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Rethinking ‘Infrastructure’ to Protect California’s Water Future

The California Water Commission’s draft regulations for water storage projects is nearly complete but it looks like the commission may miss an important opportunity to allow groundwater basins to play a role in water resilience, writes Kirsten James of Ceres.

Written by Kirsten James Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
California storms2
Mustard is seen between the rows of vineyards flooded by water from the Russian River Friday, March 11, 2016, in Forestville, Calif. Groundwater recharge from floods can provide an alternative storage for water resources in some areas.Eric Risberg, AP

What image does the term “water infrastructure” conjure up for you? Likely something engineered, such as a pipe carrying water, a reservoir storing drinking water or a treatment plant purifying wastewater. But the definition should actually be broadened to include natural water infrastructure that was moving and treating water long before pipelines and anaerobic digesters even existed.

California has started down this “new” (old) way of thinking – and it’s welcome news.

A law enacted late last month rethinks our state’s traditional approach to water infrastructure. Assembly Bill 2480, authored by assembly member Richard Bloom and sponsored by the Pacific Forest Trust, cements as statewide policy a recognition that watersheds are fundamentally important to California’s water infrastructure – just as important as dams, reservoirs, canals, pumps and pipes.

With AB 2480 coming into law, five watersheds in Northern California – which together supply 25 million people with drinking water, irrigate 8 million acres of farmland and provide 85 percent of the water that flows into San Francisco Bay – can now access the same financing tools that we use to maintain and improve “gray” infrastructure. The law is an important step in reversing the tide of poor land management around these watersheds, and it will allow the state to better finance watershed conservation and restoration.

This infrastructure approach has enormous potential to improve the quality and reliability of the state’s water flows, and it’s a mindset that we urgently need to apply to other water challenges in California.

A case in point is the California Water Commission’s (CWC) draft regulations for water storage projects, currently in the final stages of development. As the Water System Investment Program (WSIP) takes shape, we have an opportunity to show how ground and surface storage can work together to increase our water system’s resilience by providing equal footing for both options to be eligible for $2.7 billion in funding made possible by Proposition 1’s passage in 2014. This means our overdrawn groundwater basins, which have triple the storage space of all of our surface reservoirs combined, could do what they do best – store water.

Ceres and nine of our company partners, including Driscoll’s Berries and Fetzer Vineyards, engaged with policymakers last spring to help shape these regulations. We urged the CWC to ensure that the regulations set a framework that provides an equal funding opportunity to smart, cost-effective groundwater recharge storage projects.

We were encouraged by the response at CWC hearings and by a subsequent draft of the WSIP, particularly in terms of offering technical and financial assistance to support smaller projects. Unfortunately, the most recent draft of WSIP regulations released last month will make these smaller, innovative groundwater projects difficult if not impossible to receive funding.

The latest draft regulations require an extremely complex project analysis in order to submit a proposal seeking funding. And because CWC staff is proposing only one funding round for the entire pot of $2.7 billion in 2017, many innovative smaller-scale projects will not have the time to develop project proposals.

A number of environmental groups fighting for smarter water policies have detailed how this proposed process and timeline will inhibit California from moving forward on groundwater storage.

A letter these groups submitted on October 3 explains how a two-step pre-application process – which was removed from the latest WSIP draft – gives proponents of smaller projects a better chance to determine if their project might be eligible and if the public benefits are sufficient to justify pursuing the full application process.

The groups also argue that the latest draft minimizes the impacts of climate change on water supplies, which serves to downplay the greater resilience of groundwater storage over surface water storage. Moreover, the latest regulations underplay cost-effectiveness in determining which projects receive funding. Groundwater projects are often more cost-effective than surface water projects, so this change in criteria further hinders groundwater projects’ approval prospects.

Groundwater projects are often more cost-effective than surface water projects.

Final comments on the WSIP regulations were due last week, and there will be a public hearing on October 18 about the comments and the current state of the regulations. There is still an opportunity for the California Water Commission to craft the regulations in a way that will give equal consideration to groundwater and surface-water projects.

As evidenced by the passage of AB 2480, the legislature has recognized the enormous value of the nature-based infrastructure to the state’s water future. Hopefully the CWC will show the same wisdom.

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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