Weekly Report – April 18, 2016

As water levels have risen in California for the past six months, Californian’s interest in conservation and their overall anxiety about the drought have declined. The most recent Field Poll showed that 62 percent of Californian voters now call the state’s drought extremely serious, which is a 14 percent decline from last October’s poll. And 74 percent now say curtailing water use is “very important”, which is a 7 percent decline from last October.

The silver lining – the Poll appears to show that the severity of this particular shortage was of such a degree that it’s changing peoples’ minds in a more or less permanent way about how they’re using water. An overwhelming 86 percent said they planned to limit their water consumption even after the drought ends. Nearly all, 90 percent, called upgrading to more water efficient toilets and appliances somewhat or very important.

On the other hand Central Valley residents say they were less likely to favor shifting to less water-reliant landscapes or toilets or to say it’s important for residents to continue cutting water use. Why? Their conservation actions are not translating into lower bills. As water providers in the Valley and throughout the state have less access to water supplies, their ability to generate revenue has declined, impacting their opportunities to invest in developing “new” water supplies such as stormwater capture and water recycling. A recent Reuters Poll showed that 78 percent of water utilities in California planned to increase rates in 2015 and 2016.

What poll numbers do not show is the fact that even after the drought, the state won’t have enough water to do all it wants to do. An Op-ed in today’s L.A. Times by Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, stated that “looking at satellite data from 2002 through 2015, a time span that includes the very wet El Niño winters of 2002-03 and 2010-11, shows the pattern of our continually decreasing water resources. Even with those periods of heavy precipitation included in the calculations, the state’s major basins lost water at a combined rate of 3 million acre-feet per year.”

No one know this more than the 275,000 low-income Californians in the Central Valley who lack access to safe water for basic needs. Tulare County, with a population of 450,000 (Flint, Michigan Pop. 100,000) is home to 5,433 residents with no running water. East Porterville has 1,006 households that receive bottle-water deliveries and 41 community water systems are near 100 percent reliant on a contaminated source of water. In addition to public water systems, 40 percent of domestic wells tested in Tulare County had unsafe Nitrate levels. Throughout San Joaquin Valley: 93 public water systems tested with nitrate levels above legal limit since 2008, affecting 1.3 million residents. The federal and state government is responding with money and additional resources, but this is not enough in the grander scheme of things.

Rainfall patterns around the globe are changing. Wet high-latitude and tropical regions are getting wetter, while the already-dry mid-latitude regions in between are getting drier. California and the United States fit squarely into this pattern. A distinct wet-dry line splits the state and the nation into a northern half where water is accumulating and a southern half that is drying out. The Central Valley aquifer is located in these drying parts of the world.”

Satellite data from Famiglietti’s research group shows that 20 of the world’s 37 major aquifers, the Central Valley being one, are being depleted at an alarming rate. Governor Brown’s 2014 CA Sustainable Groundwater Management Act was passed to mitigate the over use of groundwater, but that is not enough because opportunities to replenish them are decreasing. But there are some and California’s U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein is trying to do something about it.

The federal government’s Bureau of Reclamation has the opportunity to provide the state’s Central Valley with a portion of the El Niño rains pooling up in Northern California’s reservoirs. The problem is they are not.

The Bureau recently announced that Central Valley Project agricultural water contractors south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta would receive a mere 5% of their contractual allocation this year despite brimming reservoirs in the North. Lake Shasta is at 90% capacity, and billions of gallons of water were released from Lake Folsom this winter to avert flooding.

Senator Feinstein has stepped in to push the Obama administration, “It seems to me that the agencies operate the system in a manner that may be contrary to the available data,” Senator Feinstein wrote in a letter, “Between January 1 and March 6 last year, 1.5 million acre feet of water flowed through the Delta and 745,000 acre feet were pumped out. During the same period this year, 5.5 million acre feet of water flowed through the Delta, but only 852,000 acre feet were pumped out.”

The San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority says 700,000 acre-feet of water—enough to irrigate about 200,000 acres of land and sustain 700,000 families for a year—were lost between Dec. 1 and March 22 due to pumping restrictions. As she noted, restoring depleted groundwater reserves during wet years is essential to prevent aquifers, land and infrastructure from collapsing. It’s also needed to sustain farms. During the drought, farmers have had to drill deeper wells or buy water at a premium from those with senior water rights. The alternative is to leave land fallow—some 500,000 acres last year.

She, along with House Republicans have backed legislation to give federal agencies discretion to increase pumping during heavy storm flows. Support for her efforts are strongly encouraged.

The L.A. Coalition is also engaging on these issues through our Northern and Southern California Water Coalition.

As part of this initiative I joined Jim Wunderman, the president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, to pen an Op-Ed on the need to act on this issue. If you would like to learn more about this issue or how you can help please contact me or Marc Nathanson, the Coalition’s Water Committee Chairman.

Now is California’s Watershed Moment

By Jim Wunderman, the president and CEO of the Bay Area Council & Michael Kelly, the executive director of the Los Angeles Coalition for the Economy and Jobs. (April 12th, 2016)

It is now safe to say that El Niño will not solve California’s drought. Though this should have been obvious from the start, there is a silver lining – it has bought the state more time to put better policies in place to create a sustainable water supply for years to come for all Californians.

We are at a true “watershed moment.” If we take decisive and effective action, our state can thrive within the limits of its current and future water resources. But if we fail to act (or act as we have in the past), the challenges our growing state will face each year will grow.

The reality is we are on the verge of a 5th year of unprecedented drought. The reality is, we’re seeing the same finger-pointing that has characterized any and all conversations about water for decades. Whether it’s north versus south or agricultural versus urban, attempts to cast blame on one group are counter productive and do nothing to move California closer to real, lasting solutions to meet our growing water challenges.

Last year wasn’t great from a drought solutions perspective. Aside from mandatory conservation efforts, which were successful in temporarily reducing residential water use, few meaningful and substantive changes occurred to the way Californian manages its water in the long-term.

Last year, the drought wreaked $2.7 billion in economic harm on our economy. Eighteen native species of fish, including winter and fall run Chinook salmon, are at risk of extinction. Farmers last year fallowed 640,000 acres of land and 17,000 agriculture jobs were lost.

Hoping for more rain next year is not the answer.

That’s why the two of us, representing broad-based coalitions of stakeholders in northern and southern California, recently signed on to the Watershed Moment Coalition.

The Watershed Moment Coalition has four fundamental principles that, if implemented, will fundamentally change the way all Californians use water, and set us up to be better prepared to deal with future periods of water scarcity:

Invest: Remove barriers that impede local and state investments in stormwater management; protections against flooding during wet years; and doing more to capture, treat and use stormwater to help California through dry years.

Leverage the market: Encourage a robust water market to drive efficient use of water and encourage voluntary water trades so farmers, industry and the environment can withstand prolonged droughts. Assemblymember Dodd, (D-Napa), has already introduced legislation (AB 1755) that will provide a foundation for a robust water market by creating a transparent water transfer information clearinghouse to share data across the state. This legislation is a precursor to a fully functional water market.

Protect low-income Californians: Provide affordable water rates for low-income Californians and deliver safe drinking water to the more than 275,000 Californians who today lack access to safe water for basic needs.

Adopt solutions for the long haul: Create incentives to move all California communities toward sustainable water systems that balance long-term water supply and demand.

It’s no longer enough to say, “Don’t waste water.” It’s now time for all Californians, including decision makers in Sacramento, to say, “Don’t waste time.”

Now is California’s watershed moment. It’s time for real, meaningful and lasting change in how California uses water. Only by working together can we guarantee enough water for California’s farms, families, industries and the environment.