Soapbox: California opens door to new chapter in water policy

The statewide water plan is touching off a new chapter in how we manage water and prepare for future droughts, climate change and other challenges.
The statewide water plan is touching off a new chapter in how we manage water and prepare for future droughts, climate change and other challenges.

For California water managers, 2014 has been one for the record books. Reservoirs have dropped to near-record lows, surface water deliveries have been slashed and some communities are rationing water to keep supplies in reserve for next year.

But amid these challenging conditions, California voters opened the door for long-term solutions when they passed Proposition 1 on Nov. 4. The $7.5 billion bond measure provides a much-needed infusion of funding for water projects and programs at a pivotal time in California.

The success of Proposition 1 caps years of efforts to advance a fiscally responsible water bond to reinvest in our water system and jump-start the all-of-the-above strategy we know we need for our future. And for the first time, these investments will be tied to a statewide Water Action Plan laid out by Gov. Jerry Brown earlier this year that recognizes there is no silver bullet to cure our 21st century water supply challenges.

The statewide water plan is touching off a new chapter in how we manage water and prepare for future droughts, climate change and other challenges to come. With the funding assistance of Proposition 1, we will make the single-largest investment ever in programs such as water recycling, conservation, stormwater capture and groundwater cleanup that can be brought on line relatively quickly.

In addition, we will employ new tools and authorities at the local level to manage groundwater basins for long-term sustainability goals outlined in groundwater legislation enacted this year. These strategies will play a major role in meeting local and regional needs in the coming decades.

In another first for California, we will complement those efforts with the most significant state investment in water storage in a half-century. The California Water Commission will allocate $2.7 billion – on a competitive basis – to help fund above- and below-ground water storage projects that add flexibility and resiliency to the system. These projects, which will be matched with other local and regional funds, will take longer to bring on line, but they will be essential to making conservation and groundwater cleanup work to their full potential. They also will be critical to meeting groundwater sustainability goals and operating our water system for 21st century demands for both ecosystem health and water supply reliability.

Investments in watersheds, flood management and safe drinking water improvements, particularly in disadvantaged communities, also will get a boost in the coming years.

As water leaders from Northern and Southern California, we can attest to the fact that we need every tool in the toolbox to provide reliable water to customers. And we need to combine those tools in ways we didn’t think about 25 or 30 years ago. Local agencies around the state are poised to recycle more wastewater, capture more stormwater and recharge it in groundwater basins, expand water conservation and water-use efficiency programs, and even pursue desalination projects.

These efforts will work in tandem with new storage capacity built with seed money from Proposition 1 to create more robust local and regional water supplies that can better withstand future droughts and the effects of climate change.

This mix of strategies and the link to a comprehensive, statewide plan are signposts of a very positive evolution taking place in California water. The fact that Proposition 1 passed by the largest margin in history for any water bond shows the drought-weary public understands the need to reinvest in our water system.

But while there is much to cheer, it would be a mistake to conclude that our problems are over. In many ways, the real work is just beginning. The bond funds will help accelerate many of the projects and programs we need, but there will be much more required to provide a secure water future for California’s cities, farms and businesses.

For now, local water agencies will continue developing and refining the innovative projects that will be part of our future. We will strengthen relationships with neighboring agencies and stakeholders with an eye toward making the pieces fit to create the most resilient and reliable local and regional water supply portfolio possible.

Longer term, we will continue to pursue any and all options to improve supplies and manage critical groundwater basins for new sustainability goals – all consistent with a statewide, comprehensive plan.

As the state appears headed to a fourth year of drought, Californians can be assured that the statewide water plan and its all-of-the-above approach are the right formula. Together, we are taking a major step in a new era for California water.

John A. Coleman is president of the Association of California Water Agencies and a director of the East Bay Municipal Utility District. Kathleen Tiegs is vice president of ACWA and a director of the Cucamonga Valley Water District.