This past year brought drought-busting rain and snow and severe wildfires—extremes that tested California’s systems for managing water supply and the natural environment and foreshadow conditions of a changing climate. In light of these challenges, a PPIC Water Policy Center event in Sacramento last week brought together experts to discuss ways forward in three areas: legislative priorities for cities, farms, and rural communities; partnerships that improve the health of ecosystems; and decisions for the Colorado River and Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta.
Ellen Hanak, director of the PPIC Water Policy Center, began the program by summarizing priorities for California water outlined in a new PPIC report. These include California’s ability to recharge aquifers, maintain dams and levees, manage headwater forests and aquatic ecosystems, and provide safe drinking water to rural communities.
The first panel examined a host of proposed, passed, and pending water bills, covering topics as diverse as funding water infrastructure, improving water-use reporting, and addressing safe drinking water problems.
The lack of safe drinking water in disadvantaged communities prompted a lively conversation on how to pay for a lasting solution to the problem. Laurel Firestone, codirector of the Community Water Center, noted that while California has passed a resolution declaring a human right to water, the state’s drinking water crisis—which she said dwarfs that of Flint, Michigan—will take a more concerted effort to resolve.
One possible funding solution the panel discussed is a tax on fertilizers to pay for cleaning up groundwater contaminated by nitrate, which can cause health problems. “This is a legacy problem that stems from the over-application of nitrogen fertilizer for many, many decades,” said Dave Puglia, executive vice president of Western Growers.
The second panel tackled a problem even longer in the making: the crisis in California’s aquatic ecosystems. “We spent 150 years fundamentally changing the ecosystem… We’ve spent about 40 years actively failing to do something about it,” noted Lewis Bair, a water resource engineer with Reclamation District No. 108. “Our system is so modified, and there’s so much work to do, it will probably take a generation to make significant change.” The panelists discussed innovative projects and partnerships that are providing multiple benefits while also improving habitat for aquatic species—and how to scale them up to get broader effects at the ecosystem level.
The final panel looked at two watersheds that have outsized importance to California’s water supply: the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta and the Colorado River. While the multi-state effort to improve management of the Colorado River has become a model of cooperation, efforts to make progress in the Delta have been more contentious.
Much of the conversation focused on WaterFix, the state’s proposal to modernize the Delta’s water export infrastructure with a pair of tunnels. Grant Davis, the new director of the California Department of Water Resources, called the Delta “the heart of the state’s water supply delivery,” and said that “the status quo will take us into unreliability and ultimately a crisis—and no one wants to manage water in a crisis.” The conversation turned to the long and difficult history of trying to resolve water conflict in the Delta, the need for reliable water supplies for agriculture, and the costs of the tunnels project.
We invite you to watch the videos from this event and hope you find the discussions illuminating and useful:
- Welcome and Introduction by Ellen Hanak
- Legislative Priorities for Cities, Farms, and Rural Communities
- Advancing Partnerships for Healthy Ecosystems
- Decision Time for the Colorado River and Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta
As originally published on The PPIC Blog by Lori Pottinger on November 1, 2017