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Water Policy Priorities for a Changing California

Ellen Hanak September 24, 2019
photo - Lake Clementine Dam During a Spring Flood

How will climate change affect California water management, and what steps should the state take to prepare for these changes? The PPIC Water Policy Center was asked by the Newsom administration to submit formal comments outlining key water policy priorities for the state—and ways to integrate actions across state agencies to implement these priorities. Our recommendations will inform the administration’s preparation of a water resilience portfolio. We address two key areas where the state can play a leading role—modernizing the water grid and protecting freshwater ecosystems.

California’s “water grid”—the network of reservoirs, aquifers, rivers, and water conveyance and flood control infrastructure that connects much of the state—was built for a climate that no longer exists. Yet it is the most important asset the state has for addressing changing conditions, both statewide and within regions. A modernized water grid, coupled with more flexible management, can reduce the cost of future droughts, improve how we manage flood risk, and help protect freshwater ecosystems. The state has made important advances in assessing and improving its water supply infrastructure, but it still lacks a comprehensive program to address storage, conveyance, and operational challenges in the next few decades.

California’s freshwater ecosystems present special challenges. The state’s native biodiversity continues to decline, despite decades of effort to improve conditions. Problems encountered during the 2012−16 drought—high water temperatures, low flows, insufficient cold water stored in reservoirs, and degraded habitat—will all likely worsen as droughts become more intense. Management of cold-water-dependent species—including salmon, trout, and some resident fishes such as Delta smelt—will continue to pose a significant challenge for water managers and regulators as conditions warm. Changing habitat conditions could make it impossible for some species to remain viable in their historic locations. And conflicts between the need to protect native species and land and water management activities are likely to increase. Here, too, some promising actions have been taken, but more needs to be done to prepare for coming changes.

Tackling these complex challenges with an integrated water resilience portfolio is a bold step, and one that has the potential to make California a leader in climate adaptation. You can read our recommendations to the administration here.

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