In June of this year, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger asked President Obama to declare Fresno County a federal disaster area. The White House has not yet responded to Governor Schwarzenegger's request. Requests for presidential disaster declarations are much rarer for droughts than for other natural disasters. Previous requests like this one were declined by the Bush administration. Nevertheless, the compounding effects of three straight years of drought have had a devastating effect on the state's resources, as well as its already failing economy. As the New York Times reported, "These are dire circumstances," Mr. Schwarzenegger said at a stop in Mendota California, "Here in the Central Valley, no water means no work. And no work means people cannot feed their families." Without the federal disaster declaration, drought relief is usually handled through the Department of Agriculture's crop insurance program, which subsidizes underwriters of agricultural concerns and provides direct payments to farmers and ranchers. But with California's economy crippled and its budget woes growing it is doubtful that waiting for mother nature to cooperate is going to be enough.
This plea comes a little more than a year after Governor Schwarzenegger issued an executive order for most of California in an effort to try to stave off the effects of the then two year old drought. At that time, the order was filled mainly with language like, "work with," "help to," or "prepare for." In fact, at one point it directly requested regional and local governments to "prepare for potential worsening water conditions in 2009." Rather then a call to action, the executive order read more like a call to be prepared to be called to action. Now, a year later and deeper into the drought and the state's reservoirs the lowest they've been since 1992, the official "call to action" for most Californians still seems to be lacking. Exacerbating the situation even further are the current wild fires that are raging outside of Los Angeles, Santa Cruz and elsewhere. Millions of gallons of water are now being expended in emergency efforts to protect life and property in California.
While our national government mulls over Schwarzenegger's plea, it is time for Californians to start looking at what they can do themselves. Afterall, as the USA Today reported earlier this year, Schwarzenegger's order leaves the door open for more severe restrictions later. If there is no improvement in water reserves and residents fail to conserve on their own, additional measures could include mandatory water rationing and water reductions. In the Governor's 2008-2009 budget an $11.9 billion water bond for water management investments was proposed that would include $3.1 billion to increase water use efficiency. With liberals in control of Washington and the country fully engrossed in everything "green" - a mandated push toward conservation, especially in left leaning California, would be like preaching to the choir. And with the state's economic woes increasing by the hour, looking to cut water and energy costs could save more than just the environment.
Others argue that less draconian measures could be taken first to relieve California's water problems. Jail costs have long plagued the state and recent estimates puts the annual costs at somewhere around 900 million. That's a number green technology could help lower. Low flow shower heads, high efficiency toilets, energy saving light bulbs, wind and solar power are all technologies that have or are maturing and the financial boons that they are delivering are irrefutable. "It would save millions of dollars a month. And that would be just from retro-fitting the jails, shelters, schools, and hospitals. If California went green in all their buildings, it would produce enormous savings in energy and water usage," says Josh Witzig of Water and Energy Solutions (WES).
If such small-scale measures can have such an enormous impact now, what about the difference scientific breakthroughs in energy and water conservation technology could make in the future? The sky is the limit for both the initiatives Governor Schwarzenegger could be looking into and the imagination and innovation of the American entrepreneur.
The Governor is right to be concerned about the effects the drought is having on unemployment, but with the power that comes with running the eighth largest economy on the planet he has the ability to start creating work that can explore new means to solve California's water crisis. However, it's an initiative he can't undertake alone. It means Californians also have to stand up and take some responsibility for the current problems that face them. Today it might mean a new low-flow shower head or high efficiency toliet. And in the future it might mean a portable water reclamation unit or portable desalination unit. But regardless, each small step will be crucial in ending the downward spiral California is caught in of ever increasing energy costs and decreasing availiability of fresh clean water.