Q&A: Does Sacramento face a future of water shortages?

As California weathers a third year of drought, debates have intensified over how to balance competing water needs: urban vs. rural; people vs. fish; north state vs. south. Against that backdrop, The Sacramento Bee spoke with a local water expert about what the drought means for the Sacramento metro area and how the region should adapt and respond.

John Woodling is executive director of the Sacramento Regional Water Authority, a joint powers agency that represents 25 water providers in Sacramento, Placer and El Dorado counties. Its primary mission is to serve regional supply interests and assist members with protecting and enhancing the reliability, availability, affordability and quality of water resources.

Are water shortages going to become more common in the Sacramento region?

Water shortages do not have to be our future – not if we make the right decisions and implement them. As a foundation, we need to continue to use water more efficiently. Over the long term, and especially in response to the drought, Sacramento-area water users are significantly reducing their water use. But conservation alone can’t ensure reliable water supplies.

Preventing future water shortages will require a three-pronged approach that includes:

•  Local and regional investment in the infrastructure needed to store, move and treat water, including new surface and groundwater storage, expanded recycled water production and use, and improved distribution systems.

•  Improvements to the way the statewide water system is operated to better balance the north state’s needs with other demands. Increasingly, water reserved in Folsom Reservoir for our region’s use during drought is being sacrificed to meet environmental and water supply needs within the Delta and beyond. A higher priority must be placed on maintaining water storage in Folsom and the state’s other major reservoirs to sustain the people and environment of the north state – where the water originates – during severe drought.

•  Regulatory policy changes to address the projected impacts of climate change on our region’s water supplies. Climate change is projected to have a huge impact on the Sacramento region’s water supplies. The Sierra snowpack will shrink and will run off earlier in the season, increasing flood risk and decreasing our ability to capture and save water for summer use. At the same time, sea level will rise, pushing saltwater further inland and requiring additional freshwater releases from Folsom and other reservoirs to hold it back. These impacts must prompt a new regulatory approach to balancing water use for human and environmental needs.

What needs to be done to make water supplies more reliable for the region?

We need to expand all the elements of our toolbox. This includes continuing the progress we’ve made in water conservation, as well as increasing the use of recycled water and alternative supplies. However, groundwater may offer our greatest insurance against future water shortages. The groundwater basin is the Sacramento region’s reservoir, and we are uniquely positioned to maximize this resource to meet local needs, while benefiting the environment and other parts of the state.

Our region committed to sustainably managing groundwater in the late 1990s, and has invested in infrastructure needed to recharge, store, extract and move groundwater around our community. We contribute to our groundwater savings account in wet years so it’s available in dry years. The improvements we’ve made in this regard are helping to meet the region’s needs during the current drought.

We must further expand our region’s ability to use surface water in wet years and groundwater in dry times – through new points of diversion, inter-ties between communities, new surface storage, as well as groundwater recharge and pumping facilities. This system will make water supplies more secure for people, and for the fish and wildlife that also depend on our local waterways.

What is the primary political issue that Sacramento-area leaders need to focus on in regard to water?

Water is critical to our region’s economy, environment and quality of life. We must find a way to solve California’s water challenges that doesn’t take the problems of one part of the state and lay them at the feet of another. To accomplish this, Northern California must be included in a comprehensive plan for statewide water supply reliability. Unfortunately, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, as currently proposed, leaves too much uncertainty and potential redirected impact to be a part of a statewide solution. Solutions focused on a single part of the state just lead to more gridlock and controversy. California can’t afford that any longer. The Brown administration has developed a statewide plan at a conceptual level – the California Water Action Plan – but commitment and the appropriate level of effort must follow.

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