A flood of ideas to deal with drought

PCL’s Environmental Symposium addressed responsible water use for California’s future

By Alex Strack, PCL Water Policy Intern

On February 1st, the Planning and Conservation League’s annual Symposium focused on an environmental issue that’s divided and eluded Californians from the state’s beginning: water.

The day-long event, held at UC Davis’ School of Law, drew over 200 people from across the state, including elected officials, environmental leaders, law experts and water agency representatives who came to discuss the many challenges facing California’s water supply, distribution and public policy.

Bruce Reznik, Executive Director of the Planning and Conservation League, pointed out that the drought can be viewed in two ways: “We are at a crisis, or an opportunity, that is unprecedented in California.” Ultimately, however, it is how policymakers and scientists respond to the water shortage that will define what the drought becomes.

Peter Gleick, an author, environmental scientist and the founder of Oakland’s Pacific Institute, outlined a positive vision for California’s water: integrating stormwater and groundwater use, managing resources at a local level, modifying pricing and rates, expanding recycled water use, and promoting conservation and efficiency without sacrificing ecosystem quality. But it is a vision made more challenging by water conveyance and infrastructure systems that were designed during a different time period – before impacts on the environment were widely considered. “We have a water system in place that, if we were designing it today, would look completely different,” he said.

Given the state’s current water crisis, Gleick noted that policymakers could no longer afford to think about effects on wildlife as an afterthought in policy decisions, stressing the balance of statewide drought responses with continued ecosystem protection.

Jacob Katz, director of Salmon and Steelhead Initiatives at California Trout, agrees. “We need to incorporate our knowledge of nature with our management of it.”

Currently, California’s system of dams and levees, Katz said, greatly reduces the amount of available marshes, floodplains and wetlands naturally adjacent to rivers – places that are prime breeding grounds for fish. These slower, warmer waters collect algae more quickly and are ideal conditions for insects, which fish rely on for food. But modern water infrastructure blocks access to about 80% of salmon’s traditional spawning and feeding grounds, resulting in weaker, smaller specimens over time. In a study, importing fish onto flooded rice fields led to growth in both the species’ size and population, compared with fish living in the Sacramento River. “If you give organisms a system they recognize you will have a completely different outcome,” Katz said. “We now know that salmon habitat isn’t just sparkling streams and gravels up the mountain. [Fish] need this valley floor habitat.”

Shasta Lake showing the effects of drought

Following Governor Brown’s drought declaration in mid-January, and lawmakers’ efforts to develop responsive legislation, there is renewed talk about revising an $11.14 billion bond that would address the state’s critical water needs – a bond so expensive and laden with earmarks that it’s been delayed from the ballot twice.

Assemblymember Anthony Rendon and Senator Lois Wolk are leading efforts in the Assembly and Senate to develop alternative bonds that (they hope) will reach the November 2014 ballot. The bonds would allocate $6.5 billion for water projects over the next ten years, replacing the 2009 bond that Wolk calls a “nonstarter for environmental justice.”

Rendon stressed the importance of developing a good bond that not only meets the critical needs of the state’s residents, but also successfully passes both houses and is approved by the voters.

Both legislators agree that an ideal bond would emphasize regional water projects, encourage water recycling and stormwater capture, continue conservation and cleanup efforts, improve watersheds and ecosystems and create access to safe drinking water, all while strengthening existing levees and flood protection.

However, Wolk’s proposal appropriates funds specifically to the Delta Conservancy, asserting that regional conservancies know best which projects will provide the most benefit to the Delta.

These divided funds allow not only for increased legislative oversight, but also garner the support of a critical group of California voters: those who live in and around the Delta. Without input and partnership from Delta residents, Wolk says, any water projects undertaken are made less effective. “The control of the funding that goes into the Delta, according to the criteria that are laid out, is really essential,” Wolk said. “You cannot have major restoration efforts anywhere in California without the full participation of the local communities.”

In addition to water recycling, conservation, habitat restoration and stormwater management, both representatives’ proposals also highlight the need for reliable water storage. Tim Quinn, Executive Director of the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) points out that water storage is as much about replenishing groundwater supplies as it is about creating or maintaining above-ground dams, levees, storage tanks and reservoirs. Previously untapped resources, like collected rainwater or stormwater runoff, could factor into refilling depleted groundwater stores. Additionally, repurposing graywater for use in irrigation or other non-potable functions lessens the use of fresh, drinkable water.

“If you invest in 100 units of recycled water and storage, you don’t just have 100 units, you have 400 or 500 because you reduced consumers’ demand and developed supply,” he said.

Both Rendon and Wolk agreed that storage would be highlighted in a comprehensive water bond, including money for both groundwater and surface water storage. However, a divisive issue in the Legislature is whether to allow continuous appropriation for water storage funds. With continuous appropriation in place, once a bond is voted on the Legislature would relinquish oversight on how the money is spent. Wolk’s bond calls on accountability for storage funds, believing there should be “some kind of oversight for projects the public has an interest in.” Mindful of the impact that water infrastructure has on the natural environment, Wolk also recommended removing sediment from behind existing dams and reservoirs, allowing for increased storage capacity without building new facilities.

Dave Metz, a Partner in the public opinion research group Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates (FM3), also joined the conversation, stating that most Californians polled understood the state’s low water supply, even before the drought was declared. “Two-thirds of voters believe that [water supply] problems are so severe that investments need to be made now, and they’re more likely to support a bond because of this,” he said. Three-quarters of voters are interested in long-term answers – water recycling, improved drinking water quality and plans for extreme weather – but feel most comfortable with their local water agencies determining how money is spent on water projects. Even so, Metz cautions, support for even a reduced $7 million bond is fragile, and will require a carefully crafted message, a broad coalition of supporters and a strong, favorable campaign.

While opinions diverged, each of the panelists agreed that the current drought is the impetus needed to move California toward sustainable water practices. “If the drought ends, the pressure to create changes may leave,” Gleick pointed out.  Quinn agrees, noting that it was a serious water crisis that spurred Southern Californians into changing their daily water use habits – even timing showers and landscaping with drought-tolerant plants. Now, Southern Californians use hundreds of gallons less water on average per day than most of their northern neighbors. It is time, he says, to move those successful regional policies to the state level.

“We hope this drought ends tomorrow,” Peter Gleick stated. “But if it does, the pressure for some of these changes is going to disappear a bit. Some of us hope the drought continues long enough to lead to some fundamental changes that reduce the costs to all of us at water management.”

For now, Californians can do their part to conserve water by watering lawns and washing cars less often, taking shorter showers and mindfully washing full loads of clothes and dishes. Small, responsible changes now will mean more water during the dry summer months ahead, and a helpful buffer as top minds from around the state continue to address the drought.

“There’s nothing like a crisis to change the conversation,” he said.