Michal Kravcik Reflects on California’s Water Crisis

Michal Kravcik was awarded the Goldman Prize in 1999 for his work to halt the construction of destructive dam projects in post-communist Slovakia by proposing democratic alternatives, including smaller dams, decentralized water management and restored farmlands.

Fifteen years later, Kravcik is still working diligently to design sustainable water management models for Slovakia and the world.

“Winning the Goldman Prize stimulated my life long dedication to water issues domestically and internationally. The Goldman Prize became a seed from which a vital organism was planted,” Kravcik reflected.

In the excerpts below, Kravcik shares his theory on California’s water crisis and possible ways to address it, using what he calls “bio-mimicking regeneration,” a process that seeks to restore local small water cycles by harvesting rainwater that would otherwise be diverted into sewers and infiltrating it back into the soil.

California has been plagued by extreme droughts – evidence of a worrying trend in declining rainfall. In California the rainfall has been monitored for 117 years - current accumulations are down by 10%. This is very bad news for a region with an expanding population, and hence, continuously increased demand for water. The trend itself also means economic, political and social threats to California and its people. What can be done to reverse this dangerous trend? Water conservation and more efficient use of water have to become adequate and sufficient. Long-term water sustainability may be dependent upon fundamental system change. To contemplate system change, it is necessary to examine the problem from several perspectives. I would like to share with the following perspective: principles of the new water paradigm (www.waterparadigm.org).

With California’s booming economic development, urban populations grew as well. Today, more than 20 million people live in California’s five biggest cities (Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, San Jose and Sacramento). Urbanization of the environment goes hand-in-hand with paving, “roofing“ and sealing land surfaces, all of which redirect excess rainwater into sewer systems. Based on rough estimates, 1.2 billion m3 of rainwater are now drained away from these five cities annually. From all other urban zones and other land surfaces, such as transport corridors or highways, more than 2 billion m3 of rainwater are drained annually.

In the pre-pavement era, this rainwater would have seeped into the soil, or evaporated into the atmosphere, forming clouds- and finally, when condensed- falling back as rain. Fifty years of urbanization, a.k.a. paving/filling/sealing of land surfaces has limited the quantity of rainwater that is absorbed back into the soil. Instead, rain is being shunted off the paved surfaces and directed into rainwater sewers. This man-made intrusion into the small water cycle prevents water from evaporating back into the atmosphere, thus blocking the subsequent formation of clouds and their condensation. Effectively, urbanization and deforestation practices associated with urbanization have resulted in the loss of around 100 cubic kilometers of water from the territory of California.

The good news for California is that both stopping and reversing this dangerous trend of decreasing rainfall is possible. It is necessary to embark on a large-scale program of bio-mimicking regeneration and restoration of the disrupted landscape. This can be achieved through construction of measures to harvest rainwater, promote its infiltration and absorption into the soil and repair the cycle of water evaporation into the atmosphere.

For example, should the analysis show that 2 billion m3 of rainwater is being lost from Californian disrupted ecosystems annually, then an action plan for construction of measures able to harvest and retain this lost 2 billion m3 of rainwater from one event can be prepared. Such a program would have a positive impact on California’s economy, improving the environment, environmental safety and sustainable life. Besides improving water abundance for people, food production and nature, repairing the damage to California’s small water cycles will allow for more transpiration from plant life thus mitigating against more extreme temperature shifts. With more water retained in the soil, fire risks will decrease, as well as other natural disasters.

California has been known as progressive throughout its history. Hopefully, taking up the challenge of regenerating California’s disrupted landscape and recovering her lost water resources will be the type of progress Californians can embrace. In this way, California could show the world how to improve its water resources switching from scarcity to abundance, delivering ecosystem services to a greener economy in a healthier environment.

The Goldman Environmental Prize (28.Jan 2014)