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Has California finally reached the point where we stop labeling especially wet or dry periods as “extreme” and instead start treating them as events to prepare for as a matter of course? After years of responding to severe drought, the state’s water management systems were pushed to the breaking point last year by heavy rains that flooded towns and farmland, damaged infrastructure, and caused landslides. Along with this came heat waves and massive wildfires that destroyed water systems and polluted supplies.

Leaders across the state have been taking steps to address the challenges that a more volatile climate brings to the water sector. Governor Newsom’s administration is planning to adapt all aspects of water management to the “new normal” with a water resilience portfolio.

This brief highlights top priorities for improving water management and preparing California’s water systems and natural environment for a changing climate. Key elements include:

  • Modernizing the water grid: Addressing infrastructure weaknesses and gaps— coupled with more flexible management—is essential for reducing the costs of future droughts and floods.
  • Preparing for changing supply and demand: Developing a portfolio of cost-effective supply and demand tools can help California weather droughts, accommodate population growth, and bring groundwater basins into balance.
  • Providing safe drinking water: More stable funding has been secured to improve quality and reliability in small, mainly rural poor communities, but more work is needed to tackle this challenge.
  • Reducing fire risk in headwater forests: The state’s mountain forests—a major source of water—are in poor health. Active management can reduce the risk of extreme wildfires and maintain the benefits that forests provide.
  • Improving the health of freshwater ecosystems: A new approach to managing water for freshwater ecosystems and species can help them adapt to a warming climate.

We also explore how these issues come together in two key watersheds: the Colorado and the Sacramento–San Joaquin basins.

Four key principles are essential to ensuring the success of these efforts:

  • Flexibility of institutions, rules, and infrastructure to help manage increased volatility and build resilience to changing conditions.
  • Incentives to encourage and enable local agencies and individuals to implement smarter, more flexible management systems.
  • Alignment of objectives and regulatory approaches across agencies to make it easier to trade water, recharge aquifers, and restore forests and freshwater ecosystems.
  • Multiple-benefit approaches that tackle several issues together—such as flood protection, recharge, and habitat—to broaden cooperation and leverage more sources of funding.

We hope you find this compendium a helpful guide to water issues that affect all Californians in one way or another—and that you’re inspired to engage in efforts to develop lasting solutions.

– Ellen Hanak




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