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Environment, Energy and Transportation

California Has A New Plan To Protect Its Water Supply From Climate Change, But Some Say It's Based On Old Thinking

Folsom_Dam_Gates.jpg
The Oaked Ridge
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CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
Closeup photograph of the spillway gates of the Folsom Dam during a release event.

California has a new plan for equipping the state to cope with water related challenges like climate change. But some say it relies on old thinking and harmful water storage projects.

Water is a big deal in California, and climate change is threatening the precious resource. That’s why Gov. Gavin Newsom finalized a broad plan this week to help prevent future water challenges, but some Californians say it relies on old thinking and harmful water storage projects.

The Water Resilience Portfolio outlines 142 actions the state could take to build resilience as the effects of warming temperatures grow. It supports everything from a recent fund focused on safe and affordable drinking water to habitat restoration to improving groundwater storage capabilities.

It’s touted as a way to cope with the effects of climate change — more extreme droughts, floods, rising temperatures, declining fish populations and so on.

“Water is the lifeblood of our state, sustaining communities, wildlife and our economy,” Newsom said in a press release. “My administration has worked to assemble a blueprint to secure this vital and limited resource into the future in a way that builds climate resilience for all communities and sustains native fish and the habitat they need to thrive.”

The final version — a result of an April 2019 executive order — also notes that because of the “drastic downturn in the state’s budget situation” the pace of implementing the actions will depend on what resources are available, which means it’s an “aspirational document.”

“This blueprint establishes regional priorities that align challenges with opportunities for water-focused innovations like conservation, replenishing aquifers and direct potable reuse,” said Secretary for Environmental Protection Jared Blumenfeld.

The idea is supported by many farmers and others in the world of water who like the idea of a tunnel to carry Northern California Water south, which the plan supports.

“It will protect the water supply for essentially two-thirds of Californians from the very real risk of earthquakes, more extreme floods, prolonged droughts and sea level rise,” said Michael Quigley, Co-Chair of Californians for Water Security.

Concerns From Environmental Groups

But creating a $17 billion one-tunnel project doesn’t sit well with environmental groups like Sierra Club California that have asked the administration to think of alternatives to diverting water from the San Francisco Bay-Delta. Kathryn Phillips, head of the group, says the new plan is very similar to the old one in that it includes the tunnel plan and building a new reservoir.

“His administration has shown a level of naivete about water policy in the state and that’s sort of jaw dropping,” she said. “They continue to believe that this project that was first proposed in the 1940s will still satisfy California's water needs, even as we face a critical climate crisis that's changing the way water flows.”

She says the idea should be scrapped and the focus put even more on preparing each region of California to withstand climate change instead of pulling water resources from one part of the state to another. The plan does support local communities in establishing sustainable groundwater solutions.

“The most important thing we need to do is to get to a place where we are truly regionally resilient,” she said. “That's only going to happen when we stop making ourselves dependent on transporting increasing amounts of water from places where water is going to be declining [because of climate change].”

The plan, if funds allow, could accomplish a ton — protect Californians from pollution, modernize water data systems and present a unified pursuit of federal funding — but an analysis from the Pacific Institute says “there are still gaps that must be addressed.”

The group says the plan could do five things better:

  • prioritize efforts with multiple benefits
  • get involved in negotiations around the Colorado River
  • include the business community more in decisions about water
  • do even more for the Salton Sea
  • advance projects to collect stormwater

Focus On Safe Drinking Water

The proposal does prioritize implementing a plan to provide safe and affordable drinking water to a million Californians who lack it. That’s a big deal for communities that are facing drought and outside factors like farms using water adjacent to rural communities, says Jonathan Nelson, policy director at the Community Water Center.

“We were excited to see that the very first recommendation in this pretty big document was on safe drinking water,” he said.

Even though safe drinking water is a priority, Nelson says the impact of the pandemic on the funding source — cap and trade dollars, the state's system where pollution credits are bought and sold — is causing concern for securing water to Califonrians with dirty and unhealthy water.

“The most recent greenhouse gas fund auction was abysmal, almost no funding came in,” he said. “I think there are a lot of eyes on the next auction in August.”

Nelson says a secondary funding source needs to be thought up, but he also realizes with a tight state budget that may prove difficult to find.

“We need to figure out some sort of backup funding to address that gap and ideally we need to be putting that backup or that plan into place now before we realize … we’re running out of money and then try to figure it out,” he said.

Regional Impact

The sweeping state proposal also underscores how climate change will impact each part of the state differently. That support could help places like the Sacramento region that have come up with plans to store water underground for dry times. The idea is called a water bank.

“A water bank is much like a bank,” said James Peifer, executive director of the Regional Water Authority. “You need to make a deposit first before you can make a withdrawal. So, what we want to do is store water first before we withdraw. That way, it's better for the environment.”

Peifer says investing in a water bank before the climate warms too much could prevent hard times for people and wildlife that call the Sacramento region home.

“What it can do is provide for additional water supplies when we are experiencing dry times,” he said. “We might be able to provide some additional flows to the fishery to the lower American River ... We will be able to provide water supplies for our own residents and businesses when we're experiencing very dry periods in the future because of droughts.”

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