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Experts Weigh In on Drought Solutions

Ellen Hanak, Jay Lund April 27, 2015

Along with their morning coffee, readers of Sunday’s Los Angeles Times were treated to an offering of nine bite-sized opinion pieces on solutions to help California better manage droughts. Contributors included representatives of urban and agricultural water agencies, environmental organizations, the private sector, and research institutions. The topics were equally broad. We both participated in this forum, and our two pieces highlight the importance of strategic investments in a couple of key areas: water storage and water accounting systems.

On storage, the message is that we need to think comprehensively about our water system when deciding how to invest the $2.7 billion in state bonds that voters recently authorized for new projects. People often assume that these funds will go to expanding surface reservoirs and tend to forget that storing water underground in the state’s aquifers is often more cost-effective. An especially promising approach to preparing for future droughts and adapting to our warming climate is to manage our storage network as an integrated system. This means putting more water for dry years into groundwater basins, which can free up space in surface reservoirs for summer irrigation needs and the higher flood flows likely to come with a shrinking snowpack.

On accounting, the message is that California has some serious catching up to do to better understand where, when, and how much water is used in different watersheds. This drought has exposed the tremendous challenges in managing scarce supplies because of an antiquated, incomplete, and inconsistent set of water use and water availability measurements. Updating our water accounting systems is a top priority we identified in a recent check-up on how California is faring during this drought. State officials have begun to take up this challenge. But more work is required to make this information sufficiently transparent, consistent, and integrated across the various state agencies and offices that deal with water management to facilitate allocation decisions that benefit the state’s economy, society, and environment during droughts.

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