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Mark Cowin: Planning for California’s Water Future

California’s highly engineered water system struggles to serve its 39 million people and the environment. But there a numerous things we can do to better plan for the future, writes Mark Cowin, director of the Department of Water Resources.

Written by Mark W. Cowin Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes
California drought 3
Kim Bailey unties the family boat from a dock at the Folsom Lake Marina for a fishing trip March 18, 2016, in Folsom, Calif. The marina, where just a few month ago the docks had been sitting on the dry lake bed, is open for boating again as recent storms and snow runoff that has filled the lake to levels that has not been seen in years.Rich Pedroncelli, AP

We cannot rebuild California’s water infrastructure from the ground up. All the dams, pumps, aqueducts – and rules and laws – arise from 200 years of human engineering in the Golden State. Our forebears designed these projects for the sole benefit of a few million people, and today we struggle to adapt them to the support of threatened fish and wildlife and 39 million people.

While we depend on this infrastructure not just to survive but thrive, some of it is undeniably outdated, and sometimes harmful. We cannot undo most of the environmental damage of our water development, but we can ameliorate it.

We must face the reality of this engineered system and move forward with practical solutions that accept what we cannot change and improve where we can. We need infrastructure and laws that support California’s natural ecosystems and human structures for future generations.

A lawn being watered in Sacramento, Calif. (Rich Pedroncelli, AP)

A lawn being watered in Sacramento, Calif. (Rich Pedroncelli, AP)

If we wait, the environment will force us to respond – at great cost – to crisis after crisis. As our climate reaches record temperatures year after year, sea levels will rise, snowpack will melt and the reservoirs, canals, aquifers and streams we depend upon to meet human and natural needs will be overwhelmed. We cannot afford to let that happen.

Instead, we can plan for rising sea levels, warmer storms, hotter weather, longer drought and a diminished snowpack. We can use state and federal funds to encourage local water districts and governments to work on a watershed scale across boundaries, efficiently integrating all uses of water from fish flows to water supply to wastewater. We can assist underserved communities that lack access to clean water. We also need to do a better job of measuring our water use and monitoring our conservation efforts to live within our means. Meeting measurable conservation targets requires that conservation remain part of everyone’s lifestyle – not just a crisis response to drought.

California Department of Water Resources director Mark Cowin at the Cosumnes River Preserve in Galt, CA, on April 24, 2013. (DWR)

California Department of Water Resources director Mark Cowin at the Cosumnes River Preserve in Galt, CA, on April 24, 2013. (DWR)

We also can improve the movement of water among voluntary buyers and sellers. If we can assure that the environment and local communities are protected, a water market is one of the best tools for getting water to places of highest need. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, enacted in 2014, puts us on course to eliminate overdraft of crucial groundwater supplies. Restoring some of our lost natural habitat should bolster populations of many species. And our aging infrastructure can be made more efficient and protective of the environment with technology including fish ladders, fish screens, new points of diversion, and devices that allow dam operators to release deep, cool water for fish downstream. In some places, like the Klamath River, dams should be dismantled entirely.

It serves little purpose to question decisions made 100 years ago. Scientific understanding of California’s environment has advanced more rapidly than California’s aging water infrastructure. But there’s much we can do in terms of how we live, invest and manage our infrastructure that would allow us to leave more reliable and resilient water systems to the next generation.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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