California Economic Summit Forges a Path to Water Resiliency

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Recharge ponds in the Coachella Valley (Photo: Coachella Valley Water District)

The health of California’s economy depends on an adequate supply of clean water. Fortunately, the ideas of innovative water leaders across the state are making their way into state action plans.

In recognition of the threat to water supplies from increasing droughts and floods, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Vice President Glenda Humiston – a California Economic Summit work group leader and a member of the California Stewardship Network – invited 25 of the State’s most innovative local elected officials and land use planners and 25 progressive leaders from local water districts to a symposium on land use and groundwater recharge. The year was 2016. Most of the participants were already locally implementing cutting edge policies connecting land use and the recharge of groundwater aquifers. Also participating at Symposium were university researchers and top-level members of the Brown Administration.

The group was asked to respond to the questions, “what are you doing to assure future groundwater supplies and what can the California Economic Summit do to help?” Responses to the first question were diverse and inspiring. Responses to the second question were unanimous, flood control and irrigation districts need to be at the table.

A year later in 2017, Humiston hosted a second symposium which added leaders of forward-thinking flood control and irrigation districts to the original group.  Again, we asked, “what are you doing and how can we assist you in bringing your innovations to scale?” By that time the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act had been signed into law and these issues had become even more relevant.

At additional symposiums held the following two years, the need to add more partners and focus on multi-benefit groundwater recharge projects became increasingly apparent. The Symposium invitation list grew to include environmentalists, growers, developers, and more.

Also of key importance, researchers at Stanford and UC Davis had begun locating primary aquifers, assessing their holding capacity, and piloting the use of a geophysical electromagnetic method to identify exact locations for maximum groundwater recharge where water can seep through sandy soil, avoid clay layers, and travel rapidly to the deepest aquifer.

Group recommendations at the fall 2019 Symposium further crystallized the path forward: “We need to form partnerships for multipurpose groundwater recharge projects and identify and preserve prime groundwater recharge sites in both urban and rural areas.” They agreed that the state should create incentives for these actions.

Change happens slowly but, in this case, it appears the work of the California Economic Summit may have created a tipping point. A mere five years later, symposium recommendations are now being implemented by the state:

— In 2020, the state began a program that takes the California Economic Summit Symposiums to a new level by adding multiple participants to the original list and increasing the frequency of meetings. Labeled “FloodMAR,” this Department of Water Resources managed aquifer recharge program is facilitating partnerships through regular meetings on Zoom to share information and model projects, identify possible policy actions and more.

— Also in 2021, the Department of Water Resources began surveying the San Joaquin Valley using an airborne geophysical method that, at a coarse resolution, could help locate prime sites for recharge where water can flow directly to the aquifer. They are currently surveying 15 million acres located in 100 basins.

— Governor Gavin Newsom recently appointed Paul Gosselin as Deputy Director of the Department of Water Resources. As the former chief of Butte County Water and Conservation, Gosselin broke new ground by working with the Director of the County Development Services Department to identify and preserve important groundwater recharge sites in the Butte County general plan. This cutting-edge partnership between a water manager and a county planner remains an important model.

— In September 2021, the governor signed a budget that includes $60 million for an initiative to pinpoint superior recharge sites through the use of geophysical site assessments across the critically overdrafted San Joaquin Valley and direct floodwater to these sites via the reconnection of rivers and flood plains. California Economic Summit participants Julie Rentner, president of River Partners, and Rosemary Knight from Stanford are piloting work on the ground in Fresno (in collaboration with many stakeholders and agencies) demonstrating the power of this near-term investment.

— Another $200 million has been allocated in the 2022/23 budget to additional multi-benefit projects for recharge and flood protection.

Thanks in part to the California Economic Summit’s early work bringing diverse, cutting-edge leaders together, Californians now have a realistic path to a future where water from rapid snow melt and atmospheric rivers will no longer be completely lost to destructive floods. Instead, this vital resource will be captured in underground aquifers and stored for future use. This represents a major, highly cost-effective contribution to water resiliency in our state.


Judy Corbett

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