In his State of the State and inaugural address, Gov. Jerry Brown reflected on the “eerie resemblance” between the challenges his father faced and those we grapple with today.
Gov. Pat Brown’s California responded to the water crisis of his day with a massive undertaking, building the State Water Project. While many unforeseen problems resulted from that effort, it nevertheless became the envy of the world. Sadly, California’s water infrastructure system is no longer regarded with such reverence. It is a regular source of conflict, has changed little in the past 50 years, and is not designed or managed to meet the growing challenges of a much larger population and a changing climate.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s address also celebrated successful passage of Proposition 1, the $7.5 billion water bond. And his budget proposal released Jan. 9 included the first $532 million of expenditures from the bond. We now have a great responsibility to use these resources to build a new generation of water infrastructure that meets the complex demands of the 21st century and once again makes California’s water system the envy of the world.
When the water bond passed, some hailed it as a “fix” for California’s water system. But fixing implies putting a new part on an old system. Rather than thinking about the task ahead as “fixing,” California should focus on rethinking and transforming its water system.
Make no mistake, this transformation won’t happen overnight, but the process needs to begin today. The water bond provides an opportunity to build upon the best of what we already have and invest in new approaches and infrastructure. There is a significant opportunity to make a down payment on long-term investments in new forms of water storage, better stewardship of groundwater resources, enhanced ecosystems and improving local reliability of urban water supplies. Success will help ensure a stronger economy and an enhanced quality of life for all Californians.
While talk of water storage causes most to think of large dams, which will continue to play an important role, there is a much wider range of alternatives and opportunities to explore.
Smaller, more distributed networks of dams and interconnections can “produce” new water relatively quickly and cheaply through more efficient trades and transfers of water. Underground aquifers are “nature’s reservoirs” and have capacity to store 20 times more water as surface reservoirs. The bond calls out funding for projects to store more water in the ground, and the historic Sustainable Groundwater Management Act passed in 2014 significantly improves the legal landscape to make this happen.
The California Water Commission is charged with allocating $2.7 billion in bond money to fund the public benefits – ecosystem, water quality, flood control, recreation – associated with new storage projects. Starting this week, the commission will hold meetings to solicit ideas from the public about how best to implement this mandate.
It may surprise people to learn that ecosystems are an important part of California’s water system. Forests are the source of more than 60 percent of the state’s water. Wetlands filter and store water as well as temper flooding. Loss of those natural resources and associated benefits creates a “regulatory vulnerability” to our water system. Investments through the bond are available to protect and enhance natural infrastructure.
We also have tremendous opportunity to improve water infrastructure for our cities. Just last October, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti set a goal to improve the city’s self-reliance. To accomplish this, all residents will have to reduce water use, and the city will need to invest in new local supplies. Programs to pay homeowners to replace their lawns with beautiful, drought-tolerant gardens promise to significantly reduce water demand.
New advancements in wastewater treatment facilities will allow cities to reuse water again and again, rather than sending it to the ocean. Transforming urban landscapes to function “greener” allows captured rain to percolate into groundwater aquifers rather than running off pavement and fouling our beaches. Taken individually, these strategies are modest, but when approached as an integrated plan, can make our cities more resilient, reduce costs and improve quality of life. Los Angeles’ efforts should be modeled in cities across the state, including Sacramento.
Terms like “monumental” and “historic” are overused and what they describe seldom lives up to those monikers, but I really believe 2014 qualifies. But last year won’t truly be historic if we don’t follow through this year. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get started.
Andrew Fahlund is the deputy director of the California Water Foundation.