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Experts Weigh In: California’s Biggest Water Policy Priorities

California’s prolonged drought has been an opportunity for the state to address critical water issues, but there is still more than can be done. Water Deeply asked four water experts about what the state should tackle next.

Written by Eline Gordts Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
California drought dry town4
This 5,000-gallon (19,000-liter) water tank provides water for residents whose wells have run dry in East Porterville, Calif. A lack of clean drinking water in some communities in California is leading for calls for more resources to address the right to water for all.Scott Smith, AP

Five years into a drought, California is facing essential decisions about its water future. It’s implementing new groundwater law, weighing the pros and cons of a large infrastructure project for water supply and beefing up its data collection.

But there’s more to do.

Water Deeply asked four experts who work in different arenas of California water issues what they think should be California’s biggest policy priority to address in the next year. Here’s what they had to say.

Kate Poole, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council

There are a number of urgent priorities that need to be addressed to bring California’s outdated water management in line with today’s needs. But one of the most urgent is the need for integration – for treating all of the state’s freshwater resources and water demands comprehensively. Our consistent failure to do that perpetuates the “water wars” in a destructive way.

A recent example of this shortcoming is the state water board’s decision this past year to lift mandatory conservation requirements on urban water agencies in response to pressure from those agencies to sell more water and improve their declining revenues. The state board entirely failed to consider how lifting mandatory conservation, which successfully prompted the people of California to save about 1.75 million acre-feet (2.1 billion cubic meters) between June of 2015 and June of 2016, would affect California’s environment or agricultural sector. The Board has taken about 1.5 million acre-feet away from the environment since the drought began in 2014 by weakening or waiving water quality standards, and did so again this year, even after lifting mandatory urban conservation requirements. While lifting those restrictions may have appeased one set of water users, they have allowed other sectors to continue to suffer and decline by failing to approach water demands in an integrated fashion.

What California lacks – and should prioritize implementing – is a comprehensive water budget approach to bringing overtaxed basins into balance for people and nature. The idea is simple: Managing water is like managing a budget, and to effectively manage this scarce resource, we must know the deposits coming in, payments going out and whether and by how much we must increase income or limit spending to stay within the budget to meet all of the system’s needs. By integrating a supply and demand analysis across sectors (urban, agricultural and environmental), and identifying the tools and innovations needed to balance supply and demand, this water budget approach can provide a data-driven and realistic vision for restoring long-term sustainability to a watershed.

Laurel Firestone, co-executive director at the Community Water Center

Bruce Wilcox of the Imperial Irrigation District looks down at the cracked, exposed Salton Sea lakebed near Niland, Calif. The lake’s shrinkage has exposed about 25 square miles (65 square kilometers) of salt-encrusted lakebed since 2003, with more likely to come. (Gregory Bull, AP)

Bruce Wilcox of the Imperial Irrigation District looks down at the cracked, exposed Salton Sea lakebed near Niland, Calif. The lake’s shrinkage has exposed about 25 square miles (65 square kilometers) of salt-encrusted lakebed since 2003, with more likely to come. (Gregory Bull, AP)

Most Californians take for granted that the water flowing from their taps is safe. Unfortunately, almost 300 California communities do not have that basic human right, and thousands of Californians don’t have water flowing from their taps at all. In any given year, more than 1 million Californians are impacted by unsafe drinking water in their homes, schools and workplaces. And with the drought, almost 12,000 individuals are out of water because their wells have run dry or will soon.

Just a short trip south from Sacramento, hundreds of Latino farmworker communities in the San Joaquin Valley are affected by the injustice of unsafe, unaffordable and unreliable water. In Kern County, the City of Arvin has 20,000 residents who can’t drink the water because it is laced with arsenic. In Tulare County, Woodville’s primary supply well collapsed last week due to rampant groundwater overdraft, leaving the community reliant on a weak backup well that keeps shutting down. Further north, residents in the community of Seville continue to receive notices warning mothers with young children to buy bottled water to prevent sickness and possible death due to nitrate contamination.

It is imperative that the legislature prioritize funding solutions so that all California communities have access to the basic human right to water. California needs a sustainable funding source to address communities’ long-term drinking water needs, including water system operation and maintenance. Since nitrates are the most prevalent man-made contaminant in the state, one such funding source could be a fee on fertilizer, manure and other sources of nitrate to ensure the cost of mitigating nitrate contamination is borne by those contributing to the pollution, rather than by individual families and taxpayers. In addition to a nitrate fee, we will also need other funding sources to address the other urgent unmet drinking water needs in our state. In the year ahead, we at the Community Water Center will work alongside our community partners and allies to ensure state leadership finally establishes a sustainable funding source to guarantee every Californian has the basic human right to safe, clean and affordable water.

Mike Wade, executive director at the California Farm Water Coalition

California’s greatest water supply challenges during the coming year will continue to be a lack of accountability and failure to produce quantifiable measures of success for the largest water use in the state – environmental water use. Federal mismanagement has failed to produce measurable ecosystem improvements and fish species continue to falter despite the state flushing more than 1 million acre-feet (1.2 billion cubic meters) of water into the ocean just this year. This water could have been beneficially used to provide 6 million domestic users with water for a year or grow almost 17 billion salads. Agricultural and urban water users are required by law to produce efficient water management plans. These same requirements for environmental water managers will end the waste and help balance the needs of environmental, urban and farm water users throughout the state.

Requiring the adoption of quantifiable objectives and reasonable management for environmental water will help to ensure that environmental water managers work to responsibly manage our state’s water. It will foster the adoption of innovative, 21st-century approaches that use science-based ecosystem management actions that improve environmental water-use efficiency. This way California will be more able to weather a drought and serve the needs of farms, cities, businesses, schools, recreation, water quality projects and other environmental concerns.

Celeste Cantú, general manager of the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority

The Colorado River is in a drought and the Bureau of Reclamation’s hydrology projections study tells us there will be increasingly less water in the system as the decades go on. Over and above that, the allocations are oversubscribed, regardless of drought or not. The bottom line is there’s not enough water to deliver year in and year out.

Californians depend on Colorado River water. If you are in the Imperial Valley, you get 100 percent of your water from the Colorado River. If you’re one of the 6 million people from the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority, it delivers about 15 percent of your water. California has a multiplicity of water sources, but any reduction to deliveries from the Colorado River is going to put tremendous pressure for more water delivery from other sources – exactly at a time that those other sources are vulnerable, too. Groundwater replenishment and surface water deliveries are highly stressed after five years of drought. The Delta is highly stressed. It’s the opportunity for the perfect storm, of problems in three big systems coming together, all of them stressed.

There are things being done: The Metropolitan Water District is very engaged in Colorado River management, California took an 8 percent voluntary reduction from the river and the Colorado Salinity Forum has made significant investments in the upper Colorado River watershed in an attempt to keep salt out of the system.

But part of the solution is integrations – water-use efficiency and landscaping as if we live in California, because we do. The Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority looks at everything in terms integrations, so it’s easier for us to focus on these issues and think about them because we don’t keep them compartmentalized. There’s a certain fragility that happens when you start to think of only one aspect of the water system, like the Delta. It makes the overall system less robust and more fragile.

The next big piece we need to address is the Colorado River’s terminus – the Salton Sea, it literally flows from and comes from the Colorado River discussion.

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