Finding a new path for California water woes

Oct 18, 2013

Earlier this month, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a number of bills aimed at improving access to water across the sun-parched state.

Lawmakers, along with Brown, hope that the laws will balance the competing needs of agriculture, environment and municipalities.

“California needs more high quality water, and recycling is key to getting there,” Brown, a Democrat, said in his signing message. To speed the effort, Brown also hopes to consolidate the responsibility for all water quality programs under a single agency, the state Water Resources Board.

The state’s growing water wars have created a number of initiatives to deal with the problems, but all face criticism from opposite sides.

The bills the governor signed have some hopeful that there is an end to the debates. But three of the bills signed relate to pollution of groundwater, and according to the Assemblyman Luis Alejo who sponsored these bills, pollution from agriculture is the common denominator for this problem.

“There is a small community of less than 500 people where their entire water system was recently put under a court order that they can no longer drink it because of high levels of nitrates,” Alejo said.

Other issues covered in the bills relate to the availability and cost of water, and opening up more options for selling water rights.

Recycling is another topic covered in the bills because a number of producers just simply don’t have the water to keep things growing.

“We need to find ways to make water more available for those growers while also keeping water more affordable,” said bill sponsor Senator Ben Hueso.

But Governor Brown’s efforts to find a compromise on the Delta tunnel plan, a $25 billion waterway, failed. The state proposed two 30-milelong water diversion tunnels that would carry water beneath the Delta and bypass existing canals. Environmental groups, farmers and businesses could not find a common ground, so the issue will likely appear again next year.

CA water gift

Along with the recent water bills signed, the University of California, Davis, is looking at critical water issues, thanks to a $10 million gift to the Center for Watershed Sciences.

The gift from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation will enable the Center for Watershed Sciences—the state’s leading academic institute on water management—to expand its scientific research and public engagement capabilities on the state’s increasingly difficult water problems.

These problems include drinking water safety and reliability, flood protection, agricultural production, hydroelectric power, recreational use and the survival of salmon and other native fish species.

“UC Davis has a long history of providing vital scientific and policy support for addressing water problems critical to the health and prosperity of Californians,” said Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi. “This support will enable the university to expand this important work and further scientific discovery of this precious and limited resource.”

The gift will be distributed over five years to support several of the center’s initiatives:

• Advance computer models and databases to better analyze future water conditions and solutions.

• Create a new leadership program for mid-career water professionals in government, industry and nonprofit organizations.

• Hire new faculty and recruit additional professors from across the university to collaborate on interdisciplinary, problem-solving water studies.

• Expand education and outreach programs on California’s water problems.

California faces unprecedented challenges managing its limited water supply and maintaining the health of its rivers, lakes and estuaries as the state’s population and economy grows, according to the center’s scientists. Competing water demands have increased water scarcity, worsened water quality and severely diminished populations of wild salmon and other native aquatic species. Land management, pollution and the spread of invasive species have also hastened the decline of California’s native species.

“California’s problems will become more challenging as the climate changes and water demands increase,” said Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences. “This gift significantly strengthens our ability to stay ahead of potential water crises with forward-thinking insights and innovative solutions.”

The Center for Watershed Sciences is an independent, interdisciplinary research organization that combines the talents of biologists, economists, engineers, geologists, hydrologists, lawyers and others to help solve multifaceted water challenges. State officials have long relied on models developed at the center to assess the potential effects of proposed water management actions. The center’s scientific research has informed policymakers on several critical water issues, including:

• The ecological health and water supply of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which provides drinking water for 22 million Californians and supports the state’s $27 billion agriculture industry;

• Drinking water safety and nitrate contamination in rural San Joaquin and Salinas valleys;

• Re-operation of dams and floodways to improve survival of downstream species;

• Restoration of California’s iconic salmon and steelhead trout runs in the Sacramento, San Joaquin and Klamath river basins.

The San Francisco-based S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation said the center is well-positioned to address these water management challenges be cause of its independent, creative and multidisciplinary approach to watershed science and policy.

“The S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and its founder, Stephen D. Bechtel, believe that California can meet the water needs of its cities, farms and ecosystems, but only if water management is informed by research, grounded in best practice, and enabled by sound policy,” said Lauren Dachs, president of the Foundation. “The Foundation is pleased to partner with UC Davis to develop solutions to California’s multifaceted water challenges.”

The gift from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation is part of the university’s first comprehensive fundraising campaign, The Campaign for UC Davis, which seeks to raise $1 billion from 100,000 donors to advance UC Davis’ excellence in scholarship, research and public service.

Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor