What Canada can learn from California’s drought and groundwater laws

  1. Water policy shortcomings and gaps create a vacuum that will be filled by litigation – Where loopholes and weaknesses in water policy exist, these policies are vulnerable to litigation. As demonstrated in California, litigation is costly, confrontational and time consuming. Allowing courts to determine water rights, and, thus, water policy, is problematic. Solutions that create satisfactory outcomes or agreed-upon tradeoffs for all parties, may not be within the court’s power to order.

Therefore, a planning approach that brings in all parties with a stake in the particular issue at hand and receives support, is preferable for many reasons, including the availability of a broader range of innovative solutions. Canadian jurisdictions should focus on developing robust water planning processes to minimize confrontation and avoid the path of litigation.

  1. Drought presents an opportunity to dramatically reform water laws and policies, if governments are prepared to act – Four years into an unprecedented drought, California is suffering and sacrificing. But it’s also evolving. The severity of this drought creates the motivation to change even entrenched things that couldn’t be changed without the sense of extreme vulnerability.

In addition to the groundwater management regime, California has introduced other changes and reforms to create long-term sustainability. A rebate program for lawn removal initiated by the water district for Southern California was so popular that it exhausted the budget for the program in just five weeks. San Francisco passed an ordinance to require that new buildings of a certain size have on-site water recycling systems and reuse their own wastewater.

drought tolerant garden
A educational drought tolerant garden in Folsom, California.

Canada is fortunate in that no one region in the country is experiencing a crisis situation at the scale of California’s drought emergency. However, the California situation does offer some key lessons and insights to Canadian jurisdictions. Canada has the opportunity to learn from what is happening south of its border and to accelerate planning and management processes that will proactively address emerging freshwater issues.

Randy Christensen is with Ecojustice and the POLIS Project. Oliver M. Brandes and Rosie Simms are with the POLIS Project. This article appeared in ES&E’s September/November 2015 issue.

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