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Opinion: It’s time to invest in California’s water infrastructure

Abundant rain and snowfall ended a three-year drought this spring, but California’s water worries are far from over. The foundation of our water system – the network of levees, canals, pipelines, reservoirs, treatment plants and other facilities – is outdated and in need of a major upgrade. Reliable water supplies for people and the environment are at risk if we don’t act soon.

California owes its existence to investments in water infrastructure. Water storage and delivery systems built by previous generations of Californians have fueled the rise of everything from the high-tech enclaves of Silicon Valley to the fertile farmland of the Central Valley to the vibrant cities and industries of Southern California.

But that infrastructure is aging. Built in the early to mid-1900s, many elements of our water system are nearing the end of their working lives and need significant repairs and upgrades. A recent infrastructure report card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave California low marks in critical areas such as levees, flood control facilities and water treatment plants. Improving our drinking water infrastructure alone requires an investment of nearly $28 billion over the next 20 years, according to the report card.

Our infrastructure requirements are also changing. Heavy rains refilled reservoirs this spring, but we were unable to take full advantage of the bounty. In the future, we must capture more water in wet years so we can meet demands with less impact on the environment during the inevitable dry years. That is best accomplished by investing in more storage capacity – both above and below ground – to take greater advantage of wet years such as 2011 and better manage competing demands in drought years. Climate change makes these investments even more important.

Another reason to think differently about water infrastructure is today’s need to manage our water system not only to provide reliable water supplies, but also to protect and enhance the environment. As a blue ribbon panel of prominent Californians concluded in 2008, we will need a much broader set of management tools to meet the “co-equal” goals of water supply reliability and a healthy environment. Accordingly, our investments must go beyond traditional infrastructure to include water recycling facilities, brackish and ocean desalination plants, fish screens, habitat restoration and other elements that add flexibility to our water system and lessen conflicts between the environment and water project operations.

This is especially true in the Delta. Investments are critically needed there to improve habitat, allow rivers to flow in more natural directions, and protect water supplies and local land uses from the very real threat of levee failure.

The state’s economy is wholly dependent on our water infrastructure. Without a reliable water system, no sector of our economy – from construction to high tech to manufacturing to agriculture – can thrive or expand. Investing in water infrastructure also creates jobs and infuses dollars into the economy.

California’s water infrastructure did not come about by accident. It is the product of choices made at critical turning points, reflecting the foresight, planning and engineering know-how that have set California apart from the rest of the world. Water infrastructure represents a conscious choice to invest in the future: to dedicate the resources necessary to meet the water supply and environmental needs of generations to come.

Now it is time to make another conscious choice to invest in our water infrastructure. California committed to a comprehensive investment strategy in November 2009 with passage of a landmark legislative package on water. In addition to new requirements for conservation and a commitment to the co-equal goals, the package included an $11.14 billion bond measure for the November 2012 ballot to fund key elements of a comprehensive program, including investments that will leverage spending at the local and regional level to improve water infrastructure, expand storage and delivery capacity, increase efficiency and develop local water supply sources. Investments in habitat and watershed restoration also would be funded.

The public values and expects safe and reliable water. Public opinion surveys consistently show that Californians believe that improvements to the state’s water infrastructure are badly needed. They also understand that investments must be made to upgrade and modernize our infrastructure to ensure reliable water now and into the future.

California has made key water investments at critical turning points in the past. Let’s allow vision and foresight to prevail once again. Let’s act now to invest in and modernize our water infrastructure to ensure California has a safe and reliable water supply for generations to come.


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