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Comment | The growing water shortage threat

Mark Hansford

The huge storms that hit the Mexico/Texas border last week are eye-opening. With several reported dead or missing and thousands of Texans forced to flee their homes, it is another lesson in how destructive violent storms can be.

But what makes it all the more remarkable is the juxtaposition with the situation in nearby California, which is facing a very different kind of emergency - drought. In fact the situation in California is now chronic. The state is entering its fourth year of drought and last month its State Water Resources Control Board was forced to impose an emergency regulation requiring an immediate 25% reduction in overall potable urban water use.

The stories you read are mind-boggling. How can it be that the state with the largest economy in the US is now forced into banning its restaurants from offering free water to customers? It’s incredible.


The causes are in many ways complex - California’s Supreme Court has noted that “the scope and technical complexity of issues concerning water resource management are unequalled by virtually any other type of activity presented to the courts”. Yet they are also obvious - desperately low rainfall, high - and surging - agricultural demand (in an average year 80% of all potable water is used for agriculture), limited domestic conservation measures, and virtually no tracking of water use via metering and monitoring. But these causes are so fundamental it means it is almost impossible for the state to get control of the situation. How do you enforce a 25% reduction in domestic use when 30% of homes don’t have a meter (according to the Pacific Institute) and 2004 regulations making them compulsory for all municipal and industrial users don’t come into force until 2025.

“Is a major water transfer tunnel the way to solve California’s water woes?”

State governor Jerry Brown has pinned his drought focus on an ambitious infrastructure project — a multi-billion pound plan, opposed by environmental groups, to build 60km of tunnels to transfer surface water from northern California (where it is relatively plentiful) to southern California (where the biggest agricultural users are). Desperation for water is seeing desalination plants being proposed up and down the Pacific coast, with one, the Carlsbad Desalination project now nearing completion and set to be the biggest such operation in the western hemisphere. It’ll provide San Diego with 230Ml/day of drinking water - but at some cost.

So here’s the question - do we, as engineers support Brown’s plan? Is a major water transfer tunnel the key to solving California’s water woes?

It’s an interesting question because it has parallels with the UK, and in particular the relatively dry South East. Thames Water has built a desalination plant; and I know for a fact that it will soon be ramping up again its case for building a major new reservoir in Abingdon in Oxfordshire. But is there another option? Long distance water transfer tunnels have been mooted before to get water from wet and sparsely populated north Wales to the dry and densely populated South East. We’ve had plenty of letters in the past from readers suggesting we make use of the corridor being created by High Speed 2. Do we need to look at that again?

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s editor

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