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Kate Zerrenner headshot

Researchers Propose a Plan for California's Water Woes

California may have released its Colorado River plan, but the state's water troubles are far from over. A recent report from the Milken Institute, a nonpartisan economic think tank based in Santa Monica, offers some potential solutions.
By Kate Zerrenner
Colorado River running low - California drought

Water in the American West is making the news once again. This time, in a nail-biter of a deadline for water cuts from the highly stressed Colorado River, six states agreed to reduce their withdrawals. California, which uses the most water from the river, followed up with its own plan a day later. But in light of the multi-year drought and recent torrential rains and atmospheric rivers in the state, water remains a constant stressor.

Despite the 32 trillion gallons of water the recent storms dumped on the state, California remains in drought — albeit a much less severe one compared to a few months ago. But it's a temporary reprieve at best. The state will continue to need to cut its water consumption and demand given the impacts of climate change. Further, the intensity of the rainfall indicates another instance of the severity of climate impacts on the state: wetter wet periods and drier dry spells.

Infrastructure woes compound California's water troubles

On top of the climate impacts, California's water infrastructure is dire need of an upgrade. This matters for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that the state is the leader in agricultural output. It's that sector which will likely get hit the hardest with conservation measures when they come.

Lake Mead and Lake Powell, fed by the Colorado River and the two largest reservoirs in the U.S., are reaching dead pool status, meaning water levels become too low to flow downstream. About 75 percent of the reservoir's water goes to agriculture, with the rest going toward residential and commercial uses, including power generation. 

California researchers offer solutions to boost water infrastructure in the state

recent report from the Milken Institute, a nonpartisan economic think tank based in Santa Monica, offers some potential solutions to California's challenges around water infrastructure. 

"On top of mounting drought-related challenges, lack of governance collaboration, project acceleration and financial solutions threatens vital systems reliant on California's water infrastructure, like the state's $50 billion agriculture economy," Matt Horton, director at the Milken Institute's Center for Regional Economics, told TriplePundit.

All of this has added up to stalled infrastructure investments and inadequate ability to respond to extreme water events. While California remains one of the leaders in tackling climate mitigation challenges through its cap-and-trade program and renewable energy investments, the equivalent investment in resilience and adaptation has not materialized to the degree needed.

The report, entitled Sharing the Cost: Accelerating Water Resilience Through Infrastructure Finance in California, aims to address that gap with a number of targeted recommendations. Those include improved coordination at the state and federal levels, as well as at the regional level across the Central Valley, where the bulk of the agricultural sector is centered, particularly  around the urban/rural divide when it comes to water demand and consumption.

Researchers also note that addressing the financial imbalance related to water investments can help. "California spends about $37 billion on its water system annually with most funding (84 percent) coming from local utilities, followed by state (13 percent) and federal (3 percent) contributions," Horton said.

This imbalance goes right to the heart of the title of the report, and researchers note that collaboration between well-funded and underfunded water districts could help equalize the water stresses. One of the ways they recommend coordination is through a Water Excellence Center, which could act as both a data clearinghouse for funding gaps as well as a centralized tool to accelerate financing and technical assistance.

While much of the recommendations center on improving public investment in water infrastructure, the private sector remains a key player. Public money will never be enough to address the state's water needs, so some mechanism for improving the options for public-private partnerships remains vital. When it comes to water, engaging the private sector can sometimes cause alarm. Water is, after all, an essential public good. Because of the pressure placed on water sources, however, private investment must factor into the solutions. Further, more companies are seeing their own risks related to water demand and consumption and starting to look at watershed health and water stewardship more seriously in their sustainability plans.

"A whole state approach"

Water is often very local, but that is more complicated in California. The northern part of the state is much wetter than the southern part, and water must be delivered — at high energy and water costs. The system is set up according to needs many decades ago. A state rich in natural resources, diverse in economies and populations, and feeling the hard impacts of climate change must look how it balances the whole. Horton and the Milken Institute see the answer in a "whole state approach."

He quoted from the state's 1957 water plan: "California is presently faced with problems of a highly critical nature — the need for further control, protection, conservation and distribution of her most vital resource, water. … Unless correct action is taken -and taken immediately – the consequences may be disastrous."

And he takes that warning, made long before anyone understood climate change, as "a good reminder that we are going to have to collectively marshal the style of governance, coordination and political will that was harnessed in the past in order to build a water infrastructure system to meet the needs of the 21st century — one that is prepared for drier dries and wetter wets."

The bottom line

California's water challenges do not exist in isolation. The recent deadline for Lake Powell and Lake Mead was just the reminder that California is part of a larger water ecosystem. But the state also has an outsized impact on demand and must consider how to do things differently if it is to be able to provide safe, reliable water for all its residents and sectors.

Image credit: Silvia Fang/Unsplash

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner