California must invest in watersheds, just like dams

Lake Shasta lies behind Shasta Dam in March. State Treasurer John Chiang says the major watersheds that feed California’s main reservoirs should be recognized as state infrastructure.
Lake Shasta lies behind Shasta Dam in March. State Treasurer John Chiang says the major watersheds that feed California’s main reservoirs should be recognized as state infrastructure. The Record Searchlight (Redding)

To support our prosperity and growth, California needs to expand its investments in our physical and natural infrastructure.

This is particularly apparent as climate change puts stress on our ability to provide safe, clean water. One of the bills awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s decision stands out as a common-sense measure that would help secure California’s future water needs.

Assembly Bill 2480, by Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, would require formal recognition of the five watersheds that feed Northern California’s primary reservoirs as state infrastructure, just like the state’s dams, canals and levees.

These watersheds provide the vast majority of the water for the State Water Project, supplying drinking water for more than 25 million people, irrigation for 8 million of acres of farmland and 85 percent of the water to San Francisco Bay.

California has policies and systems to maintain built water infrastructure. However, the state has no systems for protecting and maintaining our natural water infrastructure, which is essential to providing clean, plentiful water.

The health of the land that surrounds California’s rivers, lakes and streams is critical to a secure water supply, but is in decline due to development, drought and inconsistent land-management practices. AB 2480 seeks to make sure this land is protected and maintained.

A key question is always the cost of such endeavors. The new law would apply modern infrastructure financing approaches to the repair and protection of watersheds. It also would respond to two of the state’s top priority needs identified in the State Water Action Plan: providing for source watershed enhancement and for new financing approaches to enhance our water reliability, quality and supply.

My report outlines the critical need to assess our infrastructure maintenance needs and develop financing approaches to address the backlog of investment. We also need to expand the financing options available to make those investments. We cannot afford to continue to rely on general obligation bond funding to meet our state’s infrastructure needs.

I can attest to the benefit of accessing cost-effective financing options such as revenue bonds and the federal government’s newly established Water Infrastructure Financing and Innovation Act. AB 2480 does this, without raising costs for either the state or ratepayers. Those decisions can be made after deliberate discussion and in the context of future state budget planning.

Improving the condition of our watersheds – especially those that provide water for drinking and irrigation – is the least costly approach to enhancing water reliability while also improving the timing and quality of water flows. AB 2480 was crafted independently of last week’s State Water Resources Control Board proposal to update water quality and flows in the southern Delta, but can still complement it. The bill is a critically important response to the challenges of our changing climate.

Californians can agree that enhancing our water security is a good idea. I urge the governor to sign AB 2480. It will enhance our water security and help ensure more reliable, cleaner and likely more water as our weather patterns change.

John Chiang is California state treasurer. He can be contacted at