My Turn: Unfinished Business on Water

August 6, 2018

Wade Crowfoot

Sacramento River
Sacramento River, Eric Coulter / Bureau of Land Management

Cross-posted from CalMatters.

In the latest Public Policy Institute of California poll, voters said drought, water supply, and water pollution are the state’s most pressing environmental challenge.

Californians recognize that water fuels our economy, grows our food, and sustains our natural places.

It’s also in peril:

  • During the recent drought, small communities in the San Joaquin Valley literally ran out of water;
  • Upward of one million Californians do not have clean and safe water in their homes;
  • Aquifers, which provide between 30 and 60 percent of our annual water supply, are severely depleted;
  • Many farming communities face uncertain water supplies year-to-year;
  • More than 82 percent of California’s native freshwater fish will be extinct in the next century, some studies show.

Climate change, which brings more frequent and severe droughts and flooding, compounds all this. These facts should compel action. And they have, but only to an extent.

During our epic drought, lawmakers passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act to balance our groundwater supplies. That same year, state voters approved a $7 billion bond to fund construction of vital water projects.

On June 5, voters approved Proposition 68 providing $2 billion for water projects.  And lawmakers passed new water efficiency standards for cities and farms.

These improvements are part of Gov. Jerry Brown’s Water Action Plan to strengthen California’s water future. Most water experts agree that the action plan is a smart path forward. But much work remains.

Tonight, one in 40 Californians live in homes that draw on unsafe drinking water.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In 2012, a state law established access to water as a human right. Six years later, we have failed to deliver this basic right.

In response, community-based groups and agricultural leaders have forged a solution to fund water pollution treatment in poor communities (bonds cannot fund ongoing activities like this).

In the closing days of the legislative session, lawmakers should prioritize enacting this Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, originally introduced in Senate Bill 623 by Sen. Bill Monning, a Democrat from Carmel, and now part of the Governor’s budget.

Another imperative involves the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and the Delta.

Gov. Brown’s team has been working to bring water users and conservation groups together to craft an agreement that provides greater water predictability to farms and cities while bringing back fish and wildlife populations from the brink of extinction.

Failure to compromise will lead to regulatory action and likely litigation, more water supply uncertainty, and further environmental decline.

The next governor will take office in less than six months. The new administration should prioritize water and build on progress made by this administration.

High on this list should be capturing winter rain by getting more water into aquifers. We waste billions of gallons of water each year that could be captured for use during dry months.

Also promising is modernizing water infrastructure to work better for people and nature. Expanding floodplains in parts of the Central Valley can reduce flood risks while expanding habitat for endangered salmon.

Farmers would be paid to lend their land for this purpose. A new water bond on the November ballot would provide funding for these and other innovative water solutions.

California water issues often get reduced to fish vs. farms, cities vs rural and north vs. south. These are false choices. We need to meet our water challenges together.