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California’s Big-Ticket Water Challenges

Lori Pottinger May 25, 2016

California’s hundreds of local public water agencies are responsible for about 90 percent of the water delivered across the state. We asked Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) and vice-chair of the PPIC Water Policy Center’s advisory council, to weigh in on three big-ticket water management issues ACWA’s members are facing.

PPIC: Last week, the State Water Board voted to give control over water conservation standards to local agencies. Why is this change important?

Tim Quinn: Essentially, the board decentralized decisions about drought management so that local water agencies can tailor their plans to local conditions. ACWA strongly believes that this was a move in the right direction. The initial drought emergency conservation regulations did not account for local factors like climate and, more importantly, the extent to which local agencies have invested in drought-resilient local supplies. By allowing local public agencies to account for these factors, we will have more effective and lower-cost drought protection while maximizing incentives for further investments in drought resiliency. The new approach in no way means less conservation. In fact, ACWA strongly believes in raising the bar on water-use efficiency and conservation in our long-term water management plans. The board’s action appropriately recognizes that, at least for the time being, emergency conditions no longer exist. Now we need to pivot to the adoption of long-term conservation plans in which, as the California Water Action Plan puts it, “conservation is a way of life.”

PPIC: What do you think about the governor’s “twin tunnels” approach to addressing the issues facing the Delta?

TQ: I’ll be blunt: we have an outdated and ineffective system for conveying water through the Delta. The system’s intakes are in the wrong part of the Delta, which maximizes conflicts between species protection and water supply and does not work for either purpose. Unless we’re prepared to abandon this system, we need to fix it. I think abandoning it would not be good for California.

My organization believes that we need a comprehensive statewide program that includes a physical fix in the Delta to make our water supply less vulnerable. Fixing the system would help improve the Delta’s ability to cope with climate change and sea-level rise, minimize conflict between water supply and fisheries, improve water quality for 25 million Californians, and make the system better able to withstand earthquakes and floods.

I spent a couple of decades of my career up to my eyeballs in the Delta, trying to figure out how to get the water we need with the intakes in the wrong place. It seems California simply has a very difficult time having an adult conversation about the Delta. Despite the obvious difficulties, if the Brown administration can move forward with its Delta strategy, we should all be ready to provide support for it as part of a common-sense statewide water action plan.

PPIC: What are the most urgent water needs the state should invest in?

TQ: There are six critical areas we need to fund: water conservation and local resource development, storage—both above and below ground, Delta conveyance, implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, provision of safe drinking water to disadvantaged communities, and investment in habitat and watersheds. These are the essential bricks in the wall of a sustainable water system for California, and they’re all important. They also lend themselves to different funding strategies; some are adequately funded and some not. The biggest shortfalls in funding probably arise for the last two categories. Some have suggested a public goods charge on water to fund these activities, which the water industry would oppose. Others point to the general fund as the logical source of funding for public benefits. It seems to me that the important thing is to come to some agreement on funding so that a comprehensive water plan can move forward.

Learn more

Read California’s Water briefing kit for more information on key water management challenges
(April 2015)
Read “Stressful Times for a Drought-Stricken Delta” (PPIC blog, October 5, 2016)
Visit the PPIC Water Policy Center’s water supply resource page

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