Action needed now on statewide water infrastructure

Water is very much in the news these days. Whether it’s the recent shutdown of the state Water Project’s pumps in the Delta or record-dry conditions in Southern California or the lowest Sierra snow pack in 20 years, one look at the headlines suggests our statewide water system is faltering.

Agencies in Los Angeles, the Bay Area and across the state are implementing voluntary, and in some cases mandatory, conservation.

Kern County Water Agency took the dramatic step last week of declaring a water-supply emergency. The agency cited potentially severe economic losses due to reductions in its state Water Project deliveries.

These events are a stark warning that the time is now to re-invest in our statewide water infrastructure. It has been several decades since improvements were made to our “backbone” water infrastructure on the scale needed to keep pace with California’s ever-growing population and our changing water needs.

In recent years, the heavy lifting has been done at the local and regional level, where local water agencies have invested billions of dollars in programs such as water recycling, desalination, water-use efficiency and regional water-storage projects.

These efforts, financed through a mix of local and state funding from recent bond measures such as Propositions 204, 13, 50 and 84, have produced an estimated 4 million acre-feet of water annually, enough to supply 8 million Californians each year. These investments also have improved the quality of drinking water, increased local flood protection and secured emergency water supplies in the event of drought or other catastrophic events.

Examples can be found throughout the state. In Northern California, the Dublin San Ramon Services District and the East Bay Municipal Utility District have teamed up to provide recycled water to municipal parks, golf courses, business parks, greenbelts and roadways. The use of recycled water reduces demand for high-quality drinking water and helps produce a more drought-resistant water supply.

Farther south, the Orange County Water District and Orange County Sanitation District have launched a groundwater-replenishment project that will help drought-proof the county and reduce its reliance on imported water. Highly treated wastewater that currently goes to the ocean will be purified to near-distilled water quality, then used to replenish groundwater basins and to prevent seawater from intruding into the groundwater basin.

Several coastal agencies are advancing desalination projects, including San Diego County Water Authority, West Basin Municipal Water District and the city of Long Beach. Meanwhile, in Sacramento, local agencies are coordinating the use of groundwater and surface water to boost the region’s water supply by 20,000 acre-feet a year while protecting the lower American River.

For all this progress, our state Water Project remains the backbone of our water system, which is relied on by 25 million Californians.

Unfortunately, investments in our statewide water system have not kept pace with these local efforts. Since the 1980s, virtually nothing has been done to expand or improve our “backbone” state and federal facilities–despite the fact that our population climbed from 20 million to 37 million in that time. As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult to reliably deliver water across the state or provide adequate protection from floods or drought. Climate change and sea level rise will only add to the challenge.

Members of the Association of California Water Agencies drew attention to the problem in a 2005 water policy document, “No Time to Waste: A Blueprint for California Water.” The document, endorsed by more than 440 local water agencies, called for a comprehensive suite of water-system investments, including additional surface water and groundwater storage, an improved conveyance system to meet the needs of Californians and protect the Delta, and expanded water-use efficiency.

Governor Schwarzenegger has proposed such investments in his Strategic Growth Plan for Water. California Senator Dianne Feinstein also has voiced strong support for a comprehensive water package this year.

With so much attention focused on water, we believe now is the time for action. As the local water agencies responsible for delivering water to cities, farms and businesses, we are calling on our elected officials to move forward with a comprehensive water package this year. We urge support for a package that helps fix the Delta, including changing the way we convey water across the Delta, creating surface and groundwater storage and providing for additional water-use efficiency.

Hurricane Katrina showed us there is no time for complacency when it comes to investing in our infrastructure. We need action today to ensure California has the water supply system it will need tomorrow and into the future.

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