California Water: A complex resource to manage

150 150 Niki Woodard

(photo: Steve took it/Flickr)

Water is arguably the most indispensable pillar of the state’s economy. It’s also one of the most contentious, largely because it’s so darn erratic. 

If you’re like the typical Californian, you may view droughts and floods as a crisis that disrupts the “normal flow” of things when in fact, droughts and floods define normal in California. We—as the quiet, large and powerful cohort of water consumers—should continue educating ourselves on the complexities involved in managing “normal” in California because we’ll soon be called upon to vote for ways to fund it. 

Providing a reliable water supply to California’s growing populations, fertile crops and diverse ecology would be challenging enough without the wild pendulum swings of California’s precipitation patterns.  Managing those surpluses and shortages, at a local and state level, is at the crux of the issue. 

Several efforts are working toward finding balance in the California water system, including the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) and the Delta Stewardship Council’s Delta Plan, and many others established outside of legislation. 

The California Economic Summit, as a two-pronged regional and state effort organized by California Forward and others, is doing its part to facilitate consensus on the state’s water infrastructure, with the stated goal of achieving triple-bottom-line results: a stronger economy, a better environment and community equity.

And on a local level, some 48 Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM) groups are in charge of planning and implementing water projects that better position us to handle California’s erratic norm.  The IRWM program was established through Senate Bill 1672 in 2002 to encourage a broader range of stakeholders to work cooperatively toward improving water quality, quantity and reliability.

Whereas water project planning had previously taken place largely through local water agencies, the IRWM process opens it up to cities, agricultural interests, disadvantaged communities, nonprofits and of course, water providers. When dealing with such a complex issue that has shifting priorities depending on the city, county or region, the process only benefits by adding more educated stakeholder voices into the mix.

Dick Moss, a water resource planner and engineer with Provost & Pritchard Consulting Group and coordinator of the Joint Powers Authority for the seven Tulare Lake Basin IRWMs, shared some of his thoughts with California Forward about the role of regional water planning in the grand scheme of California’s turbid water woes, with a focus on the Tulare Basin. 

The purpose of the IRWM program is to “look for synergies and opportunities to meet more than one need and to optimize the use of resources from a water management point of view,” said Moss.  

In other words, to cooperate on projects that yield multiple benefits and are concerned with the common good.

To this end, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) doles out funding based on a scoring system that awards additional points to projects that prioritize environmental benefits, provide climate change adaptation strategies, and benefit disadvantaged communities. Funding for the IRWM program comes from voter-approved propositions passed in 2002 and 2006—Prop 50, Prop 84 and Prop 1E.

The IRWMs are effective at tackling water infrastructure and conservation problems like “water treatment plants and local groundwater recharge basins which provide incremental benefits, smaller in scale, but no less important,” said Moss.

Recharge basins provide an opportunity to halt, if not reverse, the pervasive trend of depleting underground aquifers, which are an important source of water for drinking and irrigation, particularly in times of drought. 

Though the Tulare Basin provides great recharge opportunity, it’s not the end solution to the water concerns of the arid but fertile Tulare Lake Basin, home to three of the top five agriculturally productive counties in California. Moss made the point that the potential of recharge is limited by the rate at which water can seep into the ground. To get technical, 640 acres of recharge basin (a square mile), for example, can only accept water at an average rate of about 100 cubic feet per second, he said. In comparison, flood releases can enter the region in the tens of thousands of cubic feet per second.

The larger piece of the water supply puzzle is creating more surface storage, said Moss. We need to harness flood flows and convey that water to the state’s thirstier regions, and also to the important, slow-seeping recharge basins.

“This is particularly important as we see the diminishment of our Sierra snowpack as a result of our warming climate.  The snowpack serves as the State’s largest reservoir, turning winter precipitation into late spring and summer runoff,” Moss added.

And this is how the IRWMs, particularly in the Tulare Basin, connect back to the larger picture. 

“Groundwater, surface storage and conveyance must work in conjunction with each other to generate the needed water supplies,” said Moss. He continued, “We’re all directly related to the need for Delta exports, and thus the BDCP, either through direct delivery of water from the Central Valley Project or the State Water Project, or by virtue of the groundwater connection. We share the same groundwater basin.” 

In addition to creating more water reliability, groundwater recharge can also help resolve increasingly glaring nitrate problems afflicting the Valley. 

“The solution to pollution is dilution,” said Sarge Green of the California Water Institute. Eventually, those chemicals will decompose, he said. As California works toward water solutions, Green advised, “One thing builds on another. It has to be looked at holistically.” 

Indeed, California’s water challenges loom large. Though we’ll never navigate our way out of California’s erratic patterns of floods and droughts, we can better prepare ourselves by harnessing the excess when it’s available and ever-enhancing our frugal conservation and reuse strategies, all the while, keeping our eyes on the goals of triple-bottom-line results—a stronger economy, a better environment and community equity.


Niki Woodard

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