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How California Legislators Can Create a Path to Water Sustainability

A wet winter doesn’t mean the end to California’s water issues. That’s why a number of new bills proposed by state legislators will be essential for helping to tackle some of the state’s long-term water concerns.

Written by Kirsten James Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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Flood water crosses over Interstate 5 backing up traffic on February 18, 2017 in Williams, California. New bills introduced by California lawmakers will help the state deal with water extremes of both flood and drought.Flood water crosses over Interstate 5 backing up traffic on February 18, 2017 in Williams, California. New bills introduced by California lawmakers will help the state deal with water extremes of both flood and drought.

What a difference a year makes, I’m thinking as I head to Sacramento for meetings with legislators and company members of Connect the Drops, a campaign my organization spearheaded to drive smart water use in California.

Last year, more than 90 percent of the state was experiencing some level of drought – today, just 8 percent is. This winter, our state was inundated by rain and snow, with precipitation beating records going back to before 1895, when they started keeping track. And the Oroville Dam has been the big story of late, replacing last year’s headlines about fallow fields.

It would be nice to think that our water worries are over. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. This cycle of extremes is our new normal. The whiplash from drought to inundation is one more result of climate change, and we need our legislators to remain committed to solving the state’s water issues for the long term.

The business leaders joining me in Sacramento understand that tackling water issues is a long-term play. No company or industry can thrive without a stable, reliable supply of good quality water.

Legislators have to help prepare California so the state is resilient under both extremes – water scarcity and excess. And in fact, there are some very promising concepts aimed at keeping us on the right track, and bill proposals to turn those concepts into reality.

Front and center is the work around conserving and maximizing our local water supplies. Increasing water efficiency is one of the best ways to address California’s water challenges, and it saves companies money. For instance, conserving water and recycling water are typically much more cost-effective than importing water or developing desalinization facilities.

California lawmakers gather for Gov. Jerry Brown's annual State of the State address on January 24, 2017, in Sacramento, California. New bills proposed by state legislators tackle the state's issues with water sustainability.(Rich Pedroncelli, AP)

California lawmakers gather for Gov. Jerry Brown’s annual State of the State address on January 24, 2017, in Sacramento, California. New bills proposed by state legislators tackle the state’s issues with water sustainability.(Rich Pedroncelli, AP)

Two bills under consideration right now – one in the California State Assembly, the other in the California Senate – could make real strides in conserving local water. The first is AB 1667 – introduced by assembly member Laura Friedman – which would require the installation of dedicated landscape meters on existing commercial, industrial and institutional properties over a specified size threshold by January 1, 2020. The logic behind this bill is straightforward: You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Dedicated landscape meters would help companies better manage water use by helping to find irrigation system leaks and inform landscaping decisions, for example. Its two companion bills, AB 1668 and AB 1669, will work in tandem to make conservation a way of life in California.

The second bill is SB 740 – introduced by state Sen. Scott Wiener – which takes a different tack. It directs the State Water Resources Control Board to offer local governments a framework for regulating the treatment of alternate water sources, such as gray water and stormwater, to be consistent with public health standards. Many companies are trying to do the right thing and implement these systems at their facilities but are facing regulatory barriers. These systems can be managed in a safe way, and we need our state to pave that path.

Investing in smart water infrastructure is another key building block to a robust water future. California needs an infrastructure system that is effective in times of drought and in times of excess. Too much precipitation has washed into the sea because the state does not have the right infrastructure to capture the deluges we’ve experienced this winter. Several legislative proposals, including the California Drought, Water, Parks, Climate, Coastal Protection and Outdoor Access for All Act of 2018 (SB 5 and AB 18), outline funding for drought preparedness, flood protection, clean drinking water and climate adaption, among other projects.

But legislators have to ensure that bond dollars are spent on projects that truly improve California’s water security and consider sufficient funding in the long term. We all know budget resources are tight and that the state regularly underfunds water infrastructure projects. To make the most of limited dollars, we must be laser-focused on investing public money on cost-effective local water projects, such as stormwater capture and recharge and water recycling.

On-farm recharge of floodwater, for example, can be very cost-effective, with costs running between $63 and $168 per acre-foot of water compared to surface storage projects that can cost $1,900 or more per acre-foot.

Finally, we must recognize that our groundwater basins are still severely overdrafted despite the recent rains. We have to take a step back and plan out thoughtful, long-term sustainable groundwater management. Our legislators must ensure that the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 is implemented and that appropriate fiscal and administrative support is provided to enable local agencies in high-risk, fast-depleting groundwater basins to develop their sustainability plans.

But legislators also need to take immediate steps to protect water sources that are vulnerable right now. Some 21 groundwater basins throughout California are deemed “critically overdrafted,” even with all the torrential rains and snow. That’s causing wells to dry up, land to subside and saltwater to intrude from the sea.

Because the groundwater law won’t be fully implemented for several years, groundwater from these overdrafted basins is in jeopardy. That’s where SB 252, introduced by state Sen. Bill Dodd, comes in. The bill calls for greater transparency in providing existing pumpers and landowners in critically overdrafted basins with important information about the use of shared groundwater resources, specifically regarding applications for new well permits.

Connect the Drops’ partners are doing their part on water stewardship, but no single sector in society can help prepare us for the impact of climate change. We all are in this together. Today, we’ll be calling upon our state leaders to help get the state on a sustainable path – in times of excess and in times of drought.

Join more than 500 investors, companies and sustainability leaders to talk about business solutions to key sustainability issues including water scarcity, climate change and clean energy at the Ceres Conference 2017 in San Francisco on April 26 and 27. Learn more and register at www.ceresconference.org.

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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