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Waste water & squander our economic wealth

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POSTED February 22, 2009 5:16 a.m.
My first ride in a helicopter was terrifying.

It wasn’t because of the flight but rather it was what I saw.

It was late in the summer of 1977 and California was in the death throes of a serious drought.

Rocklin, Lincoln, Auburn and the Loomis Basin were all served with surface water from the PG&E system dating back to the Gold Rush era that was fed by Fordyce Reservoir, Eagles Lake, and Lake Spaulding on the Yuba River in the upper reaches of Nevada County.

PG&E was worried that people weren’t getting the message that the drought was for real. People had grown pretty complacent in California since the Central Valley Water Project was built during the real Depression and the State Water Project was added years later. Water was never a worry. You just turned on the faucet and it was there.

Roseville residents, by comparison, had no problem taking water conservation seriously. Many literally drove by the city’s source of water – Folsom Lake – on the way to and from work. They could see the remnants of old wide spots in the road that were flooded when the dam filled. They saw the endless sand where water once stood. They understood the drought was for real. That wasn’t, however, the case in PG&E water service territory.

PG&E thought the answer might be providing visual evidence of how bad it really was in terms of their water system.

So they arranged for The Press-Tribune to dispatch a reporter/photographer departing from the PG&E helipad at their operations center in Auburn.

The first view of Fordyce from the air was stunning. It was early August and the lake was about 75 percent empty. The pilot landed on the dam crest. They suggested I get out and walk a ways from the helicopter to get additional photos. It was an unnerving walk. On one side of the 965-foot long dam, it was 143 feet straight down the rock fill face to the ground. The water level on the other side was 100 feet below.

On the way back to Auburn, they made several sweeps over Lake Spaulding so I could get panoramic shots of literally hundreds of tree stumps that hadn’t been exposed since the days the reservoir was created.

That was the day I became a hardcore believer in wasting water as a Californian is akin to committing suicide.

California as we know it was made possible by the ability to transfer water from areas of the state with great abundance to the Mediterranean-style dry climate regions of the state that lacked adequate precipitation. It is what created our agricultural production that is second to none on earth. It is also what created our great coastal cities. It is what made towns like Manteca, Ripon, and Lathrop possible.

The experts say the drought in 1976-77 wasn’t as severe as what we’re experiencing today. That’s scary for several reasons. First, there are 15 million more Californians today – 38 million in all – than there was in 1977. The reason we have been able to get as far as we have in the current three year drought without major cutbacks to this point has to do with conservation efforts, particularly among the farming community.

Pumping water costs money. If you doubt that ask a farmer how much his PG&E bill is each month. Irrigation water from surface sources is also costly. So farmers – particularly those who aren’t corporate endeavors such as down the west side of the Southern San Joaquin Valley – have come up with innovative ways to use less water. The same is true of urban users although their water reduction numbers aren’t quite as impressive as the farming community.

And by all indications, we can still cut water use further by doing everything from watering lawns less – the first drought we learned we had been overwatering them and helping keep them a bit unhealthy – to cutting down on the length of showers.

Water is California’s lifeblood.

Spilling it in waste is the same as squandering our future.
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