Mandatory Water Restrictions in California Fail to Address Abuse of Resources

Maude Barlow of Food & Water Watch discusses the unprecedented measures issued by California Governor Jerry Brown to cut statewide water use by 25%

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Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

After four years of serious drought, Governor Brown of California has ordered a mandatory reduction of the use of water 25 percent. Now joining us from Ottawa is Maude Barlow. Maude is the national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, and of Food and Water Watch, which is based in Washington, D.C. Thanks very much for joining us, Maude.

MAUDE BARLOW: Pleasure.

JAY: Brown’s mandatory reduction of 25 percent, I guess, is first of all a reflection of a broad, global problem. But let’s start first of all with California. Do you think this measure is adequate?

BARLOW: Well, it’s terrible that it’s taken so long for California to actually take this kind of action. It was only last year that they brought in legislation to give some kind of control to their groundwater, which has just been a free-for-all. Everybody’s known this has been coming for 30 years. There’s no snowpack, the overextraction of water is incredible. In California, 80 percent of the water use goes to agriculture and much of that is for export to other states, but they produce all the almonds, 80 percent of the almonds for the world, for instance. I mean, they use so much water to produce almonds every year that you could take a shower for ten minutes every day for the next 86 million years. That’s how much water it takes.

So there’s no, there’s been no control. There’s been no limit. There’s been a kind of everybody can take whatever they want mentality. Move it around from one place to another through canals and aqueducts and so on. And hence the problem. And this is not only in California but around the world.

We have this notion that, what I call the myth of abundance, that we don’t have to take care of our water and we wait until the crisis hits before we take inadequate measures.

JAY:with climate change, at least to begin with. If I understand it correctly, California’s been draining water from neighboring states for decades, also affecting the water table in those states. And everyone knows this has been coming.

But how much does climate change, do scientists thing, have to do with the current drought?

BARLOW: Well, climate change, of course is a part of it. But it depends on how you define climate change. Most people think of it as greenhouse gas emission changes the climate and warms the climate, and that’s true and that impacts water. But what we’re beginning to really understand is that when we displace water from where it is put in watersheds, or we displace the vegetation that protected that watershed, we actually change the local hydrologic cycle.

What’s happened in California is not as much climate change from greenhouse gas emissions as climate change from the abuse, mismanagement, and displacement of water. Water has been put where it belongs. As you say, not only has California been borrowing from other states, it’s been borrowing from its future groundwater. They’re pumping groundwater far faster than it can be replenished by nature, and the system of water rights that gives these big industrial interests the right to do this basically says they can keep doing it till the cows come home.

Well, at some point, something’s got to give. It’s like a bunch of people around a bathtub, and they all have blindfolds, and they have straws, and they’re drinking the water as fast as they can. And they think it’s fine. And it is fine. Until one day it isn’t fine for anybody.

They have had a system of allowing basically the commodification of water, privatization of water, through these water rights. And what California needs to do is declare its groundwater to be a public trust. They need to bring in terribly strict management. They have to bring in a hierarchy of access. And frankly, they’ve got to stop making all the almonds and the, the hay for Japan, and everything. Alfalfa that they ship off to Japan. They’ve got to start taking care of their water, and put it back in the center of all policy.

JAY: But can you do that and at the same time have such a massive agribusiness in California?

BARLOW: No. You can’t have both. But you’re not going to have it, anyway. The water dries up, it’s gone. I remember being in Australia a couple of years ago when they first announcement that the rice exports were down 98 percent. I mean, the bottom fell out of the rice industry, which is huge in Australia, because they ran out of water. So it’s not like you, you know, it’s not like jobs versus the environment. If you don’t have water, you can’t grow crops. There isn’t any such thing as big agribusiness, or small farming, if we don’t have water.

We have to have what I call a new water ethic, where water is put in the center of our lives, and all policy, from how we grow food to how we produce energy, to how we trade with one another, asks the question about the impact on water. And until we do that, California’s just going to be one of the many crises we’re going to face around the world.

Another happening right now is Brazil. Brazil, up until recently, has been seen as the most water-rich country in the world. But São Paolo, greater São Paolo, has about 20 million people. They don’t think they have enough water to last six months. That’s because they’ve cut down the Amazon, and that has removed the whole hydrologic cycle that produced the rain.

So you know, we have to stop thinking that somehow, I don’t know, big technology is going to fix this. We are a planet running out of clean, accessible water.

JAY: That certainly is the thinking, that somehow eventually it will become economical to spend the money for technology to save us. So for example, in California, at some point it becomes profit-making and worthwhile to bring water down from Canada. There is lots of fresh water not that far north of California agriculture.

BARLOW: There’d be an awful big fight if Americans or California or businesses think that Canada’s going to sell its water to the United States. It’s a very, very hot issue here. We need our water. We do not have that much. We have about 6.5 percent of the world’s available water. Most of our water is running North, in mighty rivers running north, and there is no way that we’re going to allow the re-engineering of our entire environment to, frankly, to feed a state that hasn’t looked after its own water.

I mean, I think a lot of people around the world are going to say, what did you do to protect your water? And when you run out because you haven’t heard the warnings that have been at least 30 years coming, why should other parts of the world so-called share their water, or sell their water to you when you haven’t taken care of it yourself?

We need to understand that everywhere there are maybe different water realities, but there isn’t a place in the world where we don’t have to start taking care of water in a very different way than we have.

JAY: All right. Thanks very much for joining us, Maude.

BARLOW: My pleasure.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

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