California’s many water challenges are complex, with many possible solutions and even more opinions about best approaches. How can a new governor forge a path forward in this critical area?
The PPIC Water Policy Center assembled a group of 16 experts this week for a half-day workshop in Sacramento to discuss how the new administration can promote water policies and practices that benefit the state’s people, economy, and environment. Lively discussions addressed three overarching topics: how local and state water policies intersect with California’s most pressing economic issues; innovations in policy, practice, and technology that offer better solutions for key water problems; and steps needed to adapt the state’s water systems to a changing climate.
Ellen Hanak, director of the PPIC Water Policy Center, summarized some major water challenges the new administration will face, including increased risks of drought and floods; poor water quality and drying wells in disadvantaged rural communities; and finding durable ways to pay for needed water system improvements. Leadership will be key to advancing solutions, she said.
“California has been a leader both nationally and internationally” on climate change mitigation and reducing emissions, Hanak said. “We think California has the potential to be a leader when it comes to climate adaptation as well.” She noted that water is a lynchpin issue for addressing the effects of a changing climate.
The first panel shed light on the links between water and the state’s leading economic challenges, from housing affordability to jobs. For example, growing water scarcity in the San Joaquin Valley—one of California’s fastest-growing areas―will affect plans to build new housing there. And regulation can complicate efforts to build affordable housing. Dan Dunmoyer of the California Building Industry Association noted that some water-related regulations—such as strict rules to prevent runoff from construction sites during the rainy season—can significantly increase building costs. Panelists agreed that better coordination could help open up many of these bottlenecks.
Denise Fairchild of Emerald Cities Collaborative highlighted the potential for job training programs in the water sector—which is grappling with the “silver tsunami” of an aging workforce—to create economic opportunities for low-income communities. “If we take this opportunity to rebuild California’s water infrastructure, it has great job generation potential” in communities affected by a historical lack of water sector investment.
The next panel looked at technical and policy-related innovations that can improve water management, such as weather forecasting tools that enable more nimble water management in dams—key to adapting to an increasingly volatile climate. Also, better information on agricultural water use can “empower communities to stop arguing about numbers and start working on solutions,” said Robyn Grimm of Environmental Defense.
The final panel explored opportunities to modernize the state’s water “grid”—its vast network of reservoirs, aquifers and conveyance systems—to make it more resilient in the face of five climate pressures: warming temperatures, shrinking snowpack, shorter and more intense wet seasons, more volatile precipitation, and rising seas. Improving water conveyance and reworking the current system would enable the state to “take advantage of bigger storms” linked to climate change by capturing their water for recharge, said Ashley Boren of Sustainable Conservation.
Each panel discussion included a quick round of “elevator pitch” advice for the governor-elect. Jennifer Pierre of the State Water Contractors captured the mood of the group with her pitch: “In water, flexibility is the name of the game—we need it for managing the existing grid, and for grid improvements. Don’t wait for the perfect plan; we’ll suffer every year that we delay.”
We invite you to watch the videos from this event and hope you find the discussions helpful: