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“Volatile” doesn’t begin to describe the past year. The monumental impacts of the coronavirus health emergency and resulting economic fallout have affected virtually every aspect of modern life, including how water is managed. And the nation’s much-needed and difficult conversation about racism has illuminated water equity issues—such as how we address climate change, safe drinking water, flood management, and more.

Layered on top of these upheavals is California’s regular companion, drought. As in other western states, the pandemic’s effects are compounded by long-term drought—which is being made worse by climate change. California is also experiencing increasing conflict over water solutions, especially in the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta.

In the midst of the pandemic, the Newsom administration finalized its water resilience portfolio—an ambitious, wide-ranging charter for tackling chronic problems and adapting California’s water systems to the changing climate. Dwindling state and local revenues require hard choices on near-term funding priorities for this plan.

This brief highlights how events this past year have shifted the state’s water landscape and lays out priorities for local, state, and federal action. Key elements include:

  • Ensure safe and affordable water. Some California communities did not have safe drinking water before the pandemic, and the recession has made affordability of water and wastewater an urgent crisis. Solutions must ensure access for the most vulnerable, while maintaining the financial health—and safety—of our water systems.
  • Collaborate to reduce uncertainties in agricultural water supplies. Broad-based partnerships to bring groundwater basins into balance and address environmental water needs can improve the outlook for farm water supplies. The agricultural sector can also do more—in partnership with others—to support workforce communities hit hard by the pandemic.
  • Invest in forest health as a vehicle for economic recovery. Wildfire risk is growing in California, threatening lives, property, and the quality of our air and water. Expanding forest management can help reduce extreme wildfire risk and safeguard the many benefits forests provide, while creating good jobs for rural, forest-based communities.
  • Make the most of limited resources for the environment. Increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of ecosystem investments can help, as can efforts to reduce conflict over water dedicated to the environment. California also needs robust funding and reliable water supplies to improve the health of freshwater ecosystems, which are especially vulnerable to drought.

On the next page you’ll find a summary of the major disruptions currently affecting the water sector. These disruptions also bring opportunities to reduce the water system’s vulnerability to economic shocks and other “surprises”—because the state’s water systems are at risk not just from drought and disease, but also from floods and earthquakes. In this rocky economic period, we must also try to do more with less: boosting resilience to multiple sources of stress, while supporting economic recovery and workforce development.

It’s been a tough year, and the light at the end of the tunnel remains faint. But there is much work to do to create a more equitable, resilient water system, and delays only make these goals harder to accomplish. We hope this policy brief spurs meaningful conversations that can take us forward and fosters new ways of addressing problems in these uncertain times.

– Ellen Hanak




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