especially if we continue to experience a run of dry weather. This past week some areas of the state’s north have been precipitation blessed, but the storms are not drought saviors by any means according to officials. The Sonoma County Water Agency has already informed more than 750,000 residents that water supplies may be reduced by 30-50% as they grapple with extraordinarily low storage levels in Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma. If more storms do not pass our way before the summer hits, residents, agriculture, industry and wildlife will be forced to comply with water rations.

To make matters even more dire, Pam Jeane, deputy chief engineer of operations was quoted, “Detection of a La Nina weather pattern indicates that next year may also be a low rainfall year. Releases from Lake Sonoma will need to be minimized to carry over some water storage for next year’s needs.”

Unlike people, wildlife are not necessarily able to cope with their already diminishing allotment of water as more and more is diverted to fill the need of urban sprawl, growing agricultural needs, and commercial industries. The two aforementioned lakes and their river counterparts support a selection of flora and fauna, including three fish species (coho and chinook salmon and steelhead) listed as either endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

And as typically happens when faced with any threat to our current practices (sustainable or unsustainable), society immediately scrambles to find a patch.

In this case, the patch under debate is a series of desalination plants to siphon the Pacific Ocean and quench our current and future thirst. But what about increasing conservation efforts? Well that is exactly what a number of conservation and watchdog groups are posing to over eager officials who are ignoring environmentally friendly solutions such as good ole’ fashioned conservation efforts by individuals and industries, storm water reuse and water recycling. Desalination plants are not magical purveyors of free water, but energy hogs, fishery traps, and depositors of concentrated brine in ecologically significant wetlands. Our lack of proper action has already caused the deterioration of fish populations, and now with our third year of below average rainfall approaching we are forcing ourselves into emergency action (as usual) instead of instituting proper management techniques.

Mark Massara, director of the Sierra Club’s Coastal Program, said, “Obviously there’s a need for fresh water, but there’s a misperception that desalination is the Holy Grail that allows you to engage in unfettered sprawl and ignore conservation. Desalination is still not priced competitively with traditional water costs, and we haven’t even hit the tip of the iceberg on conservation.”

Just as the current economic climate requires individuals, governments, and corporations to reduce financial obligations and save, the same holds true when water is the limiting factor. Having been natural resource gluttons in the past does not entitle us to be gluttons in the present nor in the future.

The California Coastal Commission has suggested the following potential coastal zone impacts for installation of a desalination plant:

• Air quality
• Commercial and recreational fishing
• Construction impacts on land and marine species and habitats
• Energy use
• Marine resources impacts from feedwater intake and ocean discharge
• Navigation
• Noise
• Potential hazardous releases from accidents
• Visual and Water quality
• Water quantity (e.g. effects of drawdown or saltwater intrusion of groundwater

About The Author

Scott serves as Director of Development & Communications for Audubon Canyon Ranch (focusing on preservation, education and conservation science) and has almost fifteen years of experience spanning for-profit and nonprofit sectors in biotech, wildlife conservation and management, communications, and philanthropy. In addition to a strong track record in organizational growth and leadership, he is the founder of Urban Bird Foundation and Burrowing Owl Conservation Network, and presided over ECHO Fund, a coastal protection and restoration organization, as President for four years. Scott holds an M.A. in Environmental Studies with a concentration in Sustainable Development and Policy, degrees in Micro & Molecular Biology and Environmental Sciences, and has complemented his studies with a Master's certificate in Environmental Resource Management.

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