Working with Nature: Managing California’s Water Resources Through Green Infrastructure

Wednesday, Jan 24th, 2024

By Linda Vo, California Water Efficiency Partnership

Water is critical to the California’s economy and society. The state’s water system is highly engineered, consisting of various huge reservoirs and long conveyance systems, and have helped the state thrive. Unfortunately, the state’s highly variable climate is causing risks to its water supply and reliability. California should leverage green infrastructure to manage its water resources, and here is how the state can do so and why.

Last year, the Water Education Foundation hosted its 2023 Water Leaders cohort. The William R. Gianelli Water Leaders program is a respected program designed to prepare participants to work collaboratively on water resource issues, strengthen leadership skills, and expand knowledge about California’s water. Over the course of eleven months, the 2023 cohort was tasked to research and develop policy recommendations on the topic of “Leveraging Green Infrastructure to Manage California Water.” Here is a summary of our research and recommendations, along with an overview of the Water Leaders program.

First of all, what is green infrastructure? Green infrastructure can be referred to as “nature-based solutions”, “natural infrastructure”, and “engineering with nature.” It can be contrasted with “gray infrastructure,” which refers to dams, canals, levees, seawalls, pipes, and more. There are many different definitions for green infrastructure. For the purpose of our policy paper, we used the United Nations’ definition, which is “actions to protect, conserve, restore, sustainably use and manage natural or modified terrestrial, freshwater, coastal, and marine ecosystems, which address social, economic and environmental challenges effectively and adaptively, while simultaneously providing human well-being, ecosystem services and resilience and biodiversity benefits.” We found this definition of green infrastructure to be the most comprehensive and inclusive.

In order for California to effectively leverage green infrastructure to manage its water resources, we came up with the following recommendations, which fall under three categories as outlined below:

 1.  Funding – Expand the accessibility, flexibility, and long-term sustainability of funding allocated to green infrastructure water projects.

a.  Increase allocations from state-issued grant and low-interest loan funding programs that are dedicated to multi-benefit green infrastructure projects.

b.   Develop a new State Green Infrastructure Endowment Fund to generate recurring investment income to offset green infrastructure operations and maintenance costs in under-resourced regions.

2.  Regulatory Efficiencies – Improve the regulatory environment for green infrastructure projects to help increase support for and establish holistic,  multi-beneficial green infrastructure initiatives.

a.   Adapt or expand existing laws, regulations, and policies to further leverage regulatory efficiencies promoting green infrastructure projects and their broader deployment across sectors.

b.   Encourage early and equitable engagement to advise impactful initiatives and secure support from interested parties.

c.   Increase interagency collaboration.

3.  Data and Information – Enhance the availability and use of data to drive the successful integration of green infrastructure projects within California water resources management.

a.   Establish a Green Infrastructure Database Task Force responsible for development and implementation.

b.   Implement data-driven performance monitoring and reporting.

c.   Incentivize continued data reporting with performance-based incentives and streamlined data input.

d.   Ensure equitable access to Green Infrastructure Database and promote education and engagement.

Studies have shown that returning to more natural processes or mimicking nature is beneficial. For example, floodplains slow and disperse high water flows, which reduces the severity of floods, enhance water quality, and provide food-rich habitat for wildlife. Therefore, California should leverage green infrastructure to better manage its water resources, and the aforementioned recommendations would help California achieve this. The recommendations should be implemented equitably, and engagement and education for all interested parties is highly encouraged. To read the full report, which goes into further details about the recommendations, gives more background information, and provides various case studies of different types of green infrastructure projects, please visit the Water Education Foundation’s announcement about the report.

Now, let’s talk some more about the Water Leaders program. In addition to working on policy recommendations for a specific topic, the Water Leaders program also helps participants grow as leaders. Water Leaders are required to go on two Water Education Foundation water tours throughout the California to expand their water knowledge and are paired with a mentor who is a major leader in the water world. As a mentee, the Water Leader is expected to interview their mentor and go on a shadow day to learn more and see first-hand what their mentor does.

My mentoring experience went well. I got matched with David Guy with the Northern California Water Association. I had a couple of conversations with David throughout the course of the program, and I was fortunate enough to shadow David as he hosted guests for a tour and collaborative discussion at Montna Farms. I also sat in on two virtual coalition meetings, and it was very interesting to see David lead the meetings. Being paired with David was great since I got to learn about a sector of the water world that is different from my field, which is urban water conservation and efficiency. Thank you, David, for all your support and help throughout the program.

Overall, I had a wonderful experience in the Water Leaders program. I learned a lot, grew my leadership skills, and made new friends. I’m excited to continue working on water in California, and I look forward to seeing the recommendations in my cohort’s report get implemented. If you would like to learn more about the William R. Gianelli Water Leaders program, please visit the program’s webpage on the Water Education Foundation’s website.

The 2023 Water Leaders report and the opinions expressed was prepared by the authors in their individual or personal capacities and does not represent the views of the Water Education Foundation or its Board of Directors. The information presented in the report are useful in outlining various positions and perspectives; however, the statements expressed in the report are not necessarily endorsed by all Water Leaders or their employers.

Linda Vo is a Senior Program Manager with the California Water Efficiency Partnership and was a member of the Water Education Foundation’s 2023 Water Leaders cohort. She was also the recipient of the Wayne Clark Young Professional’s Water Education Scholarship from the Urban Water Institute for the program.

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