Reimagining our Water System?

Tuesday, Jul 28th, 2020

By David Guy

Can Californians reimagine a water system that reflects modern values and helps our great state meet critical water needs in the face of many uncertainties?

For leaders in Northern California, we say “yes!” I have the pleasure to work with leaders in the Sacramento River Basin, the northern part of the Great Central Valley. Our leaders have coalesced and are working hard to reimagine our water system to better serve people, fish and wildlife that inhabit our region’s unique mosaic of farmlands, cities and rural communities, wildlife refuges, and meandering rivers.

Central to these efforts is a strong desire to focus on the “fix” rather than the “fight.” We are working closely with a growing group of partners who share a positive orientation to collaborate on multiple benefit solutions to make California for All, rather than picking winners and losers.

We were thus encouraged when Governor Newsom directed the California Department Of Food and Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, and Natural Resources Agency in April 2019 to develop a comprehensive “Water Resilience Portfolio,” stating that “the future prosperity of our communities and the health of our environment depend on tackling pressing current water challenges while positioning California to meet broad water needs through the 21st century.”

Today, the state agency team released the final Water Resilience Portfolio. We are encouraged that the Portfolio addresses four priority elements NCWA has identified as key to reimagining our water system—ensuring access to safe drinking water, utilizing natural infrastructure, advancing modern infrastructure, and integrating freshwater ecosystem budgets. These priorities reflect our evolving values and, through coordinated efforts to implement practical actions, can help realize Governor Newsom’s vision.

Ensure Access to Safe Drinking Water

Ensuring California communities have access to safe drinking water that meets health-based standards is a human imperative. Building on the historic establishment of the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund in 2019, leaders in the Sacramento River Basin have united around a comprehensive approach and network to fix drinking water problems in our local communities and support various programs to protect water quality. We have reduced the number of communities listed with water quality problems and our goal is to reduce that number to zero in the coming years.

Expand Uses of Natural Infrastructure for Multiple Benefits

There are unique opportunities in the Sacramento River Basin to better utilize natural infrastructure for multiple benefits, including reactivating our floodplains for fish and wildlife, improving forest health to protect communities and headwaters, and recharging our aquifers to support sustainable groundwater management.

A very promising opportunity is underway to reactivate our floodplains (including bypasses, farmland and wetlands) to provide flood protection for Sacramento and small communities, while bringing these floodplains to life during non-flood periods for farming, fish and wildlife—all working together.

Devastating fires have underscored the importance of healthy forests to reduce impacts from catastrophic wildfires and improve water reliability and habitat in our headwaters. Examples are the French Meadows Forest Restoration and Yuba River watershed protection.

Advance 21st Century Water Infrastructure for Multiple Benefits

In addition to natural infrastructure, there are opportunities to add resilience to the existing water system with Sites Reservoir, a modern off-stream reservoir in the Sacramento River Basin that can capture water during high runoff and then release it over time for the benefit of fish and wildlife, farms, and communities across the state. The recent drought showed the value of new off-stream reservoirs that served their regions well, including Diamond Valley in Southern California and Los Vaqueros Reservoir in the Bay Area. Sites Reservoir offers a similar opportunity to serve water for multiple benefits, particularly during dry years.

Integrate Freshwater Ecosystem Budgets

Recent experience highlights the benefits of thoughtful planning to ensure resiliency through dry periods. To reliably serve water for multiple benefits, water managers in our region are advancing freshwater ecosystem budgets, a new approach to integrate environmental water management and infrastructure into our re-imagined water system.

These elements together suggest there is a new way forward to address California’s water challenges—a different way of doing business where we reimagine our water system and fix problems rather than fight. Key to these efforts and Governor Newsom’s water resilience portfolio is developing a working relationship with federal agencies and a successful path forward on voluntary agreements in the Bay-Delta watershed. As the Governor has said, “we must get this done for the resilience of our mighty rivers, for the stability of our agricultural sector, and for the millions of people that depend on this water every day.”

For more details on NCWA’s ideas for a water resilience portfolio, please visit An Opportunity to Reimagine our Water System. We also encourage you to read A Water Portfolio for the Sacramento River Basin.

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