California’s drought has gone on long enough that many of the state’s reporters—whether or not they cover the environment—have found they need to learn more about how water is managed in the state. The Sacramento Press Club helped close this information gap yesterday by hosting PPIC’s Water Policy Center director Ellen Hanak, who talked about the five things you need to know about water.
One of her points, that there are no silver bullets to solve our long-term water policy challenges, prompted the most conversation. While many reporters in the room may have already understood this, their questions were tinged with hope that there might be some solutions that could help make this drought go away (silver-plated bullets, perhaps?).
What about desalination, one reporter asked? The constraint, noted Hanak, is the cost. Seawater desalination is still a very expensive option for most water agencies. Using recycled wastewater (including to recharge groundwater) is a somewhat cheaper way to get “more water” for parched urban areas. But in some areas—like San Diego and some Central Coast communities—residents are already willing to pay the higher price tag for desalination to improve reliability Hanak said.
Another member of the audience asked about two proposed storage reservoirs, Temperance Flat (Fresno County) and Sites (Colusa-Glenn counties), both of which would be built off-stream in the Central Valley. “Our current system of reservoirs can collect roughly 40 million acre-feet, or about what we use in a year, statewide,” Hanak said. “Our groundwater basins can store at least three times that amount, and they can be recharged.” Hanak noted that storage investments will be needed to capture more water in wet years and make up for the shrinking snowpack. Surface reservoirs provide more flexibility, but groundwater storage is often much less costly. Operating the two types of storage in combination—and putting more drought storage into the ground—is an especially promising approach. “We need to think about managing water as a system.”
Another immutable water fact that Hanak shared is that the situation is hard but not hopeless. California has made steady progress in improving water management and systems, though much remains to be done—especially for maintaining healthy ecosystems and the wildlife they support. Water used to maintain environmental stability has become quite contentious, yet there are some promising stories, including in the Sacramento area. She described how water managers have introduced more natural flows in Putah Creek (a major stream that is part of the greater Sacramento River watershed)—using much less water than nature used to provide—with the result that native fish species are doing much better. This past year, even salmon returned after many decades’ absence.
Good reporting on the current drought, and on longer term water challenges, can help us all gain greater understanding of the highly complex world of water use in the state. We thank the Sacramento Press Club for the opportunity to help take the conversation forward.