California’s water policy at potential tipping point

The federal California drought bill will place additional pressure on California’s ability to manage water for the benefit of wildlife, agriculture and cities.
The federal California drought bill will place additional pressure on California’s ability to manage water for the benefit of wildlife, agriculture and cities. Sacramento Bee file

Recent rain and snowfall conditions have us all hoping 2017 may be a wet year and offer a break in our six-year drought.

But whether the drought is broken or not, Californians must act this year to achieve more sustainable long-term water management. California operates at a water deficit. Even in wet years, we use more surface and groundwater than is replenished by rainfall. It is not sustainable.

The recently enacted federal California drought bill and the arrival of a Trump administration will place additional pressure on California’s ability to manage water for the benefit of all the things we care about including wildlife, agriculture and cities.

The federal drought bill is designed expressly to “maximize water exports” from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta while maintaining minimal standards for river flows under the Endangered Species Act. Whether this formula can stabilize endangered salmon runs is a fundamental question, one likely to be decided in court.

Amid the turmoil, what happens in California in 2017 and 2018, during Gov. Jerry Brown’s remaining years in office, may go a long way to determining whether our state has the resolve to manage its limited water resources more sustainably.

Under Brown and the Legislature’s leadership, California has made important progress. The state has enacted reforms to encourage conservation and reduce reliance on the Delta as a source of Central Valley, Southern California and Silicon Valley water.

We achieved critically important groundwater management reforms, erasing California’s legacy as being the last state in the West to manage its groundwater. Californians approved a $7 billion water bond to help improve water supplies for people and nature and develop alternative water supplies via recycling and storm water capture and water storage among other pathways.

In response to the drought, the State Water Resources Control Board enacted short-term drought conservation measures and is undertaking a path to establish long-term conservation standards to improve water use efficiency. The board is also driving an updated plan to improve water quality in the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and the San Francisco Bay-Delta.

The challenge ahead is that all of these measures must advance beyond where we stand today.

California has an opportunity to realistically embrace and address our water management challenges with practical solutions. Critical benchmarks include:

▪  Establishing a meaningful update of the Bay-Delta Water Quality plan that includes additional flows in our rivers to San Francisco Bay and enhanced habitat requirements.

▪  Increasing monitoring of the flows in our rivers and streams and groundwater to better understand our actual water conditions.

▪  Developing water financing reforms to protect and fund water quality in streams and aquifers, develop alternative water supplies from stormwater and recycling, and to clean up contaminated groundwater.

Finally, the twin tunnels water conveyance is expected to receive permits from state and federal regulatory agencies this year. But questions remain, not the least of which is whether those permits would ensure that the project is operated in a manner to reduce water exports from the Delta consistent with California law.

The reality of climate change is upon us. There will be longer and more severe droughts, and wetter and warmer winters.

If we don’t act now, we will face greater scarcity, more uncertainty and more pitched battles. Solutions for our water, groundwater and flood management won’t come easily, and they will require significant investment. We will need more creativity, more technology and more resolve. In the balance is whether California can find a sustainable path to manage water in a way that benefits all of us.

Jay Ziegler is director of external affairs for The Nature Conservancy in California. He can be reached at