The time has come to rethink state policy and increase drought resilience

ROWLAND HEIGHTS, Calif., Oct. 1, 2021 /PRNewswire/ — Here we are again. California is in the grips of another drought, just five years after the last historic dry period ended. The lessons we learned from that time should inspire us to push our water-saving lessons even further.

In 2015, Californians were shocked by the governor’s order for a 25% reduction in water use – the first mandatory restrictions in state history. We came within a hair of the goal, managing to cut 24.5% from a 2013 benchmark level.

While residents have eased up a bit on efficiency efforts in the years since, we have managed to stay 16% below the benchmark. Statewide last August, the average daily residential use was 118 gallons per person, down from 123 gallons in 2014.

This effort and its results show that we can – and will – do hard things, especially when it comes to protecting our most valuable resource.

As an example, areas across the state have made tremendous progress on groundwater protection under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, passed in 2014 to bring groundwater basins into balance by creating an equilibrium between pumping and recharging. Groundwater provides almost a third of the state’s water, and up to double that in drought years when imported supplies grow scarce. Having plans in place protects against the overdraft of groundwater basins as we saw in the last drought, particularly in the Central Valley.

Now, Governor Gavin Newsom has called for a 15% voluntary reduction in water use, which would bring daily per capita consumption back to where it was at the end of the last drought. That cutback, he says, would be enough to supply 1.7 million households for a year.

That level of savings is significant, but we must go beyond conservation.

This time around, the outlook for our imported water supplies is dire. Southern California’s key reservoir to the north, Lake Oroville, is at a historic low and the hydroelectric plant has been idled due to insufficient water. Lake Mead, which holds Colorado River flow for the water needs of California, Arizona and Nevada, is at its lowest level since it was built in the 1930s.

The answer: We must push for policy and institutional changes to ensure our state’s future water sustainability.

First, we must make progress on the plan to improve the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the hub of the State Water Project. The Delta Conveyance Project is key to ensuring the state can move water from north to south when it is available and avoid loss of supply from a catastrophic earthquake.

We must add new surface storage in response to a transitioning climate. It used to be that three out of every 10 years were wet, with a good snowpack to carry us through the summer in the form of runoff. Now when we have a wet year it is in the form of heavier rain fall and less snow. Without new storage, that rain will be lost to the ocean. 

The answer is in projects like the Sites Reservoir in the Sacramento Valley, now in the design phase. The project will capture extra water on the Sacramento River during heavy flooding and store it for later use. If Sites had been operational during the last period of flooding in 2017, there would be extra stored water for this current drought.

If ever there was a time to prove our mettle, this is it. While Californians continue to cut back where they can, changes in state policy will help ensure we have a sustainable water future.

We have shown that we can do hard things. Now is the time.

Tom Coleman is General Manager at Rowland Water District in Rowland Heights.


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