VIDEO: Rethinking how to manage California’s water for the next drought

150 150 John Guenther

As the drought drags on and fiscal pressures remain, rethinking how to better manage every drop of water on a large scale keeps moving up the priority list for California.

At the 2015 California Economic Summit, we talked to water problem solvers for the 21st century from both the public and private sectors and included them in the video above: Celeste Cantú, general manager of the Santa Ana River Watershed Authority (SAWPA) and Robin Gilthorpe, CEO of the water utility software company, WaterSmart Software.

With a water system built for the last century, water experts are acknowledging that we can’t keep managing water the same way especially since we’ve hit the 39-million population mark in an era of climate change. Businesses and residents alike must find ways to achieve a more sustainable water balance.

Before this current drought, California’s water balance was already off, with water usage moving far above what the system can reliably supply. These numbers have climbed even higher in the last few years in some agricultural regions, where groundwater pumping has vastly increased in the absence of reliable surface water supplies.

One strategy included in the action plan created at the Summit was encouraging more comprehensive and modern water management. The good news is there’s already an example of integrated management of water projects across a large watershed, instead of relying solely on individual water districts working separately.

It’s being done in a Southern California region and it started 15 years ago. Back then, California made its first successful investment in integrating water-related projects—encouraging water districts in the Santa Ana River watershed to pool resources to better manage their projects.

In the video, Cantú talks about how SAWPA has collaborated to manage water across a region covering 5.9 million people and includes 700 miles of river and tributaries.

The SAWPA collaboration—which has invested billions of dollars in water storage, groundwater cleanup, water recycling, and stormwater management—has allowed the region to store and conserve so much water that cities from San Bernardino to Newport Beach have hardly been impacted at all by this year’s drought.

The New York Times picked up on the theme of smarter water management in California in a recent drought story. It frames things with a usual “water wars” conflict, this time involving farmers vs. environmentalists. (Luckily the story avoids using the famous misquote of Mark Twain: “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.”)

But the story highlights the strategy in which Californians update the way they manage water in a big way. That includes more integrated and efficient management that is more suited for the dry region, in order to save and capture more water for the inevitable drought-ridden periods.

On top of that, we know that the state can’t rely on the coming El Niño to end the drought.

Following the input of the California Economic Summit’s network of business, civic, and nonprofit leaders, one of the three major priorities of the 2015 Summit became working to return the state to water sustainability. The ambitious goal that went along with that work was supporting policies that conserve, capture, or re-use one million acre-feet of water per year.

The voter-approved Prop 1 water bond includes almost $1 billion allocated to regional water management. It states that funding should go first to projects “that cover a greater portion of the watershed”—part of a continuing effort to ensure the plans fund watershed-wide activity instead of smaller-scale projects.

However, while the California Water Plan acknowledges the potential of this approach, the state still lacks the governance and finance systems to support these types of water investments.

In the year ahead, the Summit aims to build on its recent successes in expanding regional resource planning tools and creating new local financing options that make it easier for local agencies to pay for—and integrate—their water projects.

And hopefully, some future stories about California water will be about conflict turning into collaboration.


John Guenther

All stories by: John Guenther