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A Look Back at the Year in Water Policy

Ellen Hanak January 9, 2018
Sand Harbor at Lake Tahoe

A year of extreme events—from heavy rains that strained dams to high heat and massive wildfires—revealed the many ways California’s variable climate can impact water management. In 2017 the PPIC Water Policy Center explored how the state is managing such extremes and suggested improvements to help us prepare for an even more volatile future climate. Here are a few highlights.

  • Our evaluation of California’s urban water systems revealed that they have become adept at drought management thanks to diversified supplies, cooperation with neighbors, and programs to manage demand. But the state’s conservation mandate in 2015 opened a debate on how to manage water scarcity. We reviewed evolving state and local roles in urban drought management and described areas for improved cooperation to strengthen resilience.
  • Five dry years took a toll on groundwater, a critical drought reserve. Some farm areas saw steep declines in local aquifers. Our assessment of water stress in the San Joaquin Valley—California’s largest agricultural region and “ground zero” for groundwater concerns—summarizes sustainable management solutions. Our survey of groundwater recharge practices by valley water suppliers sheds light on what more can be done to advance recharge efforts.
  • The state’s headwater forests are in poor health and at increased risk of severe wildfire. Our review of current management practices explains steps needed to shift the emphasis from fire suppression to forest management and how to pay for these improvements.
  • The way California manages water for the environment is focused on responding to crises rather than building capacity to weather future dry spells. We undertook an in-depth evaluation of how to improve conditions for native fish and reduce conflict over water for the environment. We also proposed a better way to account for environmental water, with an example from the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta.

The PPIC Water Policy Center’s efforts were collaborative in nature—involving research teams from across California and conversations with policy makers, water managers, and other stakeholders—and we broadened the conversations through a series of public events.

This year will bring major decisions on funding for safe drinking water, investing in water storage, sharing scarcity on the Colorado River, and conveying water through the Delta. To help inform the debate on these and other complex issues, we created a policy brief that summarizes problem areas and priorities for action. This brief was released in conjunction with our second annual water conference, which brought together leaders from across the state to discuss the ways forward.

Looking ahead, the water team is working on the potential effect of climate change on future droughts, pathways to water sustainability in the San Joaquin Valley, and the impact of drought on water quality and wastewater management.

The mostly dry December has left many wondering what 2018 will bring. But one thing is certain: we’re thankful for the opportunity to promote creative and collaborative solutions to California’s most difficult and pressing water challenges. And we are thankful for your support of this important work.

With best wishes for 2018,

Ellen Hanak

P.S. If you’re not yet receiving our weekly blog post by email, you can sign up here. And if you’d like to support the center’s work, learn more here.

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