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Reforming Water Management for the Environment

Jeffrey Mount November 14, 2017
School Of Juvenile Coho Salmon

A longer version of this piece was recently published by Water Deeply.

It’s time for California to rethink how it manages water for the environment. Despite decades of effort, many of the state’s aquatic native species are in decline. Controversy over water for the environment remains high. The latest drought left lasting effects on already-stressed species and their ecosystems and highlighted the need for a change of course.

Our new research identifies shortcomings in current practices and lays out three reforms that could reduce conflict while improving freshwater ecosystems.

Better accounting. During the latest drought, state and federal agencies found their decision making hampered by information gaps on water availability and use and ecosystem conditions. For example, weaknesses in accounting and monitoring systems—and poor operational choices at Shasta Reservoir—pushed endangered winter-run Chinook salmon to the brink of extinction.

These management challenges were made more contentious by public perceptions about the uses of environmental water. The state lumps many things into the “environmental water” category, including flows required by regulations to maintain water quality for urban and agricultural uses. For example, during the drought, environmental water that flowed from the Delta into San Francisco Bay was widely criticized as “wasted to the sea.” Yet most of this water was needed to prevent high salinity in Delta water supplies.

We must do a better job of measuring and tracking water and ecosystem conditions—and make this information timely and transparent. The state also needs to clearly define what purposes “environmental water” serves, and separate water that benefits both water users and the environment from that used solely to support ecosystems. Better accounting will improve efficiency and provide a common understanding of water use for policy debates.

Better planning. The drought revealed major weaknesses in how California plans for and responds to water scarcity in ecosystems. While urban water managers routinely plan for drought, no such planning exists for ecosystems. With a few exceptions, fish and wildlife agencies react to—rather than plan for—severe drought.

California needs to shift from reacting to drought to anticipating and mitigating its effects on ecosystems. This can be achieved through the development of watershed ecosystem plans that set management goals and priorities for actions.

In addition, California needs annual contingency plans to prepare for uncertainty over how wet the winter and spring will be. A good model is that of Victoria, Australia, where water managers vet their plans and priorities with stakeholders. This allows water users to know what to expect, and tensions are reduced.

Ecosystem water budgets. California also needs a new way to allocate water to protect ecosystems. The over-reliance on minimum flow and water quality standards—often set for individual endangered species—limits the capacity of water managers to adapt to changing conditions.

A more nimble approach would also provide assurances to all interests about allocation of ecosystem water. This can be accomplished by granting the environment a water budget that can be flexibly managed, much as urban and agricultural water-right holders do. These ecosystem water budgets could be stored in reservoirs or groundwater basins, and even traded. The budget would be administered by a trustee guided by the watershed plan and good accounting systems. The trustee could manage the water budget to maximize benefit for ecosystem functions and, where possible, reduce impacts on other water users.

Management of California’s freshwater ecosystems—particularly during drought—is not working well for anyone. These reforms would improve conditions and reduce tensions over allocation of water–and enable freshwater ecosystems to adapt to a warmer and more variable climate.

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