A crucial week for water in California

jc-mg-200-names.jpgMark Gold writes:

Mark the calendar. This week will go down as a crucial week in California's water history. The draft Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) and associated Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement (EIR/EIS) was filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday and the public comment period begins this week. So if you're in the mood for reading over 10,000 pages on the state's attempt to fix the Delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and provide farmers and urban users--including Angelenos--with a more reliable water supply for the future, happy holidays to you!

In the last couple of weeks, I've seen Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, Brian Thomas, former CFO of the Metropolitan Water District, and California Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird talk about the BDCP. Despite their very different backgrounds and points of view, they were all very supportive of the plan and the need for tunnels to fix the Delta--despite the estimated $25 billion price tag for the entire package of tunnels, storage facilities, and conservation and restoration efforts. I couldn't help but think that I caught a few shows of the Tunnel of Love tour. No tees, but the show certainly goes on for a long time (insert The River or Badlands reference here)!

DeltaPhoto.jpgFor historical context, my professional mentor was Dorothy Green, the late iconic California water leader who cut her teeth as an activist successfully advocating against the peripheral canal around the Delta. Although this new plan for the Delta certainly isn't the size of the canal project that spurred Dorothy to become arguably our state's most effective water advocate in the last 40 years, there definitely are some concerns that have to be addressed.

Most notably, in a state that has lost its appetite for large environmental bonds and water and energy rate increases (call it a major recession hangover), the BDCP could cause the public to lose their appetite to pay for essential local, sustainable water projects. If Metropolitan Water District and LA Department of Water and Power rates go up substantially to pay for the tunnels, will ratepayers also support rate increases for water recycling, groundwater remediation, and stormwater capture at the local level?

That's asking a lot. But if the state takes an aggressive leadership approach on recycled water, conservation, groundwater management, and stormwater capture, and bundles this local approach with the BDCP and the new state water plan, then maybe the public would support a comprehensive water reform package that provides benefits for everyone in California and begins to provide the resiliency we need to cope with climate change.

Bond packages that throw in a few billion dollars for water recycling and stormwater projects are not enough. As the last decade has demonstrated, some water bond projects (Props 13, 40, 50, and 84) have been wonderful in the particulars, while others have been ineffective. But despite over $10 billion spent, water bond projects have not gone very far in solving the state's overarching water problems.

What California needs is a package that includes so-called Proposition 218 reform so that local governments can raise stormwater and flood control rates without a two-thirds vote of the general public or a majority vote of property owners. The state also needs to put some teeth into water recycling policy by requiring water recycling under certain conditions such as proximity to a large sewage treatment plant, service population, groundwater storage capacity, and other factors. And the agricultural community should be part of the water recycling solution. The current policy, due to politics, doesn't include agriculture despite the fact that agriculture uses nearly 80 percent of the state's water.

Also, the state's water conservation requirement of a 20 percent reduction in water use in urban areas needs to be ratcheted down to require an average use of 100 gallons of potable water per capita per day by 2025 or 2030. This water consumption rate would still be twice as much as the average Australian uses today. And, again, there need to be conservation requirements for the agricultural community. Some farmers do a superb job using the latest efficient irrigation practices and technologies, while other farmers are still using wasteful practices from the mid-20th century. Since agriculture hasn't had the same history as cities on mandatory water conservation, a major boost to funding programs to retrofit farms with the latest in efficient irrigation technologies is a critical incentive for rapid, large-scale change.

Finally, California can't achieve water sustainability without major groundwater management reform. The state has been working on groundwater issues, but untying the legal Gordian knot of water rights and water management jurisdictions is extremely difficult and fraught with the peril of future litigation challenges. However, a strong message needs to be sent statewide by the Brown administration and the legislature that groundwater management reform is a top priority for California. And the message needs to be in the form of legislation.

All of these policy recommendations may not be achieved by the time the BDCP package gets on the state ballot (perhaps as early as November 2014), but all of these recommendations are critical for California to sustainably manage a water supply that is increasingly vulnerable to the inevitable impacts of climate change and population increases.

Photograph of the Delta by Daniel Parks.

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