Big Daddy

California’s water management must adapt to climate change

The summer of 2008 may be remembered as the summer of drought, fire and water rationing, or it may be remembered as the bellwether sign that California is facing a new normal when it comes to our weather and water supply.

California water management is founded on one simple assumption: that weather in the future will be relatively the same as it has been in the past. Unfortunately, that assumption is wrong.

We’ve invested billions of dollars in water systems that rely on what we consider our “normal weather pattern”- capturing water in periods of wet and average years to get us through our periodic dry spells.

Yet, scientists are telling us that what we consider “normal” weather in California will actually be abnormal under climate change. You see, scientists are finding that the American west, is getting drier, perhaps even much drier.  

According to recent reports, the two large reservoirs on the Colorado River, a major source of water for areas in Southern California, may dry up by 2021. The California Drought Update released in April by the Department of Water Resources indicates that we can expect the same sort of drying throughout California. The report states: “Standing where we are now in 2007 it would be a reasonable conclusion that southwestern North America…will have a drier climate in the future and that transition may already be underway.  Or to put it another way, though wet years will still occur, on average they will be drier than prior wet years while the dry years will be drier than prior dry years. The two decade period of overall wet conditions from 1976 to 1998 is likely to never be repeated as the region faces an intensifying aridity that will simply get worse as the century progresses…” (California Drought, An update 2008, California Department of Water Resources, page 76).

Yet, while many policy makers have accepted that we need to reduce our production of greenhouse gases in order to combat climate change, fewer are willing to acknowledge that our conventional wisdom on water management must also change.

Much of the water conversation in the Legislature focuses on a water bond to support old water strategies. The proposed water bonds would allocate billions of dollars for new dams to capture water in “wet” years. Yet, state and federal agencies have spent over $100 million studying those dams and, even based on past hydrology, the dams fail to provide benefits that are worthy of their price tags. No one has even considered how these dams would work under a drier future.

More of the same old water policies will not help California. Our old water policies simply do not make sense when one considers our new normal under climate change.

Fortunately, California does have options. The California Water Plan found that California could make available over 4 million acre feet of water annually (enough for over 16 million Californians) with improved efficiency in urban areas and development of recycled water. Regional stormwater capture, groundwater treatment and protection, and increased agricultural efficiency are also promising potential sources of water.

These new water resources can be implemented quickly, and they cost just a fraction of the cost of new dams. In addition, these resources have the advantage of being “climate-resilient,” which means that they will be as effective or more effective even as California’s climate becomes drier.

Despite the debate on dams, some leaders are already looking to shift the focus from old strategies to new policies that work under our changing climate. This session Assembly Member Krekorian introduced AB 2153 and Assembly Members Laird and Feuer introduced AB 2175. Both measures would significantly increased water efficiency in the state. AB 2175 is now in the Senate, and hopefully will move to the Governor’s desk. AB 2153, unfortunately, did not move passed the Assembly this year.

By taking advantage of untapped resources, California will be able to meet the water needs of our people, economy and environment. In order to do so, we must stop looking to the past and begin implementing policies and actions such as AB 2153 and AB 2175 that will bring our water management in line with our new normal.

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