Welcome to VUCA
How do decisions about our water supply get made when, in California, it seems that 40% of people think dams are an inherently good thing; 40% of people think dams are an inherently bad thing; and 20% of people want to make a decision based on the merits, but those merits are disguised by shaky justifications offered by people from one of the first two camps. It’s not a good way to make important decisions.
Matt Weiser and Jeremy White’s Should California Use Tax Dollars to build More Dams? in the Sacramento Bee this week did a terrific job of pointing out that new dams don’t mean that there’s more water. Welcome to the time of climate change where “VUCA” – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, are the operating principles under which we need to manage water in California, and around the West.
Let’s not forget that fish populations are dying because, in no small part, there’s not enough cold water to keep them alive. Dams, such as an expanded Shasta Dam, could hold back cold water and the operators could release it when needed for key spawning periods. Would they be operated that way, or would larger and more dams mean that water would instead be used to grow more crops and further urban development?
And yes, when big rain or snow events happen, a lot of water in the rivers that feed into the San Joaquin/Sacramento delta goes out to the ocean. Is that water “wasted” because it’s not being used directly by humans? Certainly not. That water provides the “highway” for salmon, feeds and restores wetlands (which provide coastal areas with protection from storm surges) and it keeps salt water from entering further into the Delta, safeguarding the fresh water supplies that so many Californians rely upon.
So how, in this time of “VUCA,” do we make decisions about the way we manage water in this state?
One radical idea: instead of spending billions on building new concrete infrastructure such as new dams and larger reservoirs, we could spend millions on restoring our green infrastructure. Why? What the scientists tell us is that our forests – the source of 60% of our water in California – are in terrible condition. They are ready to burn thanks to years of old forestry timber use and because, due to a warming climate, there are more insects that are killing off trees.
If we make these forests more resilient to catastrophic wildfire, like last year’s Yosemite Rim Fire, they will hold more water and release it in a more natural cycle and timing downstream. Healthy headwaters will in turn help keep urban areas from flooding during extreme rain events. And salmon, other fish, and the economy dependent on them, will survive.
All of this won’t add up to more water for our state, but taking action now to restore and protect these natural systems will ensure more long term and more certain water supply.